Cleaning the shop was a herculean task, due to the fact that Bugsy had just come back from a three month vacation. I felt like I was in one of those Karate Kid movies. Sadly, I didn't subconsciously learn how to block punches by wiping fretboards, vacuuming the carpet, and dusting cobwebs, among other things.
"D'you feel like learning something today, or would you rather wait until tomorrow?" He asked.
"What can you teach me right now?"
"Not much. I can, however, prep you up for what comes next. Have you ever heard of terms like vibrato, legato, sweep picking, arpeggios, things like that?"
"I didn't know playing guitar involved Italian words."
He smirked. "Let's start with vibrato, then. Now, vibrato is the reason why isolated notes and bends don't sound as boring as they should. Without it, a solo or lick is all steak and no sizzle. Imagine food without salt. That's what it sounds like. Firstly, instead of your fingers, use your wrists to"
He gave me an hour and a half long lecture on riffing techniques, muting techniques, harmonics,vibrato, tapping, and sweep picking, legato and economy picking, and god knows what else. The latter three interested me greatly, and dispelled my superstitious regard for shredders. Now I knew what they did wasn't too hard after all.
"Wow. I guess shredding isn't that hard after all, then."
"Oh, it's really hard. Sweep picking, for instance, looks easy only because you're watching me do it. Try it yourself. I doubt you'll get even three notes right. Even then, don't make it your goal to play as hard and fast as possible. It'll get you nowhere. Shredders are their own biggest fans. You'll never hear a regular person appreciating a shredder's skills. The difference between a guitarist who can make his audience feel his emotions and a shredder, is analogous to the difference between a helicopter manual and a good piece of fiction. Remember that. Anyway, what kind of picks do you prefer using?"
He guffawed. "Those are for rhythm guitarists. Rhythm guitarist' is nothing more than a synonym for pussy. Are you a pussy?"
"Brad Whitford isn't a pussy, and nor is Izzy Stradlin." I retorted.
"That's irrelevant. Do you WANT to be a rhythm guitarist?" He asked.
This caught me off guard. I most certainly did not want to be a rhythm guitarist. "I, uhit's not as if there's anything wrong with being oneno. I don't."
"Thought so. Ever heard of a rhythm guitarist who accomplished something? John Lennon doesn't count. He was a peace activist and a brilliant songwriter, among other things." He said, with a smug smile. "Here, use this one. It's ballsier than the picks you're used to. Bulletproof plastic." He handed me a Dunlop 3mm Big Stubby, a most apt name, considering how hard and bulky it was.
"You're going to learn two Joe Satriani songs in the next ten days: Always with Me, Always with You, and Cryin'. I suggest you start with the former first. I'll also try to teach you the finer points of the art of playing guitar; how to use various kinds of pedals, how to identify the properties of different kinds of wood, among other things. Your homework for today is to download both of the songs I mentioned and get them stuck in your head. Show up at ten am tomorrow. Don't be late."
"Uh, who's Joe Satriani?"
"He's the guy who taught Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai how to play like they do. Oh, and get the money tomorrow."
I spent the ride back to the motel wondering how good a guitarist you'd have to be to teach Kirk Hammett how to play like he does. It rained later in the evening, and Jordan, David and I were forced to stay indoors. I downloaded the two songs using the motel wifi on my laptop, and spent some time listening to them over and over, simultaneously reading the Wikipedia page on Joe Satriani. The other two guys were watching a movie called Bad Santa on HBO. I made myself some easymac and pulled up a chair, joining them.
The next day, armed with my Kramer Focus, I drove to the music loft in my brother's Gran Torino and reached there a minute before ten o clock. Bugsy gave me a handwritten tab of Always with Me, Always with You, and played each section super slow before getting me to play it at a gradually increasing speed, with the help of a metronome, something I had never used before. The result was that each note became etched in my mind, even if my speed wasn't up to the mark. He was quite impatient, though, and would make snide comments (Do you have dinosaur hands, man?) whenever I would screw up.
Two hours later,he told me to stop playing. "Tomorrow, same time." He said. "Here, take this metronome. It'll help you practice."
We decided to board the Hatteras ferry and head over to Ocracoke, after discussing our plans at the motel. I was apprehensive, though, when the ramp finally opened in front of us.
"Am I supposed to drive onto this thing? Just like that?" I asked. People honked impatiently behind us.
Jordan shook his head, and in mock delight, said "No, we're gonna press a button and your Gran Torino's going to turn into James Bond's Aston Martin. Once that's done, we'll drive into the water, eh?"
Feeling slightly sheepish, I drove onto the ramp.
At Ocracoke, we left the car parked in the sand next to the main road, and spent the rest of the day exploring the island on foot. We had a delicious lunch of crab legs and fried chicken in the late afternoon.
"So how's this guitar guy you're learning from?" Jordan asked me.
"His name is Bugsy, and he's a good teacher. I had to pay him a hundred and fifty bucks for ten classes." I replied.
"That isn't much, considering how most tutors these days charge 25 by the hour."
"I had to clean the whole store in order to reduce it by half."
"I don't see how cleaning a store is hard."
"I had to clean everything. I had to wipe fretboards, oil strings, and things like that..."
"I still don't see how it's very hard. You got this shit at a bargain."
