The founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers, wrote a great book called Anything You Want, with solid advice for entrepreneurs and dreamers (i.e., all musicians). He says, “Find something you love and let it kill you.”
I started playing drums after seeing Kiss at Cobo Hall at age four in Detroit. Around age ten my mama felt I needed to play something with “notes” :-). (I would still argue that drums have as many notes and permutations as guitar, but you don’t argue with your mama when she’s trying to help you buy a guitar.) She took me to a fantastic and magical music store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, called Music Mart. We picked out a very used but very cool gold-and-maple Epiphone with a black leather case lined in gold felt (recent photo here—I still have it today, only in my rebellious glam rock-infused teenage years I repainted it and made it awful). I believe it originally cost $125. Some of the pickguard was chipped off, but to me it was perfection. I can remember the dusty lemon-oil smell of the case for that guitar like yesterday.
I went home and started hacking away on it (no amp yet), pretending I was Ace and Paul from my then-favorite band Kiss. Of course, the obligatory arpeggios of “Stairway to Heaven,” the stacked fifths of “Smoke on the Water,” and the (surprisingly tricky) “Johnny B Goode” lick were on their way but not up for grabs yet. The real prize, the top of the pops for me, was getting the opening riff of “Rock N Roll All Night” down. Much like Chuck Berry, it’s deceptively simple sounding but not easy when you are earning your first callouses on this six-string time travel machine.
My parents were still together at the time. I had another year before things turned south and that guitar became not only something to build a dream on but also a free therapist that was available 24/7. My folks were kind enough to help find me a guitar teacher to get my footing.
Ramo James, a brilliant, understated teacher at Music Mart saw me for 45 minutes every Thursday afternoon. I ached to get better, and I was obsessed with impressing him at those lessons. Ramo was the opposite of me in every way. I’m hyper; he was calm. I wanted to learn everything IMMEDIATELY, and he wanted to give me foundation. I wanted to play Kiss and only Kiss, and he wanted to show me other bands that had moved him, but never made fun of what it was that was driving and inspiring me to go home and play till my fingers bled. (More on the importance of opening kids’ minds without stepping on their passions in a later blog.)
Ramo kept a gold-top Les Paul (worth about 35 times more than my li’l Epiphone) on hand in a case next to his bang-around teaching guitar. When he got that gold top out of the case, I swear a little light from the heavens shined down on the man. It’s funny I was so inspired by this guitar, and yet I now play beat-up old guitars and never clean them. No accounting for taste, I guess.
Ramo once grabbed that platinum sword and played me just a few bars of instrumental music he had written. I don’t expect you to believe this, but it was more majestic and grand than the “Stairway” riff. It was like hearing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” for the first time… it’s hard not to weep or feel there might be something greater than you at work in this brutal world. I was just paralyzed by his song’s beauty. I asked him to teach me the song, and he quickly retreated and said, “I can’t show it to ANYONE—it’s mine and very special to me. I hope to record it someday.” I never heard it again. This was before the days of software on a computer, and getting into a real studio was the Holy Grail. I know I could try to track it down, but frankly it’s so mystical and perfect in my memory that I like it high on the shelf where it’s at. Ramo not showing me this tune made it 100 times more elusive and mysterious, and probably accounts for why I was so obsessed with film soundtracks, sad melodies, and writing almost strictly instrumental guitar music for the first few years of my career.
This little song has haunted me since that day. It’s good to search for the “lost chord” as Keith Richards call it. It’s good to have a bar too high and a magical world you know exists but you just can’t quite return to or reach. I think these first lessons from Ramo have much to do with me never once feeling like the guitar didn’t have something else left to reveal to me. Even after our longest tours, when I’m bone tired, barely able to finish sentences, too wired to think straight and too tired to sleep, I’m still excited by the guitar. It still feels like home in my hands.
It makes my heart a little younger and my soul a little kinder. The louder I play it, the more calm and clear the world around me gets. I can’t imagine being without it.
For the next couple of years we lived in Michigan, I ran in back into the arms of that first music store as often as I could—saving up allowance and lawn mowing money for picks, polishing cloths, and eventually my first distortion pedal.
My parents split when I was 12, and I moved with my mom and younger sister to Wichita, Kansas. I was small for my age, full of fear, and wanted nothing more than to get home quickly every day after school and get back to my guitar. I didn’t know how, but I felt I had connected with something much bigger than me. Something that could get me out of town, help my mom and sister who I felt were struggling at the time, and without understanding it wasn’t my fault, I decided to be the martyr, take the whole “dad of the house” thing on my back, and figured the only way out was through, and the only way through was rock ’n’ roll.
The plush gold felt in the beat-up old guitar case, the old Dean Markley stickers that came free in a new pack of strings, the smell of the Blitz polishing cloths, the pearl inlays in the fretboard, the fake gold tuning pegs. Everything about it was and still is freedom, magic, a bigger world than this. Limitless potential—a window into the rock ’n’ roll heavens.
Goin’ down to Lillian’s music store
To buy a black diamond string
Gonna wind it up on my guitar
Gonna make that silver sing
—Tom Petty, “Dreamville”
My favorite magazine in the world was Guitar For The Practicing Musician. Years later I sent in a demo tape (yes, a cassette, kids), and editor John Stix wrote me back and said I would be featured in the spotlight column. He also said to “play live all you can. Say yes to every gig.” How little I understood he was giving me the keys to the rock ’n’ roll castle. You can’t get better without putting in your time. Without the pain and struggle. Without “woodshedding.” Bad gigs teach you almost more than the good ones. And every time you get through something going wrong, you are stronger, wiser, and ready to play for a bigger crowd when it finally comes (and sometimes that takes a long, long time). I have given John’s advice to a thousand other up-and-comers over the years. Play. Practice. Play live. Play some more. Then play again. If you don’t still love it, then it ain’t for you. And if you don’t want to play unless someone’s watching, it’s definitely not for you.
That guitar was the beginning of everything I am and I have today. It has fed me, clothed me, introduced me and bonded me with some of my favorite people on this planet, allowed me to talk to kids around the country who may feel as awkward and shy as I felt when I first found that guitar.
Not to get too touchy-feely, but I don’t believe it was the beginning. I’m not sure if there is a next life or what’s in store, but if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I played that guitar before I got here. It felt like home, and though the first notes sounded terrible, I never thought that I wouldn’t get it; I just thought I had to play from sun up to sun down. And believe me, I didn’t have that kind of confidence about anything else in my life at the time. I didn’t go out. I didn’t do ANYTHING but play guitar, read about guitar, ask people about guitars, and burn through trees full of legal pads writing out my little tablature system of terrible song titles and ideas I wanted to try. I was a horrible boyfriend to my first few loves ’cause all I really wanted to do was play and be in bands. To this day, guitars—especially weird ones in tunings I don’t fully understand—bring a smile to my face. They baffle, surprise, excite, and drive me. I am very lucky to have found what I love and to let it kill me.
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Thanks for reading and thanks for coming out to the shows. We played for 1,100 students at a beautiful auditorium in Miami this morning. I was ten years old again for a few minutes. 🙂
If you enjoyed geeking out with me on the love of guitars, here are some books that share this joy in spades:
- Keith Richards, Life (the five-string tuning is in here, too)
- Zen Guitar
- Buddy Guy, David Ritz, When I Left Home
- Satriani’s bio
- Yngwie (this is for the true geeks—wingnut is cocky as hell, but his fire is undeniable)
These last three will inspire guitar players but are works of art regardless of whether you love the guitar:
- Daniel Lanois, Soul Mining
- Willie Nelson, An Epic Life
- Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run
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