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Category ArchiveGuitar Heroes

Chuck Berry

Goodbye, Chuck Berry (1926 – 2017): The Father Of Rock’n’Roll

Last weekend, we lost a true legend: Chuck Berry died on 18th March, aged 90. Make no mistake, folks – the world lost the one person who truly epitomised the spirit of Rock’n’Roll. Here’s our tribute.

Chuck Berry

The origins of Rock’n’Roll  are somewhat murky, and there are many contenders for what was supposed to be “the first rock song ever”. But Chuck Berry was without a doubt the true father of rock’n’roll. He’s the one person who truly personified its spirit, the seminal influence who laid down the foundations for all that was to come. The outsider. The guitar hero. The rebel. The songwriter. The outlaw. The poet. Oh, and so much more…

Rock’n’Roll Music! 

It could be argued that some artists who followed became more famous, made better albums, and recorded more hits… but none of them would’ve been the same without Chuck Berry, whose lyricism, and genius for simple, memorable songs set the template for the best which rock music had to offer thereafter. Berry songs fuelled The Beatles’ early sets (and final albums); inspired The Beach Boys’ first hit and The Rolling Stones’ debut single. His DNA lives on in pretty much any rock band and guitarist worth anything.

In the past decades his presence had been waning from the music scene and, sadly, perhaps the majority of millennials were not particularly aware of Chuck Berry’s music or influence – but even younger generations will have been touched by his influence… after all, most of them will be probably familiar with Back To The Future’s rock’n’roll ball scene, a delightful homage to Berry and one of the most classic scenes from that film!

Chuck Berry, the father of rock'n'roll

Chuck Berry, the father of rock’n’roll…

The fact is – most of us grew up in a world were Chuck Berry and his music existed, a world where Chuck Berry was a fact of life, and where his songs were so interwoven in the fabric of our culture, that we didn’t even have to think about it, because he’s always been there…  so it’s hard – or even impossible – to imagine how rock music would’ve been without his influence. 

Anyone who’s seen the octogenarian Chuck Berry on stage, will know how fragile he was in his later years, hardly capable of playing his guitar anymore. Though it was an upsetting sight, and some will say he was being exploited by promoters or whoever, we can’t really agree with this view. Any musician passionate about music, and who understands the power of rock’n’roll music, will immediately understand it was something Chuck simply had to do. To play and perform for as long as he was able to, however he could. That’s rock’n’roll, and Chuck Berry was rock’n’roll. How could he do anything else?

And indeed, Chuck kept working. On his 90th birthday, on 18th October last year, it was announced that there would be a new Chuck Berry album, his first in more than thirty years, to be released later in 2017.

Listen! Chuck Berry’s new single, ‘Big Boys’:

‘Big Boys’ is the first taster for Chuck Berry’s upcoming new album, now sadly a posthumous release.

Chuck tracklisting:

1. “Wonderful Woman”
2. “Big Boys”
3. “You Go to My Head”
4. “3/4 Time (Enchiladas)”
5. “Darlin’”
6. “Lady B. Goode”
7. “She Still Loves You”
8. “Jamaica Moon”
9. “Dutchman”
10. “Eyes of Man”

Jeff Senn tribute to Chuck:

Here’s a little tribute our friend Jeff Senn made in Chuck’s homage, playing his new Continental model:

Chuck lives on, in anyone who really cares about guitars and about that magical crazy thing called rock’n’roll. We’ll miss you, Chuck, goodbye!

Chuck Berry, RIP

CHUCK BERRY (Oct 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017)

George Harrison Gretsch Duo Jet G6128T-GH Tribute Guitar

George Harrison and his Gretsch G6128T Duo Jet guitar

George Harrison and his Gretsch G6128T Duo Jet guitar

If you somehow missed this story at Winter NAMM 2011…well…it’s time you heard about the George Harrison Tribute Duo Jet from Gretsch Guitars. If you’re a fan of the Beatles and George Harrison, then I probably don’t need to give you a background on his black Gretsch Duo Jet G6128T. It was the guitar he played in the early Cavern Club days, and there is a very interesting history behind Harrison’s Duo Jet. For more on that, check out this video:

You gotta admit: that is a pretty awesome story. And the builders at the Gretsch Custom Shop have gone all out in creating a replica of Harrison’s G6128T Duo Jet. I’ve never even heard of x-raying a guitar!

It turns out that the Gretsch Custom Shop George Harrison G6128T-GH Tribute Duo Jet will be a limited to a run of 60. It’s due out in May 2011, and if you want one, you better have your checkbook handy – the MSRP is $20,000. But if you’re a collector, this guitar is a must have, right?

For more on the George Harrison Tribute Duo Jet:

  • GretschGuitars.com: Official page of the G6128T-GH Tribute guitar [link]
  • USAtoday.com: George Harrison’s beloved guitar is reborn as a replica [link]

And just for fun, here is a gallery of George Harrison pictures, many of which show him with his beloved Gretsch Duo Jet:

How Your Guitar Heroes Learned to Play So Fast

Have you ever watched your favorite guitarist and wondered how they got so fast? You may think you’ll never get there, but that’s not true. With guitar, just like anything else, you get out of it what you put into that. That’s the first and most important thing.

Guitar Hero: Jimmy Page

Guitar Hero: Jimmy Page

But there are things you can do to help the process along and progress faster to the speed licks you’d like to be playing.

  1. First the basics: Make sure your guitar is set up properly. If the action is too high, or the neck is warped, or the strings are too heavy or too light for your hands, it’s going to be hard to gain speed. It also won’t be as much fun to play.
  2. Try different picks. Some people like thinner or thicker picks, and you might not be using the right one for you. Many shredders prefer smaller jazz-style picks to the traditional teardrop style. Go spend a couple bucks and pick a large selection of thicknesses and shapes to see what works best for you.
  3. Use a metronome. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Start with a slow tempo on your metronome. Really slow. Like 52bpm. Pick out a scale or musical phrase you’d like to work on. When you can accomplish that phrase at that speed 5 times in a row without making a mistake, bump your metronome up just one notch. That’s generally 2-4 bpm faster. Go through the same process there, bumping it up a little bit each time. Within 15-20 minutes you’ll have that phrase blazing fast!
  4. Work on your right hand. We tend to forget about our right hand a lot since the left is where all the action is. But your right hand is the engine driving the action. If it can’t move fast, it won’t matter how fast your left hand can go. Back to your metronome again, take just one note (preferably a fretted one) and practice playing 8th notes and 16th notes. Again bump the tempo up slowly until you’re reaching speeds you want to hear.
  5. Practice left hand finger patterns. Scales and arpeggios are good also, but these 5 finger patterns will give you most every combination you need. Here they are:
    • 1-2-3-4
    • 1-3-2-4
    • 1-2-4-3
    • 1-4-2-3
    • 1-4-3-2.
    • Do these on each string, in both directions, and on different areas of the neck. You can reverse them all.

  6. Keep a written log of your progress. Using this “slow and grow” method, you may not notice that you’re getting faster in regular playing situations. I certainly didn’t. One day it snuck on me while I was listening to a recording from my gig the night before. I heard a blazing fast guitar lick and asked my girlfriend who the heck that was! She reminded me that I was the only guitarist in the band so it must have been me.

So, yes, it does take putting in the hours to get your speed going, but these tips will help you get there faster. As Eddie Van Halen said in a recent interview, “Just keep playing and playing and you’ll eventually find out who you are.”

Get at it!

Post by: Phil Johnson

Rediscovering Roy Buchanan: Blues Guitar Legend

Although I’m very passionate about my music, my guitar playing and blues, I don’t in any way consider myself an expert on any of these topics. I’m always open to new artists and a lot of artists that have received high praise from other musicians I simply haven’t had the chance to listen to yet.

This will explain to some why I had never listened to Roy Buchanan till recently.

Roy Buchanan: Blues Guitar Legend

Roy Buchanan: Blues Guitar Legend

When you read as much about music, guitars, guitarists and guitar playing as I do there are certain names that continue to pop up as major players in the guitar world. People like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Peter Greene etc. Most of these people I had heard of and typically I’ve listened to their music for years as have many people. Probably everyone familiar with rock and roll has heard of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix and people who know classic rock can easily recognize Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin. One name though, Roy Buchanan, kept popping up, and I could never pinpoint his music, or why some of the people I consider guitar legends, referred to him as one of their influences.

That is until recently…

While I was reading about rock and roll and preparing for the launch of The Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll, I happened across a video of none other than Roy Buchanan playing “Hey Joe,” a song that was more well known because of the Jimi Hendrix version. I knew and loved the Hendrix version and having remembered hearing about Roy Buchanan so much I was intrigued. I watched the video and suddenly I had a new guitar idol.

This blues guitarist so expertly wrenched notes from his guitar that it sent shivers up my spine. Using a volume knob technique to create an almost violin like effect along with typical blues guitar techniques, and a whole lot of emotion, Mr. Roy Buchanan took the song I had only known because of Hendrix and created a slow blues, absolutely heart wrenching version unlike anything I had ever heard. It was raw, real and authentic that I was immediately blown away. I watched every video of Roy Buchanan I could find that night.

Roy’s playing seemed to come primarily out of emotion like blues, but with a noticeable technical expertise that was exciting but not showy. Plus, when he would work the volume knob on his guitar, he could actually make it sound like the guitar was crying. Well this works as an exciting technique, but it also allowed him to create very vocal sounding solos that had swells, dynamics and emphasis, just like a vocal soloist would use and that added so much soul to the solo.

When it comes to music, I’m impressed not so much by technical expertise on an instrument (although that can impress me too), but more so how well that musician can convey the emotions of the song, add to them and enhance the overall mood. Anyone can learn to play blindingly fast with a million notes, but when someone can make their soul speak through the instrument, thats what it is really all about. With his crying guitar and tonal range from smooth, round and transparent to bitingly sharp and gritty, Roy took these songs from slow and sad to hard edged an soulful at will. Truly a master of expression on guitar.

As I read more about Roy Buchanan I discovered that except amongst guitarists, specifically blues guitarists, his music is generally overlooked. That seems like such a shame. For me, music is about emotion, what it makes me feel and how well I can related to those feelings. This is why I gravitated towards blues as I grew older. Blues is probably the most emotion based genre of music there is as it’s primary focus is often heartbreak, a very emotional subject. The best musicians in any genre can convey their feelings and their soul through their music. Roy Buchanan was definitely one of the best at this in my book. His playing has had such an impact on how I play guitar that I only wish I could have found his music sooner. It has really inspired me to try and put every ounce of myself and my soul into my playing.

Maybe the music of Roy Buchanan is not for everyone as not everyone is into blues or guitar playing but for those of you who are into both and haven’t yet checked out the work of Roy Buchanan, you should. His blues is more earthy, and rustic that some of the famous Chicago blues players (B.B. King, Buddy Guy) and has a hint of jazz, but his passion is just as evident and the guitar playing is magical.

Some artists never received the recognition they truly deserve but if an artist can inspire others, than they are successful and because of how he has inspired other musicians, myself included, I think Roy Buchanan deserves a little more recognition. I hope more people are as inspired by Roy Buchanan’s music as I am.

Post by: Dave Nuzzo
D.A.N (Dave Nuzzo), is the Owner/Editor of The Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll a music and rock ‘n’ roll oriented blog. The Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll was design to promote the music that he likes, listens to and is passionate about. He discusses everything from Folk to Heavy Metal with the emphasis on Classic Rock, but also talks about the impact rock ‘n’ roll has on society, unknown bands, and playing music. If you’re interested in reading more rock ‘n’ roll articles from D.A.N., check out The Soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

UK Trip (October 2007)

Just got back from an 8 day trip to UK. I will have more details in next months newsletter – including exclusive video interviews – but here is a snapshot of what we were up to. Our first day in London included a visit with Chris Spedding, who was messing around with his Airline Town & Country before heading off on a European Tour playing guitar for Bryan Ferry.

Our first day in London included a visit with Chris Spedding

Our first day in London included a visit with Chris Spedding

That afternoon we drove up to OXFORD to catch of Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople fame. Unbelievable showman, he rocked the SOLD OUT show.

The next day we drove up to Nottingham in search of Robin Hood, but instead ran into John Cooper Clarke. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, your are missing out. John is one of the best comedians the UK has ever produced, and one of these days I will convince him to come back to North America to treat us to his twisted sense of humor. Here is a sample of what we heard: “A man goes to his doctor for his annual medical examination. Doctor says, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to stop masturbating”. The man exclaims, “Stop masturbating? WHY?” Doctor says, “Well, I’m trying to conduct a medical examination!”

Me with John Cooper Clarke, comedian

Me with John Cooper Clarke, comedian

Next stop was Sheffield to visit some friends and check out the new JOY DIVISION movie, CONTROL. Great movie, even better because “Ian Curtis” in the movie is playing and EASTWOOD VG6 Guitar. =)

The Undertones

The Undertones

Up to Holmfirth to spend some time with one of the best bands around, The Undertones. The SOLD OUT audience was treated to a memorable set of non-stop hits. I can’t remember seeing a more appreciative group of fans. Just another band on the list of bands we need to get back over the pond. Thanks guys for your hospitality and for getting those EASTWOOD Guitars up on stage and put to good use!

Mike Robinson & Bill Nelson at Nelsonica 07

Mike Robinson & Bill Nelson at Nelsonica 07

Next stop was YORK in the North of England. I’ve been planning this trip for a couple of years, and it finally came together. I had to opportunity to interview Bill Nelson, live on stage at Nelsonica 07. An incredible, memorable event. We will have the entire video interview available in the coming months, on-line. I’m hoping to get Bill to bring NELSONICA to North America in 2009. More info to come….

The next morning we braved the 5 hour drive, back down to London (in typical British weather and traffic) to get to the comeback show of Edwyn Collins. Worth twice the drive….

At the Edwyn Collins comeback show

At the Edwyn Collins comeback show

Quite an emotional event. Edwyn suffered a near fatal brain hemorrhage in 2005 and had to relearn how to walk, talk, read and write. All his friends were on hand to support this comeback show, including the BBC, and what a show it was.

Colin Newman and his wife Malka Spigel, who are half of the band GITHEAD

Colin Newman and his wife Malka Spigel, who are half of the band GITHEAD

After a day off in London, we made our way over to meet with Colin Newman and his wife Malka Spigel, who are half of the band GITHEAD. We visited them in their home studio, discussed the recent GITHEAD release and then popped out for a couple of pints to discuss the music industry in general. Colin gave me an advanced copy of the new WIRE release, READ & BURN. I will post a review in next months newsletter.

Last leg of the trip we spent with Pete Shelley of BUZZCOCKS fame

Last leg of the trip we spent with Pete Shelley of BUZZCOCKS fame

Last leg of the trip we spent with Pete Shelley of BUZZCOCKS fame. We are nearing completion of the soon to be released Limited Edition replica of Pete’s famous STARWAY guitar – here we are discussing final details. All the pickguards are signed, the custom signature hardshell fitted cases are in, the signed original photo’s are on their way, and the BUZZCOCKS leather straps are in production. We will be launching a contest in the next few weeks, so stay tuned. Send an email if you want some advanced photographs and specs.

Legends of Rock & Roll: Guitarist Johnny Winter

Greetings to all who love rock and roll, and thank you all for your comments and encouragements on this column.

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

When you talk about great authentic white blues guitar players, you are surely talking about some rarified company. The key word being authentic, and in my estimation authentic white blues guitar player means that when you listen to this person playing you think it’s a black man playing. Stevie Ray Vaughn a great blues guitar player always tried to get that real blues sound. When I saw Stevie Ray for the last time a few months before his death we spoke backstage at one of his shows and I told him “man you sounded like Albert King”, Stevie smiled and said that was the biggest compliment I could have ever given him. That is what we who strum the strings in the blues strive for, to sound like our idols, the great bluesmen. Johnny Winter did this as well as anyone, and proof of this is that he was accepted amongst the great bluesman as an equal, and shared the stage with many of them with great dignity and restraint.

Johnny was born John Dawson Winter in Beaumont Texas on February 23rd 1944. Johnny (as well as his brother Edgar) were born with albinism, and being an albino made Johnny stand out, but that did not stop him from playing music with his brother Edgar. His first record was recorded when Johnny was only 15 with his band Johnny and the Jammers, but it was Johnny’s self-titled first album on Columbia that established Johnny Winter as an A-List 60’s rock icon. His second album titled Second Winter was a three sided album (a double album with a blank forth side) that further marked Johnny as a guitar hero right up there with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Mike Bloomfield.

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny’s next few albums were also fantastic albums, Johnny Winter And (1970), and Johnny Winter And Live (1971) were big sellers and were just ass-kickin’ rock and roll records. Those two albums contained great tunes such as “Rock and Roll HootchieKoo” (penned by Johnny Winter And guitarist Rick Derringer) and “Mean Town Blues”.

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter’s years of drug addiction caught up to him in 1972 and after a hospital stay (no ‘rehab in the pre Betty Ford era) he released “Still Alive and Well” in 1973, this was to be Johnny’s last decent selling release.

Even though Johnny’s days of gold records were behind him his name alone could sell out any club, or 3000 seat venue. Johnny always delivered at a live show; his fiery approach to guitar playing was eaten up by audiences all over the world.

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

As a slide guitar player (playing guitar using a glass bottle-neck or copper tube) Johnny was unparalleled in his day, just check his slide work on Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” from Johnny’s album “Second Winter”. And when you talk about sheer rock and roll guitar, Johnny Winter can stand up with any rock guitarist. His vibrato (the bending of notes on the guitar) which is the signature of any rock and blues guitarist is unmistakable.

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny Winter: Guitar God, Rock & Roll Legend

Johnny kept it real for the blues crowd as well, and in 1983 he produced a great record for blues legend Muddy Waters called “Hard Again”. Reticent of Muddy’s age Johnny laid back on his playing on the record and let Muddy control the dynamic range of the record, a great tribute to Muddy and Johnny as well.

To this day Johnny still can bring it live, even though he sometimes has to be led to the bandstand, which is no surprise when you understand that his lifestyle over the past 40 years makes Keith Richards look like Bruce Jenner.

Johnny Winter Guitar God, Rock and Roll Survivor, and most importantly, Legend of Rock and Roll.

Famous Guitarists & Their Guitars

Greetings my friend and fellow strummers in this month’s column I will discuss that in my opinion that Artist recognition is one of the most important aspect of guitar marketing. That is a statement I truly believe, and in this column I will trace the popularity of certain guitars and the artists that I believe are responsible for their success. I will also list some guitar players and the guitars I found to be intriguing. I will list the guitars first and the artists that were associated with it.

Remember my friends knowing what guitars your favorite players play is part of getting a sound similar to them, but it is only a small part of it.

Gibson SG Electric Guitar

Gibson SG Electric Guitar

Gibson SG: Tony Iommi, Angus Young, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton

Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar

Fender Telecaster Electric Guitar

Fender Telecaster (stock): Roy Buchanan, James Burton, Steve Cropper, Muddy Waters, Joe Messina

Telecaster (modified): Mike Stern, Keith Richards, Danny Gatton, Clarence White

Gibson ES-335 Electric Guitar

Gibson ES-335 Electric Guitar

Gibson ES-335: Larry Carlton, Dave Edmunds, Johnny “Guitar” Watson

Gibson ES-345: Freddie King, Alvin Lee, Elvin Bishop

Gibson ES-355: Chuck Berry, B.B. Kink, Keith Richards

Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar

Fender Stratocaster Electric Guitar

Fender Stratocaster (stock): Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Mark Knophler, David Gilmour

Fender Stratocaster (modified): Hiram Bullock, Robbie Robertson, Adrian Belew, Stevie Ray Vaughn

Gretsch 6120 Archtop Electric Guitar

Gretsch 6120 Archtop Electric Guitar

Gretsch 6120: Brian Setzer, Chet Atkins, Eddie Cochran

Gibson Les Paul Electric Guitar

Gibson Les Paul Electric Guitar

Gibson Les Paul: Mike Bloomfield, Slash, Joe Perry, Duane Allman, Jimmy Page

Gibson Firebird Electric Guitar

Gibson Firebird Electric Guitar

Gibson Firebird: Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolf, Stevie Winwood, Pat Hare, Clarence Gatemouth Brown

Gibson Flying V: Albert King: Jimi Hendrix

Gibson Melody Maker: Joan Jett

Gibson Byrdland: Ted Nugent, Roy Clark, Eric Clapton

Gibson Les Paul Junior Electric Guitar

Gibson Les Paul Junior Electric Guitar

Gibson Les Paul Junior: Lesley West, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Johnny Thunders

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Guitar

Fender Jazzmaster Electric Guitar

Fender Jazzmaster: Elvis Costello, Fender Jazzmaster Guitar

Rickenbacker 12-string Electric Guitar

Rickenbacker 12-string Electric Guitar

Rickenbacker 12-string: George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn

Airline H44 Electric Guitar

Airline H44 Electric Guitar

Airline Resoglas Electric Guitar

Airline Resoglas Electric Guitar

Airline/Supro Resoglas: J.B. Hutto, Jack White

Epiphone Sheraton Electric Guitar

Epiphone Sheraton Electric Guitar

Epiphone Riviera/Sheraton: John Lennon, Otis Rush, George Harrison, John Lee Hooker

Gibson L5-CES Archtop Electric Guitar

Gibson L5-CES Archtop Electric Guitar

Gibson L5-CES: Wes Montgomery, Scotty Moore, Paul Simon (L5S)

Other Notables:

  • Gretsch Country Gentleman: George Harrison, Steven Stills, David Crosby
  • Mosrite (several models): The Ventures, Joe Maphis, Rick Wilson (B-52’s), Johnny Ramone
  • Silvertone/Danelectro: Jimmy Page, Link Wray, Hubert Sumlin, Elmore James, R.L. Burnside
  • Kay Electrics: Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf, Lonnie Johnson

So if you are interested in getting a sound similar to any of these artists, a good place to start is with their guitar choices. I would say that may be 20% of it, the amplifier would be another 20% and the rest is technique, approach, and attitude.

There are some other aspects that would affect your sound, the type of picks you use, the gauge of your strings, and any effects you might use.

In my world I would say use as few effects as you can, I know they are part of the song, blah,blah blah. If you need a harmonic effect like a chorus but feel you need to flange at some point in the show get one of those multi units like the Line 6. And remember the more pedals you use the farther away are you from the sound of your guitar.

Now as far as the amps go, those of you who are familiar with my column know I am a traditionalist. As far as I can see there are three categories of amplifiers.

Clean Amps:
These amps are clean sounding, with plenty of headroom and eq to pick from. Twin Reverbs, Ampeg, and Lab Series amps are a few. Also some of the older Peavey solid state amps are real clean amps. You can always get a dirty sound with your favorite pedal if you need it.

Dirty Amps:
Marshall JCM 800 and 900 Series amps, many tweed Fenders, the 100 watt army of amps like Crate, Krank, Soldano, and Randall. These amps will give you the sound you are looking for, if that sound is a crunchy compressed full sound.

Channel switching amps:
These amps are for cats that need both clean and dirty and like the idea of the two sounds coming from the same amp. These amps are personified by Mesa Boogies, Rivera era Fenders, and combos like the Marshall TCM Series.

And remember folks – “got and questions?”..”go lean on Shell’s Answer Man”.

Eddie Cochran: Early Rock Star, Rockabilly Pioneer

Eddie Cochran was only 21 years old when he died in an auto accident while on tour in England on April 17th 1960. In his brief but illustrious career Eddie recorded some of the most influential early rock and roll, tunes like, Twenty Flight Rock, C’mon Everybody, Too Much Monkey Business, and Something Else, but Eddie’s Summertime Blues was a monster hit. Summertime Blues was also covered by Blue Cheer (a Billboard Top 40 hit) and the Who (Live at Leeds) but neither version could match the magic and originality of Eddie’s version.

Eddie Cochran: Early Rock Star, Guitarist, Rockabilly Pioneer

Eddie Cochran: Early Rock Star, Guitarist, Rockabilly Pioneer

Along with Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran was the prototype for the guitar playing, lead singer, an iconic image that we all came to recognize later with players like Eric Clapton, and, Jimi Hendrix. But unlike Holly, Eddie possessed Hollywood good looks, those good looks got Eddie a role in the movie “The Girl Can’t Help it”. Due to his untimely death that was to be Eddies only movie role. The few live performances that I have seen over the years show Eddie to be a consummate performer who was comfortable onstage and in front of a crowd. Eddies voice was also a real treat, versatile and very dynamic as he could transition between uptempo rockers and ballads.

Eddie Cochran was born in Albert Lea, Minnesota on October 3rd 1938, Eddie studied music in school (drums and piano) but Eddie gravitated toward the guitar his family had lying around the house, playing mostly country music. In 1955 Eddie’s family moved to Bell Gardens, California, where he hooked up with a few buddies from his junior high school. It was with that band that Eddie (at an American Legion gig) met Hank Cochran, although they were not related they formed a duo called the Cochran Brothers in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of family acts. Eddie amazingly at the age of only 18 got work as a session musician and also began writing songs. Soon thereafter Eddie went solo and scored his first hit record called Sittin’ in the Balcony one of the few songs Eddie recorded that he did not write.

Eddie Cochran: Early Rock Star, Guitarist, Rockabilly Pioneer

Eddie Cochran: Early Rock Star, Guitarist, Rockabilly Pioneer

Eddie toured and recorded for almost the entire two years he was famous, it was on one of these tours he met Buddy Holly; they became friends and developed a healthy rivalry. Eddie was heartbroken upon hearing the news of the plane crash on February 2nd, 1959 in which Holly along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were killed. Eddie reacted as many songwriters would; he wrote a song called Three Stars dedicated to the fallen rockers, you can hear Cochran’s voice crack during the verse he wrote about Buddy Holly.

Eddie’s influence on guitar players is enormous, just check out guitar genius Brian Setzer (Stray Cats) strutting around the stage playing Eddie’s signature Gretsch 6120 model guitar. Eddie was also the first rock guitar player to modify his guitar when he added a Gibson Dog Ear P90 pickup to his Gretsch 6120 axe.

Eddies life ended on that fateful night in April of 1960 while a passenger in a London taxi cab that hit a lamppost on Rowden Hill in Chippenham, Wiltshire. Eddie was the only fatality of the crash; the other passengers were Eddie’s fiancée songwriter Sharon Sheeley and fellow rocker Gene Vincent. The cab driver George Martin was convicted of dangerous driving, fined 50 pounds, sentenced to 6 months in jail and had his driving privileges suspended for 15 years.

Eddie Cochran, meteoric figure, promising multi media mega-star, and without question, Legend of Rock and Roll.

Peace to all in Rock and Roll Heaven……you know they got a helluva band!

Life in Guitarland

We’ve seen them before. Some articles seem to be written by people whose primary fixation in life is “me, me, me.” Everything they experience is viewed through the same me-colored lens, which, with its haze of scratches and fingerprints from excessive vanity, makes the most trifling of life’s events seem ageless, even grand.

This is one of those articles.

Hold on, though. There’s more to it than that. This is the story of a personal journey through the world of music that begins humbly and ends just as humbly as it started. The fact that your reporter (should I say “moi”?) has experienced it at all is amazing enough, for under any other circumstances I might not have found myself in circumstances that presented so ripe an opportunity to learn and understand that most sensuous, invigorating, physically challenging and just plain righteous of musical instruments: the guitar.

Would you rather watch TV or play guitar?

Would you rather watch TV or play guitar?

Guitarists: Defining the Breeds

The world of the guitar, from what I’ve seen of the various “shows” held here and there, is populated with individuals whom one could classify into three types: There are collectors who couldn’t give a damn about playing but are attracted by aesthetic or monetary value; there are players who’d probably be better off collecting; and there are those who appreciate how truly awful it is to play poorly and therefore practice like hell out of fear that one day they’ll awaken to find they’re a better fit for category two. (For a hint, reread this paragraph.)

I am one of the individuals from the third category. I live to play the guitar, and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a responsible adult I’d play the guitar night and day. Actually, it’s as much the music as the instrument – maybe more. Put it this way: To play really well, and play like you mean it, you have to dig in to that fretboard. You have to drive the sludge of misguided assumption and fear out of your hands and out of your brain. To do that takes commitment. It isn’t for babies.

Think about it. To play your best means sacrificing those precious hours in front of the flat-screen, where you might otherwise be perfectly happy growing a big TV butt and shrinking your brain while undertalented, overpaid inflata-babes drive up the advertising revenues and your reserves of testosterone. However, to get to the point where you know that what you’re playing is meaningful and clear of hype. To do that, you’ll have to take your treasured six-stringer through neighborhoods you don’t want to live in . . . at least, not permanently.

If you want to play well, practice hard. That’s what I learned early on in my adventure. On the path I’ve taken, there were players with minds to match their hands; people who saved the partying for after the gig, not before it; people who worked and worked and worked and worked at being better musicians, better thinkers and better teachers. I’ve been fortunate to know these people, and I’ve applied those lessons throughout my career as a journalist and musician.

The Twin Horizons

I soon learned that the many possibilities within the timber of the guitar would establish a certain mark upon which I could focus my own musical efforts. That mark became a line that separated what I was capable of from what I wasn’t yet capable of doing, so in that sense the mark was like the horizon itself. For instance, I knew from the first moment I touched a guitar that it was what I wanted, but it was when I found myself in a circle of very expressive players that I knew the instrument would always hold more than my efforts could reveal. That’s what the guitar is, though. It’s a mystery, or a kind of kaleidoscope. The more you turn it and twist it, the more it displays its infinite randomness and potential. And that’s what makes it so damn fun to play. But the more you play, the more the guitar becomes a philosophy. It’s an approach to listening—a way of sensing and feeling—that lets you know it’s okay to strive and fail before you try and succeed. In that way the guitar is one of the world’s great gifts, which is why so many talented artists have told me that their songs and solos seem to appear from out of nowhere. A good friend recently said there’s no such thing as musical genius. Instead, he said, there’s only the act of channeling from a sphere of creativity that’s far too big for one mind to perceive or identify. It made sense to me. Certainly it’d be more fun to pull some incredible theme out of thin air, or maybe out of a dream, than to feel it was some godlike and wholly intentional act: “That’s it, I’ve done it. I’ve just produced another masterpiece, the likes of which the world shall not see a-gain.” There’s way too much pressure in that. It’ll give you acne.

Well, on with the story. You’ll be impressed, I think, because it’s entirely true and free of exaggeration. It might be a bit more intense than what you’ve experienced on your trip, but then it might not be. After all, the story is really more about the experiences than about—well, moi—so the commonalities will reveal themselves as I relate the events. But hopefully those events will help us define a new philosophy, based partly on the old ones but enriched with something newer and less moi-centric. Here goes:

George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was all over the radio

George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was all over the radio

It was a long time ago that I began to play the guitar. I was in the eighth grade, and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was all over the radio. I’d already learned to play the drums, but since there was little chance that my parents would allow a second set of tubs in the house (the drums belonged to an older brother), I figured my chances would be better with the more compact and more “affordable” guitar. There was one of those in the house too, and it belonged to another brother. I’d been watching him for quite a while, experimenting with his little Orpheus tiger-striped acoustic in the rare dogpoop sunburst. Actually, what I really wanted most was just to pluck those six strings from low to high and follow with a single strum, which was a symbol of the old “Peter Gunn” TV show. Anyway, Guitar Brother eventually relinquished the Orpheus, but rather than deciding I should keep and treasure it the aforementioned two jerks joined with still another brother in destroying it. (Perhaps my oldest brother would have stopped them if he were there. No, he’s classically educated and hates rock ‘n’ roll, so he would’ve helped ‘em.) Hey, but at least it was fun to watch. It also showed me, right at the start of my life as a guitar addict, that there’s always another deal to be had somewhere. So, having owned the Orpheus only a matter of hours and suddenly finding myself without it, I became immersed in the culture of hunter-gatherers. Guitar Bro’ moved up to a Japanese-built Orlando classical, and I got a neighbor’s cast-off Mexican gut-string with the “Missing Tuner Button” feature.

Gibson Hummingbird Acoustic Guitar

Gibson Hummingbird Acoustic Guitar

One day Guitar Bro’ came home with a replacement for his Orlando, but this one wasn’t about to find itself skewered over a piece of rebar like the Orpheus had. It was a ’63 Gibson Hummingbird in mint–and I mean mint–condition, which had been closeted for eight years by a guy who couldn’t stand the thought of scratching it. (His everyday guitar was a Martin.) From the moment I heard that H-bird, with its thunderous and metallic bass end, woody lower mids and ringing trebles, I knew it would become the sonic standard by which I’d judge every other acoustic guitar. Put it this way: My brother still has it, and I still want it. I want that bitchin’ cherry-sunburst finish, the frets that are wide as skateboard wheels, the fully intact pickguard, the dual-trapezoid inlays, and everything else. Oh, and I’ll take the beat-up Victoria case, with key.

