I Was a Fur Peace Rancher!

Jorma Kaukonen was in the middle of performing an obscure piece by the Reverend Gary Davis, “Will There Be Stars in My Crown,” which he’d learned only recently from guitarist Ernie Hawkins. The entire audience—a dozen guitarists sitting on folding chairs with Martins, Gibsons, and Taylors by their sides—was likely thinking the same thing: We’re supposed to learn this on our first day of camp?

That was my introduction to Fur Peace Ranch—a seasonal instructional community that includes a restaurant, a concert hall, a library, a recording studio, 16 double-occupancy cabins, and a conference center. Started in 1989 by Kaukonen—a former member of Jefferson Airplane, a founding member of Hot Tuna, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee—and his wife Vanessa, the camp runs February through November, and offers all levels of instruction in myriad styles from guest instructors such as John Hammond, G.E. Smith, Kelly Joe Phelps, Tommy Emmanuel, Rory Block, Guy Clark, and Cindy Cashdollar.

Happily, tackling the Davis tune was not as intimidating as it first seemed—mostly because Kaukonen slowly took us through it measure by measure, explaining precisely what the right and left hands were doing at every moment. Kaukonen proved to be a patient teacher with a good-natured sense of humor (“You’ve gotta play a Gibson to sit in the front row”) who was always open to reviewing particular passages with individual students on request. He also offered wide-ranging advice, from secrets learned from David Crosby about getting a great guitar tone in the studio, to general musical philosophy (“If you hear something you like, snag it”).

Although the camp offers a guitar curriculum that covers everything from rock to classical to blues, most of the students in my session were drawn to solo fingerstyle guitar. Kaukonen concurred with the group, and said, “Fingerstyle allows me to sound like a whole band, without having to play with five other guys—one of whom has to own a van!” But he also stressed the importance of practicing with others. “That’s where the rubber hits the road,” he said.

When the classes ended, I pondered what I’d learned over the weekend while driving home. Beyond the hot licks that might quickly fade from memory, I was exposed to great teachers who shared not just well-thought-out lesson plans, but who also imparted a deeper sense of what is involved in making music. For example, instructor Geoff Achison talked about approaching music as a spiritual experience.

“I prefer not to fill students’ heads with more scales and more theory,” he said. “They can get that from better sources than me anytime. The magic of music is the human spirit. What strings should I use? Should I learn all of the modes first? None of that really matters. Gear is stuff. Theory is math. Music is joy.”