This is the story of my evolution as a lead guitarist. I’ve used audio and video recordings, and in some cases, full transcriptions to tell it. It’s, basically, a guitar solo memoir.
My primary purpose here is self-reflection. I want to be honest about who I am as a player and how I’ve gotten here so that I can continue moving forward as a musician. Another purpose is to connect with other artists and musicians. I’d love to know some of your stories, too.
I decided long ago, at the age of fifteen or so, to be a lead guitarist. I’ve been at it ever since and I’ve never stopped. My playing, as far as I can tell, has improved markedly in this time. Today, I consider myself to be a pretty competent player.
Nonetheless, some of these recordings, especially from my early days, are quite embarrassing. The overzealous posturing, gratuitous headbanging, and bad news playing of my teenage metal days is especially painful for me to revisit.
Despite the fits and starts of my guitar adolescence, I quite like some of the solos here, I hope that you like them, too. So, enjoy, and try not to laugh too hard at my hair.
Throughout my musical career, I’ve record myself compulsively. I have a catalog of recorded material that stretches back to the early 1990’s beginning with recordings of me playing by myself in my bedroom.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to locate my earliest recordings for this post so I can only come on line with my story about four years in.
In 1994, while I was in tenth grade, me and my friend Bryan Kinney formed a band. (As it happens, Bryan and I still play in a band–making him my longest-standing musical collaborator.) Before this, I had done some jamming and noodling with my buddies, but never with a singer. Bryan was deft at singing and with songwriting and he could play guitar and piano with style and confidence. With him, I was finally able to map my guitar skills onto the format of a song.
Starting in the eleventh grade, Bryan and I began playing more regularly and with a steady progression towards heavy metal. Metallica was our favorite band, so we learned and played many of their songs. As a consequent, I spent a lot of time with my Metallica tab books. Here I am doing my best Kirk Hammett impersonation:
“I Don’t Care” (Solo) 1995
I ended up lingering much too long on metal. At age twenty, when I should have been learning other forms of music, I was still playing metal–only now it was death metal.
Death metal is a gratuitous form of music whose primary contact point is anger. What’s more, it seems that it’s more of an Olympic event than an art form.
Over-the-top technical displays are, I believe, antithetical to the point of music. It seems to me that communicating complex emotions like love and empathy is more to the point of music than some self-congratulatory display of technical prowess. Negative emotions like anger and rage should be in the purview of music. But metal’s fixation on this feeling is positively unhealthy.
I wish I could go back and talk to my dumb ass. The conversation with Metal Me would probably go something like this:
Me: Hey man, how’s it going?
Metal Me: Who the hell are you?
Me: It’s me–I’m you from the future.
Metal Me: No way! That’s so metal!
Me: Take it easy, buddy. It’s not all good news. All the girls from high school also have time machines, so they still won’t sleep with us.”
Metal Me: Aw, man!
Me: Anyway, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to talk style. Particularly, your style and how bad it is. This isn’t easy for me to say, but here goes: You’re an idiot.
Metal Me: Dude, you’re being really uncool to us.
Me: Just shut up and listen, would ya? I’m serious, man. The music you play and the way you play it makes just about anyone who hears it want to run screaming in the other direction–especially women.
Metal Me: No way, man, chicks dig me.
Me: No they don’t.
Metal Me: Are you sure about that?
Me: A thousand percent.
Metal Me: Okay, fine, what should I do?
Me: You need stop wasting your time playing this nonsense and play something else. Preferably something that doesn’t sound like a pterodactyl and a Sasquatch taking turns making me sad. You know, you could try playing music that doesn’t sound like cats being put through a wood chipper.
Metal Me: Yuck!
Me: Exactly. Also, while I’m here, I might as well tell you that you need to stop wearing things that are three times too big for you. You look stupid. Which, of course, brings us back to that women thing.
Metal Me: Whatever dude, this Slayer t-shirt is dope.