I suffered through a long succession of cheapo guitars, all of them quality-challenged except for the Orlando classical I’d inherited when my brother bought the Gibson. (The Orlando had some truly outrageous Brazilian rosewood. Today, something like that would be a thousand dollars.) But it really didn’t matter to me how bad the instruments were, because I’d practice at least two hours every day, beginning immediately after school. The guitar gave me the power to create chord progressions that reflected the influences of my musical upbringing: the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones, Dylan, and the theme from “Bonanza.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced?

Hendrix, Live at Leeds & The Threshold of a Dream

Interestingly, I wasn’t yet hip to the electric guitar when I first heard Are You Experienced blasting out of the hi-fi in a neighbor’s garage down the street. I wasn’t really aware that Jimi was doing all that with a Strat, but sonically it struck me as some of the most powerful and poetic sound I’d ever heard. Over the years I thought about it—becoming a Hendrix freak in the process—and eventually I realized that the instrument and technique are tools that serve the music, not the other way around. In some schools of thought it’s called transparency.

Music was going all the time in my family’s house. And that, I suspect, is where this particular upbringing differed from others. Oh, there was the occasional silence—after all, it wasn’t an insane asylum or a supermarket—but listening to music was a pretty serious pursuit. As much as we gave our time to it, we gave our imagination to it. So, listening wasn’t just a matter of hearing, it was a matter of believing . . . and the music had to be great before we would believe in it. The fundamental distinction is that music wasn’t entertainment in that house, nor was it something we were “allowed” to have “once we’d reached a certain age.” Admittedly we were Anglophiles or even Europhiles, but that’s because there was so much orchestral music to be heard. It was a sensibility that encouraged a real affection for groups like the Moody Blues, as well as later bands like Hatfield and the North. They had everything: melody, harmonic sophistication, musicianship, great production. The haunting improvisations of the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, and the sonorous melodies of German bassist Eberhard Weber were a revelation too. Listening to their music teaches you that jazz was never strictly an American art form; there’s a classical-based contingent that’s every bit as important.

The Sparkling Storefront

Unshakeable faith can make for a lonely devotion, particularly when you follow something as nebulous and mystifying as music. But as luck would one day have it, a little shop was opening on a commercial street not far away, just down the street from the liquor store. And on the plain stucco edifice over the storefront a guy was spray-painting the image of a cherry-sunburst Les Paul. Wow. I was in high school by this time, and I was totally ready for a place like that. Not that I’d ever held a real Les Paul, but I’d ogled them in the display cases up at the music store in the mall. But I knew this was going to be different. It had to be, because I could clearly sense it. Shoot, I could smell those old guitars and musty little amps from out on the street. And there were two or three guys in the shop, just casually talking and playing. I scooted past the scaffolding and stepped inside.

Man, the sound was awesome. I can still see this quiet little gentleman sitting cross-kneed on a stool, cranking big, beautiful blues out of a ’68 Les Paul Custom and a blackface Fender Deluxe. He’d slur, squawk and bend those riffs in a way that was so filthy-dirty and lowdown, I knew I just had to get some of that. The sound was huge and authoritative, but at the same time the man’s approach was perfectly languid. It was one of those moments when you simply have to assume the music comes to you. You prepare, you perfect your tools, and then you lay back and play it. Awesome!

Thankfully, the owners of the vintage shop recognized me as one of their own: a happily addicted adolescent guitar nut who’d do anything to taste that magical concoction of six strings and twenty-odd frets. Maybe they thought I might even buy one of the seven or so ’55 Goldtops that adorned the walls there. Think of that: I was this nice Catholic kid whose every move betrayed a lack of experience in the world, and I was hangin’ out with guys who owned and sold some of the most righteous guitars ever made! I went there nearly every day, and tried not to be an ignorant little punk. That was the hard part.

Other people started hanging out at the shop too, and quickly it became a haven for players from throughout the South Bay. (That’s basically the part of Southern California occupied by Long Beach, which I also learned had an inordinately high number of monster guitarists.) If you were deemed by the owner to be good enough, and careful enough, then you could take the guitars off the hangers and play them. The deal with the shop was this: It wasn’t so much the guitar or the amp as an example of collectible history or an indicator of market value. Instead this was a place in search of the perfect recipe. To that end, everything was considered in excruciatingly precise detail. Fretboards were cleaned and conditioned (with linseed oil, now considered a possible carcinogen), pickups and wiring were inspected, and the amps were taken through a comprehensive auditioning process in two key environments–the carpeted, rough-pine paneled shop, and a crude cinder-block storage room at the back. There were catalogs of tubes and transformers, and there was a constant procession of speakers. These guys would put just about anything in a tube amp: Altec, JBL, Gauss, Jensen, Celestion, Eminence, and eventually some cheap no-name jobs with paper domes and extra-large voice coils. If an amp or guitar had the potential to sound great, the people at the shop could get it there.

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop.

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop.

What to Play?

Fender was the amp of choice at the shop. But these were no longer standard-issue Fenders. A local technician who’d developed a relationship with the shop owners had come up with a way to install a “clipper circuit” in place of the tremolo control. A friend told me it effectively electrified the front panel, but I hardly cared. Once I got up the nerve to say, “Mom, I need a blackface Fender Twin Reverb with master volume for my new gig”–and finding that she’d go for it–I was ready for my new moniker: “The Mayor of Solotown.” Sure, I tried the Marshall route eventually, courtesy of a road-weary hundred-watter that had been stripped of its vinyl, together with a similarly raped slant cab whose basket-weave grille was decorated with the residue of beer and barf. I just hated the thing. It sounded so dead – so devoid of ambience. I just couldn’t seem to play the room with it like I could with the open-back stuff. Another member of the inner circle urged me to keep the Marshall, saying it just needed fresh tubes. (Actually, he was right.) Well, a little reverb could’ve helped too! So, I took it back to the shop and got two amps: a silverface Twin circa ’70-’71, and an Ampeg VT-22 of roughly the same vintage. Man, that was nuts. I had way too much power, feedback that was totally controllable per distance and proximity, and the juicy Ampeg “cone-cry” that Marshall designs, good as they might have been, didn’t have. Those two amps worked together almost intuitively, and they made my little ’76 rock-maple Osborne solid-body sing like Pavarotti with his meatballs in a vice. I still think it was one of the most amazing sounds I’ve ever heard.

A benefit of being a familiar face was that I could hang around at the shop and play all these incredible guitars, but honestly the owners didn’t expect me to pony up for something truly vintage. I’d just walk in, and within a few minutes I’d be playing a ’57 three-pickup Custom – a guitar that was so good it could almost play itself. I could pick up a Goldtop with those delicious off-white soapbars and a stoptail, or even the co-owner’s customized Olympic white “studio Strat” with Mighty Mite brass hardware, EMG active pickups and a shimmed Jazzmaster neck, and blow out the licks till my fingernails bled. Over time I bought this guitar and that, like a scarred-up Guild Aristocrat and a fabulous mid-’60s Kazuo Yairi replica of a Martin 0018. And of course they knew I’d buy the ’63 ES-345 that someone had stripped bare with a steak knife and spray-lacquered. But no one ever said, “Hey, why don’t you buy something.” We of the inner circle even helped sell guitars, because we could make them sound like they should. I’d demo guitars for buyers all the time, and if I played it they’d probably buy it.

Once, though, I demoed a guitar for a kid just about my age, and I almost wished I hadn’t. I’d been at home practicing like crazy, and after a while I decided I’d visit the shop. There was this kid there, and he was interested in a particular Les Paul (a white Custom, I think). The manager said to me, “Hey, play something to show what this guitar can do.” So, I sat down and . . . and . . . found that I just couldn’t seem to play for beans. It was as if I was just too tired. Maybe I just felt like a trained monkey. In any case, all the whiplash-inducing improvisational skill I’d developed was singularly absent from my cells, and I just plain stunk on that guitar.

