A Guitar Contest With a Winning Surprise
JIM FUSILLI, Wall Street Journal
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
We're under way at Guitar Player magazine's fourth annual Guitar Superstar Competition, held Saturday here at the Great
American Music Hall. Up on the balcony are the judges: guitar gods Joe Satriani and Steve Vai; the Cars' Elliott Easton;
Dokken's George Lynch; and Brendon Small, a death-metal guitarist who's behind "Metalocalypse," an Adult Swim series on
TV's Cartoon Network. Andy Summers of the Police, the master of ceremonies, introduces the first contestant -- Makana,
who blends country finger-picking with the slack-key style of his native Honolulu. It's a satisfying acoustic start to
what threatens to be an evening of blizzards of notes and bludgeoning volume. In his critique, Mr. Satriani calls Makana's
performance "flawless," which is not quite right, but he sets a collegial tone.
Though not for long. After the next guitarist, Eric Brewer of Erie, Pa., plays his Eric Johnson-influenced set, Mr. Easton tells him, "If you played like that in 1971 you would've been the world's greatest guitarist." Rockabilly guitarist Mark Christian of Los Angeles doesn't sound as crisp as he does on his recordings, and he's dismissed by the panel. Three up and nothing new: If this is the future of rock guitar, it's in trouble.
When we spoke by phone last week, Guitar Player's editor in chief, Mike Molenda, told me the magazine solicited show-me-what-you've-got
tracks through Sonicbids.com, a community site for musicians and industry professionals. Thousands of tracks came in, and the
Sonicbids community winnowed the list of contenders down to the best 210. Then Guitar Player's editors picked its 10 finalists,
each of whom received an expenses-paid trip here to compete. Top prize is about $8,000 in guitar gear.
The contestants aren't unknowns; several have CDs available on iTunes, and most can be found on MySpace and YouTube. "They have a
certain level of local, regional or even national attention," Mr. Molenda said of the finalists. "These guys want to be recognized
by a community of peers with technical skills. That's incredibly valuable."
And intimidating. "My nerves will be pretty tight," guitarist Vicki Genfan told me when we spoke before she left for San Francisco
from her home in Fairview, N.J. "For this group of judges, I don't want to slip up."
Ms. Genfan is the only woman in the competition, and Mr. Summers seems to forget she's here. "The testosterone level -- that's what
it's all about!" he shouts at one point, and repeatedly refers to the group of contestants as "guys."
That's literally true in one case: The fourth contestant, from Norwalk, Conn., performs as "the guy." His spacey approach is quietly
flashy and intense, but at a crucial moment he hesitates, as if drawing a breath, before a furious flurry.
From Chicago by way of Bosnia, Daddo Oreskovich wins the near-capacity crowd with a fun, dynamic showcase, using foot pedals to shift
from an acoustic guitar sound to electric guitar squeals and speed. There's a bit of the aggressive jazz-rock playing of early Al
DiMeola, but Mr. Easton doesn't mind this look back. He says, "I loved it."
After an intermission, during which some members of the audiences clamored for the judges' autographs, especially Mr. Satriani's,
Ms. Genfan steps up with an acoustic guitar. She calls her style "flap tap," which blends percussion and harmonic elements. Her
performance of her composition "Atomic Reshuffle" dazzles the judges as well as Mr. Summers. "Wow," he says. "I've really got
to work on my guitar playing." "If I could play like that," Mr. Vai adds, "I'd stay at home and entertain myself." Mr.
Lynch says, "I didn't know girls could actually play guitar like that." He might've been kidding.
The next two contestants, Dan Peters of Morton Grove, Ill., and Eric Barnett of Sonoma, Calif., surrender to the temptation of
brute force. Mr. Peters plays a nice bit of plucky rockabilly influenced by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed, but then suddenly stops to
issue a machine-gun burst of notes, an unnecessary coda. With his own cheering section in the audience, Mr. Barnett offers a tasty
piece of melodic blues that's buried as speed and volume take over. Mr. Vai is disappointed by the shift. "The most important thing
is melody," he says, adding that an extended guitar solo is like speech -- it requires pauses, modulations and emphasis at key points
to be an effective means of communication.
Now we're in the home stretch. Jacksonville, Fla.'s Ben Robinson is playing something called "Armageddon Express," so I brace
myself to be pinned to the wall. But he plays with a clean, beefy sound derivative of Texas blues players and Jimi Hendrix. The
judges are kind. "Not everyone is a virtuoso, and not everyone is meant to be," says Mr. Easton. "I can see you shining in a band."
The last contestant, Mike Orlando of Staten Island, N.Y., is a shredding machine, going faster and faster, the notes coming at a
pace impossible to comprehend, building and building toward detonation. "They do make decaf," Mr. Satriani jokes, adding that the
only appropriate topper to the performance would have been if Mr. Orlando's head had exploded. Mr. Vai says, "You're going to give
your guitar a nervous breakdown."
As the judges withdraw to select the winners, I pick my top three: Mr. Oreskovich, Ms. Genfan and the guy, though Mr. Orlando
deserves some reward for channeling the Tasmanian Devil. Though no one plowed any new ground or played anything that would send
me to the woodshed with my guitars, I admired the contestants. With their reputations on the line in front of Mr. Satriani,
Mr. Vai and the other judges, they performed with conviction. Meanwhile, the four-piece house band, Thud Factor, is playing
Weather Report's "Black Market." It's the best piece of music of the night.
I nestle in among the contestants at the side of the stage as Mr. Summers announces the second runner-up: Makana, the acoustic
guitarist from Honolulu. First runner-up is Mr. Oreskovich. The remaining guitarists inch forward as Mr. Summers announces the
winner: Ms. Genfan.
It's a stunning victory, a barrier shattered.
Guitar Player is a male-dominated domain -- the only photo of a woman musician at work in the current issue is a microscopic
shot of bassist Rachel Haden with her back to the camera. The magazine is often a tribute to speed, power, volume and gear.
Ms. Genfan plays an acoustic guitar without effects. But as Mr. Easton said during his critique, "You painted outside the lines."
As she comes off stage, her face beaming with glee, pride and amazement, she's embraced by the other contestants.
Shouting, she tells me: "I didn't think the guys would do it, but they did. I didn't think they'd give it up." Soon,
autograph seekers surround her. In the lobby, the crowd is queuing to buy copies of her CD being hawked by friends.
Mr. Fusilli is the Wall Street Journal's rock and pop music critic.
See Vicki in the finals & hear the judge's comments on YouTUBE.
For more on Vicki Genfan visit www.vickigenfan.com.
Learn more about the Luna Trinity.