Me: No it’s not. Look, buddy, I gotta go. Try to take it easy, would ya?
Metal Me: Yeah, I gotta go, too–I have to work on my sweep arpeggios.
Me: (smacks forehead) Of course you do.
In actuality, there would probably be a lot more grabbing and shaking involved in this conversation. Nevertheless, Metal Me is me; I was him. I would not be the player I am today without my season of metal.
Here I am deep in my death metal days:
“Death Metal” (Solo) 1997
I grew up soon enough. Later that same year, Metal Me stopped headbanging long enough to learn how to read music and how to play classical guitar. With these efforts I managed to get accepted as a guitar major at IUP.
At IUP I studied hard, practiced a lot, and did well with my studies. There were many challenges along the way, of course, but I did my best in every situation. I sang in the choir having never sung seriously before and I auditioned for–and made it into–the Jazz Ensemble having never played jazz before.
The choir was great for me but it was the Jazz Ensemble that had the greatest maturing effect on my musicianship. Here I was surrounded by players and readers who were quick and deft with notated music. I was rudimentary, at best, with reading and my playing was still very much work-in-progress.
I compensated by practicing compulsively.
My hard work paid off. By mid semester I was reading chord charts with some fluidity and my jazz improvisation skills were improving. For that semester’s concert I got to play a solo for a standard called, “Win, Place, Or Show.”
Here it is:
“Win, Place, Or, Show” (Solo) 2000
This solo was not improvised but carefully choreographed. Each lick and phrase was mapped perfectly onto each chord. The reason why I wrote a solo for “Win, Place Or, Show” instead of just improvising one, was because I had fallen on my face badly trying to solo over these changes during class. I had tried using the box-shaped pentatonic pattern and played what amounted to a bad note symphony. I was quite embarrassed, so I vowed to work on improvising.
I’m still working on improvising. The endgame (if one could ever imagine one for music) for me, is to be able to solo harmonically–in the fashion of my “Win, Place, Or. Show” solo–in real time. I manage this on occasion, but it’s still something that’s hard for me.
While at IUP, I also played in a rock band. I met the other guys my first day on campus while wandering Cogswell Hall (the music building). I heard some clean, ultra-tight rock music coming from the auditorium so I went in to have a look. On stage, there was a tall, serious looking guy playing acoustic guitar and singing. He was being accompanied by an equally serious looking bass player and drummer.
Dang, these guys could play!
As it happened, they were looking for a guitar player. I auditioned later that same week. By the second or third week of class (after some confusion caused by my haircut between the first and second audition) I was the new guitarist for Shell–the tightest band on campus!
It’s hard to emphasize enough the impact Shell had on my playing. Scott Haskitt, the tall, serious lead singer I previously mentioned, was a tremendous musician, a virtuoso drummer, a clever and creative guitarist, and an excellent song writer. I had to try my best to keep up with him.
Shell was in the middle of a recording project (an album called “Crowning Blue”) when I came on board. I got to play two guitar solos on this record, here’s one of them:
“Lush Of Tears” (Solo) 1999
I continued on with the band for about a year or so before displaying one of my weaker character traits–that of blaming others and their style for my own musical shortcomings.
My new interest in Phish and The Grateful Dead made me want to be in a jam band and to write music in this style. Shell wasn’t a jam band and I simply wasn’t in the same league writing-wise with Scott to contribute to Shell. I flaked out and quit the band like I was taking my ball from the musical playground and going home.
Time machines, anyone?
I wish that I had handled the situation more maturely. There was certainly a better way to communicate my need to collaborate and write without having to quit the band. I should have kept playing with Scott, at least for the rest of my time at IUP. Scott and I were estranged for a minute there but, I’m happy to say, we remain friends to this day.
As I was in the midst of this musical soul searching, there was someone from my past also getting into jam band music–Bryan Kinney. Having, both of us, long since shed our metal coats, it was time to start collaborating again. Bryan and I, along with some old and new friends, started Grand Vision Channel in the summer of 1999.
