Written by: Frank Iacono
Over the last 15 years, Clay McElwee has been a prominent guitarist on the Philadelphia music scene. Clay has played and experimented with various artists and musical formats, including Rio, a 10 piece high-end wedding and corporate band, Solid (funk rock), Clay Pigeons (an acoustic solo, duo, trio), the Dave Weiner Band (instrumental guitar-driven music) as well as a Solo Project (rock and blues-based).
In February 2011, Clay teamed up with local singer/songwriter Tim Williams to record the single, “My Fix It Up Life.” The song featuring Clay on lead guitar was produced by Philly-favorite Matt Santry and written for and inspired by Williams’ friends Mark and Theresa Clement of MyFixitUpLife.com. The Matchbox 20-like single is available for download on iTunes.
In March of 2012, Clay finished production on 2 new original songs: “Seven Steps” and “The High Ground”. Clips of both songs are now available on his MySpace under the Music section.
I recently caught up with the self-employed musician, singer, song writer, guitarist and guitar educator to ask him a few questions about his childhood influences, his favorite performers and his passion for music. And now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, allow me to introduce to you Mr. Clay McElwee in this edition of The Creative Spotlight.
TCS: How old were you when you first developed an interest in playing music? And, what was the first instrument you learned to play?
Clay McElwee: I was about 8 years old when I got interested in playing music. I played the piano for about 2 years. I played pretty much until my mom couldn’t handle my incessant demands for a guitar any longer!
TCS: What was the first tune you learned to play?
CM: I can’t honestly remember what my first song was on piano, but I do remember first learning Van Halen’s song “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” on guitar I believe.
TCS: Who or what influenced you to become a musician?
CM: Several things…My parents had a lot of 60’s and 70’s records in their collection. Their collection included a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and other “guitar-heavy” music. That was a big influence on me. I also had a neighbor that was a few years older than me that played guitar. So he was a big early influence. He actually helped me buy my first guitar from a Philly pawn shop!
TCS: What motivates you to do what you do?
CM: Just being able to create music and share it with others is motivation enough. This business isn’t for everyone. You have to really be a self-starter, diverse and prepared to work odd hours, long nights, weekends, etc…
TCS: Which famous musicians do you admire the most? And, why?
CM: There are so many great musicians and styles out there, it’s hard to name them all or even single out a few. I’m a big rock/blues guy so I’d say musicians/guitarists that have been around for decades get the most appreciation from me.
I admire guys like:
- BB King
- Billy Gibbons
- Jimmy Page
- Jeff Beck
- Eddie Van Halen
TCS: Which famous musicians have you learned from?
CM: As I mentioned above I admire guitarists like BB King, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen. Honestly, I subconsciously learn a little from everyone, whether they are “famous” musicians or some of my own guitar students. I’ve learned over the years that you never know where your next lesson is going to come from!!!
TCS: What are your favorite Groups, Performers and Albums?
CM: My favorite groups are the “supergroups” from the 60’s and 70’ such as Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Beatles. Anything and everything from them appear on my iPod.
TCS: Why do you think the guitar is such an important part of your life?
CM: Quite honestly I just never got tired of it. In fact I’m more into the guitar now than I’ve ever been before in my life. Every year I get into it more and more. The more excited I get about it, the more there is to learn. There are so many styles, techniques, etc… You’ll never know it all!
TCS: If you weren’t a musician what would you be doing?
CM: I have a few college degrees (Master’s degree in Business and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry) so I’d probably end up somewhere in that field/fields. It’s always nice to have a backup plan!
TCS: How do you think our world would be if music was never invented? And, why?
CM: The biggest thing would be that memories would be different. When’s the last time you heard a song and it reminded of you of some event or person in your life? Music is an interesting soundtrack to our lives (past and present). It’s hard to imagine life without music!
TCS: What is your favorite type of guitar?
CM: I’ve always been a big Fender Stratocaster fan. It sounds great, and it is designed for comfort. You really can’t go wrong with that. I have a bunch of other random guitars that I use on specific projects when I need a certain sound but the Stratocaster is the perfect “Swiss-Army Knife, Alone on a Deserted Island” type of guitar.
TCS: Do you have a website(s) and what can fans of your music do or learn about you on the site?
