Monday, September 25, 2006

Ex-Studio Guitarist

Be Careful What You Wish For

When I was around 14 years old I decided I wanted to be a rock guitarist. From April, 1978, and through the summer my fantasy life revolved around being a rock guitar god. I’d listen to my records and imagine that I was the guy on stage playing that great music. Then in September of that year I started my freshman year of high school, which started off bad because my fifth and sixth period classes were lagging because I was simply cutting them. I’d just take off at lunch and goof off. So they moved one of those classes to fourth period (English) and they moved a fun class to fifth and that left me with an elective for sixth period. My councilor rattled off a long list of electives: fishing, photography, pottery etc. One class caught my ear – GUITAR – and as soon as he said it bells went off in my head and I actually saw sparks. I told him to sign me up for guitar on the spot. I went home and dusted off my brother’s classical guitar and then the next day I brought it to school and put it in the special locker in the music room. Then when sixth period rolled around I walked into the classroom and met with the teacher, Mr. Henry Avila, who was the music teacher for the high school. I had some music books that were of KISS ALIVE II. I said I wanted to be able to play this stuff. He looked at the music and then started playing “God of Thunder” on his guitar. I was stunned, this old dude was playing KISS just by reading the music, and this was a kind of witchcraft to me. He said that I could learn my music but I also had to learn the class material too. So he handed me a sheet of paper with a bunch of chords diagramed on it and then he handed me the music to Glenn Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and said I had to learn the chords and the song by Friday. I looked at the sheet of chords and molded my fingers on the fret board and played an “F”, sound came out of the guitar. I worked my way down the sheet and backwards back up. I was playing chords with no problem, this was weird because I have mild Cerebral Palsy which slows me down anytime I try to learn something physical. I then turned my attention to “Gentle on My Mind”, which was still one the radio so I knew it. I looked at the music and the chords printed about the clef and I started playing and off I went. About the fourth time through I flagged Mr. Avila down and played the song for him. He asked me how long I’d been playing and I looked at the clock over the chalkboard and said “About 20 minutes!” I don’t think he completely believed me. Yet it was true. Somehow I’d naturally taken to the guitar, a gift from God, who was making up for the short end of the stick I seemed to continually get.

I practiced day and night. I played at lunch and during P.E. since I never dressed out. Then I’d go home and play, and play and play. I got a part time job and saved up some money and then about a year from that day in September I walked into the music store in Monterey and put a down payment on an Ibanez Iceman. It was Paul Stanley’s kind of guitar with sleek lines and smooth action. It took me three months to pay off and my brother actually made the final payment because he was as excited as I was. I then bought a crappy Ampeg 1x 10 30 watt amp and I was on my way. Around this time I was working at a pizza parlor with a guy who was from Los Angeles, CA, which was my Mecca. He was a drummer in a local band that had moved up to Carmel because it couldn’t hack it in the LA music scene. His name was Dan and he taught me all the ins and outs of the music scene and being in a band. Dan had a friend named Curtis Coleman, who was a studio/session guitarist. His claim to fame was playing on Louise Goffen’s album. Curtis had flaming red hair and was the embodiment of the LA-cool look for 1980. Curtis also had worked with Steve Lukether, who most people know from Toto. Dan had made a point of making me listen to Steve’s playing “Break Down” by --- , which isn’t technically hard but the guy had the rhythm locked and that left a huge impression on me. The other thing it did was give me the idea that I could make a living playing guitar on other people’s albums. Steve Lukether had already played on a ton of records by this time and would continue this even to this day. I started to read the backs of records more closely and started to learn names of the session guys and the studio guys [ A studio player plays only in the studio, a session player will also go out on tour with an artist]. I started to admire and read about guys like Waddy Watchell, Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Stanley Clark, Russ Kunkle, Steve Gadd, Don Airy, Gary Moore and Tommy Tedesco. Most of these guys had a column in Guitar Player magazine and they gave great tips. I learned a little jazz playing, a little country and western playing and lots of rock moves. I was in a band that was a poor man’s Grateful Dead and my playing improved on a weekly basis as I was pushed to play better by myself and the band.

Around 1986 I had met a drummer named Chris, who was doing studio work up in San Jose and Cotati and he started hooking me up on minor session gigs here and there. My first one was up in Cotati and was great. The producer was a pro bassist who was just back from a tour with the Ice Capades and the music I was there to play was cool. It was down hill from there. It’s hard to break into the studio scene and there’s a pecking order and I was the lowest pecker on the list. That meant that I was going to garage studios to play for some guy who thought he was the next Max Norman. I’d play for some guy’s cousin’s jewelry store commercial or some kind of experimental shit. The worst thing was that by 1988 the common garage/crap studio gig was a 13 year old girl who thought she was the next Madonna. It sucked hind tit to the max. There I was, this over-trained guitarist playing seventh-fiddle to a 13 year old girl who’d mommy was sure she was the next big thing. I had to take a break because since these were crappy paying gigs I was still working my day job and commuting up to the South Bay at night. Chris didn’t mind because he was also a Coke-head. It dawned on me that the way things were going I was going to end up being a coke-head too if things didn’t change. The kicker came one night when this shithead plumber/ producing genius decided to tell me how to play my guitar. He was bitching that it didn’t sound right, after a 15 minutes of getting nowhere with Bozo, I suggested that maybe it was my amp. So I twisted the knobs a couple of times and then played the part again and he was happy. I hadn’t changed the settings at all. That was it for me. I was already seeing a therapist about being stressed out and I’d already said I wasn’t enjoying guitar as much as I used to. She looked at me and said that guitar playing had become a job, not a passion and that I should treat it like any other job that people don’t like. I should just quit.

So I did.

The last time I played professionally was in March, 1989 and I’ve never looked back. Or at least I didn’t until a few years ago after I wrecked my back in 2001 and found myself with a lot of free time and started playing again just for fun. Guitar playing makes me feel good, which it didn’t in my studio monkey days. I left the studio around the right time. Digital tracks and sampling and synthesizers were putting guitarists out of work. There was an even smaller entry window in the LA and New York scenes because there were fewer jobs and all the big names got them. In the 1990s guitar playing suffered under Grunge and then Pop music. At night clubs across the country, bands were replaced by canned, digital music and today when you walk into music stores you’ll find turn-tables because DJ-ing is considered equal to actually playing an instrument. I beat the trend.

Today I wonder about getting back into the game again . I look around today at teenagers who are listening to the same music I listened to when I was their age. When I ask them why they’re not into the contemporary music they say that their’s no good guitar and that the guys back in the 80s had it going on. The music industry is drifting from trend to trend with no direction and history says that there is great opportunity at a time like today. I’m a good guitar player. I don’t say this in a bragging way, it’s simply the truth.

I wonder what I could get done today?


Bill Daniels said...

Interesting read Axx. Thanks for fielding requests.

Kemberlee said...

Did we have the same guitar teacher? (we were in the same class) He stuck me in the corner with the other girls and pretty much ignored us. But I did see how he seemed to have more time for the guys in class.

I always admired your talent on the guitar and your seriousness and dedication to learn it.