The kid still wanted the Les Paul

The kid still wanted the Les Paul

The kid still wanted the Les Paul. But once he’d left the shop, I told the manager I felt lousy about having played so poorly. His response was one of the profound surprises of my life up to that point: “So, you’ve been playing too much,” he said. “Now it’s time to just listen for a while.” It was far more wisdom than I deserved, but that’s the kind of friend this guy was capable of being. He was honest, and in his business he was equally so. It was another lesson: Be a listener. Listen to others, listen to your intuition, and listen to the silence that coincides with the noise. There’s a musical comparison too, I think. So much of what passes for kick-ass product these days is exactly that, a product that’s out to prove it can kick your ass. Time was, when there was a give-and-take in even the gnarliest music. There was an ebb and flow, and the tension and release that has characterized so much of the best music.

Our favorite albums

Our favorite albums

The Immersion Diversion

Clearly I was learning more about playing the guitar than I could have at any music school. It was everything in one package: musical, philosophical, technical, aesthetic, nostalgic and futuristic. There was a massive influx of ideas and tastes running from Delta blues and Africana to British progressive rock, on to German and Dutch hard rock, and tongue-in-cheek quasi-classical stuff from the studios and piazzas of Milan. We believed we should be able to grasp it all, and that we should be able to play it all. But that was part of the era. Perhaps none of us had a master’s degree in music, but there was a constant and intensive exchange of ideas and information. We’d bring in our favorite records by King Crimson, Automatic Man, Soft Machine, Caravan, Golden Earring, Be-Bop Deluxe, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, and even the maniacally virtuoso French ensemble Magma. We’d listen to Taj Mahal, Leon Redbone, Tom Waits, Neil Young, and of course Jeff Beck. The power, the greatness and the grittiness of all that would get mixed together, and there at the confluence of it all we felt that absolutely anything was possible.

The guitars at the shop were generally a cut above, but the one that really had it all was a Flying V dating from about September 1957. It had a honey-colored Korina body so gorgeous, and a neck profile so perfect, that simply holding it was enough to make you forsake any other electric instrument. More than any Les Paul, Strat or Tele, it was the guitar. The tone was monumentally hot—bright, sassy and almost too sensuous for words–and the action over those polished frets and board edges was like something you dream of. And guess what? We used to play that sucker all the time, usually through the shop’s number-one Deluxe with that juicy master-volume setup. Man, it was so effing beautiful! But wait, you’d better steel your nerves for this, because it’ll either make you laugh like an idiot or cry like a baby. Ready? I’ll continue.

Birth of an Angel, and Others

Word had it that our beautiful “V” had been sold to a buyer somewhere down in Texas. But since it was obviously too special to be shipped, his plan was to drive out to the coast and pick it up. We never saw it leave the shop, nor could we have handled seeing it go. But a week or so later the shop manager told us the news. He made the report with an “ouch” of a smile that said all too clearly, “Easy come, easy go.” It turned out that the man who’d purchased the “V” only made it about halfway home with the guitar. He’d been running hard across the Arizona desert in his ’50s Ford pickup when suddenly he caught a whiff of smoke. Something smelled funny, like maybe rubber or wiring. Then he saw the flames licking the edges of the hood up front. Soon there was billowing smoke, fire was everywhere, and just one thing to do: pull over and get the hell out of that truck. He released the door, kicked it open, headed across the blacktop for the opposite shoulder and Kablooey!!! A gigantic pressure wave knocked him on his butt, from which position he could see a mushroom of molten iron and oil roiling toward the blue.

Damn. The Flying V was in the Ford.

Damn. The Flying V was in the Ford.

It was then that he remembered: The Flying V was in the Ford. He had set it up front with him, leaning it against the bench seat so that he could admire it as he drove along. But as the truck flamed itself to a crisp on that Southwestern highway, the soul of one almighty and godlike guitar silently winged its way to Heaven.

Other axes came and went, and we enjoyed them all. There were baby-blue Strats, Mustangs with racing stripes, Teles and Esquires, a Firebird V that a customer bought and had edge-radiused and refinished wine red, a particularly fine Les Paul Standard with the top refinished in translucent clover honey (like orange juice), and a ’58 blond dotneck 335 that I sincerely wish I’d put on layaway. And if your pickups weren’t up to snuff, good ol’ Bill the shop manager would fix that. He pulled the stock Hi-A units out of my Osborne and replaced them with DiMarzio PAFs that he’d hotrodded with longer magnets. He also installed some pre-amped EMGs and a five-way switch in my Ibanez Challenger II “Buddy Holly” Strat replica. Damn, what a great guitar that was. Wait, there’s something in my eye. Just a minute, the tears will pass.

Excuse me. Once in a while I remember letting that one go.

Robin Trower, Guitarist (Procol Harum)

Robin Trower, Guitarist (Procol Harum)

Fame However Fleeting

Big-time guitarists would come to the shop, too, usually after hours. For example, it was said that Robin Trower came in one night to audition three ’57 Strats that had been brought in for his consideration. And once I was invited to “drop by” with my guitar when Larry Carlton was scheduled to come in and try a caramel-sunburst ES. I was there for it, just waiting. Eventually he showed up, and after a few minutes he took a seat adjacent to me, on one of those funky squash-colored naugahyde ottomans that every guitar shop ought to have. He just started doing his thing, so I immediately jumped in with mine. It sounded good to me, and I could tell he was diggin’ it, so we played that way for at least half an hour. Eventually I packed up my guitar, but I loitered long enough to listen in as Carlton finished his business with the management of the shop. (He said he liked the ES but that the neck would need some work, which I took to mean reshaping.) Then, when I got home, Bill called from the shop and said, “So, after you left, Carlton goes, ‘Jeez, who was that kid!? He’s great!'” It was nothing, really. When you’ve been living and breathing Wishbone Ash for months, and practicing every waking hour, you aren’t going to feel intimidated by a few Steely Dan riffs.

Larry Carlton, Guitarist & Composer

Larry Carlton, Guitarist & Composer

Life goes on, and eventually I was too busy to visit the vintage shop very often. There was a change in management anyway, so the vibe was noticeably absent. In time I became a full-time writer, covering my favorite subject as an editor and contributor with various magazines. But in all the years since those days, when music focused our minds and fueled our fingers, I have yet to hear more than a handful of guitarists who can touch some of the players I knew from that little vintage guitar shop in Long Beach. I’ve lived in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and I’ve met, interviewed and studied with brilliant players. Latin, world music, rock, metal, the studio scene, fusion, and etcetera: all have their names and signatures. But when you find a place where you can immerse yourself in the art of the guitar—where you’re totally free of inhibitions and ready to learn from players of every genre—then there’s no question about it. That’s where you’ll find musicians who are quicker, faster, more fluid, funnier, more powerful, more dedicated, better equipped to improvise and easily equipped to out-rock any of the supposed masters from this or any crop in recent memory. Simply put, it’s the place.

Jeff Beck, Guitarist (The Yardbirds)

Jeff Beck, Guitarist (The Yardbirds)

The Philosophy Part

What did I learn, and what sort of philosophy emerged from my experiences there? Well, to review them and sum up I’d say it’s as important to attempt as to succeed; that the process is nothing without the quest for the process; that it’s all for nothing but never simply for entertainment; that it’s always worthwhile to want to be the best, even though there is never one “best”; that one should listen to the lessons of accident and random occurrence; that the person that makes the music, though the music fulfills the person; and that if you don’t play as if it were your very last time on this little blue planet, then you’re just wasting your time.

I also learned that you can play almost any kind of guitar you want and sound as good as you want. For instance, I don’t think any of the best players from this particular circle had the money it took to own one of the best guitars in the shop. In fact, I know they didn’t. Those guitars are intentionally priced to remain beyond the reach of the player, so that they’ll neither suffer from player wear nor embarrass the collector who can afford them but can’t actually play. But if you think we ever discussed it or worried about it, you’d be wrong. As I said earlier, we could play the vintage gear nearly anytime we wanted, and it was great. But then we’d head for our own guitars. I had my Osborne, which, if you can imagine, looks like a Rickenbacker 325 with a Mosrite headstock and Gibson-style hardware. Jeff had his lucite Dan Armstrong. Ronnie had a Strat with a fat little Tele neck on it, and Martin had an early issue of the Ibanez Artist in that nice violin finish. With the exception of my Osborne, nearly everything we owned was pre-owned, and certainly everything we played needed some serious tweaking due to overuse.