CM: Yes, my website is http://www.claysmusic.com. The site features pictures, audio clips, live performance dates and detailed descriptions of my latest projects. It’s an ever evolving process. Eventually, I’m working towards having video guitar lessons set up on the site as a free service to all of my existing guitar students.
TCS: How do you market your songs, appearances, event bookings (i.e., referrals, advertising such as print and online marketing)?
TCS: Have you embraced Social Media to promote your musical career?
CM: Yes, I’ve embraced Facebook especially. It’s a great way to remind people of my public performances. It almost always results in people turning out at a gig. I get a lot of people periodically asking me what I’ve been up to musically. Facebook is a great way to answer them all at once.
TCS: What is the best way to contact you about booking an appearance, purchasing one of your CDs, scheduling an event or arranging for private lessons?
CM: My website http://www.claysmusic.com has all of my contact info. Additionally, I can be reached by phone at 610.764.5310, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/clay.mcelwee and on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/claymcelwee.
TCS: What is the most exciting project you have worked on to date?
CM: My recent original project is by far my favorite. I spent so many years working on other people’s albums/projects that I unfortunately neglected my own. In 2010, I made a big commitment to start working more on my own personal material. I’m loving it!
TCS: What is the best and worst part of being a musician?
CM: The best part is that you get to make a living doing what you love every day. The worst part is having a schedule that is almost completely opposite of most of the working population. I work almost all nights and weekends. I miss out on a lot of events geared towards the typical “9 to 5 person”.
TCS: What bands did you listen to when you were growing up and what bands do you listen to today?
CM: I listen to many of the same artists now as I did growing up such as Van Halen, Rush, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin and most late 70’s and 80’s rock. Additionally, I listen to many instrumental guitarists such as Jeff Beck and Django Reinhardt as well as “old” jazz players such as Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery.
TCS: What distracts you while you’re on stage?
CM: Nothing really distracts me. I’ve been performing almost 20 years now…it’s pretty much like an on and off switch between onstage and offstage.
TCS: What’s the saddest song you’ve ever heard?
CM: Kermit the Frog singing the “Rainbow Connection” from one of the Muppet Movies. And, yes I am serious.
TCS: If you had to listen to one artist for the rest of your life, who would it be?
CM: There’s a band out of Canada named “The Tea Party” that a friend of mine got me into about 20 years ago. I never get tired of hearing their songs. Virtually unknown in the United States, they have been extremely popular in Canada and Australia for decades.
TCS: Name a band or musician, past or present, who you flat-out LOVE and think more people should be listening to. What’s one of your all-time favorite recordings by this band/musician?
CM: My favorite Tea Party album is called “Splendor Solis”.
TCS: What aspect of making music excites and discourages you the most?
CM: The most exciting aspect is that a new idea can come from anywhere and at any time! This unpredictability can also be the most discouraging aspect when you are not in front of the instrument. I actually have sung melodies while driving so I wouldn’t forget them until I arrived home so I could properly run inside and record them!
TCS: Describe the last time you wrote a song highlighting how it came about and describe how it turned out?
CM: Most of my song ideas come from just noodling on a particular chord sequence or solo pattern. I often build “Frankenstein” songs by recording little bits of a song and then matching them up with previously recorded ideas that seem to fit well (same key, style, etc…). Not an easy process most of the time (i.e., kind of like “Musical Tetris” if you remember that video game) but it usually ends up working for me.
TCS: What’s the most unusual place you’ve ever played a show or made a recording? How did the qualities of that place affect the show/recording?
CM: Wow! There are too many to remember them all. However, there’s one that sticks out in my mind. Years ago I played a fraternity party at Lehigh University. It is a beautiful campus but I performed in a very old building and the breakers kept blowing out after every song or two. Luckily a lot of spare fuses were on hand! It was a pretty funny night.
TCS: What are the names of the bands you have been in since you started playing guitar?
CM: Another question that there are so many that it is “hard to remember them all”. Let’s see there’s some interesting ones: Macbeth, Empty Season, Shudder Dogs, Mental Floss, Action Figures, The Delicate Few, Rio, Solid (2 videos shown below), Clay Pigeons, Blue Tile Fever and the list goes on and on…
TCS: How would you describe your music genre (i.e., funk, classic rock, rock, alternative, hard rock, etc.)?
CM: My musical genre is pretty diverse. I enjoy so many different styles that they tend to leak out into my own music. I’d say I’m a blues/rock guy at heart. The sound can be hard rock at times, but I’m not afraid to try and pull off a pop song every once and a while.
