One day about 30 years ago my grandfather,
Papa Charlie, a short, stocky man with a bald top and a gray mustache,
came into the playroom where I was making loud noises on an electric
bass guitar. To my shock, he installed himself on the throne of the
drum set he gave to my older brother and started playing along. I knew
he used to have a band -- in fact, he had three of them, all of
which he managed and booked under the name The Original Dixieland Five.
But Dixieland belonged to another world, like Papa Charlie.
Yet right then he looked and sounded exactly like Beatles drummer Ringo
Starr -- same upright posture, same casual professionalism. Even more
disconcerting, he was listening closely to every note he played and I
played. (The kids in my band played poorly and listened worse.) Then he
said, "Nothin' to it. Four to the bar." I didn't even know what a "bar"
is, and I suspected him of putting me down. In fact he was trying to
show me that there's more to music than hanging a guitar around your
neck and waiting for a crowd of screaming girls to show up, which is
how it seemed to work for the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.
I think of Charlie now because in a way I've become like him, a veteran
part-time player. But there is a major difference between us: Unlike
Charlie's beloved Dixieland, the rock and folk music of my adolescence
hasn't gone out of fashion. On the contrary, it has spawned a wave of mature amateur musicians whose members can
be counted in the high hundreds of thousands. And I'm still one of them.
Although the assumption remains
that rock is music for kids, the fact is that Baby Boomers account for
a grossly disproportionate share of serious amateur rockers and folkies
who actually perform. Stan Jay, owner of the Mandolin
Brothers store on Staten Island, New York, and a major figure in the
northeastern acoustic music scene, says he has some 200,000 "Baby
Boomers and wartime kids" on his mailing list of "talented amateurs."
And after sifting through the available surveys, artist relations
director Dick Boak of the C. F. Martin guitar company (a leader in the
industry) concludes, "You can safely say that
close to 40 percent of the 2 million active guitar players in the U.S.
are over 50." In other words, about three-quarters of a million
Americans over 50 are still playing the Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones
tunes of their youth.
The Boomers I've jammed with in recent years include a carpenter, a
shipworker, a film producer, computer wonks, secretaries, lawyers,
journalists, and four members of my college band who took over the
stage at our 20th reunion dance. They're not hard to find -- like
smokers, they're all over the place. You might think that
differing levels of musical skill would be an obstacle, but it isn't --
not necessarily, anyway. Most rock tunes—much as with blues, bluegrass,
and country—are based on three basic chords in any given key and
require no skill in reading music to learn. The real issue is
attitude -- whether you came to play with everyone else, or prove you
coulda been Eric Clapton, if only real life didn't get in the way.
One that's out of the way, things tend to take care of themselves.
"It's amazing," says Stan Jay. "You don't even have to be friends with
the people you play with—you can play in a music festival parking lot
with total strangers and, like some kind of
religion (or shared subconscious memory of an alien abduction),
everybody knows the chords and everybody knows at least some of the
words. And when everybody involved ends the song at the same
time there's usually a brief moment of silence and then somebody says
'That was great!'—even if it really wasn't perfect."
For me, playing rock also means keeping alive a tradition that goes
back to the Mississippi Delta blues players of the pre-World War II
era. I love the Delta songs—stark and driving solo guitar and vocal
pieces—and the fact that they were made by and for working men. The great jazz banjo player Johnny St. Cyr once said,
"The average working man is very musical; playing music for him is just
relaxing." Fred McDowell, one of the key figures in the blues
revival of the 1960s, was a full-time farmer when he began to play the
guitar, and well into his 50s when he was discovered. In other words, I
don't have to quit my day gig to maintain the illusion that as I get
older, I'll get better.
About the best reason I know for
playing this stuff is to make people dance. It starts with
making yourself dance. A woman I was once married to told me
that the way I thump and slither when I play is an infantile
regression, and she was right. Even pros feel it. Jazzman Dennis
Raffelock, whom I met in Santa Cruz in the 70s and found again on Long
Island 20 years later, says playing his upright bass is like riding a
pogo stick. "The tempo's there," he explains, "all this stuff is
happening, you're bouncing along, the scenery changes."
Another reason is to have a place to go and people to go there
with. I could go to a bar and watch football, of course, but it's
not the same as getting on stage with someone and trying not to make
fools of each other. During a long and fairly lonely year on Long
Island, I hung out with a fortysomething bass player named Pete Nanos
and his guitarist brother Jim. One night they invited me to hear
them backing their favorite singer, 62-year-old Aage Bjerring, in a
band called Black Limo. Bjerring could have been my future. He was
playing a beat-up Gibson in a style typical of the unschooled but
talented amateur, full of riffs that were sometimes graceless and
sometimes brilliantly fresh, all played with the same enthusiasm.
