Erie's Greatest Guitarist Shares His Gift

Category:  Music
Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 at 12:00 AM
Erie's Greatest Guitarist Shares His Gift by Cory Vaillancourt

Spring

Amidst a cacophony of sound - drums, violins, pianos, and guitars - Jacob Flaugh waits quietly inside a cluttered 10-by-10 practice room in the basement of World of Music. With a maturity that belies his 14 years, he calmly fingers the fluorescent teal mother-of-pearl inlays on his guitar?s rosewood fretboard, unfazed by the discordant sounds of a half-dozen other students practicing various scales on various instruments.

?I started out with drums, and then I decided I was more comfortable with guitar, so I just kind of stuck with it,? he says, his curly black hair falling lazily on his shoulders, evoking a 1970s-era Gene Simmons. Jacob?s been playing for about three years, but he's blessed to come from a musical family, so this is neither his first exposure to music, nor musicians. "I?ve always been to music shows, [with] everyone in my family - my grandma is a really famous musician, an opera singer, and my dad, he's in 60-Inch Slick, and I kind of want to continue that."

During this, the springtime of Jacob?s life, a season when many of us were more concerned with video games and playing sports, his musical obsession seems to provide him with an inner direction many of us still lack. He?s currently involved with four local bands: Bail Easy, The Ghost Fame, Scent 2 Mary, and another as-yet unnamed project.  He?s also got his sights settled squarely on his future after high school ? a future that most assuredly involves a love affair with music, a love affair destined to weather the summer, fall, and winter of his life.

?I love it?it?s all I really want to do, you know, play my music. I really want to go to Berklee, in Boston. I want music to be my life, really...I?m trying really hard to get a scholarship, but I know that no matter how it goes, music and me will never break up.?

Jacob plays his guitar four hours a day. Every day. He?s already good, but he wants to get better ? a lot better ? which is why he?s spending the springtime of his life here, in this former utility closet nestled away in the corner of a bunker-like concrete basement, on a windy Wednesday afternoon in the middle of September; he?s waiting to begin his lesson with local guitarist Eric Brewer. Why Brewer?

?He?s the best,? Jacob says.

Summer

I first met Eric Brewer in late August, after having seen him perform countless times around Erie. For our meeting, I arrived at the Avonia Tavern in Fairview just before it opened. Waiting patiently on the bench outside the front door, I surveyed the damage from a strong summer windstorm that had passed through the area late the previous night ? leaves and limbs strewn about, chairs and umbrellas from the Avonia?s outdoor seating area in total disarray. A gusty breeze persisted as residue of the previous night?s mayhem. Once he arrived, Eric and I righted two overturned chairs, re-secured the table?s umbrella, sat down, and cracked the first of several beers as he began to tell me about the springtime of his musical life.

?I grew up right down the street here in Fairview, and I?ve basically lived out here my whole life,? Brewer says. For those of you who have witnessed the simmering intensity of his stage performances, you may be surprised to learn upon meeting this affable twentysomething that he is an extremely laid-back character. For those of you who have not seen him play, his music ? jazz to jam, rock to blues ? is a crystal-clear reflection of his personality. Friendly, but firm. Funny, but serious. Intelligent, but playful. Humble, but capable of great moments.

?It?s funny, because as a kid, I liked certain music, but I was never that into it,? reveals Brewer. ?I was more into video games and playing sports or whatever else?then, I think I was maybe 12 or 13?and there was a talent show at the middle school, and a few of my friends had this band, and they played at the talent show. As soon as they started playing, I was like, ?Alright?I think I wanna do that.??

Can you remember that moment in the springtime of your life? The moment when you first discovered what your life?s work would be? Were you even lucky enough to have such a moment, when a synergy of happenstance and fortune united for a brief moment of clarity in which you caught a fleeting foretaste of a flawless future? Sadly, many of us have not; we awake one day during the winter of our lives to find that our life?s work has been holding down a couch while watching reruns of Judge Judy. Like Jacob Flaugh, Eric Brewer had his moment ? and it was a moment in which desire danced during the dawning of attainability.

