During one of our recent music sessions, Jose asked me when and how did I start playing guitar. Within seconds, my mind raced in twenty different directions as thoughts rapidly rewound…

My first guitar was purchased for me when I was in seventh grade, in 1979, and surprisingly, I refused to touch it. Much under protest, my father asked me what musical instrument I wanted to play and I proclaimed, “drums!” Instead, I got a guitar. Needless to say, it laid on the couch for a couple of years collecting dust.

It wasn’t until about tenth grade when I discovered Classic Rock and Heavy Metal. My world changed. I found there were these musical virtuosos that ran their signals through effects like distortion and reverb and while strapping on their guitars over their shoulders, alike gods on the altar, they rose on lit stages in front of thousands of screaming fans. This was nothing short of wonderful. I discovered the fountain of popularity and fame — keep in mind this vision was utterly important at the time, growing up as a nerdy Asian kid in a predominately non-Asian community in Brooklyn, New York City.

All I had to do now was to learn how to play this darn thing.

So I did. I played religiously for hours on end every day after school and into the wee hours on the weekends. Soaking in everything like a sponge and all self-taught, mind you — My folks didn’t have the funds to purchase music lessons for me. We scraped by with what we could. I needed to be creative. I learned rock tunes by ear and by guitar tablature found in borrowed magazines. My earliest influences were Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, Randy Rhoads from Ozzy, and Eddie Van Halen. All I did for days on end was lock myself in my room and practice, practice, and practice.

I was just so obsessed playing my guitar and mastering this art, that in a matter of two years, I found myself rehearsing in bands and jamming freely with others as the mood hit.

In my early adulthood, out of my own in the late 80s, just old enough to start working, I did something that I always wanted to do — hire a guitar teacher. He was a blues guitar teacher. Not that I was looking specifically for blues. At the time, he was the cheapest and honestly, that’s all I could afford. It was Ramen noodles for dinner for me for many nights. I still remember our first lesson, he wanted to hear how I played. Patiently, he took a seat.  I snatched up my guitar and eagerly shredded my best version of “Crazy Train” a la Randy Rhoads. Immediately afterwards, I picked up my head up and I awaited his reaction.

He sat quietly still. He thought for a few seconds looking as though to find the right words. He took a deep calm breath and spoke calmly, “Kid, you got the chops…. but I’m gonna teach you how to FEEL what you play…. and play what you FEEL.”

Taking a deep breath, he leaned over, picked up his guitar, and rested it on his lap.  Carefully, he plucked out the guitar pick that was purposedly slid between the guitar strings.  He took another deep breath. Then proceeded to play. He sped up the song at will, then slowed the tempo down. He glistened over melodies and faithfully accented specific notes as to let them know they were special. It seemed as though he was having a conversation with his song. The music suddenly came to an abrupt stop.  Pausing for a second, he stomped his feet, leaned forward and started playing again.  There was so much expression and emotion in his playing. I was just taking all this in.

“Let it breath…,” he said, “Like it needs to… Like its SUPPOSED to.” It was just so amazing how he would be able to belt out a song with so much emotion. Listening without hesitation, I got it… I finally got it.

Months later, I found myself and my blues guitar teacher driving in his rusty loud-mufflered Mustang to Stamford Connecticut. I had started to understand what he meant to phrase my playing — to converse with the music.  At this point, we had progressed to playing live shows at bars together. On this very night, we were going to play another show, but this time, on the radio. To him, it seemed like business as usual. But I was just in silent awe. I wondered to myself how many people would be tuning in. Would it be hundreds? Maybe thousands (I wish)? On the ride over there, the car was so loud, but this didn’t stop him from talking. He talked the whole way raising his voice to stay atop the noise from the rusted muffler.  Honestly, I only heard a smidgen of what he said the whole time. That was okay though. This was going to be so cool. I just wondered to myself… Maybe I was going to be a star…

Just maybe people will get to hear what I have to say…

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