Charlie Crowe: An Insider’s Take on the 2010 Guitar Superstar Contest (and What Led Me to It)

December 02, 2010
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So I recently placed third in Guitar Player magazine’s 2010 Guitar Superstar contest. I entered on a beer-buzz whim back in May and was ultimately pitted against young shredders, middle-age rockers and a phenomenal acoustic player. The experience gave me a new appreciation for the craft, the business, taking risks and um…oh yeah, music! I’ll tell you more about it, but let me recap my year leading up to the event.

“Are you ever gonna write another blog?”

My wife has asked this question pretty much every month since I wrote my last one, which was almost a year ago.

Between August and December of last year, I wrote nearly a dozen blogs about music, the music industry and me. They were therapeutic musings and missives that forced me to articulate in a prose format.

At the time, it seemed like a good diversion from songwriting, sort of a grindstone for sharpening my lyrical blade. See what I did there? Anyway…

Looking back, I can see that I was on a blog-bender, high on words with no melody. My wife eventually intervened, asking with a hint of snark, “Are you ever going to write another song? An instrumental? Something, anything, musical?”

But by the beginning of the year, I was pretty well tapped—musically and otherwise. Every blog attempt felt like I was the cliched old man shaking his cane in the yard at all the hooligans. Every song I started sounded like I was pandering to Clear Channel.

I was actually tempted to write about non-musical things. Like a rant on some of the assholes who apparently feel entitled to park anywhere they want at the Y, school and baseball games.

I was gonna title it “Hate Thy Neighbor,” but that seemed a bit harsh…and ultimately, pointless.

My chest just got tighter writing that last sentence. Breathe…

So January got dark for me. I was losing faith in my profession, my community and myself.

For the first time in 20 years, I was facing the unsettling reality that I might have to consider working in another industry besides music.

At the beginning of 2006, after being a touring musician for a third of my life, I walked away. I was flush with cash at the time and cited a need for change. My babies were now little negotiators entering grade school.

I had finally achieved some songwriting success and was able to hang at the house for a while. It was an empowering period in my life.

My mindset was this: I’ll be a songwriter/guitar guy in town by day and noble husband and father at home by night. I’ll receive checks from my mailbox and choose work when I want it. The following people can kiss my ass…
    
Before I knew it, four years had passed. Forty-eight months of awkward courtships with publishing companies, wasted efforts with negligible band projects and one too many dead-end writing/recording sessions.

Not to mention the issue of income. My mailbox went from hero to zero, so I succumbed once again to the smell of diesel and dollars.

Lulled by the hum of the tour buses, I fell into a semi-suicidal series of scattered, unpredictable road gigs.

My situation wasn’t unique. A growing number of my colleagues, from all areas of the business, feel at the very least polarized and perhaps even paralyzed by the ongoing implosion of our industry.

According to the media, the music industry claims recorded music sales are down 50% from where they were a decade ago, with no bottom in sight. The trades also state that music consumption is at an all-time high.

Seems like an oxymoron, but when you think about how music is accessed these days, it makes sense. The digital age has marginalized the medium. There has never been more music available on demand, illegally, for free.

Coupled with the meltdown in the housing and banking industry, I was beginning to feel like an AA devotee reciting the Serenity Prayer.

Not the change I was looking for.

My wife was worried. Even the kids started asking questions.

Oh yeah, I was turning 50 in March. Cue further self-loathing.

“What do you want for your big birthday?” Wife asked.

“More booze.”

I had been dwelling on it. I think the big-ticket item for me was simply more time.

Here’s what I want. I want a few more months with this guitar thing. If I don’t have something going on by the end of September, then I’ll let it go, accept that I’ve had my run and whore out for the paycheck in whatever profession will have me.

For the past 15 years, while playing and writing songs for other artists, I’ve privately toiled as an aspiring instrumental guitarist.

I envision myself as a southern version of Joe Satriani. Whenever I’m not gigging or writing for Nashville, I write original guitar music or do instrumental arrangements of choice cover material.
 
By late spring, Guitar Player magazine was accepting video entries for its annual “Guitar Superstar Contest.”

For the uninitiated, Guitar Player magazine is the Rolling Stone of guitar periodicals.

This contest is a national competition for aspiring guitar instrumentalists. It is, in essence, the American Idol for guitarists.

I happened to have a decent video performance of an instrumental song I wrote.

Should I enter this thing? Nah, surely I’m beyond contests. This is for "wannabes." Exactly. I "wannabe" recognized as an instrumental guitarist by the international audience that makes up Guitar Player magazine’s circulation.

Last time I checked, I hadn’t broken any new ground by recreating somebody else’s guitar parts.

