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What Guitar Playing Means to Me

One musician’s journey.

By the third grade I had life figured out: Girls wanted to be with the guitar player in the band, and guys wanted to be him … although John Taylor, the bassist in Duran Duran, seemed to be the exception.

So my dad (who was a lighting designer with some serious rock ’n’ roll cred — he had, among other things, created Gene Simmons’ flying harness) hooked me up with an electric bass to help set me on my path for future spreads in Tiger Beat. After that, I can’t tell you how many times I faked an illness in school so I could get sent home and play along to MTV videos, but my mom can vouch. A few years later, when The Power Station came out with “Some Like It Hot” and “Bang A Gong,” I realized that I was going to have to up my game if I wanted to miss out on class that day. I can still remember seeing Andy Taylor — dressed in all black with this killer cross-chested bullet armor thing that would surely make my next Christmas list — shredding all over the place and doing all these whammy bar tricks I had never seen before. I was like, “What kind of sorcery is this?” Soon after, my mom finally fell victim to my incessant Jedi Mind Tricks and got me a six-string electric guitar.

My life would never be the same again.

Soon enough I was rocking my first band in middle school, somehow getting thwarted into the role of lead singer and lead guitar player. High school followed. My guitar was everything to me and my mom knew it. Every time I messed up in class or didn’t show up to flip burgers at my after-school job, she promised the guitar would go away, but guess what? It never did. Here we were, these 15- and 16-year old kids making demo tapes, playing clubs, somehow winning every Battle of the Bands competition, opening for countless touring national acts throughout parts of Texas, even getting some radio airplay. By the time I hit my senior year we were showcasing for major producers and record labels.

After a deal fell through with one bigshot producer, I realized that being the fastest player in your high school could only get you so far, so my focus switched to songwriting. This forced me to take a whole other approach to guitar, but it proved to be my wheelhouse and it helped my band win VH-1’s Rock Across America Best Unsigned Artist competition in the U.S. We were flown to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where we got to open for John Fogerty.

But even though I got to tour and work with some amazing producers and engineers, as the years went on it somehow wasn’t fun anymore. With increasing frequency, the promises I was made turned into empty ones. The music business had officially unplugged more than my guitar — it unplugged my soul. For the first time in my life, I resented my guitar. I ended up selling most of my gear and walked away from music for almost a decade. I even switched over to talk radio.

Even though I became more than bitter, my guitar never gave up on me. She pleaded with me to take her out from underneath my bed so she could help breathe some life back into this “shell” of a human being. Then one day the thought hit me: Instead of chasing elusive record deals, maybe I should try just enjoying playing music for a change. Whatever happened to being motivated to play guitar because it was fun? Why should I keep reminiscing with my ex-bandmates about how we built our own stage ramps in the garage and thought Tiki torches could work for pyro?

That’s when I did it: I convinced myself to audition for a ’90s cover band in town. I was beyond nervous because I hadn’t played guitar in years. But I did my homework, and I hadn’t even gotten halfway home when my phone rang, saying I landed the gig. Just like that I was back on the horse!

Soon I was having fun again and being pushed outside of my comfort zone. As my confidence grew I found myself doing things on the guitar I was never able to do before, even back in the day. Then I decided to put together a Duran Duran tribute band and the next thing you know we’re getting all sorts of attention. For years I was this down-in-the-dumps has-been that never was, then all of a sudden I’m being invited to NAMM and getting to jam with some of my boyhood idols!

My life had come full circle.

We all have to grow up, pay bills and become responsible adults. But the moment we let that little kid in us die — the same little kid who used to rock out in front of the mirror pretending to be whoever it is you wanted to be — it can cause severe damage to your soul. So if you’ve lost your inspiration, go find your inner Andy Taylor and rediscover how your guitar can make you happy!

 

You might also want to check out:

What Playing Keyboards Means to Me

What Drumming Means to Me



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bart Van Bemmel is a screenwriter and musician who performs in the tribute bands "The Wild Boys: The Duran Duran Experience" and "Lithium: The ’90s Experience."

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