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  • Bart Blankenship

$5 Guitar Lessons: Be a Rockstar!

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

If you ever fantasized about being a rockstar, keep reading. If you haven't, or are an introvert, keep reading. I'll give you two impossible to fail ways to be an instant rockstar, and why you should make the first method your priority So sit tight for the next 1800 words or so. A few nights ago, around 4 am I was thinking how to build my business, HighwayBlues Guitars. And the idea came to me to offer guitar lessons on my cigar box guitars, charging $5 for the first lesson. I paid my $5 and posted the add on Craig's List. Here's what my ad says: “I've been playing guitar for over 40 years, but it wasn't until I started playing the 3 string cigar box guitars that I really saw improvement. With just 3 strings, they are over twice as easy to play and still sound great. Private one hour lessons. First lesson is $5. After that let me know what you're willing to pay. I just really want folks to be able to learn.” I added a few pictures to make it look fun. And the first day, I got one response. “ I just saw your ad for guitar lessons. I'm not looking to take lessons ( I failed at it about 20 years ago. ha) But just wanted to let you know that IMO you're a good man to offer such a service at that price. I've seen others asking outrageous amounts. Maybe You should make YOUTUBE videos for people to learn. Anyway, just wanted to say KUDOS to you. Dave”

Not really the response I expected, but it did make me feel good. $5 of course isn't enough payment for an hour lesson. And I'd do the first one for free hoping that folks would get the bug and want to play a lot or better yet, buy one of my guitars or sign up for a workshop to have me teach them to build their own. I offer free lessons for life if you buy one of my guitars. I also will buy them back if you decide someday that you don't like it. So with all that to me it seems like while I charge more than some do for their cigar box guitars that you get way more than just the guitar.

Those who know me have most likely been out on some crazy adventure or course either with Outward Bound, or on our own climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, or sailing my little boat Revival around in the Florida Keys, or to the Bahamas or bringing baseball gear to Cuban girls. Those who know me probably have heard my philosophy which is only two words: “Go outside,” and my mission statement isn't much more, “Inspire others to go outside.” But after building a few cigar box guitars, and finally getting the frets in the right place so that the guitar was actually more or less on key up and down the neck, (unlike my ukulele!) one day, while playing, a sense of peace and well being came over me. It was as if I'd been on a long run and was getting that runner's high where endorphins were being released in my body to ease the pain. Except that here, in my man cave, I wasn't in any pain. I was just playing my home made guitar.

The guitar had only 3 strings and they were light gauge electric strings. Being hooked up to an amplifier, they had a lot of sustain. Much more than any acoustic guitar I'd played. The amp let me know just what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. It was like having a really honest friend. You always knew where you stood. I began to experiment with bending notes up in pitch, and sliding down the frets, slurring the notes together. I won't go into all I was doing, but you get the idea. Since the guitar was so simple and responsive, I was free to really get creative. And the idea of creating my own intro to a song, or solo lead in the middle, was no longer intimidating. And so I started to play a lot.

I built more and more guitars. A plateau would be reached where I thought I couldn't build a finer one, and then a year or so later I'd look back and be embarrassed with that then fantastic sounding guitar! I'd perform for my friends and try to show how easy it was, and while some would try it, others just were intimidated.

“No!” I'd yell, (well, maybe not really yelling, but maybe saying with passion) it's easy. You can just use one finger to play a chord. Or you can only fret one string at a time and strum all the rest as drones.” Well, you get the idea.

Back to my philosophy. Some folks can't get outside in any meaningful way. What if you're confined to a hospital? So I reached out to the Veteran's Administration in Bay Pines, Florida. To the Psych Ward. I went inside and interviewed about teaching a workshop building cigar box guitars. I asked to just have one student for this first 4 hour class. One student who they thought could do it. I would donate the time and materials for this trial run. We agreed on a date in the near future and I started to exit the hospital.

