Marlene Hutchinson, whose one-day workshop is featured on PBS stations across the country, shows off her impressive chops outside Java Man in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Esther Kang
With long blond hair, acoustic guitar on lap and a luminous energy pouring out of her, Marlene Hutchinson is reminiscent of a real-life Phoebe from the timeless sitcom, Friends. She’s easy to crack a smile and says “gee” a lot. But unlike the kooky fictional character, beloved for her endearing, less-than-proficient performances of hilarious originals at the NYC coffee shop Central Perk, Hutchinson isn’t messing around.
In fact, the 52-year-old South Bay native has made a name for herself by devising a program that promises to teach how to play the guitar in one day — to be exact, five hours of instruction in a rigorous workshop called “Learn to Play Guitar in a Day!”
It’s no gimmick; the program is thoroughly vetted. Since 2009, she has taught the workshop in numerous colleges and universities across the country. She’s appeared on PBS doing live workshops, most recently on PBS SoCal and Rocky Mountain PBS in Colorado. Stations in San Diego, St. Louis, Vermont, Maryland and Miami have also aired her. And next Saturday, she’s bringing the workshop to her former hometown of Manhattan Beach, at Ayres Hotel.
“I’m thrilled because I just want the word out there, that you can learn to play guitar,” Hutchinson said, referring to her workshop’s exponentially growing success. “I want everyone to play guitar. I know that seems really Pollyanna-like, but I love it.”
It seems the mother of four has found her calling. She’s making simple guitar instruction available to the masses, particularly for adults who lack the time for a commitment of weekly lessons. Not only that, she’s walking proof that it’s really never too late to learn.
Born in Redondo Beach and raised in South Torrance, Hutchinson has been singing and playing piano since childhood. But it was just 11 years ago, at the age of 41, that she decided to learn the guitar as a New Year’s resolution. She just wanted a musical instrument actively back in her life, and within a few months, she signed up for group lessons through an adult education program and bought herself an inexpensive starter kit guitar.
“From the first strum, I couldn’t get enough,” said Hutchinson, a former realtor in Manhattan Beach. “Every song the teacher would give us, I’d play it over and over again. I was playing all the time.”
And everywhere she could. Heeding her teacher’s advice that young kids and older adults make the best audience for a beginner like herself, Hutchinson took her guitar into her son’s kindergarten class and sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” She visited her great aunt at an Alzheimer’s facility and played “Brown Eyed Girl.” During her children’s bath time, she’d take song requests in the bathroom, like “Big Yellow Taxi.” A favorite memory of hers is when her mother came to visit one holiday season–the two and the children, from their bubble bath, sang Christmas songs together.
“I just wanted to play everywhere and all the time,” recalled Hutchinson, who now lives in Laguna Hills. “It felt like I had discovered penicillin or something. You guys, this is the greatest!”
It was probably her contagious enthusiasm and fast learning that prompted some friends to ask her to teach them. Within that first year of picking up the guitar, Hutchinson was giving lessons. They all knew she had just started, but it “worked nicely in [her] favor” because she got what it’s like to start, particularly as an adult, she explained.
It evolved from there: she was giving weekly private lessons, based on her own learning methods, to a clientele that today numbers around 25. Then about five years ago, she wondered if she could do something for those who have approached her about wanting to learn but could not find the time. So was born “Learn to Play Guitar in a Day!” — six of her weekly private lessons instructed in five hours.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘How can you learn in one day?'” Hutchinson said. “Well, you’re not gonna be Eric Clapton when you leave after one day.”
She’s straightforward about what a student can expect from the workshop: learn five basic chords — A, C, D, E and G — as well as five strumming patterns, three finger-picking patterns, 14 songs and basic music theory. She also teaches essential guitar care, from changing strings to tuning a guitar. Students also receive Hutchinson’s instructional book and a guitar tuner.
“I really try to give them a launch, give them the tools,” she said. “What they do from there, it’s really up to them.”
Because the workshop is intensive with little time for a break, she recommends it for those ages 18 and above. She hopes the workshop will serve another purpose: to take out the fear factor, particularly for adults. She reassures that she “starts from zero” and assumes no prior knowledge about music.
Hutchinson has a longtime student named Roy. At age 78, he approached her about private lessons, never having played a guitar in his life. He is 86 today and can throw down Johnny Cash songs like nobody’s business, she said proudly.
“I know I’m not the greatest guitarist — I mean, I can hold my own and have a great time, but I think where my gift really lies is the ability to impart and share how to do it,” Hutchinson said. “Potentially because I started later, I have more patience. You’ll get it because I got it. It’s gonna happen.”