Guitarist of the month: Tolis Zavaliaris

Tolis is one of those teachers that inspired you to practice, and dive deeper into whatever your personal musical interest is. I also loved the way he taught our curriculum at university, but he always encouraged your strengths and gave honest and helpful feedback on ways we could improve. He’s an amazing rock guitarist and to be honest – also fusion and anything else I have seen him play has been inspirational – especially when he brought in his fretless guitar. Read his interview below if you’re looking for some guitar motivation ? – Neli

What inspired you to pick up the guitar and eventually make music your career?

One summer when I was about 10 my cousin gave me a cassette tape with all kinds of rock music. On one side of this cassette was Thunderstruck by AC/DC. I heard that riff and the sound just spoke to me. I asked my cousin what that was and he told me it is an electric guitar. Eventually, I got into guitar, starting with classical, but electric was always the right sound for me. It took me four years to be able to play that riff, but I did it! 

I began playing around 14 and by 16 I was doing gigs. I never thought I was going to become a musician, I just liked playing gigs. But around those years you also have to start thinking about what you want to do in life and I didn’t have a clue. At 16 after playing in rock bands and school gigs, a friend of mine who played in Greek wedding bands asked me to join a wedding gig. I did that and got paid. Then I realized the guys in the band actually lived out of this and thought to myself that this is great – to just play the guitar and get paid very well. It sounded like a good career. 

So I started playing Greek music at more weddings, clubs, taverns, big shows and such along with going to school. When I finished school I was doing gigs full time for a while, but then I realized I have to educate myself – I can’t just do it by ear and learn from here and there. That is when I decided to take it to the next level and go to the UK to study and the rest is history. 

What made you choose the UK for studying and also eventually made you stay indefinite?

I had two options – to go to the UK or the USA. America was too far and too expensive. When it came to the UK, as a European student you could study anywhere with a grant. Also, the Guitar Institute in London had great teachers, equally as good as in the states. My favorite bands are British – Whitesnake, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Rainbow and so on. All my heroes basically were mostly British, so it made sense to come here.

When I came here I was very focused on my studies. The difficult part was I didn’t have anyone around. Now it is easier since we’ve got the internet, but back then it was way more difficult to build a network. You had to invest a lot of money and time to go to gigs, sessions and jam nights to show yourself. 

I did everything step by step: started a music career, earned some money, educated myself and after I graduated decided to give it a try here, before going back to Greece. 22 years later I am still here! Flexibility was my key. I never liked to be categorized as a player – rock guy, jazz guy, funk guy or whatever. I loved the instrument and wanted to know everything about it, I still have that attitude. This mentality allowed me to do different gigs and make a good living out of that.

You came to the UK already knowing a lot about the instrument. What are the main differences in the approach to the guitar in Greece and the UK?

In Greece there weren’t modern music schools, therefore the education was around classical music. I was even lucky to find one conservatory in my small town, where I started to learn. What helped me is that while playing gigs in the Greek clubs I learned how to read music, set up sounds and how to behave on stage. So when I started studying in the UK I had all that experience that a lot of the other students didn’t have. But I didn’t know all the other stuff – fretboard knowledge, theory of jazz, funk, rock and all those, because Greek music relies heavily on rhythm guitar.

I approach the instrument from a musician’s perspective, not a player’s perspective. When you are a musician you use the instrument as a tool, so to say – as your voice. I chose the guitar as my voice, so I need to know my voice – this allows you to do more things so that you can use it without limitations.

What are the main differences between the Greek and the UK music scene, do you have any observations?

In the Greek scene, we mostly had Greek music, pop, some American jazz and of course rock and such, but those were very niche. The actual business and scene haven’t changed much since the 90es when I was there, what changed is the artists.

London on the other hand is so multicultured. Obviously, here you can do lots of different gigs. You can do the session work here, function gigs, wedding gigs, corporate gigs. They are similar to what is happening in other countries, but an average gig here is 2-3 hours maximum with a break, while in Greece gigs are way longer taking a whole day. The rise of the internet, COVID and some other issues with sound and noise affected the London scene though. But there are a lot of gigs outside London, I do a lot such now. 

Do you write music?

Yes, I am always full of ideas and write. Until now I have released 3 albums. The first one is fusion jazz, the second is more world music and the third is about classical guitar and acoustic instruments. I played all the instruments on my last album and I am quite satisfied with those 3 albums, I said all I wanted to say.

How does your writing process go?

When I sat down and decided I want to write my own music, what I did is I put down all the elements which I like. For instance I prefer clean sound, I like riffs, nylon strings and fretless sound. The guitars I am going to use will be a 35 Gibson, a nylon string and a fretless guitar. Then I would like to have an odd-time signature, but I will make it sound natural. The composition and harmony will be driven by jazz and I wanted for the band to have percussions, drums, guitar, bass and piano with maybe occasional guests. 

When I write I do have a plan along these lines, but whatever comes along depending on how it sounds and feels I choose the right instrument and mood. I write as a guitarist, but the guitar is not the main instrument. All the instruments have their own parts – if one needs to take the lead, it will.

You also specialize in fretless guitar. Can you tell us more about the instrument and how to start playing it?

The fretless guitar is not easy, I am still working on it. The fretless instrument gives you another dimension and perspective. What I like about it is that because it doesn’t have frets you can play all the little microtones. That gives more of a feel and attitude of a human voice. It has limitations – you can’t play chords or scales the traditional way and you usually focus on playing on one string rather than on all strings. The most important thing is to have a very good ear, so that you can hear the notes and the pitch. Fretless guitar will really help you improve your ear.

A good idea is to put a chromatic tuner on the guitar and with it to find exactly where the pitch is. If you practice with it, slowly your fingers will remember. 

You teach guitar at ICMP. What is something you learned from the perspective of a teacher?

I never thought I would become a teacher, all I wanted was to learn how to play the guitar. I loved the instrument so much and was a very good disciplined student, so I got an offer to start teaching at the Guitar Institute (now ICMP) where I studied. I was very happy to be a foreigner that got chosen. A piece of advice I can give is to be close to your teachers – if they believe in you, they will help you.

When I started teaching I remembered how I was as a student – what I wanted to learn and how I wanted to learn. There were certain things I didn’t like from my teachers, so those were things I wanted to do differently. Teaching is an organic thing, it grows – the student grows with the teacher and the teacher grows with the student.

I am always trying to understand every student – their background, why they are there, what they want from me and the course. This stuff helps me deliver a subject in such a way that every student in the class can understand it. My teaching gets better because I am learning from the students. I never thought of teaching as just a job, it is a lifestyle for me.

What is your dream musical project?

To play with my heroes! For example to be in Pat Metheny’s band or to play with Bon Jovi, Deep Purple or Whitesnake. I would love to write music with Pink Floyd. I have met quite a few of my heroes, but haven’t played with them yet. But even if it doesn’t happen I am quite happy with what I have achieved so far.

Currently, Tolis is gigging with a few bands and doing sessions. In the future, his plans revolve mostly around online collaborations with other musicians. 

Follow him on social media to get a glimpse of those, when they come out:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *