How I Got Started on Keyboards
I’m a mere-mortal pianist and guitarist. At age 17, I acquired a Farfisa Como Compact organ. At home, I set it up in my room and turned on the radio. Top 40, AM radio. I tried to play along.
I was learning how to match pitch, and also observe keystroke patterns. Although my musical vocabulary was extremely limited, by doing home-study lessons on our family’s organ, I learned rudimentary playing of chords, melody and bass at the same time. I learned how to spell chords, and inversions just seemed obvious to me. The written bass pedal part often created inversions because of good voice-leading. I learned dominant 7ths right off the bat, because you can’t even play the simplest folk song without running into the 7th chord.
Playing along with the radio, even though it was “just” rock, was still a great way to learn because every few minutes a new song would come on. I got multiple chances to get it right because of the repetitive nature of the music. And an hour later or so, they would start the same playlist rotation, giving me more 2nd chances to get it right. My ear was getting much better, moving towards eventually perfect relative pitch, but my reading of music was not developing at the same pace.
I would play with garage bands in the neighborhood. There were garage bands everywhere. I’m sure we were loud and awful. I would cruise around with my friends listening to radio, or 8-tracks(!) and I would listen to the bass part, and the quality of the chord (major/minor). By not having an instrument right there in the car, my ear developed pretty well. I learned to think in generic keys and intervals, i.e., I-IV-V-I. Fairly soon, it seemed, I could play the entire top 40 repertoire.
At this time period, the so-called “British Invasion” was starting to take place, many of whom used organs. The Animals, The Monkeys, Gerry and the Pacemakers, even the Beatles and the Stones. Later, Procal Harem, Iron Butterfly, the Soft Machine, Steppenwolf, and many others made heavy use of organ.
After I knew about 10 chords, I was almost literally pulled on stage, because the demand for rock organists was so high and the supply was so low. I had only been playing a few months. I didn’t know half the songs, so the guitarist would call out the chords to me.: “G”, “E”, “B”, “D”, or “C” all sounded like “E” or “?E” to me on the stage. So when I got it right by ear, I took notice of the guitarists chording hand. I began to recognize what guitar chords look like, and became able to play the same chord on the keyboard with the help of shape-recognition. I was almost immediately invited to play gigs, and soon enough was able to join bands with high profile and status in the community.
At that time in San Antonio, Texas, there were a plethora of groups–some just barely beyond garage band quality–that were playing, and were almost always Rock or R&B cover bands. Small towns were filled with baby-boomer teens coming of age and desperate for something to do on the weekends. The radio stations promoted the bands heavily, and their signal was beamed from San Antonio for hundreds of miles, out to little towns in the Rio Grande valley and all the way to Mexico. So when we played those little towns–they hadn’t seen Paree’ yet–we were treated like rock stars, at least it seemed that way.
The Hammond Organ
A few years later, I traded up to a Hammond organ and Leslie cabinet. With special dollys, it was brute-force carried up stairs to gigs. I can’t imagine doing that now.
I enrolled in college to study music “seriously”. Actually, college is what one did. I had developed quite an obsession over music. I took piano and organ lessons (pipe organ) at college. I was encouraged to get a real piano, so I got a Baldwin Acrosonic piano. The Acrosonic happens to be an amazing piano for a spinet.
My First Piano
Of course, at that time, college didn’t teach rock, and jazz was frowned upon, so I began to be introduced–for the 1st time in my life–to classical music. As you can probably gather by now, I had a late and atypical start in music.
I studied classical music, racking up around 100 college hours as a theory major. I was an A student in theory and ear training, but not so hot in performance. I would practice the pieces, but it was easy for me to be distracted; I was kind of like an undisciplined sponge.
How I Started on Guitar
I asked a buddy to loan me his guitar for a week. All I wanted to know from him was how you tune it. Knowing the tuning meant that I knew the strings’ note names. From my keyboard work I already knew how to spell basic chords. I knew that 1 fret = 1 half step. So the very 1st thing I did was to painstakingly figure out the E chord. The 2nd chord I learned was not an A or G chord, but an F chord. Knowing that the half step movement from E to F would require a one-fret movement to higher pitches, the idea of barre chords completely made sense to me. The F is just an E moved up a half step, but since E depends on open strings, those strings needed to be fretted. Later on, I found out that most beginning guitarists get to bar chords after quite some time–and it is usually fairly difficult. I went on to learn all the open chords and then their respective barre chords.
I basically noodled on guitar for the next few years. The friendly environment of jamming with friends made it easy to take chances and experiment, and that increased my facility and learning. Later, I took up 7-string guitar and began concentrating on solo guitar playing and accompanying singers. The 7 strings allow more separation of bass, which turns out to be very helpful when playing solo, bass, harmony and melody.
I went with five friends and arrived in Hollywood at the height of bands like the Doors, Canned Heat, Buffalo Springfield, etc. Having no money, we would hang out in front of clubs and listen. Clubs like “The Whiskey A Go Go”, “Gazarrie’s”, “Pandora’s Box”, and “Shelly’s Mann Hole”. Our intention was to form or join a band. That didn’t exactly work out. I did, however, rent my organ to “Iron Butterfly” one night (whoo-hoo!).
A few months latwe, I went back to San Antonio. A couple of years later I returned to San Francisco.
There, not much happend other than going to the woods, the beach, or to visit friends. I was fortunate to room with a fellow San Antonian friend, the fantastic guitarist Jackie King. At that time he was getting gigs with the 5th dimension and the like and also had his own jazz group, “Shades of Joy”.
His jazz-playing friends would come over all the time and jam. Theyt were way over my head, but I still soaked up what I could. Jackie told me about an audition for Eric Burden’s new band, “War”. (Eric Burden was the lead singer for :The Animals”). Unfortunately, I was so naive that I thought I would have to have my Hammond hauled from San Antonio for the audition. I couldn’t see how to do that at the time, so no audition.
San Antonio was chosen to have the 1968 World’s Fair. It was called “HemisFair. I was able to land a great full-time gig playing bass during the HemisFair (“World’s Fair”), at the Plaza Dinner Theater, which was right on the fairgrounds. Our group played a short gig every night–I played bass–and later, I played guitar in the pit band for the play “Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”. This was a reading gig, which I struggled with, but with help, was able to pull off. I was exposed to a lot of professional musicians, and actors from Actor’s Equity.
Other than that gig, I was never much of a 5 or 6-nighter type of working musician. I had sold pianos, and had quite a variety of other day gigs. In later years I played a lot with big bands as either pianist, bassist, or guitarist. I also played with a lot of jazz groups, everything from solo piano to duos, trios, quartets to octets. These were mostly occasional pick-up gigs for weddings, openings, company functions, hotel gigs, and the like.
One of the musical hightlights of my musical career was being in a great choir at Texas State University. We joined with the San Antonio Mastersingers in the San Antonio Symphony’s performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersingers”, which I remember as feeling like I had been swept away on a cloud of sound.