After a few beers, I uploaded the video and entered the contest.

Unlike the non-video entries in the four prior contests, you could monitor the other entries online. You could also rank them and leave comments. The staff at Guitar Player magazine would choose nine finalists and the public would vote for the 10th.

First prize was about $6K in gear, a write-up in the magazine and a record deal with Guitar Player Records/EMI. Second and third place garnered about $2K to $3K, respectively, in gear plus magazine recognition.

From an early age, I’ve always wanted to be featured in GP. It’s hard to explain if you’re not a player. If you are, you get it.

So from mid-May until June 30, the deadline, I watched close to a hundred entries. Some were great. Many were good. A few were comical. I felt I was definitely in the running.

The comments section was mostly positive on my entry. But you can always count on a few jabs from the haters. Like these:

“You are doing nothing amazing here. That cowboy hat and left leg keeping time are annoying as hell.”

“I don’t get it. Next.”

“You and a couple other pros on here should be disqualified immediately. Give others a chance—you’ve had your day.”

And my favorite: “Nope.”

Never in my career have I been positioned for that kind of criticism. I have to admit that it stung a bit. I thought that if a few were compelled to post those comments, how many others thought that way?

I eventually shook it off and accepted that it’s all part of putting yourself out there. And I wasn’t the only target. Plenty of other entries suffered far worse abuse from armchair super-pickers.

The deadline date comes and GP decides to extend the contest an additional 30 days.

Great.

This contest has already commanded my attention for most of the summer. I’m ready to prepare for the showdown or move on with my life.

Finally, July 30 rolls around. Closed. No more entries. Surely they’ll announce the finalists on Aug. 1.

Nope.

GP will list the finalists on their website Aug. 16. Another two weeks of waiting.

When GP announces the finalists, I’m not on the list.

I felt both disappointment and relief. I’m not sure which feeling was greater. One thing was for sure. I didn’t impress the GP staff enough to make the finals.

Time to uncomplicate my life. I’ll sell everything but a couple of electric guitars and amps for the occasional gig and an acoustic for songwriting.

No more dickin’ around in my studio with guitar instrumentals. From now on, I’ll write songs with lyrics, record drafts on my iPhone and leave the production to someone else. Piss off, Pro Tools; I’m done with you.

About a week after the announcement of the ten finalists, I get an email from GP editor and chief Michael Molenda.

“Hey, one of the final ten is disqualified. He’s from Italy and this contest is for U.S. residents only. You’re our alternate. Congrats! Let us know ASAP if you can participate.”

I guess I was their 11th   choice.

This was bullshit. This contest had succeeded in kicking me in the tenders and I wasn’t going to have my pride tested like this ever again.

I immediately wrote back and said, “I’m in!”

In three weeks, I would be competing and performing at the Livermore Performing Arts Center outside of San Francisco.

Judging me and nine others would be guitar legends Elliot Easton from The Cars, Reeves Gabrels from David Bowie, George Lynch from Dokken and famed guitar instrumentalist Gary Hoey.

I cued up the “Rocky” theme music in my head and resolved to practice daily for the event.

Although I wrote and recorded the song I’m playing, I needed to train for it. It’s not a shred-fest. But it’s difficult enough in spots to require some strength and endurance built up in my fingers to get through it without falling apart.

On Sept. 17, I arrived in Livermore at the hotel. After checking in, I met last year’s winner, Steve Senes. He was back to open the show with a new instrumental performance and relinquish his title.

I asked him how his year has been since winning the contest. He said he has action brewing overseas but still gigs in a disco band at Myrtle Beach.

The next morning all the contestants piled in a van and drove to the Livermore Performing Arts Center. When we arrived, we were greeted by staff and given wristbands and lanyard passes to allow us to roam free throughout the facility.

We met the aforementioned GP editor, Michael Molenda. He’s a guitar periodical rock star and the gatekeeper of all things regarding strings that grace the mag from cover to content.

Molenda welcomed everyone and gave us a rundown of the day. He has a friendly yet dry “I’ve seen it all” tone. We would all be allowed 30-minute sound checks but were encouraged to wrap it up in 20 because we were already an hour behind schedule.

We parked ourselves in an enormous dressing room, set up mini practice areas and waited for our turn to sound check with the house band.

It’s my turn. I walked out with my guitar and pedal board. Mesa Boogie provided a variety of their renowned amplifiers. It was a little unnerving not having my own amp, but I dialed in a clean tone and let my effects do the dirty work.

I needed a couple of run-throughs. Jonathan Herrera, the music director and bass player, led a crack backup band called Thud Factor. It felt good. I finished in 15 minutes.

Everybody made it through their sound checks about an hour before curtain. I’m seventh in the lineup.