Whether he's good or bad on a given night, he told me, the point is
"not to be afraid to fail." He wrote sweet, weird songs -- about a
"drugstore girl" with "looks that could kill … skimmin' the till," and
about another who "brushed her teeth with shaving cream." I'd call that
a nice way to tell any women in the crowd that you're interested and
Pete Nanos drives a truck for a living. He began playing in the
early 1960s, copying Kingston Trio records and playing in Greenwich
Village coffeehouses before moving on to bands with psychedelic
monikers like Wilkinson Tricycle. The groups that brought in money were
the ones he liked least. "A crushing thing," he says. "You'd leave the
day job, pack up the gear, go to play. Then you'd pack up again, come
home, sleep four hours, go to the day gig. The music sucked. It was a
For guys like Pete, music is the antithesis of work. (It's the Maynard
G. Krebs theory of artistic creation.) He no longer practices; he just
gets up and plays when the mood strikes him. Bjerring takes the same
notion a step further: "I go into a room I never
went into before and go nuts. I get immediate gratification or I get
You need a guy like Jim Nanos in a band—the player who holds it
together. Jim gained his expertise during 17 years of struggling to
make it in the music biz at Los Angeles. He never forgot one of his
bands that came close to the top, and how much he hated its members:
"It was like, 'I wouldn't have this guy to my house—and I'm playing
with him? What's wrong with this picture?'" These days, says Jim, "I
play with people I choose to play with." To
survive in the music business, you have to put up with creeps. An
amateur does not.
Bob Rotunda, a silver-haired man with burning eyes who created a swing
big band, the Stardusters, which has become famous on Long Island,
knows another reason to go on playing. One of the Stardusters' best
players lost his daughter 15 years ago in an accident and wanted to
quit the band. "I said, 'Don't quit—this is your
panacea,' " says Rotunda. " 'It'll keep you sane.'"
Yeah, it will. Once I belonged to a rock band called Men at Pause (you
had to be over 40 to join). At the time we started up, our instruments
were junk and our skills were rusty. Men at Pause never got good, but
while it lasted I went to a room once a week where nothing else
mattered but the music, as opposed to the rest of what passed for my
life. Sometimes I think that awful little band kept me alive. And that
is probably what Rotunda is doing for some of the Stardusters.
One night not long ago I found myself playing for a blues festival in
(of all places) Le Havre, France, alone on a stage with my Les Paul
electric guitar, facing about 200 people in a room built for half that
many. As I began the first tune I reminded myself what a mainstay of
the Paris scene named Paul Breslin told me—"play
it slow," not like some beginner who thinks adrenaline plus
volume equals energy. So I start to play, slowly, and Breslin
is right, it works. I'm hitting all the notes, and suddenly I'm inside the song and the crowd, hearing it
through them. A kid—a kid!—in the front row is singing along
with me. As I write, I am still in that moment. I will be there again
tonight, when I come home from work and plug in my amplifier and pick
up my guitar, as I have for 35 years and counting.
Why not you?
How to Make the Scene
You're fed up with playing for the walls and the dog and the loved ones
who know your repertoire only too well? Here's how you hook up with
folks who perform your kind of music?
Check out the local music store.
Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island in New York City, like most music
stores, maintains a bulletin board for musicians of varying skill
levels. President Stan Jay says that's the best place to find info on
music teachers, upcoming "round-robin" folk song exchange sessions at
people's homes, and groups looking for musicians who play certain
instruments or who favor a particular genre (e.g., "purple spiked
Mohawk a plus"). Or post a note saying what you do and what you're
Tip: Don't look for folkies in a shop that caters to heavy-metal freaks
and vice versa.
Sign up for workshops and
festivals. Adult-education centers such as community
colleges frequently offer music classes and workshops for beginners in
a variety of techniques, instruments, and song styles. So do music
festivals, where you'll also find newsletters and magazines aimed at
Tip: Wear something—like a T-shirt or lapel pin that displays your
favorite instrument—that makes a statement about your tastes. (That's
how I met my blues partner at a festival 10 years ago.)
Seek out open-mike nights.
Clubs that feature open-mike nights—at which amateur musicians are
invited to perform—are listed in the entertainment section of most
newspapers by style of music: folk, blues, rock, jazz. The Web site of
of Alternative Newsweeklies has links to newsweeklies that list
clubs sponsoring open-mike nights.
Tip: Call ahead for times and rules -- and don't play the star first
time you show up.
Browse the Internet.
Many newsgroups, such as rec.music.country.old-time, alt.music.blues,
rec.music.folk.tablature, and others carry listings of "pickin'
parties" and advice for amateur players. You can find them easily
My brother Richard Hunter, a virtuoso harmonica player and recording
artist -- you can check out his startling work at www.hunterharp.com -- suggests
trying an Internet mailing list for musicians, likewise reachable
through Google: "I found a bluegrass jam in Salisbury, Maryland, on my
last trip by posting a question to the harmonica-L list."
You don't have to be great to
get into a band. Self-described C-level player William
Evaul, proprietor of The Moorlands Inn in North Truro, Massachusetts,
became an upright bass player because the local amateur folk and blues
scenes lacked one: "I would pick the brains of local pros, and each
time I'd inch forward." After years of practice, Evaul now performs all
Tip: Seek out players who are
better than you and offer to back them up.
Clean up your
gear! It's hard to have fun playing when you
sound bad -- and that's how most people sound when they buy the
cheapest instrument they can find "just to start." You need
a guitar that can be properly set up, and an amplifier that won't
insult your ears or break your back and your wallet. If you are
starting over, or you are playing out and need better gear, I strongly
suggest that you consider Reverend
guitars. These are pro-level instruments with excellent
resale value that sell for $500-600 new; I receive no benefits from
Reverend for this advice other than their usual excellent after-sales
service. For small room amplifiers, the best values I have found
are the Roland Microcube and the Kustom Tube 12A, both for around $100
street. But listen: Before you buy any gear, read the user reviews at
www.harmony-central.com. Those reviews are a massive online
database covering virtually evevvery manufacturer, and reviewers tell
you how long they've played, what they play, and what other gear they
own, allowing you to get a detaiiled sense of gear before you buy.