It’s still a challenge to defend an older guitar against a newer, better-built one. And since I nearly played the Osborne to death—to the point that I’d often fall asleep with it on my chest—I’ve placed it in the deep freeze until I can resurrect it. Instead, I play any of several guitars. For example, I had a superstrat built at ESP Craft House Tokyo in ’85. I hand-picked all the components myself, right down to the slab of northern ash, birds-eye neck and Bill Lawrence pickups. I even had the luthier assemble a Kahler Pro trem with a combination of brass and stainless parts. It has an oiled neck with a lacquered fingerboard, and the body is translucent cranberry. (Don’t ask how I put a belt-buckle dent in the top of the guitar.) Then I have a Yamaha SBG1300TS double-cutaway in gothic black. It weighs more than a Toyota and has a baseball-bat neck, but what resonance! There’s also an early ‘60s Eko model 200 “Mascot” archtop in showroom shape, aged to a delicate apricot blond. It’s small, but like many Eko acoustics it’s loud and very responsive, with tremendous sustain. And I have a four-pickup Eko Cobra that, despite the uprooted frets and shrunken pickguard, still manages to produce a sound that Stevie would’ve swapped his axe for. My current favorite, though, is a beautiful Eastwood Sidejack Deluxe in caramel sunburst. The fretboard is so slick and fast, I just can’t stay away from it. If I were to characterize its sound, I’d say it conjures the tonal balance of a Firebird, or maybe a super-hot Tele. There’s a “long scale” quality about the sound, which I really like.

See? There’s nothing outlandishly expensive. Sure, the Osborne is rare, with a serial number of “0003.” The ESP is tailor-made, and the Eko 200 is a sweetheart Django machine – a total rocket. But I treat each of them as a tool to help reach an artistic goal. It doesn’t take a fabulously expensive guitar to succeed in this respect. Instead you’ll want a guitar that doesn’t hold you back. You can play a guitar that challenges you, but a challenge is distinct from a hindrance. If the pickups are too hot or tend to feed back, you can pull back from “11.” When the intonation is off in the octave register, you can adjust it or deal with it. When there’s a tendency to play one guitar a bit more staccato than you’d like, you can simply relax and play more legato. You can even pick harder, or play fingerstyle, and achieve a similar result. Just make the instrument your own. Teach that guitar how to play and how to sound its best. Then it can teach you in return.

So, if you’re out there, Martin, Ronnie, Rob, Mark, Bill, and especially my old friend Jeffrey, I want to thank you for making me a part of the group. You’ve taught me more than I could ever say, and you’ll always be among my true guitar heroes.

Mike Stern: Figuring It All Out

The question is ridiculously simple, but players throughout modern musical history have found it nearly impossible to answer: What kind of guitarist are you? If we’re not asking ourselves this kind of thing, we’re expecting others to answer it for us. Apparently, for a guitarist it’s best to have an affiliation. If you’re a jazzer or a blueser, then you’re no longer a danger to yourself and others. It’s an easy affiliation, like voting for a candidate simply because you think he’ll win. It’s like carrying a bigger club because you think it’ll make you a better caveman. And think about what it does for your image! If another jazzer should happen to hear you slide into a chord or play a staccato run behind the beat, then you must be all right. Or, if you make those notes plink and sting even with the tone rolled back to five, then you’ve got the stuff for blues. Just don’t rock too much, because then you’ll be pegged like a zit-faced kid at your big sister’s cotillion.

Not everyone is so easily fooled by the argument that one form or style of music is better or more valid than another. There really are guitarists who can walk either street, reflecting the mood with appropriate ease and authority. But since they realize it’s no use distancing one path from the other, they just allow the two routes to mingle and intersect, creating a style that’s more relevant to the music and the moment.

The truth is, playing it all requires a measure of self-assuredness. Call it arrogance, or call it balls. But if you can rip off those three-octave runs, play the big chords and take it to Chicago in one go, then you’re too cool for school. You’re ready to get out there and do it.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

The Man with the Axe

Mike Stern is one of those lucky few: a guitarist who can do it all. Though he’s known for the depth and precision of his jazzy ballads and rip-snortin’ fusion instrumentals, he’s equally respected for the woozy bends and woody tone of his paeans to the greats of blues and rock. Listen to any of his many excellent releases (all of which remain active in the Atlantic catalog), and you’ll caught by the power of his deceivingly subtle blend. He’ll start off a solo slowly, with notes that rise and fall like the undulations of a woman in the throes of romance. Those few moaning notes soon take on the tone of spoken utterances, urging the action. The speed builds, the intervals become more dramatic. The whole thing rises to a crescendo of volcanic proportions, climbing to the very pinnacles of stately, guitaristic glory. (Sounds like sex, doesn’t it?)

It’s really remarkable that Stern can sustain those levels of excitement over the course of solos that are much longer than is typical of either the jazz genre or rock. After all, these aren’t cheap little power ballads, they’re full-blown hotrods of composition and jazz improvisation. That’s right, they’re long and they’re loud. It’s convenient to compare Stern’s manner of opening to the sound of the late blues master Roy Buchanan (whose ancient Telecaster he would one day own), and rock archetype Jeff Beck. But those guitarists, despite their brilliance, didn’t leap the song format and compose for entire groups of musicians. Mike Stern has.

Early exposure to many kinds of music gave Stern a head start in his ability perceive the melody, or the long line, at the heart of a piece. His mother was a big influence there, being a fan of the great composers and jazz artists alike. Their home in D.C. was always alight with sound. As he says, “My mom used to play a lot of classical records around the house. I got into that, along with a lot of jazz. But I still listened to the Beatles, the Stones, Jeff Beck and Hendrix.” Which makes complete sense, since the Beatles, Hendrix and the best of their day couldn’t have done what they did without considerable background as listeners.

Early Explorations

Mike was born in January 1953, into a family based in the Boston area. Later on they moved to Washington, D.C., where, at his mom’s insistence, he took up the piano. By the age of 12, however, he’d made a decision about what he should play. And it wasn’t going to be the piano. Soon came the fateful six-string, an unassuming plywood job with nylon strings. “I took a few lessons,” he says, “but after a while I started playing by ear. I did that for a long time, and it just felt right. So, now it’s whatever gets to my heart. It could be simple, or whatever. In those days it was simple by necessity, because I didn’t have very much knowledge. Later I began studying more, because I wanted to grow and improve my understanding. I dug jazz, but I’d learned to play rock and blues by listening to records. Still, when I took my mom’s jazz records into my room and tried to play along with that stuff, I’d get lost right away. To be honest, I felt like I was in a rut playing only rock and blues.”

Mike Stern with Band Mike enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in 1971, just a few blocks from Fenway Park and the legendary Red Sox, and began a more in-depth exploration of jazz. That was where he finally got serious about it, thanks to the encouragement of guitar instructors such as Mick Goodrick and a very young Pat Methany, who had also been a student of Goodrick. Along the way he developed a deep respect for jazz guitar, notably the innovation of Wes Montgomery and the delicate touch of Jim Hall. Goodrick, however, was known to use an approach that was esoteric, in that he’d focus not on the instrument but on the individual.

Goodrick’s way of saying it was, “You are who you are first, and your music is secondary. Your playing reflects that relationship, so in turn you have to represent what your vibe is.” It was his way of saying the player comes first. Really, though, the music itself tends to do that. When the music is real, it comes through in a positive way, and that’s really powerful. People put their energy into something that at the very worst is harmless and at the very best is incredibly great. I think we need a lot more of that kind of thing.”

Goin’ Home

Stern eventually began to feel he should leave the academic environment of Berklee and return to D.C. So, home he went, and before long he was playing rock and blues gigs throughout the region. “I’d studied with Pat Methany for about a year, before I went home. Eventually I went back to Berklee, and Pat told me then: ‘School is great, but you gotta get out and play.’”

It was the message Mike needed to hear. He decided that he’d have to work harder than ever to make something happen, and by 1976 he was ready for the next step up the ladder. Word got out that the long-established band Blood Sweat & Tears was looking for a guitarist, and Stern was among the many who took the test. “There were all kinds of cats auditioning for that band, but [drummer] Bobby Colomby gave me the call. I auditioned just for the sake of doing it, and I got the gig. Man, if you can get that kind of experience, it will do so much!”

