The Accidental Path To Authorship – Part I – Angry Guitar

Recently, I had a Facebook Memory that came up from 2011.

Facebook Memory

 

This prompted a question from a friend of mine.

“Is there any part of you that misses doing all that writing? Are you happy to have (seemingly) traded that out for a ton of playing and gigging lately? Do you seek a middle ground between the two?”

My reply is long and probably will never be read by the people who want to learn more about retro-fitting Steinberger tuners on their guitar but it may be of interest to those of you at crossroads in your musical development as the path to learning guitar at a deep level in my case was not a straightforward journey.

Ultimately, it speaks more to:

  • having a deep seated “why” and a desire to learn
  • adaptability and having an ability to create opportunity rather than waiting for one to happen
  • simple endurance.  Being too pig-headed to refuse to give up and keep going despite not having any kind of external support structure.

 

Part I of my revised (and greatly expanded) reply is below.  I don’t know if this will help anyone, but I’m posting it with the knowledge that there’s much to be gained in examining what to do as well as what not to do.

The short answer is no, I don’t miss it.

I have another book that could have been edited and released 2 years ago and I decided to hold off on it, because at a certain point the inertia of writing was easier than playing – and playing was an important part of what I wanted to do. The more I was writing, the less time I had to actually play and the longer it was becoming before I released something.

Thank you!  Good night!

For those of you who want the MUCH longer answer, here you go…

My entire path to guitar started in anger.

I was in middle school and studying drums with Rex, who was a notoriously difficult teacher.  He would brag about having 20 people sign up for drums and only have 2 complete the program.  It took me years to realize that difficulty is not an indicator of the merits of an educator’s program, but instead an admission of an inability to engage students at a deeper level.  I would come to see this again with some of the faculty at Berklee when I went there years later.  It took me a long time to realize that truly great teachers (like Henry Tate, Mitch Haupers, Jon Finn, Stephanie Tiernan or Rick Applin at Berklee or Susie Allen, Vinny Golia or Miroslav Tadic at CalArts to name but a few) have an ability to explain things in an accessible way and draw students in rather than setting up artificial obstacles to knowledge to see if you were “worthy” of receiving it.
Anyways, back to drums.  I had done rudiments with the sticks and practice pad I got, but it was deadly dull and, as no one could explain the tie in to this and making music, I had no educational buy in.  So I decided to quit.  My friend Chad told me to check out this guy named  Jimi Hendrix and I taped the local classic rock station playing “Are you experienced?” on my boom box and that just burned a hole in my head.  I played that tape over and over again listening to the sounds he made on the guitar.

When I decided to drop out of the drum group, I said, “I think I’m going to learn guitar” and my classmate (and eventual high school band mate) Jeff said, “You’re never going to play guitar.” – and that’s all it took.  That one moment of, “I’ll show you!” fueled much of the rest of my life.

Lesson one – change can happen in an instant and one moment can affect the rest of your life.

My parents got me a beat up 3/4 size acoustic guitar that one of my cousins didn’t want to play anymore to play.   I liked it – but with approximately 1/2″ action at the 12th fret it was largely unplayable so with much cajoling, my parents bought a guitar.  I wanted a name model and what I got was an acoustic that my high school shop teacher Jeff Chappel made.

(Lengthy side note for you guitar geeks still reading this, my Chappel guitar is also one of the weirdest guitars that I own in that the scale length is completely non standard – something like 24.70″.  This in and of itself isn’t a big deal until you’re working at Sandy’s Music years later and have to reset the neck.  In doing so you realize that Jeff employed a furniture builder’s technique of doweling both sides of the dovetail joint for increased glue space after you DESTROY the heel of the guitar trying to get the neck out of the pocket.  This then requires getting Sandy’s guitar repair guy (and future FnH Guitar’s design guru) John Harper to rebuild the joint and ultimately employ a Taylor style screw system to keep the neck in place, reset the neck and create a new fingerboard where – lo and behold – the scale length becomes an issue when figuring out where the frets go.  All this took place over the decade long debacle that became the first of several guitar repairs on that instrument.)

At the time, owning a guitar my shop teacher made was unbelievably geeky – now it’s the coolest guitar that I own.  It was also geeky as I wanted to play electric.  At the time the acoustic in comparison just seemed lame and  much harder to physically play than electric. (This is more amusing as all the gigging I’ve done in the last 2 years has been on acoustic!)

