My Guitar Journey: From the Beginning to March 2011

I started playing the guitar when I was 16.   But that was not the beginning of my music.

I was always musically inclined — it was the subject where I got A+ all the time.  I can’t remember when I became aware of the guitar the first time, but I’ve always wanted to play.

Apparently when I was 3-years old or so, I used to sit in the balcony of the fourth-floor apartment we lived in Kamakura, Japan and belt out tunes I heard on kids’ TV.  Passers-by stopped by and applauded.

When I was 10 my mother had me and my brother start taking piano lessons.  I was good but didn’t like to practice.  She would threaten to stop the piano lessons, though, and then I would cry and grudgingly practice.  So I must have liked it all right — or maybe I just didn’t like the thought of letting down my mother.

When I was 12, I remember participating in my school’s recorder choir.  There were like 2 dozen girls and I was the only boy.

So by the time I picked up the guitar, I had some musical training in the background.

Hair Metal’s Inspiration

When I first asked for a guitar, my parents bought me a cheap classical as a Christmas present.  Then they had me take classical lessons from this local guitar teacher.  It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do with the guitar, though.  My eyes didn’t really light up until my teacher brought out sheet music with some Beatles songs with chords written on it.

My first infatuation with rock guitar was in the late 80s.

Yep, you guessed it.  The hay day of Hair Metal.  Bon Jovi and Europe were the first acts that really captivated me.  Everybody had long hair, leather pants and humbucker-equipped, flat-necked Superstrats, and played brazingly fast.  Along came Steve Vai — I still listen to his classic Passion & Warfare, and I regard him as one of the smartest, most articulate of rock guitarists — and the impression was stamped on me.

To be a good guitarist, you had to play fast.  Speed = good.

So I quit the classical lessons and bought me an electric guitar.  A white Ibanez RG550, one that sort of looked like a white Universe 7-string Vai was playing at the time.  And Korg A5 multieffects.  Can’t remember what amp I used, it was a small solid-state practice amp.

At the time, there were many talks about how much people practiced.  8, 10 hours a day, guitarists boasted in interviews.  And that’s how they got fast.

So that’s what I tried — except, even though I was in high school and didn’t have a job or a family to feed, I could never practice for even more than 2 hours.  Obviously, I couldn’t play fast.  There was a gap as wide as an ocean between where I was and where my heros were.

Very discouraging.

I tried, I tried hard to force myself to practice, but after a while I would get bored, frustrated, or both.  I was making some progress, but I didn’t see it as such.  Guitar playing became a chore, and I lost desire.

Strumming Camp Songs

Right around the same time, I came to the US for the first time (I was born in Japan, but I was living in Brazil at the time), to work as a Junior Counsellor at Ingham-Okoboji Lutheran Bible Camp in Iowa.  My parents had always gone to church (a rarity in Japan, where less than 1% of population are Christians) but I was never exposed to this kind of experience.  We sang a lot of camp songs, and my guitar playing became useful.  In the 5 summers that followed, I became the go-to sing-along leader, Ari the Guitar Player.  Just about every camp fire, you would find me strumming my Sigma acoustic and leading the sing-along.

I wasn’t practicing the guitar, instead I was regularly playing real songs. This did wonders to my rhythm chops, and strumming became one of my strengths.  Still, I didn’t think much of it — none of the hair metalers strummed their guitars!  They churned out riffs and played lightening-fast solos.

First Band

In the second year of my college (St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN — famous for classical music) I joined my first band.  An acquaintance sought me out after learning that I was a guitar player.  I never took rock guitar lessons but I had bought tab books (“Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns N Roses and “When the Children Cry” by White Lion were some of my first repertoire) and I had started learning songs by ear and writing songs by then.   The band was called Dirty Bath, because the drummer, one of the leaders, was named Brad Bath.

The fall of ’93 was a very interesting time in popular rock music, though.  Hair Metal died its sudden death around then and the airwaves were filled with likes of the first generation Grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots.  Dirty Bath was a party cover band that included our frontman Judd Sather, then the captain of the football team, and other football guys.  They’d mastermind these huge parties on and off-campus and we would play songs from the above artists.  Brad was a talented percussionist and drummer — the principal percussionist for St. Olaf Orchestra, but alas the pitched instruments he played were likes of marimba and xylophone, so it was down to me and the keyboardist Ben Houge to figure out the songs and teach it to the rhythm guitarist and the bassist, who were the football guys.  Over the course of the school year we played about a dozen parties/shows and had a repertoire of about 20 songs.  We even recorded 5 songs on Ben’s cassette 8-track at the end, which included some originals I wrote with others.

One of the shows I remember were in this place called The Grand, which was an old small-town theater.  It was a big, airy place with a stage and a capacity of about 1000 people, and it was packed that night.  The drunken audience loved us and I played my heart out to the enthusiastic crowd, and after we were done I just collapsed on stage.   I didn’t have a single drop of alcohol in me — I was so exhilarated and high from giving my all in the performance.

I loved it.  I loved playing music so much.