?I think for me, it was seeing that someone my age could do it. I thought that was only for rock stars or whatever. And I didn?t think I had any musical talent. I just assumed I didn?t have any because my music teachers were always quick to dismiss me?probably because I didn?t try.? Brewer ended this comment with a hearty, satisfying laugh, the kind of laugh one can only afford to laugh when one looks back on an unpleasant event with good humor because one has persevered.

?I never even planned on playing guitar; I was pretty into playing drums?that was like my main thing?and I was pretty damn good, for being a 13- or 14- year-old,? he managed to tell me without the ugly head of cockiness poking through his underlying confidence. ?But my friend, who played guitar in a band I was playing in, left his guitar at my house. So it was there for like a week before I even touched it. I was like ?What the hell is this thing doing here?? And it was a piece of shit, but I picked it up, and for some reason I knew power chords already even though I had never played guitar?and I was like, ?Oh, I can play that Misfits song? or whatever, so it went from there. Once I started playing guitar I knew that everything else, drums, bass?I was like, ?that?s definitely the one.??

Brewer credits his parents for influencing his musical tastes during this season of his life, but as is often the case with children, he initially dismissed their favorite artists. ?Back then, they?d play music, and I?d be like ?What is this? This sucks!? and they?d be like, ?This is Led Zeppelin!? and I?d be like, ?Ahhh, I don?t know if I like that so much.?? I credit his parents for not spanking him on the spot, as in my home, the disparaging of Led Zeppelin is a spankable offense. For young children and grown adults.

Like many budding guitarists, Brewer?s initial focus was on punk rock because it is relatively easy to play, and it sounds awesome with amplifiers cranked up to eleven. ?Seeing my friends playing, they were playing some punk songs; they played ?Blitzkrieg Bop? by the Ramones, and I was like, ?Alright, that?s pretty cool.? So yeah, I played punk music for like four years before getting into anything else,? he said. ?After the punk phase, I started getting into more guitar-based classic rock? Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, basically the building blocks of electric guitar. And then I went through a shredding phase, where I listened to Yngwie Malmstein and stuff like that ? I don?t like to talk about that too much??

Sorry, Eric. Now it?s in print, so everyone knows your dirty secret. It?s nothing to be ashamed of, however; not nearly as bad as those Green Day and Collective Soul CDs you told me you owned, or that Hall & Oates concert your parents took you to while you were still in utero. Nothing to be ashamed of at all. Luckily for us, Brewer continued to grow musically. How, you ask? The wrong way, he told me.

?I played in a band. That was like the first thing I did. Now, that?s kind of ass-backwards because usually, you?re supposed to take lessons for like two years, and then play in a band ? no. I was, like, right into a band. It might not have been the best way to go about it,? he grinned. ?Most of my students have been playing for three or four years before they join a band. I?m not saying, ?Don?t join a band,? because it worked out, it?s just kind of a backwards way of doing it.?

So what was it about being bass-ackwards that made him the musician he is today? ?Because you?re forced to have to acclimate to other musicians, first of all, and it forces you listen and develop your ear,? he continued. ?Which I think is equally, if not more important than the fingers, is the ear part of it. If you don?t have this [pointing to his ear], if you don?t have the ear, it doesn?t matter how good you are with your hands?you can?t do it. You just can?t do it.?

Listening to other musicians, feeding off their energy, following their musical suggestions ? all pretty advanced techniques for a novice guitarist struggling to pound a few power chords into some semblance of a New York Dolls tune. But it can be done; Brewer is proof. You don?t have to have Hall & Oates in your blood to become a great musician ? it can indeed be learned, which is good news for young guitarists like Jacob Flaugh, as Brewer went on to tell me. ?Some people say, ?Oh, you?re either born with the ear or you?re not.? That?s bullshit. You can definitely learn, and that?s kind of what I?ve tried to pass over to my students is, listen, instead of looking up tabs on the Internet, if you ever want to learn a song one day and you just want to pick it up real quick?shit, don?t go on the Internet and pull the tabs, go to YouTube, pull it up, and try to figure it out by ear.? 

The Internet, while handy, ultimately allows us to cheat ourselves by taking the easy way out when misused. The difference between pulling up ?tabs? (short for tablature, or a written depiction of guitar notes contained in a song) and figuring it out yourself through a ?Simon says? game of listening and repetition is similar to the difference between giving a man a fish instead of teaching a man to play Phish. Jacob Flaugh is a perfect example. ?When I first started playing guitar, it was just like me and YouTube all day, and I was getting, you know?? Flaugh shifts uneasily in his chair as he continues. ?I just had some trouble with some stuff, and I was like, I need someone that?s really committed to music and loves it, and my Dad said, ?You should check out Eric Brewer.?? That was two years ago, and it wasn?t all that different from the conclusion a young Eric Brewer came to just before graduating high school.

?I did take lessons, after about a year and a half? I took lessons from Mike Ohm. Mike?s a bad-ass guitar player. He?s one of the best people I?ve ever gotten to study with,? Brewer says.  ?I took lessons with him for two, two-and-a-half years.? However, during that season of his life, standing at the threshold of scorching summer with springtime?s cool breeze at his back, Brewer still wasn?t sure that music would be his life?s work.

?I had gone through the gamut of pretty much every other thing I thought I could possibly do?English and communications were pretty much my best subjects in school. I thought about maybe being a journalist or a novelist?that was on the top of my list. I thought about skipping school and just getting a job and playing guitar on the side. At the point when I graduated [high school] I had only been playing guitar for two years, so I wasn?t really sure. I started when I was 16. I had already been playing bass for a year or two, and drums for like four to five years, so I had musical experience, but I had only been playing guitar for a couple years, and I was like, ?Man, I?m really not all that good, I don?t know if I should really go to music school,? but it just seemed like what I wanted to do?whether it was going to be the best financial choice was kind of irrelevant. I knew that?s what I wanted to do, and I just decided to go for it.?

?It? was a scholarship to Duquesne University?s well-regarded music program.

?So I went down and I auditioned and?there was a three-part audition and I passed two of the parts, and then one of them was, you had to sing, and there was this lady who played the piano and she?d play a chord, and you?d have to sing every note of the chord, individually?she?d call out the name of a scale and you?d just have to sing it by ear?shit like that. Yeah. So I bombed that part of it,? he laughed again, that same laugh of perseverance. ?I had like three weeks to study and go back and take it again because they let you take a retake. So I had three weeks to learn music theory. And that was one of the hardest things I?ve ever done, for sure. But, somehow, I got in, and have just been working hard at it ever since.?

As he told me about his travails at Duquesne, the gusty summer breeze picked up again, rustling my notepad while threatening to weaponize a nearby umbrella. Our waitress dropped by to check on us. ?Looks like a tornado hit out here, doesn?t it?? She chuckled, delivering fresh libations. Brewer, ignorant of this distraction, continued talking about music school. ?It was definitely interesting. I had no idea of what to expect and I had no idea of what was required of you,? he said. ?You basically had to have studied music theory heavily already, not to mention reading music. And I could read a little bit, but certainly not up to the standards that you should be able to at music school, even as a freshman.? He again laughs the laugh of perseverance, perhaps the laugh of the student who has become the teacher.

Fall

Eric Brewer?s been teaching guitar to as many as 50 students a week for almost six years. ?I was like 21 when I started,? he said. ?I?ve learned so much from teaching; I?ve probably learned as much or more as my students from teaching. In order to teach something, you have to know it 100 percent. You can?t bullshit, especially when?say you?re teaching an adult, and they?ve been playing for 30 years, and you give them a piece of information that?s not correct. There?s a chance they already know that, and they know that you?re blowing smoke up their ass?and they?re paying $20 a half hour, or whatever, for you to just make shit up. So you?ve got to know exactly what you?re talking about. So I think that, really, has helped me to become a better musician.?