As I walked down the hall, one patient came over to me and asked if that was a guitar. I said yes and asked if he'd like to hear it. I asked him if he liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he said he loved that guy. It didn't seem necessary to correct him and say that it was a band name and that actually, they named their band after their high school gym teacher who hated them for their long hair and other shenanigans and that his name was Lenard Skinnard, a more normal spelling, but they didn't want him to sue and spelled the band's name differently. And that I imagine that gym teacher grinding his teeth each time the radio would play “Sweet Home Alabama”, or “Free Bird”.

So I plugged in my little amp and busted out my rendition of “Give Me Three Steps.” While I was singing “I'm telling you son that it ain't no fun staring straight down a .44” with a moderate amount of gain on the amp. another patient came quickly rolling up on a wheel chair. He was missing a leg. Both patients had big smiles.

The floor manager came up and said I could come visit and play anytime. That I was always welcome. I made my way down that long hallway and had to stop another time or two to play. For anyone who has ever dreamed of being a rock star, just volunteer to play in a VA Psych Ward. It's easy to be treated like a rock star there. Well, I'll actually revise that. You are a rock star if you are performing at a psych ward anywhere! Just try it! And it will make you feel loved and appreciated. So you're having a bad day, your dog got run over. Perform at the VA. Your wife left you? Perform at the VA. Feeling like jumping in front of a bus? Perform at the VA. Be their rockstar!

Working for Outward Bound and being a Navy Veteran, I often get to lead courses for Veterans. Depending on the school and location, this year alone, I will have taken them white water rafting near Moab, Utah, canoeing in the 10,000 Islands by Everglades City and sailing in Keys. The courses are free including travel and motel rooms! I've made a new rule on my courses. If someone hands you the guitar, you're not allowed to refuse it, or make excuses how you can't play, and above all, you're not allowed to make music! So, what is the result? They sing loudly so it drowns out that they don't know how to play, but we get to hear their version of “Country Boy Can Survive!” or Bob Seger's “Turn the Page.” There are a lot of smiles and I believe healing with that music and camaraderie.

It was after my last course where a Vet told me on Facebook that he'd signed up for a program called, Guitars for Vets. I looked it up and it started out where a guitar teacher was teaching a Vet to play. The Vet had fought in Vietnam and had PTSD and found that playing the guitar helped with that struggle. So they brought their guitars to Veteran's hospitals and would lay the guitar on the belly of a patients recovering from spinal surgery and play a song. The sound would come through their bodies and help ease suffering. The program grew and now after you take your ten free lessons, they give you a free guitar. Since, then, they've given away over 1000 guitars and 10,000 hours of free lessons.

I emailed them offering to teach and they haven't responded. I imagine they're pretty busy with all they do, but hope they'll get back with me.

The second way to be a rockstar.

Playing that day in the psych ward at the VA wasn't the only day I felt like a rock star. The other time, I'd been asked to teach primitive skills on a rafting trip in Idaho. We had two groups and I started out with the lead group, and after a couple days teaching friction fires, and making string from bark, I unloaded my gear on the bank of the Snake River and waited for the next group to float to me.

The day was hot and soon I sat in the water to cool off. I had a little hand drum that I'd made the day before and as I beat out a rhythm, I closed my eyes and enjoyed sitting in the cool water. After a few minutes I opened my eyes and was so surprised to see hundreds of damselflies all flying to my drum beat. Damselflies look a lot like dragonflies except their wings lay along their bodies when not flying instead of sticking out at right angles. Some were mating. Maybe it was like bringing a date to a concert?

I was so surprised that I stopped drumming. When I did, if you can imagine a damselfly being disappointed, well that's how it seemed to me and several flew off. But I started drumming again and many came back. They stayed there loyal to my drumming for several minutes. And all that time, I was a rock star! Well, I'm still waiting for my first Craig's List student. I hope one decides I'm not a scam soon. But while I'm waiting, I think I'll go practice “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray. You know the song. The refrain goes, “Give me the beat boys and free my soul. I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.”


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