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Guitar Musician e-zine 11/30/05
In This Issue:
| "The great British blues guitarists of the Sixties - people
like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Peter Green - could play like
virtuosos, but they also understood the importance of energy and intensity"
- Joe Perry / Aerosmith
A man and his wife were about to celebrate 50 years together. Their three kids, all very successful and wealthy, agreed to a Sunday dinner in honor of their parents As usual, they were all late and had a varied assortment of excuses, "Happy anniversary Mom and Dad," gushed son number one... "Sorry I'm running late..had an emergency, you know how it is, didn't have time to get you both a present." "Not to worry," said the Dad... "The important thing is that we're all together today." Son number two arrived and announced, "You and Mom still look great, Dad. Just flew in from L. A. and didn't have time to get you a present. Sorry." "It's nothing," said the father, "Glad you were able to be here." Just then the daughter arrived. "Hello you both, happy anniversary! I'm sorry, but my boss is sending me out of town and I was really busy packing.... so I didn't have time to get you guys anything." Again the father said, "I really don't care, at least the five of us are together today." After they all finished dessert, the father put down his knife and fork, looked up and said, "Listen you three, there's something your mother and I have wanted to tell you for a long time. Well... your mother and I came to this country penniless and desperate. Despite this, we were able to raise each of you and send you to college. All through the years your mother and I knew that we loved each other very much but... we just never found the time to get married." "The three kids gasped and said, "You mean we're BASTARDS?" "Yep," said the Dad...."AND CHEAP ONES TOO"
A Lesson For The Learning
Interested in guitar lessons? - Be sure and check out the guitar lessons offered by Andrew Koblick at Amazing Guitar
GUITAR Q AND A
The Van Halen Technique Revealed
Gavin McKinley; Burnsville, MN
By repeating these steps and picking up speed you should start to recognize the sound of the master himself... the Van Halen man.
Hope this helps!
Yours in Music
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Billy C. Wirtz:
Madman of the Blues
Billy C. Wirtz is on his back on stage, his feet straight up in the air. His left hand raised to the piano, Wirtz is crawling out a wicked bassline as he delivers the ongoing punchline of his song about "Roberta," the wife from hell. The crowd is enraptured, mesmerized by his rolling story, as well as his zebra-skin shoes, "stolen from the closet of Wilson Pickett."
His timing is impeccable, the results of years on the road perfecting his skills. Part preacher, part bluesman, and part circus ringmaster, Wirtz has the music in him, and his nightly shows are like an exorcism of the soul and R&B he soaked up along the way. He hooks the crowd like a hungry bigmouth bass, and reels it in with the expertise of a man with a bulging tacklebox full of one-liners, punchlines, and a love for music.
Born in South Carolina, Wirtz's family moved to Washington DC when he was nine, which exposed him to a veritable melting pot of soul, R&B, and country music. As he discovered music Wirtz discovered himself, and he began to find true purpose in being not just a fan, but a player. Graduating college with a degree in Special Education, it was at a camp for the mentally handicapped that Wirtz began his piano career.
Q: I heard that gospel music first got you interested in playing. True?
Billy C. Wirtz: Actually, kind of a combination of all of it. I liked music from the time I was a child. I came from a very non-musical house. My parents weren't particularly into popular music - they were into pretty serious classical. I went to bed every single night to classical music - Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. At about 11 years old, I discovered rock 'n' roll, much to my parents' chagrin. I started out wanting to be a drummer, and then I played guitar. But the girl down the street was paying attention to the guy who was taking organ lessons. My dad actually played organ, so that's what got me into it.
Q: Did you have one in the house?
Wirtz: We had a pump organ, a parlor organ. Yeah, that thing would wear you out - it would give you like the lower cardio workout! I played a little as a teenager, but I never really learned much on it. My father was a pipe organ enthusiast. He hated Hammond organs. Hated them. I had a Farfisa at one time, with a Silvertone amp.
Q: What were you listening to at the time?
Wirtz: "Walk Don't Run" by the Ventures. I wanted to be Nokie Edwards of the Ventures.
Q: Did you like a lot of the surf guitar, the Dick Dale stuff?