Looking back, it seems that we may have just exchanged our coat of metal for a coat of patchouli. Gone was much of the discipline that I had know in Shell; GVC rehearsal was always a party. Often, our non-band friends would join us for rehearsal to throw down. These practices/parties were anything but productive musically.
However, we did manage to record an album live in our rehearsal space. Some of the playing I did on this live-to-tape record was pretty good despite employing what has to be the strangest approach to tone know to man. For this recording, I used a jumbo acoustic guitar with a sound-hole pick-up played through an electric guitar amp. Here is the result:
“Way Out Of Here” (Solo) 1999
On “Way Out Of Here,” I probably only had a rough idea of what I was going to play, and so, much of this solo is improvised. I got pretty lucky but didn’t quite stick the landing–those last two notes are dumb. Another thing about this solo is that I seem to be back to wanking in a box like I was in my metal band again. I consider this to be a lazy solo. I should have come up with something better.
Jonny Southern joined Grand Vision Channel in early 2000. He’s been a long time collaborator and band mate of mine ever since. (Both Jonny and Bryan are in my current band–The Williams Band.) With Jonny’s prowess for harmony and keys, the band sounded better than ever.
Here is the new and improved Grand Vision Channel playing a tripped out song called, “Throw Down At The Acid House.”
“Throw Down At The Acid House” (Solo) 2000
With this solo I am exploring the idea of an A and a B section. Apparently, I liked it enough to teach it to Bryan because we’re here playing it in parallel octaves. The result is pretty neat sounding but all I can hear is the sloppiness of alcohol.
Grand Vision Channel ran its course and the band dissolved sometime in the spring of 2000. It was time for me to move on, so me and GVC’s bass player–Tim Fitzgerald–joined up with his old band mates to form a new band called Still Small Voice.
With Still Small I was introduced to another long time collaborator of mine–Justin Sellers–a guitar playing, singing, and songwriting expert. Justin complimented my playing with his rock solid rhythm and seemingly super-human knack for song architecture. I responded to this new found musical tightness by playing with a barely controlled volley of overly-effected fury.
Needless to say, I sometimes had mixed results. I got lucky sometimes, though. Here is one of those lucky leads I played on a live album we recorded at Nick’s Fat City in 2001.
“The Evening Is Electric” (Solo) 2001
Growing up is hard to do, and so, it was Justin and Still Small Voice who received the next dose of my immaturity. Like I had done with Shell a few years back, I flaked out on those guys by citing creative differences.
I wanted to be in a jam band again.
Grand Vision Channel 2, as we called it, was perhaps my first mature experience as a player. At age 26, I was finally ready to introduce Shell-like discipline to my band mates. In 2003, Kinney, Southern, and I resurrected Grand Vision Channel by joining forces with drummer Mo Heine.
Finally, I had my jam band.
During 2003 and 2004 we rehearsed, recorded, and performed quite a bit. I produced and engineered our album–a great learning experience for me. It’s here that I started the habit of doubling my leads that continues to this day. For this next solo, you’ll hear that I first double, than harmonize, my lead part . I believe this to be one of my best efforts at lead guitar.
“Under The Sun” (Solo) 2004
Recording the GVC 2 record was a watershed moment for me. It was here that I finally realized my song-within-a-song philosophy of lead guitar.
Hitting My Stride
Grand Vision Channel dissolved (again) sometime in the year 2005. It was then that I rekindled my musical partnership with Justin from Still Small Voice. This time around, we formed an acoustic cover band that would become my primary income and new training ground.
Here I am with the Vagrants playing a guitar solo to the song “Land Down Under” by Men At Work.
“Land Down Under” (Solo) 2006
It was with The Vagrants that I discovered the power of chasing the chords as an improvisation strategy. For here, in the forty-to-fifty-song-a-night territory, it was too much to know every guitar solo note-for-note or to work them out meticulously as I had done with my original bands. So, I began instead to improvise nearly every solo I played by paying attention to the chords I was playing over.
