At 13, I got a $50 Kay electric guitar and gleefully marched down to Rigoni Music on Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, Ill., with a Kiss and Led Zeppelin songbook under each arm.
I plunked down my $5 in front of their guitar instructor and said, “Teach me ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Detroit Rock City.’”
He said: “Hold on there, son. This is a guitar lesson and today we’re going to learn to tune the guitar.”
I thought that seemed like a big waste of time and money, but, willing to pay my dues, I sat in my bedroom for the next week, bored out of my mind, wrenching my guitar’s tuning pegs back and forth.
Back the next week, I plunked down another fin and demanded to learn my Kiss and Led Zeppelin songs.
“You’re nowhere near ready to do that,” he told me. “Today we’re going to learn the C major scale.”
Well that was the end of that. Disgusted, I went home, put the guitar in a closet and didn’t touch it again for four years. It wasn’t until I discovered punk rock, with its do-i-yourself, no- lessons-required ethos that I found the fun in guitar playing, setting me on a trajectory that I’m still on today.
Years later, as a struggling musician in Hollywood, I taught guitar to make ends meet, and remembered those two crummy lessons that I had when I was 13. I vowed to never make a student feel the way that I had felt.
Absolute beginners would come in and I’d help them learn whatever song they wanted to play, or I would insist that they “write” a song — before knowing a note, before knowing a chord, just making sounds in a pattern. A couple of times through and, boom! You’re a songwriter, in the same tent as McCartney and Dylan. Let your fingers dance among the Tetris pile of possibilities of notes and chords and you’re on your way.
My two young sons had no interest in following in their father’s footsteps to become a musician. There’s plenty of instruments around the house, but they took a hard pass and gravitated toward their own passions.
Then came the lockdown and the prospect of endless days at home, each one like the one before, with spotty Zoom schoolwork, little opportunity to connect with peers and plenty of opportunities for kids and parents to drive each other crazy.
My youngest son, Roman, 9 at the time, is a bit of a classic rock fan, and one day I timidly asked him if he’d like to learn the first three notes to “Stairway to Heaven.” He assented, figuring it wouldn’t be too much effort and he could always just go right back to playing Among Us on his computer.
Well, he learned those first three notes, and it sounded just like the song. Encouraged, he came back the next day, three more notes. Over the course of the next couple of months, we worked our way through the entire song. By building on these small successes, he began to take pride in his ability to master a Led Zeppelin standard as a brand-new player. We moved on, and a couple of songs later, he was really digging it and showing a kind of natural aptitude that I never really found in myself.
But every once in a while, I would slip into the voice of my old awful guitar teacher, trying to hammer home some point about music theory or fingering on the instrument. His reaction was immediate. He would put the guitar down, threatening not to pick it up again. So I said: “All right, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to run before we walk. All we’re going to do from here on in is improvisational soloing.”
[Read more about this project from Jane Coaston and Kathleen Kingsbury here.]
I showed him a pattern or two. And since that day, I basically am the rhythm guitarist in the family, as Roman Morello shreds like crazy, across different genres, with fire and passion. The way he is able to let loose and just have uninhibited joy on the instrument, no obsessive tuning or C major scale required, makes his dad very proud.
Another young musician who’s shown the world her passion and talent is the British-Zulu phenom Nandi Bushell, who may very well be the future of rock’n’roll.
She gained global Instagram fame for her amazing multi-instrumentalist covers of rock classics. She dueled with Dave Grohl in a drum off for the ages and came out on top.
I was so impressed with her talent, moxie and effervescent spirit that I sent her one of my signature “Soul Power” Fender guitars. We became Insta friends and when she asked if I’d like to write a song with her, I said, “That sounds fantastic, but I’ve got a 9-year-old in my house who might be better than I am. Why don’t you two kids write a song together?”
They did. Writing virtually across the Atlantic Ocean, Roman came up with a few power riffs and Nandi played drums, bass and sang on the track.
Like me, they are stirred not just by the power of the music, but the need to change the world.
The song they created is “The Children Will Rise Up,” an anthem proclaiming that only the courage and fortitude of their generation can stop the impending environmental catastrophe facing humanity. We wrangled Jack Black and Greta Thunberg for the video and it’s an absolute mosh pit-inducing banger with a stratospheric solo that might just make that Rigoni Music guitar instructor repent.