"He hadn't cleaned up for three months."
"This is starting to look more and more like the Karate Kid." Jordan concluded, sighing.
"You read my mind, man." I said.
"What kind of a freaking name is Bugsy, anyway?" David remarked. "Does he eat a lot of carrots or something?" He laughed at his own joke.
"That was totally lame man."
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We boarded the evening ferry and got back to the hotel at dusk. I spent the rest of my time poring over the tab for Always with Me, Always with You.
The next day, Bugsy made me play the song over and over, though he made me use a backup track this time. Every minute or so, he'd give me a tip, such as "Don't stick your thumb out too much, hold the pick properly" or "relax, man, your hands are too tense."
"Are you really called Bugsy?" I asked him during a break.
"Yes, I am. My real name is Gerard McBrayer. Back when I was your age, I was the lead guitarist in a certain, little known band called The Looney Toon's Tears. I believe that's where my nickname originated."
"You're shitting me."
"I may be many things, but I'm not a liar." He said, simply.
Later, David, Jordan and I went on a long drive, parallel to the coastline.
Jordan turned on the radio, and I heard a guy repeatedly saying "Shawty you the best I ever had."
"Change it." I said, almost reflexively.
"Yeah dude, change it." David added in support.
"You guys seem to have a serious case of ebonophobia." Jordan grumbled. "Hip Hop isn't as bad as you guys think."
"That's not even a word, man." With that, David leaned forward and changed the station. Now, I heard that Chester Bennington guy screaming his lungs out. "Now this is good." David said.
This time, my hand shot out like lightning towards the "next" button.
"Now the time is here, for Iron Man to spread fear! Vengeance from the grave! Kill the people he once saved!"
Jordan and I cheered, but David changed the station.
One word, Christian Rock. A collective decision was made to turn the radio off.
"Hmm, now what do we have here?" Jordan muttered, as he opened the dashboard. A bunch of cds were kept in there. "AC/DC, AC/DC, AC/DC, AC/DC. Since when were you such a big AC/DC fan?"
"They're my brother's. He left them in there." I quickly replied.
"I don't get it...how did.."
I interjected, before he could continue. "Play one of those things, I haven't really heard much AC/DC before, except for Highway To Hell." I interjected, before he could continue. And thus, Robert Levine discovered a newfound love for AC/DC, a love that he nurtured and cherished for the rest of his life.
I heard a guy exhale smoke and say "Alright.."
"Hey there all you middlemen! Throw out your fancy clothes!"
It's the most iconic speech in the history of rock n' roll, but more on that later.
We returned to the motel at around eight o' clock.I continued mindlessly practicing the song while David and Jordan watched another movie, munching on cheesemac. The next day, I headed back to the store at ten am.
"Something's not right. Your fingers are too weak for this." Bugsy said, after I had played Always with Me, Always with You for the umpteenth time. "You aren't hitting the notes properly, and your bends are still half assed. Don't even get me started on your vibrato." He sighed. I hung my head in disappointment. I thought I had done a reasonable good job.
"Hand me your guitar." He said.
I promptly gave it to him. He handled it like somebody who's cradling a baby in his arms.
"Hmm.cut your nails, kid, you've left a lot of claw marks on this thing. The colour is remarkable. Custom, I think." He lightly rapped the body once, and then the neck, with his knuckles. "Maple neck, Maple fretboard, Alder body."
"You can identify the wood just by knocking on it?"
"Yeah, I can. I'll teach you how to do it." He then tried to play a random improvised lick on the guitar, but stumbled a little halfway through it. "Ahhhh, a classic problem. The action is messed up. It's the reason why you're not playing properly. My bad, man, I should have seen this earlier."
"So the strings are supposed to be lower?" I asked, astonished.
"Mhm. I'll fix this in two minutes. Watch and learn, you're gonna have to do this yourself one day. You know what, forget the song, let's focus on taking care of your guitar today."
And I learned a lot of things. I learned how to string acoustic guitars, les paul shaped guitars, and strat shaped guitars. I learned how to maintain a guitar that had a floating tremolo bar. I learned how to tell Mahogany from Rosewood and Basswood from maple.
"How should I remove stains? Nail polish remover?"
"Oh, no, keep acetone as far away from your guitar as you can. A single drop of that shit will f--k up the finish. What you must do, is use Vodka to clean stains. Rubbing alcohol works too." He said.
"Alright. Play the song again now."
I did as he asked. To my surprise, it had become much easier, though I still had to work on the faster sections.
"Is the action good?"
"It's perfect,thank you." I said.
"Hmmthis guitar is unique in so many waysnow I know why Eddie Van Halen used Kramer guitars before he built his frankenstrat. He had always been looking for a guitar that could mimic both a Gibson and a Stratocaster, and this guitar can do just that. How much did you pay for it?"
"Around 200 bucks, plus an amplifier.."
He whistled. "You got lucky. I'd pay double, maybe triple that, if you consider the custom paintjob. They don't make guitars like these anymore."
He made me work on the song for the rest of the class. By the end of it, I had managed a reasonably decent cover of the song.
"It still isn't perfect, but it'll do. We'll start using pedals tomorrow. Meanwhile, work on your speed and precision. The two always go hand in hand. Always start slow, and then gradually speed up."