If you were searching for the best spot to establish a school for popular musicians, you might not immediately think of Guildford, the Surrey hometown of corporate commuters. The Home Counties are where rock royalty retire to vulgar country mansions to count their money; not, surely, where the guitar heroes of the future are bred?
But for the past decade, Guildford is where many of the country's most committed young rockers have been flocking, to enrol at the town's Academy of Contemporary Music (ACM), hidden away above a sprawling pub, in a warren of high-tech recording studios, practice spaces and specialised classrooms. The school began life in the garage of now-managing director Phil Brooks, where he gave one-on-one guitar lessons. Brooks spotted the potential for full-class guitar teaching, and the rest is history: today, ACM offers courses - from diplomas to degrees - in guitar, bass, vocals, drums, music production and DJing, with a sprinkling of business studies to enlighten students on copyright, contracts and the realities of the industry.
"Guildford isn't rock'n'roll, but ACM's not just about being rock'n'roll, it's about understanding the elements you need to become rock'n'roll," says Ian Edwards, the academy's marketing and admissions manager. "London is only half an hour away, but here the students are in an environment where they can perform and make mistakes as part of their study and not be judged by any record company people that might have been at the venue if we were based in London."
The aim of the courses at ACM is to integrate the students into the music industry, so when the time comes the school are more than happy to invite record company types to meet their protégés. "We hold industry days, when representatives from major labels, production houses, record companies, radio and television, come in," explains Edwards. "We have our own small dance and indie record labels and an in-house magazine run by an ex-student. We've worked with THQ, one of the world's biggest videogame manufacturers, supplying music for their games." ACM's business development centre (BDC) ensures that ACM students have an opportunity to be auditioned by record companies, management companies or agents, or to get work placements with production houses or record companies. "The BDC guys promote ACM artists, but also promote ACM as a resource for the industry. Understanding where you are within the industry is a very important part of what we do here."
The academy has also persuaded the rock aristocracy to take time out from spending their royalties. Last year's national guitar competition, the riffathon, was organised by ACM and attended by such luminaries as Jimmy Page, Brian May and Dan Hawkins (of The Darkness). Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith is a regular visitor, giving masterclasses and taking part in live performances. Live performance is central to the instrumental and vocals courses, and part of the academy's weekly timetable is a Friday night performance in a local venue. The students are placed in bands, and every Monday they are given a new pair of songs to learn and perform to their peers at the end of the week.
"The atmosphere at the Friday night gigs is extremely positive," says Chris Hayne, ACM's vice-principal. "The students really encourage each other, and the fact that they do it every week throughout the course, makes it second nature for them. The speed at which they develop in their confidence and their playing ability is phenomenal."
"This week we're singing either 'ABC' by the Jackson Five or 'Killing In The Name Of' by Rage against The Machine," says Roz Turner, a higher diploma student in the vocals department. Turner was discovered by ACM scouts at a local karaoke competition. With her AC/DC T-shirt and dazzling blonde hair, she looks every inch the rock singer she aspires to be but, she explains, "I only listened to rock when I came here. But everyone had completely different tastes, so we all started to listen to each other's music. Now I can appreciate metal, funk and jazz and other things. We arrive with one voice and leave with five."
The academy's entry requirements are flexible, and for relative newcomers to their instrument, the diploma courses are designed to prepare less experienced students for the higher diploma or degree courses. While a Grade Eight instrumental qualification or equivalent is preferable for those applying to the degree courses, says Chris Hayne, "sometimes you can tell from a student's demo CD that they have incredible natural talent, even though they don't necessarily have a lot of technical knowledge. We don't want to miss out on those people. If we just did it based entirely on grades we would miss out on a huge, often very influential, group of people."
With the support of the industry, ACM is able to break the mould technically, with the teaching rooms each kitted out by familiar manufacturing names such as Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Marshall and Roland, who support the drum classroom. Equipped with 22 state-of-the-art electronic drum kits, "the drum room is a bit like a language lab," Hayne explains. "People can work on something individually; they can play along to the tutor, to a track, to a metronome, depending on what they're trying to achieve in that particular lecture."
Around the country, other institutions are responding to the demand for contemporary music education. Paul McCartney's LIPA in Liverpool is one, though it has a broader performing arts remit than ACM. Point Blank in East London focuses on electronic audio engineering, studio-based production and DJ-ing, with a sideline in radio broadcast and songwriting. The original contemporary music schools were Drum-Tech, Vocal-Tech and Guitar-X, based in Acton and accredited by Thames Valley University. Drum-Tech, the first of the franchise (which will be joined by Keyboard-Tech in October) was established by drummer Francis Seriau in 1983. Seriau, still the Tech Music Schools' director, wanted to create a contemporary music conservatoire that gave popular musicians the same education that is available to classical performers.
"The music industry was in need of qualified musicians, who were versatile technically and stylistically," says Seriau. "We are an important resource for the music industry. To have longevity, musicians need more than just playing and performing ability, so we teach them programming, arranging, composing, business and music theory. We want our students to be self-sufficient, individual, creative musicians."
Amelle Berrabah, an ACM vocals graduate, is the newest member of perennial pop pixies the Sugababes. The lucky things are supporting Take That on their comeback tour in the summer.
Chris Leonard, an ACM guitar graduate, is now plucking furiously away with Son Of Dork, the new band of former Busted singer and guitarist James Bourne.
Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien studied at Drum-Tech and Guitar-X respectively. You may have heard of their band, Radiohead.
Luke Bullen, a former Drum-Tech student, played drums for Joe Strummer before joining recent Brit Award winner KT Tunstall's band. Bullen and Tunstall also happen to be an item.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies