Not really. Well, yeah, I won, but the mad skills is just click-bait. I just had an awesome experience and in a unique break from my usual self-deprecating, lowered expectations style. I had an incredibly good time on a visit to California a couple of weeks ago.
The advantages… I have a lot more time to communicate with the people around me. My thought processess are no longer just IF, THEN, ELSE statements. In short, with more available free time, my conversation skills have improved.
The disadvantages… Friends who used to depend on me to fix their screwed up computers have stopped calling. When people do call and ask questions, I can now safely say, “I don’t know” without sounding disingenuous. Some friends I used to enjoy don’t call any more now that I’m not the ace (and free) computer repairman for them.
But some time in 2010, I decided to pick up my guitar and play (with apologies to Pete Townshend). Something I had loved as a youngun, but given up when I turned 20 was suddenly calling me back. For more in-depth, I think I wrote something about why I quit a couple years ago. I don’t write that often in here. Look it up.
I made myself a promise that after 2 years I would evaluate my progress and if I wasn’t back to the skill level at age 19, it was all over and I would again quit playing for good. After 2 years at it, I figured out I either was really good at 19 or I had forgotten most of what I knew. Learning this stuff in your late 50’s is a ton tougher than when you’re 15. But giving up was out of the question.
Then I found Griff Hamlin, who is not only an exceptionally talented and skilled guitarist, but he’s an absolute master of getting the point across as a guitar instructor. You may have seen some of his ads on the Internet. He is one of maybe a half dozen instructors who are selling material online that will really do you some good. His material and teaching style immediately clicked with my learning style (lazy). Edit: My learning style is lazy, not his teaching style. He teaches how to play blues guitar. If blues isn’t your thing, then Griff may not be your guy. I very highly recommend his courses. Check out his web page here; Blues Guitar Unleashed.
OK, I told you all that so I could tell you this.
In addition to his online courses, Griff started an annual pilgrimage of his students to Corona, California in 2011. Home of Fender Musical Instrument Company’s U.S. factory. He also lives there, which makes sense… I didn’t go to the first get-together, because at the time, I wasn’t a good enough player to go hang out with his other students. I assumed that they were all near-professional players and I was just a lowly old fart who was picking my way through learning the pentatonic minor scales and how to apply them to make something that might be confused with music.
By the time the 2012 get together came around, there was a little more confidence in my playing. Actually, that’s a complete lie. I still thought I sucked really badly at the guitar. But I went anyway.
On this trip all attendees were to learn a few blues standards, primarily 12 bar blues, with a few variants like 8 bar (think Key To the Highway, Bring It on Home To Me) and some slow, sad stuff, like The Thrill Is Gone. So I’m sitting there with about 35 other guys and we pair off into trios and each trio goes onstage with Griff’s unbelievably talented drummer, keyboard player and bassist. These guys could make almost anyone sound good. They never lose the beat and no matter how badly you play, you can’t get them lost in a song. While sitting there I completely froze. This was a major anxiety attack. Consider that as a kid, I played with bands from the time I was about 13 until I was about 20. Parade floats and in front of untold drunks in bars, when I was too young to even be in the bar otherwise, I did it all without a moment’s hesitation. But I couldn’t get up on stage and play guitar. I told my trio mates to find another guitarist who hadn’t yet paired up with anyone, otherwise the trio was about to become a duo.
That night I went back to my hotel room and had a serious chat with myself. After traveling 2500 miles across the U.S. with two guitars and luggage to come to this marvelous get together, I was too chicken to get up on stage and play guitar with an audience of other guys who were probably just as scared, but managed to do it anyway. The next day I would play.
Sunday morning showed up and my two guitars that hadn’t been touched and I headed to the get-together. As soon as I walked in the door, the same fear and dread came over me. Couldn’t do it, so I pretty much sat in the back of the room and watched. I was in mental equivalent of the fetal position, with my thumb in my mouth. Finally, as we were nearing the end of the day, I got enough nerve to go up and ask to play bass with one of the groups. Mark, the bass player was about due for a smoke break, so he eagerly accepted my offer. For some reason, it wasn’t nearly as frightening to play bass. I did a few tunes and the fear went completely away. Unfortunately, it was also the end of the day and there was no time for me to get a do-over. Home the next day with my two guitars and my luggage and I hadn’t played a six string guitar in the entire time I was there. Next year I was determined to come back and redeem myself.
2013 came around and sign ups went out. Waiting for the email with bated breath, I think I signed up within 5 minutes of receiving the email. Off to California once again. This year, Griff was assigning people to groups. I really had no preference and said so in the questionnaire that was sent out in advance. I was assigned to a group with a friend I had met the year before, who lives just an hour from me and with another gentleman who I didn’t know. This time around, playing order was also assigned and surprisingly our group was first. I don’t think that was coincidence. It has never come to mind to ask Griff if he did that on purpose, just so I wouldn’t have time to melt down again. Whether or not, it was a good thing. Our group got up and did our tunes first. By the time it came around in the afternoon, nerves were pretty much settled and I had a great time all around.
Due to my anxiety about playing in front of others, I have been very reticent about finding jams and places and people to play together. Other then the first year, when I started attending a weekly jam in Fort Lauderdale (an hour drive) from me, I never played with others. It was less than a year and the sponsor of that jam suffered mortal injuries in a motorcycle accident. Since those jams stopped, I haven’t played guitar with anyone else, other than at the annual get togethers. All of my practice consists of working with the recorded material supplied and playing along with jam tracks.
2014 rolled around and again I made the trek to Corona. It was even better than 2013. I got paired with a couple of guys who had been at the previous two years sessions, we had become pretty good friends. Still, when I arrived at the venue, I dealt with the same anxiety issues I had the two previous years. Again, once I played, it all went away. A pleasant time was guaranteed for all and I had a blast.
After the 2014 get together, I came home energized and my practice schedule became a way of life. I watch virtually no television. I come home, have dinner with my wife and I’m off to my little 10 by 10 foot music room, which is now crammed full of various guitars, amps, and other musical junk. But I’m by myself.
Signups came for the 2015 event. Again, I was right there when the email arrived and had my confirmation back less than 5 minutes after registration opened. This year Griff threw in a new curve. In February, he held a rhythm challenge, where everyone registered had the option of submitting a rhythm guitar track for one of the songs on this year’s playlist. Griff critiqued it. Unfortunately, I was very busy and didn’t submit one.
Griff also announced a solo challenge for March. Same idea. Do 12 or 24 bars of solo work of something that was repeatable, so it couldn’t just be 24 bars of mindless noodling. He suggested that we write it down in guitar tab notation. So I wrote my solo down or at least most of it. I didn’t quite find what I was looking for in the last 4 bars, so it was mainly repeatable with a surprise ending. The kicker in all this was, Griff said he was going to select a winner from among the soloists and the winner would perform onstage with his band at a live gig, in front of paying customers. That was a bit of a stretch. He and his band are outstanding and their performances are close enough to perfection as to be indistinguishable from magic.
Griff mentioned that if anyone didn’t want to get up in front of people and perform with the band, to let him know and he wouldn’t consider their solo submission for the contest. When he said that, I thought, “He did that for me… How nice!” By the time I got around to getting my solo written and practiced so as to be moderately consistent in performance, there were a number of other solos already submitted. I figured that just about any one of them was better than mine. No way would I win, so why should I be so presumptuous as to send along a note saying I don’t want to be considered. So I didn’t.
My solo went in and got several positive comments on it. But in the group and the online forum associated with it, we all try to support one another. I appreciated the comments, but they were from guys who were pretty good friends, so I figured they were just making me feel better. After all, I heard it. I wasn’t impressed. The other solos were much more impressive to me.
More submissions came in. A couple of them were absolute killer, in my opinion. There was no need to excuse myself, because there so many solos better than mine.
Then, about mid-day, just a few days before the trip, I logged into the forum and noticed some new posts in the March Challenge thread, so I read the thread. There was apost like “Hey will you autograph my guitar?” and a couple more congratulatory posts to me. What the ???? Then I realized I needed to check my email. There I found a group mailing to all attendees. Guess who won the solo challenge! Oh crap! Panic set in, cold sweat. Anxiety, thy name is Lloyd. “I can’t go through with this!” About this time, I got a text message from Griff on my phone congratulating me on having the winning solo. I thanked him profusely for selecting me, but hell no, I can’t do this! Nope. Not going to happen.”
I also happened to be online with my two trio friends (neither one of whom had read their emails yet, either). “Can’t do it. I need to let Griff know.” He has to pick someone else.
Then I get a text message from Griff’s wife congratulating me and telling me how much fun it will be to have me join them (she’s the sax player in a killer horn section with the band). I told her I couldn’t do it. She sent me back a message telling me I couldn’t be in a safer place. With Griff and his band, I could literally stand there with my volume turned off and they could make me sound good. There was no doubt in my mind that she was right. Also, I can’t refuse Laura. If I had a baby sister, I would want her to be just like Laura.
For the rest of the week, I was a total mess every time I thought about it. But I made the trip. As soon as I got to the hotel, I got the star treatment from all the guys I who had befriended me in prevous years. It felt really good, but I was still scared to death. We finally got to Saturday. First, the day of performing within the groups had to happen before the evening on stage. Didn’t know if I would make it.
When our trio got up on stage, I was as scared as I had ever been before, although I’m getting better about hiding it. We did our first two tunes very well. It doesn’t hurt that I have two very talented and dedicated partners in the group. By the time the afternoon session rolled around, I was feeling a whole lot less nervous; certainly less nervous than I have ever been in recent memory when in front of people with a guitar in my hands. It went well. Then came Saturday night. I kept thinking what Laura had said, I couldn’t be in a safer place than onstage with the band. It helped that the other players are extremely personable and I consider them all to be good friends. I had a beer to settle what nerves I was feeling, but surprisingly, I was more comfortable waiting to play with Griff’s band than I was earlier in the morning waiting to play with my trio.
Griff started to introduce me and told pretty much the story I’ve just related (although he did it in 30 seconds, not 2500 words). I walked up, picked up my guitar and turned to face the crowd. At that moment, I realized that Mark, one of the best bass players I’ve ever heard was standing to my left. Chris, an incredible rhythm machine of a man on drums was behind me, Griff, one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet was on my right. Off to the far right was Laura, Ken and Mike, the rock-solid horn section. I was ready. Not a shred of nerves!
I guess I did OK. No one booed and the applause was awesome. I made it. And nobody died in the process.
I’ll post my observations and what I took away from this in my next blog post. I’ve run on way too long with this one. Agonizing Self-Appraisal. The Rest of the Story.
Oh, as is commonly said in the forum, “Pictures or it didn’t happen.”