There is no substitute for this experience when it comes to learning how to improvise. I quickly learned that harmonic, or chord to chord, improvisation (what I call chasing the chords) was my best bet for playing something good.
Sometime during my tenure with The Vagrants, I found time to write and produce some of my solo material. Here is a song I wrote called “The Boxcar Hobo Turnaround” that features a pretty good chord chaser. Here I am realizing my ambition to play like I grew up in West Virginia. I just can’t get enough of that all-out shit kicking, hillbilly sound. Nobody chases chords like the country guys, and with Boxcar, I am doing my best impersonation of Nashville players.
“The Boxcar Hobo Turnaround” (Solo) 2007
Playing music with your significant other can be a very rewarding experience if you can handle the nuances of mixing the politics of a band with the politics of a relationship. I have, from time to time, managed this subtle dance.
As always, I was there with my recording device to capture it. Here I am playing with The Martha Jane Band back in August of 2009. This recording, from a song called “Jack And His Fragile Crown,” is from a well-attended show we played at The Thunderbird Cafe. The solo’s origin is from a show we played at Club Cafe a few weeks before where I improvised this lead pretty much as it is here. I liked it so much that I learned it note-for-note.
“The Tale Of Jack And His Fragile Crown” (Solo) 2009
From December 2007 until sometime in 2010 I was the lead guitarist for Ben Hardt And His Symphony. Playing with Ben was another experience like that of playing with Scott Haskitt–I got to learn a lot from a great talent. For it was with Ben that I learned how to bounce my delay and to exercise my emerging skill set of singing harmony. I finally became the sideman I’ve always wanted to be.
Here I am playing with Ben at Club Cafe in May of 2008. We’re playing his song Avalanche. This tune’s outro figure features every bit of my sideman skill set: harmony singing, bounce delay figuration, and a lead guitar part. Being a fine lead guitarist himself, Ben would often teach me his leads note-for-note, this is one of them:
“Avalanche” (Solo) 2008
The guitar solo memoir you’ve been enjoying ends (for now) with The Williams Band–my current band. Jonny, Bryan, and I joined up with powerhouse multi-instrumentalist/singer Brett Staggs in early 2011. It’s been my most satisfying band experience ever.
We’ve had two recording projects so far: an album and an EP. I’ll start with the album.
“Forty-Eight Hours At The Pink Flamingo” was a live-to-tape recording made over a two day period in a studio called The Pink Flamingo–hence the name. Knowing that I wouldn’t have time to fuck around in the studio, I carefully wrote all my solos. I think this is one of my better ones:
The Williams Band next recording, an EP called “Calmer Than You Are,” was a little more ambitious. We decided to get Pittsburgh producer extraordinaire, Sean McDonald, to produce it for us. It was quite the liberating experience to seed all control of my playing to an outside agent.
Here’s an example from our song “Women.” I didn’t make this part; nor did I play it ever. It was manufactured by Sean from takes of me playing to other parts of the song. I think it’s fantastic.
“Women” (Guitar Figure) 2012
I also did some traditional soloing on “Calmer Than You Are.” This lead, from a song called “Stick Around,” is one of my few recorded slide solos. I pieced it together with Sean’s oversight in the studio. It is, effectively, Sean wrangling my musical thoughts into submission:
“Stick Around” (Solo) 2012
In addition to these two recorded efforts, The Williams Band has played lots of live shows. Some of my favorite solos come from these live efforts. For my last example I’d like to share with you what I consider to be my best recorded guitar solo–the solo to the song “Burd.”
Composition-ally, it’s actually a collaboration between me and Jonny Southern, The Williams Band’s bass player. He wrote the first half and I improvised the second. Here it is live at Club Cafe:
“Burd” (Solo) 2013
Thank you for reading. I hope that you found lots to connect with me here. Like I said at the top of this post, I’d love to hear your stories, too. Let me know with a long comment.