I think of myself as a working stiff, a musician who has made his living
with a guitar in his hands since 1976, the year my wife and I moved to El
Paso, Texas. It may be helpful, or at least entertaining, to pass on to you
what I've learned, from beginning an instrument to sustaining a career. Why
don't I kick it off by telling you how I got started, about some of my early
mentors, and how I seem to be one lucky guy.
Lucky Break #1. What if that friend hadn't offered me his old guitar for 15
dollars? After I bought it nothing else mattered. My life before guitar, my
life after guitar - it was that black and white. After a couple of months,
another pal and I played open mic night at a coffeehouse in St Charles, IL,
my public debut. Not that I was any good, in fact, friends would invite me
to parties, but make a special point of asking me NOT to bring my guitar.
That didn't faze me, I only worked harder. Away in college, I had a
housemate whose brother played drums in a band that was losing one of its
guitar players, courtesy of Uncle Sam, this being the time of the draft and
Vietnam. I've always suspected the reason I was asked to fill in was
because our house had a big basement and the guys, along with the girl
singer, were desperate for a place to practice. The story goes that Bill
Wyman was asked to join the Stones because he came along with a big amp at
just the right time. Being invited into the band was Lucky Break #2.
My main recollection is of drowning, being in way over my head, but did I
learn! This was music university, the crash course. The other band members
were older, experienced players who knew a whole lot more than I did. I was
expected to catch up, and quick. The bass player was a math genius who knew
music theory up one side and down the other. I got turned on to Duane
Allman, Jeff Beck, Larry Coryell, Roy Buchanan, Eric Clapton, and Jerry
Garcia, and was immersed in music 24 hours a day. Several other guitar
players spent time in the band, each with a guitar case full of knowledge
for me to absorb. The University of Illinois in the early 1970's was a
hotbed for music - Duke Tomato, The One-Eyed-Jacks, Slink Rand, Dan
Folgelberg (he was in my first Geology class), REO Speedwagon, Head East -
these were all good local acts. Our band rented a house together for a year
in Champaign, but the hard partyin' and dope smokin' eventually got to me.
Lucky Break #3 was having the good sense to split.
Acoustic guitar - the unaffected natural wooden tone, how it could sound
like a little orchestra - had started to fascinate me. My work at this time
in acoustic ensembles laid the foundation for what I do today. Hearing
acoustic masters like Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Norman Blake at this
juncture was Lucky Break #4.
Having the opportunity to write a regular column for El Paso's "What's Up",
and being able to share it with guitar9 is something like Dan's Lucky Break
#1273. When I got back from playing in London last winter, I contacted
"What's Up" over a story I was in the middle of writing about the trip.
Secret Wherett, the editor, said "sure", then later we talked about doing a
monthly music article and I was on my way. The folks at "What's Up" have
been nice enough to let me run these columns at guitar9, so maybe do them a
favor and check out their magazine. We'll see you next month. Get in touch with your comments and questions.