Showtime.

Local DJ celeb Nikki Black greeted the audience and 2009 winner Senes opened the show. Celebrity judges were introduced. The first contestant was called to the stage.

The rest of us hung out, warmed up with scales and watched the show on a huge plasma flat screen in the green room.

After each performance, contestants had to walk over to stage left with Black to face the judges.

I watched the first five players stand in front of a panel of famous guitarists and take compliments followed by constructive criticisms. Here are a few comments I recall:

“Don’t turn your back on the crowd to educate the band on your song.”

“Sounds a bit too derivative of Jeff Beck. Could’ve sworn you were starting one of his songs.”

“Do you like your tone? You need to get on your knees and listen to what’s coming out of your speaker.”

“Your vibrato is a bit underdeveloped.”

“Sounds a little like Guitar Center at noon on Saturday.”

Then it was time for contestant number six, Don Alder. He’s the sole acoustic guy in this shootout. Kind of a Tommy Emmanuel type and a welcome reprieve from the sonic jack hammering the audience and judges have endured for the first half of the show.

He gets a much-deserved standing ovation. I’m watching one guy with an acoustic guitar and no band get the lion’s share of Livermore love from the audience and judges.

Guess who gets to follow this guy?

Next up is Charlie Crowe from Nashville, Tennessee, performing “Intergalactic Cowboy.”

I walked out and couldn’t help but notice my publicity photo staring down at me from a massive video screen hanging behind the drummer. My expression seemed to ask the question, “Why are you doing this? Really?”

The drummer kicked off the song. The guitar intro is a revved-up, chicken-pickin’ kind of thing. I semi-stumbled getting into it.

There’s a break when the main riff and melody starts. Stumbled a bit there, too.

How’s my tone? I seemed loud.

There are some fast fluid runs toward the end of the song. I didn’t nail any of them.

It’s funny how you can rehearse a song over and over to the point where you honestly feel you can perform it flawlessly, then for whatever reason, be it nerves, fatigue or environment, you lose control of it.

I finished the song to enthusiastic applause and took the walk of fame or shame over to stage left to face Easton, Gabrels, Hoey and Lynch.

To my relief, these jaded touring and recording vets couldn’t have been more complimentary of my tone, composition, technique and stage presence.

In between the judges’ comments, the audience applauds in agreement.

I gestured my appreciation to the band, thanked the crowd and walked off the stage numb and stunned, thankful to have gotten through it without being castigated in front of the guitar world watching online.

For years to come, there will be a few moments archived on Guitar Player’s website, YouTube and various other guitar sites of me receiving positive recognition from four legendary musicians.

There were three more contestants to go. All are great players but fell short in some areas, according to the judges.

It was over. The house band played while the judges tallied scores.

Taking third place…me.

Second place went to 8-string tapping wunderkind Eric Clemenzi.

First place went to the standing-O acoustic guy, Don Alder.

The after-party was amazing. Many people came up and told me how much they enjoyed my performance. I was handed about a dozen business cards throughout the evening. Some were offering endorsement deals. Others book shows and clinics.

Maybe doors are opening. Maybe I can salvage a career.

I hadn’t felt that kind of validation in years.

Sunday morning, I’m dropped off at SFO, home of the fog delay, with three hours to kill before a five-hour flight home.

While I’m waiting to board, I start to think about the experience. I’m so glad it’s over, but I’m anxious to perform again. I want to rehearse my show and start booking gigs. Quite a contrast to how I felt only a month earlier.

What’s the psychology at work here?

Maybe it’s the age-old desire of wanting to do something great entirely on your own.

For me, I think my age and life experiences have something to do with it.

Not to channel Morgan Freeman or Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List, but death and time left on the clock occasionally tug at my thoughts.

If there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s that I was competing with myself as much or more than with the nine other finalists.

Maybe it’s also about facing fear. It’s been stated that speaking in front of people is the second-rated fear next to death. If that’s true, then taking center stage as a guitarist in front of thousands of guitar enthusiasts has got to be a close third.

Playing in a band and backing up a singer is one thing. Putting yourself out there and attempting to be engaging as an instrumentalist is a whole other animal.

Nine other finalists made the cut and had the balls to compete in this thing. I wonder what their deeper motivations are, if any, beyond the obvious exposure and prizes for winning.

Maybe it’s simply this: We’re hard-core guitar players. Through this instrument we’re able to connect with ourselves, others and life. We’re constantly inspired by fellow players to push ourselves to be better and to strive to find our own voice.

With that said, I can, for at least a year, climb up on the proverbial mountaintop and yell, “I’m number threeeeeeeee!”

When’s the next gig?

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