Meeting My Strat

I can’t remember the details of how or why, but around that time I borrowed a black Stratocaster from my friend Ken Hakoda, a fellow Japanese music major.  He had inherited it from his older brother, if I recall correctly.

There was something about this guitar that drew me to it.  It had more clarity, a sense of aliveness, so that in comparison my Ibanez sounded dull and lifeless.  I also was getting more influenced by modern rock (rather than hair metal) by this time and I just couldn’t relate to the pointy Ibanez’s shape any more.  Ken wasn’t playing the guitar and wanted me to buy it, which I did, for $450, when we graduated.  I’m glad I did, because I’ve been playing this guitar ever since then.

Later I learned that it was a ’57 Reissue model made in 1989. It had 3-way toggle switch as opposed to 5-way and the maple neck is very round 7.25″ radius.  The bridge pickup, I struggle with for the next 14 years or so — it was so spiky on top and had no bottom.  Over the course of the years I tinker with this guitar so much, that at this point the only original parts left are the body and the neck.

The Long Struggle

Ever since Dirty Bath ended when its key members graduated, I’ve been trying to recapture the magic of that night at the Grand.  I started several bands that never went anywhere, and moved to Austin, Texas to see if a change of scene would suit me.  Austin is a great town and I learned a lot there, but I could never really break into the local live music scene.  I didn’t develop any tight friendships among other musicians (believe me, I tried) and I didn’t feel at home at tiny bars, dives and coffeehouses where I played.

My parents realized at this time that I was really serious about making music a career, and gave me some money to equip myself properly.  With it, I got a nice piano-sized synthesizer (Korg N1 — we still have it), a Taylor 612C, and Fender Hot Rod Deluxe to replace the solid state Peavey amp I was playing through my college days.

Soon I got burned out of trying to get my own band started and experimented with my music career.  I tried all kinds of directions — record producing, film scoring, music copying, teaching how to use music software on computer.  Oh, I did try teaching guitar for one year, which I really didn’t enjoy.  To this day, I still feel like I’m a student and not a teacher, when it comes to guitar.   My amp went from Fender to Line6 Flextone to my current amp, Laney LC50II.  I traded my Taylor for 1989 Martin D16 that Eliza Gilkyson used to own.

My last gigs were with a woman country singer whose name I can’t recall at the moment and a piano-man songwriter DB Martin.  By that time I had one kid already and another one was on the way.  I had scored my first indie feature film and produced a successful full-length album by Celtic folk singer Marc Gunn in 2005, which was my music career high point so far — but not exactly a guitar high point, as neither included any guitar playing.  My last guitar gig was to play for a local early morning TV news with DB, in early 2006.  I couldn’t really sustain the momentum I built in 2005, as I needed to provide a stable income to my growing family — so I took a full-time job as a web producer in 2006, and stopped gigging all together, as I couldn’t justify the ROI of time vs. income from gigging.

Back to Basics

So there I was, now with kids and a full-time job.  I’m sure many others face this point.  What am I going to do with my music, with my love of guitar?  I tried to make it a career but it wasn’t panning out, and I felt burned out.  I needed to get back to basics — that very love of guitar and making my music with it.

So over the next two summers I holed myself up at home when my family went away to visit my wife’s side of the family, and the result was my first solo rock album, Darkness Reveals the Beauty of Truth. I learned about the incredible MySpace success story of Your Favorite Enemies and I thought, that’s what I can do!  I’ll work the ‘net and become an artist that way.  So I went on my MySpace campaign for about 6 months, diligently increasing my Friends list — and fizzled out again.  Call me a quitter, it’s true — I just couldn’t build momentum by being a one-man online campaigner to a rock band that really wasn’t a band and thus didn’t play live.

In 2008 we moved back to St. Paul to be closer to family, I studied professional blogging and launched my personal development blog, and then quit that once again when I realized I was neglecting my music/guitar.  In 2009 I had another go at music career when I was laid off from my job at Minnesota Public Radio.  Another album producing and indie film scoring followed, couldn’t make ends meet, and got my current job.

Which brings me to today.  My current job, though, is the best one yet as far as day jobs go — I’m a well-respected front-end developer for a major e-commerce agency, and my job allows me to telecommute a lot of the time.  The company also had a gym and a personal trainer in-house, so I finally got in the habit of exercising regularly.

Happy Present, Hope for Future

Since I’ve had several Jump-in-Head-First attempts to make a living as a musician and those didn’t pan out, I’m now trying a less drastic approach.  I’m going to make music that I enjoy making and use blogging as a way to promote it.  This time, I have my eyes on sustainability more than results — in a way, I’m doing what I always dreamed of doing right now.  I’m playing my guitar everyday and making music I love. True, I can’t dedicate that much time to it, but I’m hopeful that I can change that in the long run, as long as I keep doing what I’m doing now.

The important thing is that before, I used to think that I had to change something, I had to reach a certain status, for me to really make music.  Not true.

I can play my guitar and make music, right where I am, without changing anything.  Playing a little bit everyday makes me a better player faster than playing 3 hours one day and not playing for a week after that.  I plan to keep playing, keep making music, always getting better as a guitarist/musician.

It’s my life-long pursuit — my mission.

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