Wirtz: Oh sure. I never listened to Dick Dale very much. I hate to think of all those albums that I used to look at and never picked up. They're all worth $300 now. There was a guy named Johnny Fabian in our neighborhood, and he and his buddies had a surf band. It was basically two guys plugged into a Fender Bandmaster, but it was really loud and reverby, with the Fender Jaguars, and I thought that was the coolest thing on the entire planet! So, I was into the surf thing until I was about 12.
Q: And you grew up in the DC area?
Wirtz: Yes - I grew up in the South Carolina area until I was eight, and then in D.C. until I was 17.
Q: Was that kind of music popular there, or was it just on your block?
Wirtz: Well, the gospel and the hillbilly and all that I grew up with was in South Carolina. My mom said that when I was three or four, I would sit in front of the TV and watch the gospel shows, bopping back and forth. And the more they screamed and rolled on the floor, the more I loved it. And I still do today!!
Q: Tell me more about the D.C. scene at the time.
Wirtz: D.C., you have to remember, was a hotbed. We had all the working whites from the South who were coming up to build all this new suburban Washington in the mid-'60s. And then you had all the government workers, and then you had the large black population. So you had this very heavy R&B/soul music scene, you had a very heavy country music scene. Patsy Cline got her start there - she was from Winchester, Virginia, but she really got her first break in D.C. The "Cavalcade of Stars" or whatever, and Roy Clark started there, and all these other guys.
Q: As a white person, were you able to go and get into the black music scene?
Wirtz: Um, yeah. Up until the Martin Luther King riots of '68, you could go to the Howard Theater and places like that. I saw James Brown and the Famous Flames, with the two drummers, and the shake dancers and everything. We used to go see all the really cool horn bands, the soul bands, bands like The Expressions and the Velours. I mean, that's the stuff that just completely singed my wig, you know? I got, like a sixth degree black belt in soul music appreciation. That was it.
Q: What was the first concert you ever went to?
Wirtz: My first concert would be, oh, at our local swimming pool. They had The Reekers, or somebody like that. But the first real concert would be James Brown and the Famous Flames. But that's what I wanted to be. Up until I was 12, I wanted to be a park ranger. Now, I wanted to run on stage with a gold lame cummerbund, spin around, and grunt into the mic as the entire front row broke into a riot. I said, "That's what I want to be when I grow up."
Q: And you've done it!
Wirtz: Well, a slightly inverted version of it. But also, very much I was into Zappa - I got the Mothers' (of Invention) first album, and I was always so into the humor and the more bizarre and forbidden stuff. You know, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and stuff. I saw Captain Beefheart at the Alexandria Theater. I liked Beefheart, but I liked Zappa a little bit better.
Q: So how did you get into the piano?
Wirtz: I was working in Virginia at a camp for the mentally handicapped, and they had an old piano in the lodge.
Q: Had you been playing up until that point?
Wirtz: Not at all. I quit playing when I was 15, didn't play [again] until I was 22. I got drunk one night and asked the local hillbilly band if they wanted a piano player. They said "Hell yeah!" At that point, I could barely just play chords. And that was it - February of 1976. And in some respects, I've never looked back since then.
Q: Were your parents supportive?
Wirtz: I think so. I always thought my mom had accepted it more than my dad did. But my mom passed away last May, and I think right up to the end, my mom had more aspirations for me being a writer. Actually, she always wanted me to be a teacher!
Q: A music teacher?
Wirtz: No, just education. Whatever. Parents will fixate on this thing, though.
Q: Do you find it hard to balance your musical side with your comedy?
Wirtz: My biggest problem being a musician and songwriter as well as a comic is I start playing too many comedy gigs, and I let my piano playing go to hell. I hate to practice.
Q: What is your practice routine like?
Wirtz: I warm up for 10 minutes. I use a lot of tapes, like those Homespun tapes (www.homespuntapes.com). I use the gospel series, and when I got the Oberheim OB-3, I used the Hammond organ one, by David Cohen. It helps me to have something to stimulate. I'm always trying to write new songs and learn new licks. I had an excellent teacher in Charlottesville named Art Wheeler - a monster player. I learned some stride stuff from him. When I do more of the blues thing, there's more need to play a traditional style. I've got a 12-note grab in my left hand, so I do a lot of walking tenths as it is. But I've sacrificed perhaps some of my technical skills for the fact that I'm out there doing a show for people.
Q: Being a showman takes a lot more than just technical skills, though.
