40 Years With the Guitar

Yow... I can hardly believe it myself, but it was the summer of 1965 that
I first started playing guitar, and here I am, in 2005, still loving it as
much, actually more, as when I first started. I told Dan I wanted to write
this, just as a hoot... there's tons of articles about technique, recording,
gigs, etc... but, this is just a look back to how it all happened for one
guy, how I got started, and why, after zillions of gigs and students, I'm
still at it, and why I plan to still be at it when they cart me off to the
old folks home. I'm just improvising this, which is my forte on
guitar... hope you see a bit of yourself in here, and I dedicate this to
guitarists of all styles, of any age or experience. It's all about love,
isn't it? And, this article isn't meant to be scientific or an absolute
recollection of what I did 40 years ago (cause I can't remember exactly what
happened). It's about the feeling of learning to play music, and the fun and
joy of the experience, as it happened.

What Am I Doing Here?

Great question... actually, the idea for this article came to me one
night, as I was driving home from a recording session for my latest CD,
"Stick Man." I was idly reflecting on Jeff Beck, and how hearing him play
"Over Under Sideways Down" with the Yardbirds, in early 1966, set me on the
path of outside guitar playing that I love so much. And, then I started
thinking that I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that I would still be
at it 40 years later, but here I am. So, what AM I doing here? Well, to
paraphrase a famous cliche: if you WANT to be a professional musician, don't
do it; but if you HAVE to be a musician, than go for it. And, that about
sums it up. I love what I do, it's all I've wanted to do for many years, and
I really have no choice: the Creator, for whatever reason, gave me this
path, and I intend to follow it as far as I can. I don't really have any
other skills anyway, and I have, as they say, put all my eggs into this
basket. But, I've never regretted it for an instant, and I'll tell you why
as we go along.

Actually, my very first inspiration was not Beck, but my uncle Lindell;
he was a hillbilly dude who lived in the sticks, south of St. Louis (where I
grew up), and I spent the summer with him and his wife and kids in 1965.
Now, Lindell was a good feller, always treated me well. But, they were as
poor as dirt, and he and his family lived in a 2 room shack, complete with
outhouse, and it was a very funky lifestyle, indeed. I remember Lindell
killing a large rattlesnake on the road in front of his house, with a long
pole (the snake was as thick as your arm); we also hunted rabbits and
squirrels for food, and after a hunt, we were eating the game within hours
(it was good, too). He had 4 little kids, and we all slept on the floor.
Lindell worked part time at the pallet mill, and had to be on the lookout
for the welfare folks, since he wasn't supposed to be living at home.

But, and here's what got me started, he used to fingerpick an old beat up
guitar, and sing little ditties while taking a break from working on his 61'
Buick..and by golly, somehow I got interested, and bought the guitar for
$3.00. He was so poor that when a string broke, he wired it back together
near the pegs, and that's what I started on. And, as far as I can remember,
the first tune I learned was Maybelle Carter's Wildwood Flower; so, no
matter how way out I've got, I have that country grease down in my playing,
and I still love all the great country pickers, from Luther Perkins to Jimmy
Bryant, Roy Nichols, Chet Atkins, and Brent Mason.

So, like many other kids of my generation, I was also greatly influenced
by the Beatles (who I saw on the famous Ed Sullivan gig in early 1964), and
the whole British invasion, from the Kinks and Animals to the Yardbirds and
Who. But, I also recall, at first, just trying to learn whatever I heard on
the radio, from Louie Louie (my first guitar solo), to Little Red Riding
Hood, and the whole surf thing. In fact, the first time I played with some
guys in my neighborhood, we played Wipe Out in my friend Tom Fuhrman's
living room... man, what a rush! It was me and Jack Kirk on guitar (he
actually knew how to play), and I'll never forget the excitement of actually
playing music with others.

But, then, when I heard Beck, my life changed. I was fooling around on
the radio at home one day, and when I heard Over Under Sideways Down, I
didn't realize it was a guitar... I thought I had dialed in some sort of
weird Arabic station or something. It wasn't until a friend told me that it
was the Yardbirds that I knew what I had heard. And, I became the biggest
Yardbirds fan in the world (still am... they and the Beatles sort of formed
my conception of what rock music was supposed to be). Beck was responsible
for setting me on the path I still walk, which is the quest for ever new and
challenging ways of playing the guitar..and he's still one of the all time
greats, playing better than ever.

The Next Phase

Well, I wound up living in the Missouri Baptist Children's Home in St.
Louis for my high school years (10th through 12th grade), and recall that my
mom got me a harmony guitar, and the now classic Silvertone amp with 2 12
inch speakers, which was a big step up from Lindell's guitar. And, it was an
exciting time to be playing: the mid/late 1960's were an explosion of new
sounds in music, and barriers were being broken constantly. I remember
hearing the Doors 2nd LP on the radio one night, and having my wittle mind
blown. And, the Beatles led the way in rock, seting new standards
constantly. There were also the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Deep Purple, the
Who, Pink Floyd, and zillions of other, smaller groups, like Count 5, the
Blues Magoos,and Spencer Davis... man, I ate it all up, copping licks and
trying to figure out what was happening.

