I joined my first band when I was seventeen. We knew a total of four songs, but somehow we managed to stretch them into an hour-long set. We'd play make-out parties in someone's basement, with everybody stoned on pot or Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, an alleged wine notorious for inducing immediate vomiting spasms and persuading more people to give up drinking than Alcoholics Anonymous.
My bandmates were usually among the first people at the party to pass out, occasionally in mid-song. Ever the per-fessional, I declined intoxicants with the excuse that getting high would affect my playing (as if it could have gotten any worse). To a bunch of incoherent adolescents in altered states of mind, however, repeated banging of the same three chords at ear-splitting volume with a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to distort the sound even more than the acoustics of a concrete cellar already had, I sounded great. I quickly acquired a reputation as a serious guitarist.
I never really thought of myself as a guitarist, just a regular doofus who happened to play. I don't know why I never made that mental leap, but perhaps it was because even as a snot-nosed, arrogant youth I realized that guitarists are funny people, not in the sense that Eddie Murphy or Jay Leno is funny, but in the sense that the old guy at the end of the block with the overgrown lawn is funny. Eccentric. Ask them what year it is and they start counting on their fingers, but ask them about their first guitar and they are miraculously blessed with total recall.
Singer/songwriter Jim Baumann got an Alvarez when he realized the catgut strings on his tennis racket wouldn't cut it. University of Miami music school instructor and one-time Dixie Dreg/Edgar Winter Group-er Randall Dollahon obtained his first ax via mail order, and played it for months before he realized he was supposed to finish the neck and had essentially been playing a raw two-by-four. And then there's the self-proclaimed Voodoo Child himself, Hendrix, who, apparently before the voodoo kicked in, unsuccessfully tried to string up a broom.
"Guitars are like children," explains Whistling Tin Head/itinerant picker Ben Peeler. "You can't just sell 'em." Of course, using typically convoluted guitarist logic, it is okay to trade them, as Peeler did with his first electric guitar, a red Vox Apollo with leopardskin pick guard. Those who practice what Peeler preaches include Not-Just-Guitarist retailer Jack Allen of the pop-rock band ECCO, who hangs onto a steel-stringed, three-quarter-size Winston with five of the original strings still on it. Mark Scandariato, formerly of Beat the Press and now with Mary Karlzen, maintains an anonymous old Fender clone salvaged from a thrift shop and given to him by his father, who oh-so-cleverly upgraded it by inscribing the word "Fender" with a felt-tip marker. Songwriter Shane Soloski's parents' garage harbors the yellow-with-beige-tiger stripes Japanese copy of something from an Elvis movie, and the family of Mavericks guitarist David Lee Holt still guards the '52 Gibson hollow body that Holt's father traded away a drum set to obtain.
Ironically, both former and current Mavericks axmen learned their chops on their fathers' guitars, Holt on the Gibson and Peeler on a 1950 Martin O-18. Peeler still has his second electric guitar, a "little red overgrown ukelele that cost me seventeen dollars from Sears." He's not the only musician who started where America shops. Kathi Gibson of Blizzy Nation cut her teeth on an old Silvertone, with aircraft cables on it that her dad brought over from Guam, Nuclear Valdez guitarist Jorge Barcala's first electric was a Sears SG copy, Fleet Starbuck's first amp was a Silvertone with a single ten-inch speaker, and Good Rockin' Johnny Wenzel broke in a Silvertone that his mom bought him when a friend of his received a drum set as a birthday gift.
Most thirtysomething musicians cite Elvis or the Beatles as early influences. My close personal friend, Bruce Springsteen, often alludes to the first time he saw Presley on the Ed Sullivan show as an epiphany. Once again, I was a little different. I started hounding my parents for a guitar at the age of six so that I could be more like my idol, Roy Rogers, who, after dispatching a few bad guys and shooin' some varmints, would round up his backing singers - Bullet (the loyal dog), Trigger (the loyal golden palomino), and Dale Evans (the loyal wife) - and croon a romantic cowpoke ballad while accompanying himself on his generic six-string. Roy spent substantially more time serenading his wife than he did driving cattle, even though Trigger was a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than Dale.
Then testosterone began skewing my view of the world, and the sight of all those cute girls swooning over a regular-looking guy named Michael Nesmith, the Monkees' guitar player, gave my desire for a fretted phallic symbol new urgency. I wasn't alone. Baumann went so far as to buy a green woolen cap just like Nesmith wore. My folks finally caved in and bought me a used Kent, and signed me up for lessons with the neighborhood maestro, a pudgy introvert with eyeglasses as thick as binoculars. My father, unlike Peeler's or Holt's, did not support my musical pursuit, and worried that the lessons might be the first step toward the abyss of long hair, bell bottoms, and rock-and-roll music. Privately, of course, I hoped he was right.
I almost threw in the towel after my first lesson because of a demented s.o.b. I never even met, a guy whose name strikes terror in the hearts of fledgling guitarists everywhere: Mel Bay. For every kid who ever picked up a guitar - full of excitement because of some Chuck Berry or Ventures lick - there was a teacher, armed with instructional books from Mel Bay, intent on drilling "Skip to My Lou." Even UM's Dollahon is a Mel Bay survivor. I gutted out Mel's system for nearly two years because of that lingering image of Michael Nesmith surrounded by all those girls. I finally quit taking lessons after learning the secret of the universe - bar chords (or, as Mel Bay spelled it, "barre" chords) - which enabled me to play "Stepping Stone" just like the record. Free at last!