Lessons

My parents insisted that I have lessons so I studied with the only guitar teacher in the area, a lovely older lady named Flora who taught piano and guitar out of her house and basically had me play out of the Mel Bay book series for much of high school.  This curriculum was not super inspiring to a guy who wanted to play rock guitar.

One of her other students was a classmate of mine named Yio.  One day he heard me butchering a version of “Paranoid” that I got out of the Guitar For The Practicing Musician magazine I picked up at the local news stand and had me play in his parent’s garage.  I lugged my Pro Co Scamp amp and whatever mongrel distortion pedal I had at the time to Yio’s house and we played a couple of tunes.  Our friend, Vince, was playing drums and we tried to plow through the Scorpions “Rock me like a Hurricane”. After I tried to play the first lead in the beginning solo and just played as fast as I could, Vince said, “Scott Collins – lead guitar!” and from then on that was kind of my role.

Lesson one revised.  One positive comment can affect you forever.

Yio and I formed a band, part of that band became another band and I played in those groups all through High School.  What I remember about that time was taking it VERY seriously.  I spent every hour that I could with a guitar in my hand.  This was pre-internet so I spent a lot of time learning things from records and tabs from Guitar For The Practicing Musician. I didn’t have videos to watch or people to study with I just tried to learn with whatever was nearby.

I still took weekly lessons up through my junior year of high school but my teacher didn’t really know how to help me.  She was a piano teacher who knew how to read and play chords from the Mel Bay book – so I had to learn for myself.  What strides I made as a player just came from being willing to do what other people were not willing to do – namely sit down with a transcription of something like Mr. Crowley and play the parts over and over again until I could get them under my fingers.  As I didn’t have a lot of social obligations for things I needed to do if I wasn’t in school or working on jobs my dad gave me,  I had a guitar in my hand and played a LOT of guitar (and picked up every bad habit a self-taught player could learn).

During this time, I organized Battle of the Bands through the Yorker club, the New York State historical Society, partially as a way to play but more because my dad was a faculty adviser for the group and would be there to see me play.  He didn’t go to any of the performances I had outside of those events and always assumed I’d grow out of the guitar thing.  He was bitterly opposed to me going to school for music. To give you some perspective how deep this ran, two years ago we were talking on the phone and he said, “You know I finally realized that you’re really serious about this music thing.  You’re probably never going to give it up are you?”

I get it now.  He wanted the best for me and in his mind the best for me was a stable job, home and family – none of which he saw in a career in music (looking back at this today I would say he’s 99.9% correct about that as well.  If those things are of value to you – you will have to make them work despite a career in music not because of it.

My mom on the other hand, was the one who championed what I did.  She supported me and told me that I needed to try to do my best at whatever I did.  In the end, my parents were there when I needed them and I couldn’t have gotten into Berklee without them.

Lesson two – No person is an island.  You need to have at least one person to help champion your decisions while you establish your path.

I wasn’t able to play guitar in high school bands because there was only one guitar chair and it went to the older players there.  I finally got to play in the Jazz band in my senior year (Yio was in concert band that year.  This is what happens when you’re in a school with 800 students K-12 – you get hand-me downs until your last day).  I was given charts for things like Chick Corea’s “Spain” with no explanation of what to do for rhythm (“How do I play this chord?”  “I don’t know”, the band teacher replied, “you’re the one who plays guitar.”) or lead or what was expected of me in the band.  With no information at hand,  I had to try to figure it out on my own.  Again – this is pre-internet – so my days were spent at the library trying to find out what a 7b9 chord was.  The Grove music dictionary I had access to wasn’t particularly helpful in this area.  This lead to a nightmare concert, and a feeling that Jazz was somehow beyond me.

Lesson three – mindset is everything.  If you don’t believe you can do something, you’ll never be able to do it with that mindset.

Somewhere in my Junior year, I picked up a copy of Musician magazine because my guitar god at the time, Yngwie Malmsteen was on the cover, and saw an ad for Berklee School of Music.  “You can go to school for music?”  I lead a sheltered life.  If you removed our cars, electricity and rotary dial phones we would have essentially been Amish.  I didn’t even know that going to school to play guitar was a possibility.   That became etched in my brain.  Again, since this was pre-internet you couldn’t go any look at something online to get a sense about it.  I sent away for some admissions material.  I took a trip and visited my friend Bob who was going to school there and we ended up seeing the midnight screening of an epic of American Film making, “Street Trash”.  Man was I sold!!  Sign me up.  This is the school I need to go to and the city I need to be in.

