It seems like I’ve always been drawn to music and specifically the guitar. I’m not sure what sponsored this. I can’t recall having a particularly musical upbringing. My family didn’t have TV and I don’t remember any appreciable amount of music being played in our house. There must have been some music played, however, because I do remember certain songs that were popular on the radio at the time, and I remember there being this stack of LP records in the family room that I used to flip through looking at the pictures on the covers and a wire rack full of 45 RPM records that didn’t make any sense to me.
I remember seeing a guitar here and there. I think one of my older brothers had a guitar and was attempting to learn Stagolee by Pacific Gas & Electric (Or maybe that’s just one of those remembered songs from the radio. I definitely remember a song that had the line, “You spit in my Stetson hat.”). I also remember that there were two sisters living in our neighborhood who had a matching pair of electric guitars that were always leaning up against the wall behind the couch in their living room. I asked the older sister, once, if I could check out one of those guitars and was told that I would somehow ruin the instrument if she let me anywhere near it. I don’t know what she actually said, but I came away with the weird notion that playing an electric guitar without amplification would somehow damage the instrument.
The only time I remember actually getting near a guitar was while my dad and I were visiting my older sister. Her husband(?) brought out a banjo and a guitar after an amazing spaghetti dinner. He let me hold both instruments and tried to show me how to find a few notes on the fingerboard.
My interest in guitar really took off after seeing a kid at school carrying one and me finding out that he and another girl from class were taking guitar lessons at a local church. I immediately went home and began pestering my parents to get me a guitar and let me take lessons too. Nothing ever came of it, though… except I had a very vivid dream one night. I dreampt that those two kids and I were going to give a guitar recital. In the dream I was very happy and having a good time as we rehearsed for the performance. Unfortunately, just as we were about to begin the performance, I looked down at the guitar in my hands and remembered that I didn’t know how to play guitar. After a moment of sheer panic. the dream ended.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1977 when several things happened that changed my life forever.
That summer my mother worked up the courage to pack her bags and leave my father and our hometown for good — her three youngest children in tow. We settled in a new town and I was enrolled in the 6th grade at the public school. This new school had a music program where a student could elect to join either the band class or the chorus class. I managed to talk my mom into leasing a trumpet from the program and allowing me join the band class.
Also that summer the rock band KISS released their classic Love Gun album and after seeing it on display at the store where my mom worked I began a campaign of asking her to buy it for me every time I came to see her at her job. I think I had seen a KISS album before. I could swear that one of my brothers had the Destroyer album and used to pretend the recliner in our family room was his hot rod car while the intro to Detroit Rock City played. I do know that I was compelled to get possession of that recording. I had to have it. My mother eventually relented and Christmas morning I found an 8-track cassette of KISS music waiting for me under the tree. I think everybody in our reduced family was sorry for that. It was the only album I had and I loved it, so I played it loud and often.
It must have been on my birthday the following spring that my father showed up at our home and asked me to come outside and see what he had bought for me. In the bed of his pickup was a triangular-shaped cardboard box, and in that box was a new acoustic guitar. I don’t think it even had a brand name on it. In retrospect it was a cheap, half-sized flat top with a trapeze tailpiece and a bridge that kept falling off. I’m sure he found it in a department store somewhere, and he gave it to me like it was some sort of consolation prize for the fact that my parents were in the middle of a divorce and I rarely saw him anymore. I didn’t care about any of that, though. It was a GUITAR!
My mother signed me up for lessons with a local teacher and bought the method book recommended by the woman who ran the only music music store in town. The lessons were to be one day a week after school in the basement of a church located several blocks from the school. I dutifully walked the distance carrying my guitar in its cardboard box with one hand, my trumpet in its case with the other hand and my school books tucked under my arm. The thing I remember most about these lessons is the teacher asking me if I had ever played guitar before. I told him I hadn’t, of course, but he didn’t believe me. We were working on the first section of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and he stopped me several more times and asked me if I was sure I’d never played guitar before.
Now things get weird. I showed up for what must have been my third or fourth lesson only to find the entrance to the church basement locked and not a soul to be found anywhere. I didn’t have anywhere else to go so I waited around for my ride home to show up. In order to pass the time I wandered around the entire church grounds and never saw a single person. I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember anybody telling me that lessons were cancelled or moved to another time and place. I just stopped going to guitar lessons and nobody said a word about it.
I tried to keep learning how to play the guitar, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Once in a while I would pull out the book my mother had bought and try to strum some of the chords, but I didn’t really want to play The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I wanted to play I Stole Your Love or Shock Me from my KISS album. My guitar was spending more time sitting in my closet and less time sitting on my lap. Fortunately my trumpet playing was coming along pretty well. I was learning how to read music and getting a good sense of how pitches and rhythm worked together to make music.
About this time a TV commercial for The Roy Clark Big Note Guitar Songbook began airing. (You can watch it on youtube so long as the link lasts.) I had seen Roy play on Hee Haw and knew he was a monster. The commercial made it seem like he was really going to show you how to play that thing. I asked my mom to order me that book so I could play like Roy Clark. She was probably so excited that I might play anything other than KISS that she ordered it right away. I have to say I really did learn to play thanks in large part to that book… just not in the way you might think. I’ll come back to this in a bit.
Once I got into junior high school I ran into this other guy on the playground who was a fellow KISS fanatic. He also happened to be a drummer and actually owned a drum set. We hit it off and immediately started talking about one day forming a band. We used to walk around the back side of the gym building where nobody could find us and sing Jan and Dean songs together during lunch break. He came over to my house after school one day and tried to get me to play my guitar. I told him I didn’t actually know how to play, so he grabbed the guitar and started messing around on it. I became jealous and vowed that I would never let that happen again. I figured if anybody was going to be messing around on my guitar, it was going to be me! I dug out my Roy Clark Big Note Guitar Songbook and started trying to learn some of the chords shown in the book. My friend had suggested that we should try playing together, but I didn’t know any songs or anything else to play. I tried putting a couple of the easier chords together with a basic strum pattern and figured that would have to be good enough. Once my friend added a drum beat to what I was playing things started getting pretty exciting.
From that point on I knew I had to get an electric guitar, so we could put together a band and do it up right. To that end I got a job that paid me $5 per week to spend Saturday afternoon washing windows and hosing off the sidewalk at the department store where my mother worked. I went to the only music store in town and asked the owner if he would let me buy an electric guitar on payments. He was all for it until he found out how much money I had to work with. Then, he suggested I come up with a better plan.