Shortly thereafter I penned my first original song - the lyrics were, "Cool water, fresh water" repeated ad nauseum - and I started taking the guitar with me everywhere. The prop's effect was magical. Girls, many of them a full year or two older than I, went wild at the mere sight of me carrying the Kent, which, when stood on end, was taller than I was. They asked who my favorite band was (the Monkees), who my favorite guitarist was (Nesmith), and what my favorite song was ("Valerie"). Thankfully, they almost never asked me to play the damn thing, because my fingers were tiny and soft, and the rigors of "Stepping Stone" always made them blister. Of course, "Cool Water, Fresh Water" had only one chord (open tuning). I wasn't about to inflict unnecessary pain upon myself.
Peeler once told New Times that the reason he started playing the guitar was to attract females. Now, however, he hastens to add that, "It didn't work! I only met one and she moved away." Peeler's a nice guy and all, but his problem isn't the guitar. It's the hair/attitude thing, which any fourteen-year-old can tell you is more important than actual musicianship, and always has been. Peeler's hair is usually, to be kind, unkempt, which, unless his girlfriend dresses him, often matches his wardrobe. Soloski, on the other hand, has great hair and rock star looks and allows as how he does meet lots of women, although they're "not necessarily the right ones." All together now: "Aww, poor Shane!"
When I had hair, after the discovery of fire but before the wheel, I used to walk around the campus at Southern Cal carrying a friend's acoustic guitar, and I rarely had to take it out of the case to attract attention. Granted, that was L.A., which has less in common with the rest of the world than the Papuan tribe of New Guinea does. Nowadays I wrestle with the possibility of becoming a Sy Sperling client, and the only woman who pays me any mind when I play my guitar is my wife, who's getting damn tired of "Cool Water, Fresh Water."
It's no secret that many guitar players take up the instrument to combat social awkwardness. Again, my good buddy Bruce is a prime example, stating on many occasions that music saved him from loneliness. Hendrix was a loner, as were Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, and I'd almost be willing to bet that Robert Johnson was not the most popular dude in the Delta prior to striking his deal with the devil. Starbuck was too skinny, Gibson was a chub, and Baumann and I were nerds before personal computers and Nintendo made it fashionable. Conversely, the more attractive guitar players often started out playing another instrument. Soloski wanted to play the sax, but his father told him, "Sax is for wimps." Diane Ward of the Wait started out as a drummer, switched to keyboards for awhile, and then took up guitar so that she could get out in front of the band and move more. Holt started playing in the kitchen with his father and his two older brothers at the age of six - but then again, he's from Texas, where the three main exports are crude oil, beef, and guitar players (not necessarily in that order).
Theorizes Gibson, "If you weren't shy or introverted, how could you stand to stay alone in your room long enough to learn the instrument, when everyone else was out having fun?"
Not surprisingly, most guitarists feel a sense of devotion to their tools that borders on true romance. Says Dollahon, "I fell totally in love with the instrument...there's always something new to learn." Gushes Starbuck, "They're just beautiful things to touch, feel, hold, and keep." Adds Barcala, "The first time I saw one in the house - my older sister used to play - I just flipped."
Scandariato clearly remembers the exact moment he first realized he wanted to play guitar - when he heard his brother's band playing "Taking Care of Business" in the garage. Scandariato crashed the gig and conned them into teaching him a couple of bar chords, and within two weeks he had a band of his own. "We sucked, of course," he admits, "but we were the only band in the neighborhood, so everyone came to see us."
At least he got better. Amazingly, my own skills have scarcely improved since I blew out my buddy's Fender Bassman playing my last make-out party. Perhaps that's another reason why the Boss and I are so tight - we're both primitivists. Given enough time, anyone can learn a few cheap tricks - trills, pull-offs, harmonics, hammer-ons.... It takes a rugged individual to ignore these techniques for the better part of two decades. Mike Fair, Rob Shaw, and Lou Jurika are among the handful of local guitarists who understand this logic, and that goes a long way toward explaining why they often end up in Little Haiti at 2:00 a.m. on a Tuesday night, furiously jamming away on "Stepping Stone" or "Gloria" for the benefit of Dave Daniels (proprietor of Churchill's), Joaquin (notorious panhandler who will draw anyone's caricature for a cigarette, guaranteed to make you look satanic), and whatever gracious soul Daniels has tending bar.
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Of course, most guitarists don't have the luxury of a glamorous career as an incredibly high-paid music writer to fall back on, so they are forced to learn all that technical garbage so they can be asked to perform in one of the thousands of working bands competing for a handful of pathetically low-paying gigs. This is why you always see guitarists making those bizarre facial contortions while playing on-stage - hunger pangs. They probably haven't eaten in weeks. Which brings us to one of the cardinal tenets of the working musician - when the going gets tough, the tough give lessons.
Nothing pisses off a serious guitar player more than seeing a duffer make it big. That is why accomplished musicians usually hate acts like Springsteen, the Clash, or U2 - they feature guitar players who never made it all the way through Mel Bay either. The more these blithe, blissfully ignorant players rake up scads of money and critical accolades, the tougher it is for the serious player to justify all the years he or she has spent locked in a squalid room somewhere, voluntarily living a life of abject poverty; practicing, practicing, practicing.
I think that if I actually had to make a living playing the damn thing, it would lose a lot of its appeal to me. Wenzel, who has been a working pro long enough to acquire the perspective of a survivor, sums it up best when he says, "I've always wanted to play music. It's my only real creative outlet. I love it. I don't know what else I could do."
Neither do I, but I think I know how a certain singing cowboy would respond. Happy trails, partner.