My high school wouldn’t release a transcript to me (and I didn’t know enough to fight it) so I had to give my Berklee application to them and they sent it off with the transcript.  I got a rejection letter in the mail.  It turns out the high school guidance office didn’t include my senior classes on the transcript, so Berklee rejected my application and said I’d have to re-submit.  We resubmitted and Berklee said that they’d already accepted too many guitarists into the program.  I’d either have to take the 5-week program or audition.  Well, my dad was violently opposed to me paying money to “take a God-damn summer music camp”, so I had to audition.  (Note:  auditioning now is the norm but at the time NO ONE auditioned to get into school.  Once I got there I found only 3 other people in my time there who had to audition to get in).

Again this is all pre-internet so there were no online resources to determine what Major 7 chords were.  There were chords, sight reading and a performance piece.  I went to the library and looked up all the information I could.  I created a book of my own chord voicings based on what I found there and learned Steve Vai’s final portion of “Eugene’s Trick Bag” for my audition piece.

Lesson four – when you face what is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle you can either make excuses or make it work.

I had a meeting with an admissions counselor at 9 am in Boston (a 4-hour drive away) and my performance audition at 10.  I stayed up until about 1 am working on the piece and my mom said, “You better get some sleep we have a long drive tomorrow.”  I went to bed.

I was laying on the bed and it took a while to go to sleep.  I remember waking up and my underwear were soaked.  “Did I just pee myself?”  Nope.  The heater for the waterbed heated through the liner and now the bed was leaking all over the floor (and precariously close to the power strip).  As I got out of bed, I also got the single worse charlie-horse I’ve ever gotten in my life.  I was pounding on the walls trying to get my parents to help, dancing around in a desperate (and futile) attempt to walk off the charlie horse for the better part of 5-6 minutes before they finally heard me.

My parents woke up and we ran a garden hose down the front set of stairs and out of the house.  My mom started to siphon the water at the bottom of the stairs and got a mouth full of bed-water which included the chemicals they use to prevent algae build up.  This resulted in chemical burns in her mouth which had to suck on the 4 1/2 hour drive each way to Boston.

We finally drained the bed around 3 am and I had to take a shower and go to the audition.  I slept a bit on and off on the way down.  The pressure was on.  In a bid to not leave myself an out – I didn’t apply anywhere else.  If I didn’t get into Berklee, there was no plan B.

I went to the admissions interview.  I remember the admissions counselor was cute and I tried to impress her with a number of books I read but (again) growing up in a vacuum, I didn’t know how to pronounce Sarte (“Nausea” and “No Exit” were two pretty influential books for me), Camus or Kierkegaard.  At the time I’m sure I thought I was being smooth, but now years later thinking about the 5-6 random long hairs that were passing as a mustache, my mispronunciations and awkward mannerisms I want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers up over my head as I type this.  I went from there to the audition in the 1140 Boylston building by walking down a flight of stairs that felt much longer than they were.

When I got to the audition there were awards and accolades for the man I was meeting with all over the wall.  It was more than a little intimidating.  He was perfectly nice and had me run through some chords (“We don’t get a lot of people coming in with drop-4 voicings” –  I had no idea what he was talking about.  There were just the voicings I figured out based on that I could get out of the Grove dictionary.)  some scales and then my prepared piece.  Which I hacked my way through as best I could.

I thought I blew it.  I remember sitting there thinking, “I didn’t get in.  My dad is going to kill me.  What am I going to do now?”

“I hear some promise in that.  I think you could probably figure it out and get tings together here.”

“Does that mean I got in?”

“Well, I have to give the recommendation to admissions but yes – you got in.”

“Oh my God!  I could kiss you.”

“Please don’t.”

Somehow, I made it through the audition and I got in.  We called my dad from a pay phone in Boston and drove back.

Lesson five – when your back is up against the wall you’ll find out very quickly just how bad you want something. 

In this case, I wanted nothing more than to play guitar.

I was incredibly excited.  I knew I was going to get my ass kicked, but anticipated learning a lot as well.

In Part II –

  • From the Farm to the Fusion Farm.
  • What’s it like to go to a music college?
  • Working for a livin’ – Band(s) in Boston.
  • The Escape Plan.
  • Books and life pre-and post music grad school
  • The Escape plan Part II

I hope this helps – or is at least amusing!

As always, thanks for reading!

-SC

2 thoughts on “The Accidental Path To Authorship – Part I – Angry Guitar

  1. Thanks for name dropping me for Rime of the Ancient Luthier. …
    A terrific bio piece of which I knew only a few details.
    Btw. ..”basically Amish” is an amazing description. …should be the title of the first volume of your autobiography

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