Hooked on Bluegrass

Andy Alexis

When I was in third grade in 1964, my cool 16 year old cousin Randy came to live with us for reasons I was far too young to understand. I idolized him, and one thing he did that I really liked was that he played the guitar, and at the time, I thought the guitar looked like a good alternative to the piano lessons I was obliged to take (I was pretty good on piano though). Later, when my sister and I were in junior high, we both were given the chance to take guitar lessons from the neighbor of one of my dad's coworkers, Mr. Capalbo. We had a Sears Silvertone guitar, and I think it would be stretching it a lot to even call it a barely functional guitar. My sister always practiced, but I never did, even though Mr. Capalbo tried valiantly to choose material I was interested in: Mel Bay's Teenage Guitar (which consisted of boogie woogie bass lines played on guitar) to Tijuana Brass Easy Guitar. Finally, in a desperate attempt to get me playing, he sold my parents on the idea of getting a decent guitar, a Guild small bodied F20 with a beautiful sunburst.

Flash forward 4 years, Mr Capalbo finally gave up on us, but I was a senior in high school, and a charismatic youth minister had joined our church that played guitar. He inspired me, so I took the chords I remembered from Mr Capalbo and that beautiful sunburst Guild that had been untouched under the piano and started learning John Denver and Cat Stevens songs out of books. I finally figured out that practice is only practice if it isn't fun, and the lessons I took stuck with me. The next fall, I was enrolled in college in Riverside, and met the teacher who would have the biggest influence on me, Peter Roehling of Redlands, (former Picking magazine contributor), who taught me most of all there is nothing that you can't play on guitar or on banjo. Peter offered group banjo and guitar lessons through a recreational program at UC Riverside. I think I signed up for his class for all but one or two quarters over 4 years. He taught me to play fingerstyle guitar; my guitar playing took a big leap when after lessons from him. "Spikedrivers Blues" from Mississippi John Hurt was the first thing I learned from him. He has always drawn his music from a wide variety of sources, from pop music to jazz to classical. He plays a wide variety of music; he is very good at both flatpicking AND fingerpicking on guitar; he is very good at bluegrass banjo AND clawhammer banjo. He exposed me to a lot of different types of music I had never heard before; old time music, bluegrass, country blues, etc. etc. Even now he plays jazz and show tunes on clawhammer banjo, and it works really well.

After I exhausted his guitar repertoire, I sold a cheap electric guitar I had to buy an Aida banjo, and Peter started me on the long road I am still traveling on. If you ever hear me playing Wipeout, Pinball Wizard, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I've Just Seen a Face, or Finnish Polkas on clawhammer banjo, you know whom to blame.

(posted 2/17/2008)

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