Aaron Kusterer’s Other Shade of Blue

ON THE SURFACE, AARON KUSTERER is no different than most guitarists.
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Jennifer Batten performing with Aaron Kusterer and the Air Force Band on July, 2, 2010.

ON THE SURFACE, AARON KUSTERER is no different than most guitarists. He has his formative influences—Joe Satriani and Steve Vai—and he’s a gear geek who wields Buddy Blaze and Ibanez guitars (as well as a Carvin acoustic), racks up a TC Electronic G-Force, and plugs into a Randall RM4 head loaded with Ecstasy, Plexi, Ultra XL, and Clean modules. But his stage wear ain’t exactly jeans, boots, and a t-shirt—it’s the uniform of an Air Force Airman First Class. Kusterer is a guitarist in the Air Force Band of Mid-America group, Starlifter. Formed in 1942, Starlifter has given thousands of humanitarian and public concerts, and, last year, performed with Jennifer Batten onstage as a guest guitarist.

How do you join the Air Force Band?

There’s an auditions clerk you need to see. The auditions typically involve sight-reading, playing four tunes, and then sitting in with several different bands—rock, jazz, concert, etc. Obviously, you need to be versatile, because, at some point, you’re going to play everything. You can’t just be a great rock player. Also, you typically don’t enlist until you’re selected.

What happens when you first join?

You are given an overview of what is expected of you, as well as some time to get to know the book [charts]. Although, in these bands, the musicianship is extremely high, so there are seldom any musical surprises. We operate at a very high opps tempo [frequency of shows], so having the desire to always learn and practice, and the ability to roll with the punches are wonderful attributes to have.

Unlike most civilian rock bands, Starlifter doesn’t have an established lineup, right?

There are musicians assigned to specific bands—although the members are sometimes shuffled about if someone is sick, or they move, or if we want to change things up with new players. The group that played with Jennifer is only one band from the unit. The unit is about 40 people, and it goes from a big concert band that includes almost everyone to subdivisions such as a jazz band, two rock bands, and a woodwind quintet.

As you play so many concerts, how do you decide which rig to bring?

It’s totally up to me, but I have to be practical. We can go from playing for a small audience of 100 people up to a crowd of 25,000 or more. So the rigs go from a pedal or two on the floor to bringing all the big stacks and racks and so on. And when we travel on military flights, we are only allowed a certain amount of space, so that has to be factored in. It usually comes down to asking yourself, “What can I get away with taking? What can I do without?”

It must have been a thrill to perform with Jennifer Batten.

It was absolutely incredible. She is so easy to work with, and she’s really funny. She’s like a mentor to me now.