But, the biggest influence, outside of Beck, was Eric Clapton with Cream.
I vividly remember hearing Fresh Cream for the first time, and thinking I
had never heard anything like it. Of course, I had heard Clapton with the
Yardbirds, and also got into the Bluesbreakers, but Cream was a revelation,
and a lot of that was because of the songwriting, which was not blues, but
something... well, fresh and unusual. Clapton's playing in this context
changed all of music, and still is some of the best guitar playing I've ever
heard. Well, when Clapton (as well as Mike Bloomfield, whose articles I read
all the time in Hit Pararder) said to listen to Live at the Regal, by BB
King, I did, and thus started my love of blues, which remains to this day. I
started trying to cop BB licks in the late sixties, and they're still in my
repertoire.

Well, college was next, in fall of 1969, and when I met my still friend
Clay Kirkland (a maestro of harmonica), he turned me onto other influences;
Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Miles
Davis. Boy, I ate it up, and started grabbing all the licks I could. And to
this day, Hubert Sumlin, Albert and BB King, and the gutbucket blues is
still a driving force behind all I play and compose. I always try to get
some blues in there, as I believe it's one of the all time great art forms.
Oh yeah, honorable mention to Cactus, with Jim McCarty on guitar. In 1970,
their first album was a great influence, and I learned some great licks from
McCarty.

After College, and Learning To Freelance

Well, I only finished 2 years of college (William Jewell in Liberty, Mo),
and up until that time, I loved guitar, but was not a full time musician. I
vividly recall the turning point: we got a gig, October 8 1971, opening for
Steve Miller in Kansas City, and I quit college, and have never looked back.
But, neither did I have a master plan for what I was going to do with my
life. I do know that in the early 1970's, I practiced many hours a day, and
started to really get my chops together.

But, it was hearing John McLaughlin with the 1st Mahavishnu Orchestra LP, that really pushed me into a new
phase. The Beatles had broken up, Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin had died,
plus all the political assassinations, such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther
King, and Bobby Kennedy, had really changed the whole 1960's energy, and I
was ready for something new. McLaughlin kicked my ass, and I started
practicing harder than ever, and my chops went wayway up. I was playing in
Kansas City, from 1970/73, with KC Grits (anybody remember?), and we were
somewhere between the Allman Bros and Mahavishnu (with out the jazz chops,
were were mostly street kids with good ears and technique). We played shows
with Kansas, Chet Baker, Brewer and Shipley, the Ozark Mt. Daredevils, and
many other local acts, many of whom were very very good. And, I got to hang
with a KC legend, Ed Toler, who took me under his wing and taught me much
about music and life. He turned me onto Gato Barbieri, Bobby Bland, Albert
Collins, Lonnie Mack, Charles Mingus, and many others... I owe Ed a lot (he
passed away a couple of years ago, a great genius of music).

Grits was seriously non commercial, and we mostly played concerts and
benefits... but, one must pay the rent, so we also did a few cover tunes
(mostly blues and funky Stax sort of stuff), and did occasional bar gigs.
But, we got fired often, cause we really didn't give a shit about being
commercial... and I still don't, by the way. Then, in 1973 I moved to Denver
for personal reasons, and I'm still here.

Moving to Denver (Boulder for the first year) was a gigantic turning
point. First, I found the music/arts scene nowhere near what Kansas City
had... very conservative, and nobody pushing the envelope (and that's still,
unfortunately, the case, for the most part). Well, because of aforesaid
personal reasons, I sort of dropped out of any serious music making, and
started playing country music on weekends. This was in 1974, and I played
the nastiest honkytonks you could imagine for several years, playing with
little bands that weren't, for the most part, very good, but I started
learning a lot about roots music. And, most importantly, my ear got REAL
good, cause we never rehearsed..I learned everything on the gig, from Hank
Williams to Jerry Lee Lewis and Merle Haggard, and it was great
training..but, the gigs really sucked, and I played for Texas Mafia
clubowners who packed 38's on their hip, and audiences that wanted to hear
Proud Mary a couple of times a night.

But, as I said, one must pay the bills, and over the next few years I
played many many little bar gigs, and started studying other styles as well.
I met my main mentor, George Keith, in 1976, a true maestro of bebop sax (he
played alto),and I studied jazz and theory for many years with George (and
became a lifelong Charlie Parker fan). At the same time, I got into
classical guitar and flamenco, as wel as Chet Atkins style fingerpicking..I
practiced a lot of acoustic guitar, and I love it till this day. But, what I
didn't realize at the time, I was laying the groundwork to be a freelancer,
and It has served me well to this day. Playing many styles is the passport
to working a lot of different kinds of jobs, and it happened sort of
unconsciously.