TCS: Do you play a combination of cover songs and originals at appearances?
CM: Usually it’s either an “original performance” or a “cover performance”. Every once in a while (when appropriate) I’ll throw one of my own songs in a cover appearance.
TCS: Back in 2006, you toured with Dave Weiner, a touring guitarist for legendary guitarist Steve Vai, can you tell us about that experience?
CM: Dave’s a Philly guy and we became friends through a mutual musician friend. Touring with Dave was certainly a fun experience. The instrumental rock guitar genre is a smaller but very devoted market. I met some talented musicians and passionate fans during that experience. A lot of practicing was involved in getting those songs right! Because his music is so complex and there are many guitar parts going on simultaneously, we spent many hours figuring out who would play this part, that part, etc…
TCS: Recently you appeared on the new Tim Williams Single “My Fix It Up Life” so how did that come about? And, where can someone listen to and download that song?
CM: Tim is a former guitar student of mine and a fellow musician on the Philadelphia music circuit. We’ve done a few projects together over the years. Tim is currently involved with the production of “My Fix it Up Life”, a home improvement show. He was asked to write the theme song and I ended up playing guitar on it. I believe that song (and many of his other songs) can be purchased on iTunes.
TCS: What are you up to right now, music-wise (Current or upcoming recordings, tours, extravaganzas, experiments, top-secret projects, etc.)?
CM: My main focus outside of my “normal” workload (teaching and performing) is recording my own music. Most people don’t realize the amount of hours involved in the process. Very time consuming, but it’s very rewarding to hear your own ideas come together into a finished song. I probably have over 200 song ideas that I’ll eventually consolidate into full songs and record. Should keep me busy for the next 30 years or so!
TCS: When did you begin teaching private guitar lessons and where is the place located?
CM: I’ve been teaching for over 10 years now (since 2001) and I currently teach at Beam’s School of Music located in the Frazer/Malvern area off of Lancaster Pike.
TCS: How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
CM: Just keep going. Forget it and move on. The funny thing is that usually the only one that notices that you’ve made a mistake is yourself!
TCS: Do you get nervous before a performance or a competition?
CM: No. I’ve been doing it so long its second nature at this point.
TCS: How often and for how long do you practice?
CM: It depends. I have long stretches of consecutive performance days where I may only get a few minutes here and there to really practice. I try to practice at least for an hour a day.
TCS: Do you have advice for kids wanting to get into the music business?
CM: It can really be summed up in two words: Diversify Yourself! Learn to sing as well as play an instrument. Be prepared to learn as many styles as you can. Jam with different people. They always say it’s “who” you know, not “what” you know. This is certainly true in the music biz to an extent, but there are many different ways of making a living with music…the more you know the better.
TCS: What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous about playing the guitar?
CM: Realize that EVERYONE starts at the beginning. Make a commitment to set a specific amount of time to play/practice each day and do your best to try and stick to it. You will see improvement! It will be slow at times but you will improve. And, lastly don’t forget to have fun. It’s hard work but very rewarding!
Why Should You Hire Clay McElwee
If you’ve been considering guitar lessons, if you’re a beginner and want to learn everything about guitar from the ground up or if you’re a seasoned professional player who’s looking for new ideas and a fresh approach Clay McElwee can help.
Since every student has different interests and needs, topics may vary but will typically include:
- Reading Music and Guitar Notation (tablature)
- Proper left and right hand techniques
- Understanding scales and placement in different musical styles
- Learning and using common “riffs” based on scales
- Understanding chords/chord shapes
- Typical chord progressions/transitions and their placement in different musical styles
- Common guitar techniques (bends, slides, hammer-ons, etc…)
- Understanding timing (to develop accuracy and speed)
- Playing songs that the student wishes to learn (see below)*
*An Effective Way of Teaching:
Whenever possible, topics for a given lesson are derived from guitar techniques found within a song that a student has interest in learning. This method of teaching keeps the learning process flowing while providing the student with exciting “exercises” to practice at home.
Clay is currently teaching private guitar lessons on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings at Beam’s School of Music in Frazer, PA. To check lesson availability, please call him at 610-764-5310. For additional information, including music, videos, tour dates, photos and an opportunity to sign up for his mailing list, please visit http://www.claysmusic.com.
About Frank Iacono
Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.
Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.