Soon after the Community College Beginning Guitar classes ended, I signed up for private lessons with the instructor, Mike Kolber. The lessons took place at his home, which was only about a mile from mine. He had a beautifully finished, very comfortable basement that was like a second living room, only instead of being totally focused on the television, like most living rooms, this one was focused on the guitar. He had several small amplifiers, a few electric guitars and an acoustic guitar, all on guitar stands, 2 music stands, a couple chairs, and lots of shelves full of music books, LPs, and some CDs. There was also a reel to reel tape machine and a very elaborate looking stereo system. It was a musician’s paradise.
A few months earlier, after the first Community College session, I started bringing my D’Agostino electric guitar to the classes. It was harder to hear because there was no amplifier, but Mike said it was a great guitar to learn to play on, a good solid instrument with good action. At the first class, Mike told me that the steel strings I had on my acoustic guitar which was built for nylon strings would eventually tear the bridge off. He was right. Just a week or so before my first private lesson, I opened the acoustic guitar case and found the bridge had become separate from the face of the guitar. A smarter, more careful kid would have taken the steel strings off the thing immediately after hearing that this could happen. Not me. I put the guitar away and stopped thinking about it.
I was extra excited because I was bringing my new guitar to the lesson. My slick looking, Kramer. I opened the case and pulled out the guitar. “Oh no.” he said. “Is that one of those Floyd Rose floating tremolos?” “Yeah!” I said excitedly. “Those things are nothin’ but trouble. Let me see that!” I handed him the guitar. He plugged it in and started to play. Man, everything he played sounded amazing. He was spitting out riffs and climbing and descending bluesy scales and mixing chords and single note stuff all up and down the neck with mad flavor. “Not bad. This is a nice guitar. The only problem you might have is this. A lot of what I’m gonna teach you involves being able to rest your picking hand somewhere. Usually the bridge is a good place to rest the side of your hand, but look, ya see? If I do that with this guitar, it’s gonna fall out of tune. You hear that? That fluctuation in pitch?” He was muted picking a chord and I could, in fact, hear the thing drifting in and out of pitch. “What is this thing even for? So you can hook up a whammy bar and yank it all over the place? I mean, I’m gonna teach you vibrato anyway. Listen.” He handed me my guitar back and plugged in his; a beautiful black Stratocaster with a blond neck and a white pick guard and 3 white Fender Lace Sensor pickups. A real beauty. He played and as he did, he started bending the notes rapidly back and forth. “That’s vibrato. You can just do it with your fingers.” Then, he vibrato’d a whole chord. “Listen. Hear that? You can do all of this with your fingers. You don’t need all that fancy stuff. All it’s gonna do is give you tuning problems. In fact, You should see if you can lock that thing down. Is there a lock on it? So that it won’t move? If there is, you should do that, because that thing’s gonna give you all kinds of problems.” “Aw man.” I answered. I was bummed. I knew then that I’d bought the wrong guitar. I started trying to play something resting my hand on the body of the guitar just next to the bridge, but I was nervous and not warmed up in any way, so it sounded stiff and like ass. “We’ll figure it out!” He said. “Overall, It’s a great guitar. It plays nice. It sounds great. The pickups on it are great. It’s just that bridge might mess you up. And it’s totally unnecessary! Everything that thing does, I’m gonna teach you to do with your fingers.” I started to relax a little bit. “ Why don’t you warm up? Play some of the warm up exercises from class, and I’m gonna get some pages together for ya.”
I sat there and started to do my warm up exercises. They were just simple 4 fingers on 4 frets alternating the picking up and down to get limber, to get some flexibility goin’. “I’ve got some more exercises for ya.” He said, organizing photocopied pages into a folder. I’ve also got a bunch of songs that we’re gonna work on. Then, I also want you to think about what you might like to learn to play. Maybe if you have some songs in mind that you want to check out, let me know. I’ll see if I can find the sheet music for them or maybe we can just write ‘em out ourselves by ear so that way you can practice them” I said, “Yeah! I brought a book with me!” It was a book of David Bowie sheet music for guitar/piano/vocal. I handed it to Mike. He started to flip through the pages. “This is good…This is cool. Yeah, there’s LOTS in here that I can probably teach you. Great! Do you have one in mind?” “What do you think about Starman?” I asked. He flipped through the book again until he came to Starman. “Yeah…Yeah” He turned the page. “Yeah, I think you can handle this. The turnaround looks a little tricky, but I’ll bet we can crack it.”
For the rest of the hour we worked on posture, chords, picking technique, the fact that I needed to clip my nails, and dozens of other nuances and tips that all instantly made my playing better, like, I could literally hear that I was playing better at the end of the lesson than at the beginning. He said, “Alright, here’s what I want you to work on. He handed me some more pages. The first said “Cocaine”. I vaguely knew that there was a classic rock song called Cocaine. He said, “Are you familiar with this? Cocaine? By Eric Clapton?” I nodded and made a face like, “of course I know all about this”, ‘cause I’m a total bullshitter. He said, “this is a great song for you to work on this bar chord that’s based on the open A chord.” He pointed to the photocopied tablature. “Like this.” He played the iconic rhythm. “Play along with me.” I started. It sounded rough and jagged at first, but eventually I found it, the fingering and the groove. We locked in together and it sounded really big, really full. Then, suddenly, he hit the switch on his guitar and his tone stepped up just into the warm, bright, vaguely overdriven, yet buttery and stratocastery sound as he shifted gears and started to play blistering, blues laden majesty over my steady rhythm. It was magical. I was suddenly the rhythm guitarist creating the space for some masterful lead playing. It was more fun than I can describe.
After that went on for a while, He said. “Alright, lets try something different. Do you know what an arpeggio is?” I shook my head. “When you play a chord, you usually strum the whole thing at once. An arpeggio is when you play the notes individually, like this” He showed me. “Wonderful Tonight, by Eric Clapton is a great example of this.” We worked on the tune for a bit. It was much harder than Cocaine. The chords were simpler, but the picking hand had to be very precise for it to sound right. For as much of a ball breaker as Mike could be sometimes, he had an infinite well of patience. He was endlessly encouraging.
After a while toward the end of the lesson, He asked if I remembered the 12 bar blues pattern that we learned in the group class. “Absolutely”, I answered. It was the thing I now played relentlessly whenever anyone was listening because when I did, it sounded like I knew how to play the guitar. It was a thing that was in the American collective consciousness. People always responded to it because it’s universally familiar. He then pulled out a THIRD Clapton tune called Lay Down Sally. “This is a great example of the 12 bar blues structure applied in a song!” I was thinking, “Wow, man. This is quite a bit of Clapton.”