Thursday, April 09, 2009

Geeks and Guitars: Fender Custom Shop and Tom Morello at the Grammy Museum

The GRAMMY Museum has some very famous guitars - Woody Gunthrie's, Bob Dylan's, Odetta's, and that's only naming a few in the current "Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom" exhibition. And while this post isn't about those guitars specifically, it brings to mind that one of the best things the museum has to offer is all the ways you can create your own musical experience there through your own interactions - whether it be connecting with an artifact, exploring music and technology, or seeing an artist on the stage.

I don't know anyone that music hasn't influenced, so I personally believe that everyone has a certain level of "music geek" factor - something that makes you just a little spastic (or maybe I'm just writing this to make myself feel better...). But this "geekiness" isn't a bad thing. It's a great thing. Because when you reach that level of absolute, complete amazement about something or someone, it's a complete honest truth.

My last two events at the GRAMMY Museum reminded me of this, not just within my own experience, but within the reactions of others around me. Incidentally, both events featured guitars - the Inside the Fender Custom Shop: The Art of Custom Guitar Building (3/30) and An Evening with Tom Morello (3/31).

The Fender Custom Shop event was a free education program event where Mike Eldred, Fender Custom Shop Director, gave the audience a flavor of the different types of custom guitars they've made recently - one went with motorcycle, another was designed to look like it was part of a billiard set. Talk about the opportunity for guitar aficionados to geek out. There was a certain atmosphere in the room - no matter how invested and skilled in guitars each individual was personally - everyone was learning something new.

Eldred also interviewed Yuriy Shishkov, Fender Custom Shop's Senior Master Builder. Shishkov started to learn how to create guitars under the Communist Regime of Russia. The government didn't approve of this, so he had create guitars in his root cellar and he had to find materials in black market-type trading. Brings dedication to music to a whole other level, doesn't it? We followed Shishkov's humble beginnings through black-and-white photographs that coincided with the interview and then moved on into his own amazing work at Fender Custom Shop. The event concluded with Shishkov teaching the audience a tuning method that they can apply (not to mention that glimpse at Keith Urban's work-in-progress guitar...).

The next evening I attended the Tom Morello event on the GRAMMY Sound Stage. For those unfamiliar, Tom Morello is an amazing guitarist who has worked in Rage Against the Machine and Audio Slave. He currently is known as "The Nightwatchman" for his acoustic guitar playing political alter-ego. Let me take a moment to just say that Robert Santelli, Executive Director at the GRAMMY Museum, conducts the best interviews - he's able to ask great questions and really delve into the artist's past, present, and future while making it feel like a real conversation. Santelli's questions discussed Morello's upbringing (which Morello noted had some eerie similarities to our current president - Midwestern Mom/Kenyan Dad), his time at Harvard (yup...HARVARD...with honors), his political activism background, and what would have happened if he hadn't become a rock star (essentially, there was no other option.)

The Q/A after the interview featured questions where almost all seemed to be prefaced by a thank you and the person's history with Morello's past work. Questions ranged from "When is Rage coming out with a new album" (no plans for that yet) and "What advice would you give my son who's a big fan of yours?".

Morello's set was his Nightwatchman music which included harmonica at one point. Perhaps the most memorable - and the best reflection of his sway over the audience - was getting us to jump and sing along to "This Land Is Your Land", which Morello deems as one of the most political songs he knows.

The line for Morello's autograph wrapped around half the floor and the fans ranged from the young to those listening for years. The most touching moment was when one of the younger fans was so overwhelmed that he got all teary-eyed and his mom kept on trying to take pictures, until the security guard stopped her (I'm sure that kid will appreciate that security guard for potentially embarrassing years to come. Geeking out is fine, but I'm sure all of us like to keep the photos to a minimum).

So how did I geek out? My Fender Esquire guitar was Tom Morello. I'm remembering that experience until the day I die (many, many years from now). Though now I look at my guitar and feel the pressure to play well, it does, after all, have Morello's Nightwatchman tagline: "Whatever It Takes".

Guess I better start practicing...

-Charity Tran

[Photo: Compilation of photos made available by the GRAMMY Museum on the website]

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