The spot in BS&T proved to be a lucky one, even though the band was well past its days as a hit machine. Still, BS&T was never a band that suffered fools lightly, and Mike knew he was working in the company of some seriously talented players. Among them was Jaco Pastorius, a former drummer who had quickly made a name for himself as the self-proclaimed king of the electric bass. The two quickly struck up a friendship, and since then Jaco’s unmistakable mastery of the fretless Precision bass has remained an inspiration for Stern.

New York: The Core Issue

Things change within and without, so Mike knew that Boston couldn’t be his home base forever. Besides, now that he was gigging with career performers and studio veterans, he wasn’t going to be sitting around the house much. So, once his career was off the ground he made the move to New York. He got used to the pace of it easily enough, and soon he and his girlfriend Leni (whom he eventually married) were offered a loft above his favorite jazz haunt, 55 Grand St. They just couldn’t say no to that. Imagine you’re actually living at the hippest little spot in town, and that you can actually gig right there. You’d be tempted to think there was actually a choice between brushing your teeth and plugging in your guitar. It made for an interesting lifestyle, and Mike became known as the guy who lived where he worked . . . in a manner of speaking.

Typically, Stern is humble about the way he’d become so much a part of that elite circle. It’s not about him, it’s about his friends and the memories and experiences they provided. “Jaco used to hang out a lot,” Mike says. “He’d always nudge me along. He and Pat seemed to have a lot more faith in my playing than I did. So, that was an interesting period. As time passed I was able to play a lot better, and I used to jam with Jaco all the time. He’d come up to New York, and we’d just play and play. So, it turned out that I frequently got to jam with people who were way better than I was, which helped me get my shit together.”

The guitar is always a big part of Stern’s life, but his discipline with the instrument has resulted from the combined influence of a busy circuit, a cadre of talented musicians, and the drive to acquire knowledge. “No matter what I’m doing,” says Mike, “I try to get a little place lined up where I can play. For example, I was playing with Bill Evans, the saxophonist, at a place called “Michael’s,” which is closed now. And Bill told me he’d be hitting the road with Miles. But I was also playing with Billy Cobham at the Bottom Line, there in Manhattan, so Evans brought Miles down. Eventually I got the call to do that gig. In fact, the title for “Fat Time” [from Davis’ classic The Man with the Horn] was taken from the nickname they gave me.”

Stern made his stage debut with Miles at the Kix club in Boston in June of ’81. That performance would see release as We Want Miles, the second of his three records with the band. This leg of the gig lasted for two years, producing a series of recordings that would get the jazz and rock communities buzzing with news of a guy with fret-melting prowess on the guitar. Three of the era’s most powerful sets—The Man with the Horn, We Want Miles, Miles! Miles! Miles! (Live in Japan) and Star People—showcased the journeyman guitarist. His sound blended the primal energy and sensual textures of his long-time hero Jimi Hendrix with the harmonic breadth of Wes Montgomery. “Fat Time” remains an awe-inspiring example of the monumental structures that Stern can create with a solid-body axe and a touch of chorus.

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

Jazz Guitarist Mike Stern

A Sense of Self

Jaco’s influence up to this point had been positive in many ways, but of course there was also a negative aspect to it. Despite the benefits of being able to play together whenever they liked, the pair had taken the party route a bit too often. Excessive alcohol consumption had begun to wear on the guitarist, depleting his energies and stressing his home life. So, after a while it was clear that he needed to chill out. Fortunately the job with Miles was still open to him, so Mike returned for another year’s work with the maestro. Then, around the next corner he found work with Steps Ahead, the progress and highly respected ensemble featuring vibraphone virtuoso Mike Mainieri. That led to a spot in a Brecker Brothers’ quintet, which would again mean a lot more experience.

The years following were busy ones for Mike, and right through 1986 he worked with one headlining act after another. Still, there was a need to see what he could do on his own terms. It was an insistent (some might say innocent or even dangerous) curiosity about life outside the bubble. It was 1986, and with his second stay in the Miles Davis unit drawing to a close he’d managed to put together a band with saxophonist Bob Berg (now deceased) for the recording of his first solo LP, Upside Downside. The record made its debut on Atlantic Records, marking the start of a ten-disc tenure that would create a spot for Stern among the leaders of modern jazz guitar. Upside was the record that made it possible for him to make music under his own name, entirely on his own terms. That was pivotal in Stern’s career not just because it followed on the heels of the Miles Davis records, but because it was the guitarist’s signature as a writer and musician. Cuts like “After You,” “Little Shoes” and the title tune were proof of his ability to create music that could stand on the basis of its solid, song-like structure and cohesive melodies. To put it in other words, Mike Stern made music that was intriguingly elaborate but totally memorable. The icing on the cake was a set of solos that just totally f***ing burned. (The writer remembers asking a friend and session guitarist in L.A. if he’d heard Upside, and his immediate response was, “Jeez, could ya get any more intense!?” That’s the effect this record had on even the most astute players.)

The critical success and very respectable sales of Upside Downside were encouraging for Stern and the powers-that-be at Atlantic. And because he knew from the start that doing a solo record was the right move from a personal standpoint, he’d also earned the freedom to compose music that suited his own rules (or lack of them) as a modern electric guitarist. What followed Upside Downside was the ’88 disc Time in Place, which offered a similar blend of bop-inspired rockers and emotive ballads, but with a slightly more “mature” sound thanks to the contributions of players like drummer Peter Erskine, keyboardist Jim Beard and organist Don Grolnick. The next year, though, Stern lit it up again on Jigsaw, with the New York-based guitarist Steve Khan as producer.

What Stern succeeded in doing, over the next several albums as the leader and soloist in various formats, was to make an otherwise technocentric genre work on his terms. And those terms would include a range of music and themes from an increasingly colorful palette, covering everything from standards to hard bop to music of a more global perspective. There was simply no way to lock him in or tie him down. If you liked what Mike Stern did, you’d go wherever the trip took you.

Labels Are for Cans

Stern’s previous works emphasize the textures that multiple instruments create when they collide and intertwine—like the two parallel roads that in some miraculous way intersect. But the recent CD Voices again resists the temptation to stick with the tried and true. Instead it combines Mike’s guitar with the ensemble voices of singer/bassist Richard Bona, Philip Hamilton, Elizabeth Kontomanou and the singer/percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan (whose talents have helped make Al Di Meola’s World Sinfonia projects so provocative). This is occasionally called “vocalese,” which is an attractive way of saying “singing without words.” But if you’re tempted to assume it’s more of that generic “marina music” for happy times and empty heads, forget it. One listen to the somber “Still There” or the gut-wrenchingly real “What Might Have Been,” and you’ll understand why some people wear sunglasses around the clock.

Major-label music is very strictly packaged today, of course, and the industry’s lawyers and dealmakers have a disproportionate say in the process of planning and marketing a project. It’s a circumstance that has polarized the industry, on one hand feeding the wealth of puppet entertainers while cutting off the opportunities for musicians who should be just as deserving. One can’t deny that in a world where real music can be seen as odd, and where very few people would bother to invent music if it didn’t already exist—the general population needs to be told what kind of music is preferable or valid. Like the guitarist who feels the need to “be” a bluesman or a jazzer, the casual listener can feel put off or even insulted by music that’s beyond his experience. The industry simply attempts to eliminate the problem. Quality has nothing to do with it.

So, in a way it’s amazing that we can still buy music that’s made by people like Mike Stern. He simply does what he does, when he wants and with the musicians he wants. For those of us who bust our butts to play our best, it’s an important message: The idea isn’t to be different but to be true to oneself, and in so doing be different.

“I never have anybody to answer to,” he says. “So far, I’ve been very free to do just what I’ve wanted. That’s one thing: I feel as if there’s been plenty of effort to make sure I have that creative flexibility. At some point I’d even love to write for more instruments, and for different kinds of instruments. I have a pretty good idea of what I want from people in the group context.”

Mike Stern’s career as a guitarist mirrors the quest that so many of us face as dedicated players. For many it’s a quandary, given the options and the indefinable nature of the art. Here’s the guy who loved blues and rock so much that he nearly played the life out of the stuff, but who ultimately found himself at a critical intersection. He didn’t turn back or come to a screeching halt. He just kept going.