• Nathan

Discipleship in Several Hundred Guitar Lessons

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

I remember my first guitar lesson with Tom. Just before I started middle school we moved from Iowa to Oregon. Without a teacher, I had fallen off practicing. After talking with musicians in the area my Dad found Tom Hemphill. As we got introduced in the back of the music store where Tom taught, my dad said, “He wants to learn to read music, and he wants to play Jazz.” I didn’t know what Jazz was. Luckily for me, that’s exactly what we did.

First we worked through Mel Bay’s Method 1 book. Tom would make notes of my assignment and put them in my trapper keeper. Dad would join us in the small foam-padded room. He sometimes fell asleep as Tom and I played and snickered.

Tom and I went through most things a musician needs to know: note reading, chords, scales, arpeggios, theory, improvisation, and composition. But what I didn’t realize until later was how much I learned by osmosis.

When we played together I would start to rush. He would pause to point it out, and we would try again. He would tap his foot and have me sync up with his pace. I learned to stay with him-tap by tap. We probably tapped our feet together thousands of times throughout the years I took lessons. I learned to match his cadence, but without realizing it I also learned to match his sound.

Tom sounded like Tom. His guitar tone was confident, but not brash. It wasn’t flashy, but it was classy. It was round, but it had a ping like a bell at the beginning of each note. He played a Fender Stratocaster, so naturally I wanted a Strat. I beamed with pride when I got one years later.

One day he saw me playing with a paper-thin pick, and asked me about it. He handed me his pick- a thick 1.5mm Dunlop with a picture of an alligator on it. He explained how the thicker pick gave a rounder, meatier tone to the note. I immediately switched. Years later I went through a crisis of conscience when I thought about switching picks to play my acoustic guitar. I was breaking a lot of strings because of the thick pick, but it was Tom’s! If he’s reading this: Tom, I now play 1.14mm. Still Dunlops though.

From time to time other musicians compliment me on my tone. That’s Tom’s doing. Since becoming a guitar instructor I have taught hundreds of students. Just a handful of those emulated my tone, which emulated Tom’s. But I always smiled when I heard one of them play with that touch, that ping at the beginning of the note. They were listening.


I am not alone in wishing the Bible talked more about what Jesus and his disciples did in between the sermons and the healings. But that's what books, even the Good Book, can't fully explain: the long walks, the conversation around the campfire, the inside jokes and the knowing looks. Those men got a front row seat to Jesus’ mannerisms, cadences, and his gut reactions.

That is the heart of discipleship. It isn’t knowledge transfer. It is modeling behavior. Nothing can take the place of being in the room, looking someone in the eyes, and showing them how. That’s what Tom did for me, and that’s what Jesus did for the disciples who chose to leave everything and follow him.

We can build large churches with sound doctrine, excellent worship, and spotless facilities. But character development only happens when strong and mature men and women show others how-smile by smile, look by look, foot tap by foot tap.

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13

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