I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a region not known for music but that has somehow managed to nurture a diverse array of notable guitar players including Link Wray, Charlie Byrd, John Fahey, Nils Lofgren, Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton. At age 15 I had heard of none of them, but I was inspired by surf music, the Rolling Stones, and Marty Robbins (Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs) to pick up a guitar and form a band with my high school pals.
I quickly gravitated toward the heavier sounds of Hendrix and British blues, but it wasn’t until moving to San Francisco and encountering ex-Paul Butterfield pianist Mark Naftalin, Chess Records producer Norman Dayron, and LA-based harp player Jimmie Wood that I was exposed to the real Chicago blues and dove into the limitless pool of American “roots” music.
There was nothing more I wanted at that point than to be a full-time musician, but with only a do-it-yourself patchwork of music training and amateur band experience I knew that in order to keep going I had to substantially raise my musical and professional game. When Guitar Player magazine published a short blurb announcing the debut of the Guitar Institute of Technology, a school in Hollywood for professional electric guitarists, it sounded like just the answer I was looking for, and so in the spring of 1977 I joined the second-ever class of GIT.
The results were exactly as I had hoped – an intensive, concentrated infusion of practical knowledge and skill plus the chance to play with great musicians, find a peer group, and experience the music profession from the inside. Just as important was the atmosphere of all-out devotion to the instrument (practicing five or six hours a day was considered average) as students pushed themselves and each other through the inevitable frustrations. I also saw first-hand that great musicians are not created by some mysterious gift but achieve their potential through constant, incremental effort; once you know where to go, the real challenge is to just keep going.
After graduation I was privileged to join the teaching staff myself, with the added bonus of working directly alongside GIT’s brilliant curriculum designer, Howard Roberts. Meanwhile, I was playing in a number of different bands in the thriving LA music scene of the early ‘80s I always wanted to be in a band rather than follow the hired-gun session-sideman path; the downside of bands is an enormous attrition rate, but even as they came and went I continued teaching and then working as Director of GIT, which along with bass and drum programs was now part of Musicians Institute. MI also became a destination for visiting artists, which gave me the unforgettable experience of playing with the likes of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Mick Taylor as well as Albert Collins, one of the all-time greatest electric blues stylists and a personal hero.
Until the early ‘80s, the only way to teach music outside the classroom was via printed books, so the introduction of audio cassettes and then videos was revolutionary. GIT instructors were well-positioned to take advantage of these new technologies and I first joined the party with Prolicks: Blues (on cassette) and Rockin’ the Blues (on video). As technology evolved into CD, CD-ROM, DVD, and eventually online, I went on to create a number of titles over the years covering various blues styles and techniques as well as classic rock and beginning guitar.
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Even when bands break up, the musicians you meet form an ever-widening peer group that can lead to unexpected opportunities, which explains how I joined the Blasters. Formed by a group of high-school friends, the band came up in the LA scene of the early ‘80s alongside Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakum, and X and broke out with the album American Music. After original guitarist Dave Alvin left in 1986 to pursue a solo career, he was followed by a series of outstanding players including Billy Zoom (X), LA blues legend Hollywood Fats, Greg “Smokey” Hormel (later with Beck and Johnny Cash), and James Intveld, a prolific recording artist in his own right.
I had played with James for a number of years in the ‘80s as well as in another band called the Dime Bags with drummer Jerry Angel, who later joined the Blasters, so when James left the band in 1996 I had a virtual foot in the door. Unlike my previous bands, this one has survived with regular tours across the US and Europe and two albums so far (4-11-44 and Fun on Saturday Night) (although since original drummer Bill Bateman re-joined a few years ago I’m still the “new guy”).
Still teaching and now working as Director of Programs for MI, I began writing a series of books based on MI’s curricular approach that included Harmony and Theory: the Essential Guide (with Carl Schroeder), Ear Training for the Contemporary Musician (with Carl Schroeder and Joe Elliott), Blues Rhythm Guitar, and Blues Guitar Soloing (all published by Hal Leonard/MI Press). From the early ‘90s on, I also contributed regular columns and articles to almost all of the major guitar magazines (most recently a seven-year run of “Talkin’ Blues” columns for Guitar World), which provided an opportunity to do more research into the many, varied threads of American music.
After finally leaving MI in 2014, I gathered up my years of playing, teaching, and writing to develop the School of Blues Guitar for the interactive education site www.artistworks.com (special thanks to former GIT student, fellow ArtistWorks teacher, and certified Rock Star Paul Gilbert). The ability to exchange videos on line allows me to apply all of my experience to a subject I love and work directly with students anywhere in the world even while I’m out playing, and that’s about as good as it gets.
So that’s my story – I look forward to seeing you at a Blasters show, on ArtistWorks, or someplace else further on up the road…