It was the Spring of 1978, and I had just turned 13 years old a few months earlier. I had been spending time listening to a cassette tape making the rounds at my Indiana school. It was as bootleg of a new band playing their last local show in Pasadena, because they were about to hit the big-time.
That first Van Halen album blew me away! In fact, it impressed me so much that I took it to my grandmother’s house and asked her to listen to it with me.
I was particularly close with my grandmother. I used to joke and say that, “the stork left me at the wrong house.” It was something that was viewed as cute. But the hard truth was that I felt closer to my grandmother because she would encourage me to talk, and she would listen to me.
We would converse like adults. The time I spent with her made me who I am today.
“You’ve just GOT to hear this new guitarist and this new band!” I could barely contain myself, as grandma lifted the dust cover from her Hi-Fi stereo system.
We actually listened to both sides of the album. The look on grandma’s face informed me that she was genuinely listening to the album, like a musician would. Active listening is the name.
This is precisely what she was doing, since she was a 7th generation bass player. I would later borrow her bass rig when I had my college band in the mid-80s.
Long before this age, I had declared that I wanted to be a pro musician when I grew up. For the majority of my life, grandma served as a mentor to guide my philosophies to maximize my chances.
After the last song ended, grandma had a few things to say. I can still remember hearing the first words out of her mouth.
“You do NOT want to copy this guitar player!” Grandma knew that I already played guitar, an instrument that I had added to my arsenal years ago. At age 13, I played drums, guitar, bass, keyboard, trumpet, and more.
Why not? Why wouldn’t I want to emulate this incredible player?
“Playing like this is VERY impressive. However, you don’t want to emulate this player. His sound is so unique that everyone and their mother is going to try to be just like him. The problem is that he’s already doing it well, so why would you want to try to do it better than him?“
“The solo guitarist wants the spotlight all the time. While they seem powerful, their true power lies in the platform on which they stand: Drums and Bass! If either of these players messes up, the spotlit guitar god will instantly look like a buffoon.“
She proceeded to compliment the band and the songwriting.
“The guys and parts you really need to listen to is the rhythm section. They really know what they’re doing. And the songwriting is impeccable. A flashy guitar solo without strong music underneath it can only go so far.“
She then sold the idea of me being an 8th generation bassist.
“Besides, the drums and bass generate frequencies that cause women’s pelvic bones to vibrate. They know who’s turning them on.”
Yea, grandma went for the hard sell by using my pubescent mind to get me to focus on drums and bass.
I played guitar in high school anyway. I was in the Jazz Band. In the Pep Band, for basketball games, I would play the lead solo for “Beat It” by Michael Jackson. That was fun. While I can learn solos, I never did focus on shredding.
I moved to Hollywood in 1986 to tackle my music career pursuits, almost 8 years after that conversation.
By the early 90s, Guitar Institute of Technology [GIT] was pumping out Van Halen copies, and it got annoying. I’d place ads for guitarists that would say “No GIT, please.” People would call me and be very angry, because they spent a great deal of time and money at GIT learning how to shred like Van Halen. I could only tell them, “Van Halen already did it. I see no need to do it again.”
I’m glad that era is passed, and we are now in an age where new guitarists are thumping on 8-strings. They seem somewhat inspired by Edward Van Halen, but are going their own route, or at least the route that is currently popular. There’s still room for the 6-stringers, so don’t give up. Whatever you play, originality is key.
Through it all, I was under no delusions. I didn’t think that I’d be the next Van Halen, Hendrix, Peart, Jamerson, etc. What I did see for myself, however, was a future in being a supporting player in a band. I could be the drummer who isn’t really well known, but who is always working.
IN THE END
Looking back, having my focus on songwriting and performing as part of a cohesive rhythm section was the best thing that I could have done for myself. I became a value-added drummer by learning how to sing while playing, and also run samplers, sequencers, and other pieces of a show at the same time.
I even ran a mixing board for one of my bands. A drummer who can do multiple tasks is of great value.
Grandma’s warning to not become a shredding guitar player was important. Keep in mind that this was 1978, and I did not get my High-Functioning Autism diagnosis until 2017.
Grandma knew, even then, that I was easily distracted, especially by music-related things. She helped me maintain my focus as I worked toward becoming a solid player who could step into a wide variety of situations.
It was probably the most useful musical advice that I had ever received.