Sunday, May 15, 2005
Recently it was starting to look like things were really coming together for the band -- we had a pretty cool gig at a place in Hollywood where we could get a lot of exposure, and we even had an offer to play a club on the Sunset Strip. We've been back in the studio adding the final vocal and guitar tracks and the recordings are sounding pretty good. We've got a guy doing our graphics design for the CD cover and he's coming up with a lot of great ideas, including the cool Buzzards logo, soon to be emblazoned on hats, t-shirts and guitar picks everywhere, I've even met some folks who know a little about the music business and have offered to help out whenever we are ready. And we were almost ready.
Then our lead guitar player, Will Ray, decided to move to North Carolina.
Now, everyone knows that lead guitar players are a dime a dozen. Especially in L.A., where they are the next most pervasive life form after starlets and screenwriters, and every bit as annoying. So how hard could it be to replace Will?
The thing is Will isn't just a guitar player. If I had known exactly who he was when I first suggested to Jimmy that we invite him to join us onstage at Hallenbecks, I would have been way too intimidated. Fortunately we clicked that night and Will actually came up with the idea of putting a band together. I was pretty thrilled even to be included at that point. And I still didn't really know who Will was.
I got my first real clue when we went to Will's house one night to do some recording for a demo that we technically still haven't finished. In addition to a full blown recording studio in the back of the house there was a room filled with vintage guitars, plus about five or six new G&L guitars that I noticed had Will's name inscribed on them and his custom death's-head logo inlaid in the fretboards. Then there were the awards on the wall for 'Guitarist of the Year' and Producer of the Year' and a poster of him with the Yardbirds and the magazine covers and the Hellecaster CDs. Will's "other" band is a guitar supergroup called the Hellecasters that has loyal and hardcore following both here and in Europe.
But Will's stature was confirmed when my old pal David Hamburger, himself an accomplished picker, was in town for the annual "NAMM" music industry convention. David met me for lunch and we got to talking about Will and the Buzzards and in his very diplomatic and understated way he asked me, basically "What the hell is Will Ray doing with you guys?" I had to confess that I did not know.
But actually, after a while I kind of got used to the idea of playing alongside a legend. Occasionally I might catch myself listening to what he was doing instead of concentrating on what I was doing and forget my part. But most of the time it was just a hell of a lot of fun playing with him. And that's the problem.
See, now we have to find a new guy to take his place and it isn't that easy. For one thing, a lot of potential guitarists become intimidated when we tell the that we are trying to replace Will. One guy literally wrote, "Don't make me laugh!" Most of the guys we are hearing from are big fans of Will's and are pretty excited to have the opportunity to step into his shoes. Only thing is they don't quite fill them out. I find myself getting frustrated at the auditions and wanting to say things like, "Is that all you can do? Will could do that in his sleep with one hand tied behind his back!" But I have to restrain myself. They are, after all, mere mortals.
I did get a little dose of humility when I tried to step in as lead guitarist just for kicks on a few songs one rehearsal. Considering I haven't played electric guitar for about ten years I didn't screw up too bad, but it was daunting to realize that I will never even approach Will's level of brilliance. And he Will makes sound as easy as falling off a log.
For example, when we are recording, he is producer, engineer and guitarist all in one. He tells the musicians what to play and listens to their performances to make sure they are coming out right, watches the mixing board to make sure the sound and levels are being recorded properly and at the same time he's playing lead along with the track to give the other musicians something to cue off of. And the whole time he's talking and making jokes and goofing around. And those throwaway leads, called "scratch" tracks, are better than just about any guitar playing you've ever heard.
Later this week we have another series of auditions with another group of Will Ray wannabes trying to impress us with all of their fancy licks and gimmicks and effects. I can only hope that one of them is half as good as he thinks he is. I know there's someone out there who can play well enough to take Will's place without trying to imitate him. But we have this whole CD full of songs coming out that we need to be able to go out and play live without sounding like a completely different band. Having spent so much time playing with the master, my standards have gotten pretty high. So I'll just have to keep looking until the right picker comes along.
It's the price you pay for aiming for the stars, I guess. Anything less just isn't worth the trouble. Anyway, we're still optimistic and the Buzzards will continue one way or another. And I guess if all else fails, we can all move out to North Carolina with Will.
I hope he has a big house.
[editors note: as luck would have it, the Buzzards found an amazing guitarist to step into Will's shoes -- his name is Jere Mendelsohn and you can check him out for yourself at www.jeremendelsohn.com ]