Like many devoted rock fans, Thomas Scott McKenzie papered the walls of his bedroom with posters of his guitar heroes when he was a child. Unlike most fans, McKenzie decided as an adult to seek out and make personal connections with some of those very same musicians. His new book, Power Chord: One Man’s Ear-Splitting Quest to Find His Guitar Heroes, tells the story of those efforts. Having come of age in the ‘80s, McKenzie criss-crossed the country pursuing sit-down sessions with six-string greats who had risen to prominence during that era. Among his successes were encounters with Ace Frehley, Glenn Tipton, Steve Vai and Phil Collen, to name just a few. From sharing a meal with Bruce Kulick at a Cracker Barrel, to sharing the stage with Frehley at L.A.’s legendary venue, The Whisky, McKenzie’s journey proved memorable beyond his wildest expectations.
How did this idea originate?
It was one of those wacky things. I was a bit frustrated with my career [as a software project manager], and was trying to figure out what to do. I started thinking about how guitar heroes seem to never have doubts. I’m sure they do, but as fans we never get a sense of that. I wondered what it would be like to get career tips, career advice, from my heroes. With all the social networking that’s available, you can contact people in ways that would have been unthinkable in the ‘70s or ‘80s. I began emailing musicians, and started chatting with some of them and started learning how to play guitar myself. Things grew from there.
How did you go about deciding who to pursue?
I used a very liberal and expansive definition of “guitar hero.” Everyone has their own definition of that term, but for the purposes of the book, my thinking was, “Did I, at any point in my life, pretend to be that guy? When I was 12, did I imagine that was me, playing in that band?” If the answer was, “Yes,” then I considered that person a guitar hero.
Did your great experience with Bruce Kulick, early on, propel you forward?
Absolutely. He was one of the first people I spoke with. I remember driving home afterwards thinking I could never have dreamed I would be sitting in a Cracker Barrel having a meal with this guy I had listened to on my Walkman, when I was 12 or 13. Bruce is such a good guy, so welcoming and inviting, and I had such a great time. It was definitely a “pinch myself” moment. It made me start to think, “Okay, this might actually be possible. I might be able to interact with my heroes.”
Were you more surprised by how easy it was to get access to the musicians, or by how difficult it was?
By how difficult it was. What I found was that the musicians themselves were always really cool about it. It was their teams — their publicists — who sometimes made it hard to get through. But once I did make contact with the musicians, I was surprised how cool about it they really were. People sometimes tell horror stories about meeting their heroes, and having things turns out badly, but that wasn’t my experience at all.
Did meeting your heroes rob them – and rock and roll in general — of any of their mystique?
It did and it didn’t. Part of what I was expecting to see was that mythical idea of what goes on backstage. Most of the guys I talked to are a bit older – and are traveling with their families — so what I saw backstage was different from what I envisioned. In terms of the guys being normal, and there not being the craziness and the antics I imagined, some of the mystique was stripped away. But that said, the instant they played a note, I turned into a 10-year-old once again. Being three feet away from somebody as they’re playing a solo I had listened to, driving to high school soccer practice, never ceased to be amazing. The moment they plugged in, I reverted back to being a kid, grinning from ear to ear. I was in awe of them, all over again.
Did a common trait start to emerge, as you met more of them?
What they have in common is their work ethic and their dedication to their craft. Some of the guys I talked with are playing small clubs now, and are no longer selling out arenas. At the time I began writing the book, I was tired of hairspray and spandex jokes. If you’re playing a club today, in front of a hundred people, whereas you used to play in front of 100,000 people, that’s dedication. For me, what really resonated was how every one of these players remains dedicated to their craft.
Which memories stay with you?
In that first interaction with Bruce, we were in the backstage area, and on the counter top was a box of baby wipes. Something about that image stuck with me, and seemed very surreal. Here I was, finally backstage, and I wasn’t seeing groupies or anything seedy. Instead, someone who had been there previously had left a box of baby wipes. Also, one of the last interviews I did was with George Lynch. We were on his tour bus, and he said, “I’ve got to show you something. You’re going to love this.” He started rummaging through a duffel bag. The little kid inside me was imagining he was going to pull out something salacious, but instead he pulled out a history book, a people’s history of the United States.
What were the most exciting moments?
One involved Def Leppard, during the time I interviewed Phil Collen. The band had taken a break during their tour, because there had been a death in the family, and they were getting ready to do their first show following the break. Their sound check was like a full-on performance. I was sitting there, just looking around the arena, and there were just two crew members, at the soundboard. It was literally a full-on, full-volume Def Leppard concert that I was experiencing, by myself. That was amazing.
Did the players tend to intellectualize, when you asked them about guitar playing?
That varied. Ace Frehley was very matter-of-fact, and at the same time he’s extremely knowledgeable. He explained how he got that ringing, choir bell tone on “Fractured Mirror,” but in his own very low-key way. A song on his new album that has a lyric that says, “When I woke up this morning, I thought I could change the world.” I asked him, “Do you ever stop and think about the fact that, for your fans, you did change the world?” He said he was pleased he had made that impression on people, but he didn’t get deeply introspective about it. On the other hand, Steve Vai could give a lengthy dissertation on music theory. So it ran the gamut. Some of the players were all about “feel,” and some were more intellectual, in the ways they communicated their thoughts about the instrument.
What was the best advice you heard?
Glen Tipton of Judas Priest stressed the importance of playing from the heart, that it’s less about the accuracy of what you’re doing and than about the emotion. Several of the musicians said that guitar players, today, have things a bit easier – maybe a bit too easy — because of transcriptions and having so much information at their fingertips. George Lynch said the way you find your own voice, as a player, is by making mistakes. He talked about trying to emulate Hendrix when he was growing up. In the process of doing that, and making mistakes, he ended up sounded like George Lynch. It comes down to what you’re doing in your basement, making what you do your own.