Wirtz: I think you use the skills from all your various areas. From the wrestling, you learn how to do in-your-face guerilla theater. From the comedy clubs, the comedians would tell me, "you're walking on your jokes, you're walking on your laughs. You gotta slow down." Basically, I've learned, and I continue to learn. I hadn't played organ in almost 20 years. I just picked it up again, fell in love with it, and now I'm stealing Joey DeFrancesco licks!
Q: Are there any major comedians who have influenced you?
Wirtz: Musically, I would say the Smothers Brothers of all things. Brother Dave Gardener, too. The story on him is really fascinating.
Q: There are a lot of characters in music history, huh?
Wirtz: The earliest blues piano was much of an interaction between the piano player and the audience. He would be in Kansas City and be singing about what was going on in the immediate community. Your earliest blues piano players were rhythm section and jokester. They played in the sawmills - the boogie players did. They were a different breed. Sunnyland Slim carried a knife that would have made Vlad the Impaler proud. He carried a blade on him until the day he died. I never saw him have to use it, though. Those old guys came up tough. They weren't scared of anybody. They were all moonshiners and rumrunners. That's why when these guys sing, you can believe every word they say.
Q: It's important for the audience to feel you have conviction in what you're doing,
Wirtz: Or two or three convictions! (laughs)
Q: How do you approach the audience when you play?
Wirtz: When you work a room like last night, it was boomy, so you have to slow down a quarter of a step 'cause it's gonna take a quarter of a second longer for them to get what you're saying. And you work the middle seats, right around the soundboard. Not up in front, and not in the back. That way you're covering everybody, and making eye contact.
Q: Does your set vary from night to night, based on the crowd? Or are there things you always do?
Wirtz: Yes! (laughs) You have stuff you come out with right away. You have lines that you throw out in the crowd just like you're taking a fishing rod, you're reeling it out there going, 'OK, did they nibble, or did they strike hard on it?' You set up the hook. It's like being in a boxing match. Sometimes you come out and box, sometimes you just go right for it and swarm all over them before they even know what hit 'em. That's just 15 or 20 years on the road of continuously doing it. I think for me, it is important to stay in a constant state of writing new material, learning new material, and learning new ways to play it.
Q: You constantly try to keep yourself challenged?
Wirtz: Always, always. The only time it's not good is when you really start to stagnate.
Q: So how do you avoid stagnation?
Wirtz: I can't stress how important it is to listen to and expose yourself to as many different kinds of music and different styles as you can - the roots music, the blues players, the gospel players. Listen to the players nobody's ever heard of. I keep trying to go back to the roots. Who influenced the blues players? Keep diggin'. Keep that search going. I had heard of Johnny "Guitar" Watson, but never heard him. Somebody turned me on to his stuff, and I just went psycho! I immediately went to the music store and said, 'I'll take that one, that one, that one, and that one - gotta have 'em!' I think that's the joy of playing music, and listening to it, and being as big a fan as I am. I'm a total fan.
Q: Do you think it's harder for kids today being over-exposed to so much different music and not knowing where to start listening?
Wirtz: That depends on what you're talking about. Are you talking about music that is disposable culture? Records that you'll find a thousand copies of in your local Salvation Army in three years? Or are you talking about making music that has a timeless quality to it, that won't make you 1/50th the money, but you can still play it and not look silly when you're 60 years old? The latter is great, but there are people that just go for the flavor of the moment.
Q: Do you think people know how to appreciate music these days?
Wirtz: It's more difficult, because there's so much bombarding you. It's hard for people to listen, it's hard for them to listen in sequence, or hear a solo. I have that problem - I catch myself with that rapid-fire attention span.
Q: The product of a television nation?
Wirtz: I think in general, things move faster.
Q: Do you see a lot less new players? It used to seem like everybody played.
Wirtz: Nah - it stays about the same. And again, there are people who are seriously wanting to make a commitment versus the people that are just thinking about it. When I started out, you had electric pianos, you had organs, Mellotrons, synthesizers,
Q: You have so many choices of sounds that people forget the actual playing!
Wirtz: Right. The basic things you still have to learn are chords, melodies, and scales. That's the only thing about technology - it makes you want to bypass the fundamentals. I still have a hard time reading music, and that's not something that I'm proud of. But as soon as I sit down and go, "OK, I'm gonna learn to read music," the phone will ring, and they'll go, 'It's the City of Memphis. They want you to write the theme for the BBQ Festival!' You know, life gets busy.