But, the intro to playing a lot of freelance gigs came from relocating to
LA in 1982 for a few months. I had the great fortune of striking up an
acquaintship with studio guitar legend Tommy Tedesco, so I moved to LA to
see what would happen. Well, the $$$ ran out too soon, but I did learn how
to freelance out there, and play the casual scene: black suit, white shirt
and tie, which means hotels, fancy weddings, and private parties for snotty
rich folks. Hell, everybody in LA did it, and the best advice I ever got was
from a trumpeter who advised me to play with as many people as I could... and
it was advice that has kept me paying the rent to this day, let me tell you.

And, this is where the years of studying all the different styles realy
has paid off. When I got back to Denver, I got on the phone and started
playing the big band/casual/jazz scene, as well as doing pops concerts with
the Colorado Symphony. Being in the union helped me make the right contacts,
and since Denver isn't a really big guitar town anyway, I started copping
gigs which I probably never would have got in LA (cause guys like Tedesco or
Tim May would have got the call). I'm not a great reader, but good enough to
have played with all sorts of folks, from Bill Conti to Ferrante and Teicher
and broadway star Tommy Tune. Probably one of the most interesting gigs in
my career was playing/recording Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin, WITH
Gershwin on piano! See, he did a piano roll recording of it in the 1930's,
so the Symphony remted a monster player piano, got the piano roll, and
through the magic of technology, we actualy played with Gershwin... super
cool.

Up to 2005 and Beyond

So, I turned into a pretty able freelance guitarist, and played many
clubs, parties, and hotels, as well as many pit gigs for plays and special
shows, hundreds of recording sessions, not to mention solo gigs at
restaurants, playing with flamenco and belly dancers, and avant garde jazz
at art galleries. But, that's not where I really live, so to speak... it
turns out that I love to compose and record, and true to my Jef Beck roots,
I am trying to move things ahead a bit. And, when I discovered microtonal
music in 1989, I was set on my true life's path. My dear friend John
Starrett, master bassist/luthier/mathematician, built a 19 note to the
octave guitar, and said to check it out, which I did..and now I have a large
collection of 19, 34, and 31 tone guitars/basses, as well as fretless axes,
and a 19 tone banjo, too. And, this is where I am at this time, trying to
integrate all my styles and experiences into something of my own, trying to
find sounds that have not yet been heard, and bring them into the world by
recording CDs.

You know, I always admired the innovators, the people who moved things
on, from Beck and Clapton and Hendrix, to Miles, Coltrane and Bird, from
Claude Debussy to Bartok, you name it. And, I've always wanted to BE LIKE
these guys, rather than COPY them... and, that's still my criterion for art
today: are you your own person? Have you taken your experiences and made
them into your own? Are you an original, or a follower? And, for me, the
folks that originate will always get my vote.

Unfortunately, I feel music (and art in general) is in one of the bleakest
times ever. Retro rules, jazz sounds like it did in the mid 50's, classical
has become fossilized, with little innovation or searching, country has
totally lost it's soul, and rock, overall, has become so bland and
homogenized that it has lost any sense of urgency or importance. And, I'd
like to change that, and, indeed, am trying to do something new, so to
speak. And, that's my path for the rest of my life.

So, to sum up a bit... I sure don't regret this way of life; I HAD to do
it, and I still feel that way. I'm not famous, but that's not my goal,
anyway. I don't have a lot of material things, but, as they say, you can't
take it with you, so who cares? And, overall, the last few years have been
pretty good, artistically: for example, in the last few years I've developed
a nice correspondence with many interesting musicians around the world; we
swap CD's, chat, and generally support each other. I made a CD with jazz
maestro Barry Wedgle (Improvisations, at barrywedgle.org), got to hang/jam a
bit with John Stowell, one of the great jazz guitarists of our time, and did
a master class on microtones at Berklee, courtesy of fusion monster David
Fiuczynski. My latest CD, "Stick Man," got a good review in the May 2005
issue of Guitar Player (and the October issue of Cadence), and overall, I
feel like I'm playing better than ever. My philosophy is this: one phone
call can change your life, and I still believe that can happen.

The path of art is very difficult, regardless of genre,and it always has
been. True originality and deep feeling is often not accepted by the culture
at large, but that can change. If real art had more of a place in our world,
the world would be a much better place, I feel. So, I encourage all of my
fellow pickers to keep at it, go for the real deal, and follow your heart.
We get one shot in this body, so don't become a lawyer if you would rather
play music (or write or whatever). I tell all my students, if you don't
think you'll need a lot of material things in this life, than you may make
it as an artist.

I hope you enjoyed this look at 40 years of playing... I plan on 40 more,
if not 50. And, please feel free to e-mail me, and check out my site at

Neil Haverstick is a guitarist out of Denver who won Guitar Player magazine's 1992 Ultimate Guitar Competition (Experimental Division) with a 19-tone guitar piece, "Spider Chimes".

Neil has written for Guitar Player and Cadence and has written two music theory books, "The Form Of No Forms" and "19 Tones: A New Beginning".

His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Stick Man".

Neil Haverstick

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