It?s clear that Brewer enjoys teaching. As I sat in on his lesson with Jacob Flaugh, he struck me as a natural teacher, a result of his easygoing nature.  ?Teaching has become a whole other thing for me. I enjoy it beyond words,? he tells me. ?It?s so cool to be able to see the progression of someone when they start, not knowing anything, and then, two or three years later, they?re rippin? it up?it?s like, ?Holy shit! Did I teach him that? What?!? It?s crazy, man.?

As much as he enjoys teaching, Brewer is not shy about his ultimate intentions. ?I want to play,? he says, as his more serious side surfaces. ?I still have this attitude, to a certain extent, where the teaching is my gig until I find an opportunity that will allow me to go out on the road, or move to a bigger city, or whatever that is. That?s the eventual goal.? Be warned, Erie ? we may not always have Eric Brewer gracing our stages, contributing to the vast richness of our local music scene.

And while we certainly can recognize the contribution Eric makes to our local music scene with his frequently stunning performances, we can?t forget the contribution he, and Mike Ohm before him, has made in nurturing the next generation of Erie musicians ? musicians like Jacob Flaugh. Brewer?s eye-opening final comments to me underscore this point.

?I lived in Pittsburgh for five years; I was down there gigging, going to music school at Duquesne University,? he says. ?But the Pittsburgh music scene just wasn?t doing it for me, so I moved back home, and it?s been a lot better here.?

That?s right. Erie?s better than Pittsburgh at something. Straight from Brewer?s mouth ? Erie has a better music scene than Pittsburgh. This shocked me, as I?d always assumed that by virtue of being roughly six times larger than Erie, Pittsburgh would have six times as many good things that Erie has. Six Eric Brewers. Six Falling Hollywoods. Six Shotgun Jubilees, and Six Trohoskes. Six Matty Bolands. Six Scotty?s. Six crooked i?s. Six Erie Readers. Six times the fun, six times the money, six times the women, six times the beer, six times the bacon. Not so, says Brewer.

?I can?t even begin to describe how much better Erie?s music scene is than Pittsburgh?s. There are a lot of bands [in Pittsburgh] for sure, but the amount of venues is pretty paltry compared to what you?d expect from a city like that, especially for the style of music I like to play. There?s probably only two or three really good venues, and then there?s a lot of corner bars ? I remember times making $10, $20 at the end of the night playing those places, so that?s not really worthwhile. It was fun, for a while, but when you start to get serious about being a professional musician you have to take that into consideration ? making the best use of your time,? he says, unapologetically. ?But when I moved back to Erie it just seemed like there was so much more appreciation for the local music scene. And people in Erie, I think they sometimes forget, and they get wrapped up in some of the inner workings of the cliques?when really Erie has one of the better music scenes that I?ve seen, especially for a city this size.?

We are all familiar with the crowd of naysayers who badmouth Erie. We are often guilty of it ourselves. I hope to Jah this shuts them ? and us ? up for a moment, and helps us realize a critical truth ? if you naysayers don?t want to support your local scene, move to Pittsburgh and then you won?t have a scene to support. Brewer?s proof ? he?s here; he chose Erie over Pittsburgh, and that?s because people like me, and people like you, go out and support local musicians and the venues where they play their music. Erie?s apparently done a pretty damn good job creating a fertile environment for nurturing its seeds, from Ohm to Brewer, and Brewer to Flaugh, fall to summer, summer to spring.

For more on Eric Brewer including YouTube clips of recent performances, check out the Web Exclusive on Brewer.

Cory Vaillancourt is a brilliant writer/complete hack and can be complimented/heckled at cVaillancourt@ErieReader.com.

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 20
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Now serving up good vibes on State Street

Fighting for change in our most vulnerable communities.

Running into a blazing building can be ‘terrifying,’ but some choose to do it, anyway. 

Here are three good opportunities to lighten up as the nights grow longer.

Dancing Wheels bring a world premiere to Mercyhurst.

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Some ‘multigrain’ bread has a little more protein than you’d like. 

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