Q: Not such a bad trade-off, though. It's always interesting! Do you think it's hard for people to learn how to be entertainers?
Wirtz: That's just something you gotta do. That's difficult, because that's where you risk being told in print, by an audience, or by one drunk heckler, 'You suck.'
Q: Do you ever tape yourself and critique your performances?
Wirtz: No. Very rarely. That makes no sense at all. You'll play great, and have like two people clapping. You'll play mediocre, and when you leave the town, they're carving a totem of you with 'Billy Wirtz played here last night.'
Q: Is it worth it?
Wirtz: I still have problems sleeping on the road, and it's a tough way to make a living - but ultimately satisfying. There's that tremendous pride - not ego - but pride in your work. When you have a form that says occupation, and you can put "musician," that's very cool. That's what I always wanted to be. Unless you're trying to get a loan from the bank,. (laughs)
Q: What do you want to leave as your legacy?
Wirtz: Well, the air can get real thin up on that soapbox. I just want to do what's in front of me. Make another record, keep playing, stay healthy, have a good time doing it. And if I'm not having a good time doing it, ask myself why. Constantly question yourself: 'Why am I doing this? Am I having a good time doing this? Am I not having a good time all the time? What do I need to change in this equation? What do I need to change about me?' I believe the central thing that saves me is music, and playing it. Read "Man's Search For Meaning" by Victor Frankel. The people that survived the Holocaust in those camps were those that had a central thing that gave their life meaning. With that in mind, anything that it takes to get you focused and happy on that - partying, self-help books, whatever - I've done it all. And survived!
Q: So you take better care of yourself now?
Wirtz: Now I work out, I do yoga. It's kind of your responsibility. You have this gift, a genetic makeup that allows you to hear things and reproduce them on an instrument. You're kind of committing a crime against nature if you waste that. It's like really taking advantage of what you've been given, and you spoil it. All aside from what it does to the people around you. We've seen great guys that are great players, but just so full of themselves. It's bad enough that they're hard enough to get along with when they're sober, and then you see them wreck it with drugs and stuff like that. And then there are people who can do it and still get away with it! But look at me - how much happier can I be? I'm in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, it's 85 degrees, and I just got paid very well!
The Rev Remembers Sunnyland Slim
"I decided to do my big Kerouac-ian thing one more time before I settled down into a career of teaching," Wirtz recalls. "He had his girlfriend write me back and say I could come stay. I think he was being nice. Unfortunately, I took him up on his niceness and I ended up staying with him for about a month. I crashed on his couch. He lived in an upstairs apartment with like 10 locks on it in the heart of Southside Chicago - near 63rd and Martin Luther King. There were no white faces down there, except for the guy in the money store behind the bulletproof glass who ratted people out to the welfare department. You never talked to that guy. So everybody knew me right away: 'There's the 6-foot-4, geeky white guy!'
Wirtz describes Sunnyland's style as "kind of like the Elmore James of piano. He had a basic style that he played in, very simple and effective. He had about four different songs, and a bunch of variations on them. Sunnyland never worried about the rhyme, either. He would sing these great songs and have this kind of Zen rhyming thing in the verse. But he was a monster, and one of the last great ones."
Wirtz tells a story of the "heaviest thing that happened" while in Chicago. A local blues singer named Lee Jackson was murdered by his son-in-law, and Robert Jr. Lockwood came to town for the funeral. He and Sunnyland sent Wirtz to the liquor store for some Couvoisier. Back in the living room, Slim is playing his old piano, and Lockwood is playing the guitar, while Wirtz and Lockwood's sax player made themselves small in the corner. As they're playing, Lockwood says, "You know, everyone said the old man used to play it like this. But I learned it from him like this. I ain't never showed it to nobody, cause I don't want nobody stealing my stuff. George Thorogood stole my stuff anyway." By "old man," Lockwood was referring to his stepfather, Robert Johnson. The Robert Johnson - father of the blues. So here's Sunnyland Slim, who gave Muddy Waters his break, and Robert Johnson's son, revealing holy-grail style secrets, with Wirtz taking it all in in the corner. "We've gone to the source of the river," says Wirtz of the scene. "I can still picture it, down to the dust coming through the window."
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