True blues: Passion for blues guitar runs deep for Craig father and son
December 11, 2010
In 1941, a man brought a recorder to Mississippi.
He was looking for anyone to record, really, but found none other than blues legend Muddy Waters.
The resulting historical recording session on the plantation where Waters lived still speaks volumes to Craig resident Stephen Ghirardelli today, almost 70 years later.
Although the 61-year-old Stephen has learned to play Waters' first two recorded songs, he holds little belief he could ever equal the great Waters' style.
"It's just a sense of accomplishment to be able to play in the style they play, or come close to it," he said.
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In fact, Stephen, who has had a passion for the blues as long as he has been playing music, thinks no guitar player can exactly imitate another.
"You have to have their hands," he said. "The tone comes from the hands. It doesn't come from getting a special guitar or an amplifier, or anything else."
Studying the blues and living a life of music is something that came naturally for Stephen, he said.
But, there is something he is constantly faced with as a student of the blues, he said. It is something that keeps him playing every day.
"To really make it sound like blues, that's the hardest thing, I think," he said.
Stephen hasn't been alone in his musical pursuits, however.
His 29-year-old son, Brian, who lives a few houses away in south Craig, has always looked up to his father's musical abilities and oftentimes exceeded them, he said.
"He always surprised me," Stephen said of Brian. "It was hard to realize sometimes that (he) was actually my son. … He is my favorite guitar player and that's all there is to it."
Brian and Stephen are united in blood and on stage — the two formed The Blue Rooster Band in 2000 and have enjoyed great success in the Yampa Valley, Brian said.
Although Stephen, who played bass for the band while Brian played guitar, is no longer in the band, the two still love to play their favorite music together, whether it is an open mic night or at home.
Music and the art of the guitar are in the Ghirardelli's blood.
"To this day, I don't know how to read music," Brian said. "It was just something that kind of came naturally to me. I felt compelled to do it, you know?"
"I have always just loved it," he said. "It wasn't something that I thought about doing, it was, 'This is what I do.'"
In the blood
Stephen, a former seventh-grade English teacher, grew up in Northeastern Ohio, but not with a guitar in hand. It wasn't until he was 18 and the band he was a roadie for broke up, reformed and needed a bass player that he picked up the instrument.
"In my high school, my friends, they didn't want to grow up and be football players or anything, they wanted to grow up and be in a band," he said. "Or, well, not grow up, but that was the thing — be in a band."
For a while, Stephen and company didn't quite know how to play an instrument or what it felt like to play one, he said.
"But, we knew if we got into a band, there might be some girls out there that might be interested," he said.
Stephen played in several bands as a bass player, one of the more memorable in Saigon, Vietnam, when he was 19.
"There I got into a really cool band … with these five black guys from all over the United States," he said. "We did soul music, and it was just a ton of fun."
Stephen played guitar for the first time at 21 while he was living in Thailand.
Brian, a 1998 Moffat County High School graduate, started playing guitar when he was 8 years old. The young student learned to play the music he loved by ear.
Eventually, Brian took a fancy to bands like Guns N' Roses, a band whose albums he could play from start to finish, note for note, he said.
Brian was raised on music, he said.
"It was never a matter of like how some parents will (say), 'Oh, you are going to take piano lessons,'" he said. "It was never this browbeating thing with them … it was my choice the whole time, and it was something that I just took an interest in, and once I started getting the hang of it, it just came naturally."
Brian started his first band, Simpy, when he was about 14 with his older brother, Michael, and played covers of the usual Nirvana and Green Day songs, he said.
"When I went to school, everybody played football and basketball and I didn't do any of that — I was playing guitar, you know," he said. "I was like the only one doing that, so it wasn't really like the cool thing to do."
When Brian graduated high school, he and Stephen joined with a drummer and formed The Blue Rooster Band.
The band was formed in 2000 and lasted about 10 years in its original incarnation until Stephen bowed out of the band lineup last year.
"I got old," he said with a laugh. "I just thought coming home at 3:30 in the morning in a blinding snow storm was fun once."
During its heyday, the original members of The Blue Rooster Band played strictly rock and blues covers.
Stephen said it was the band's goal to stick to what members knew best — blues.
"That is one thing that I prided myself on with the band is that, 'You know what, we can get gigs around here and not play country music,'" Brian said. "We are a good enough band to do that."
The band became popular throughout the Yampa Valley and even opened for several big acts, including Derek Trucks of The Allman Brothers Band and Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe.
"We got to the point where we weren't calling people for gigs, we were getting called," Brian said.
One thing that Brian contends made the band so popular and the music so good was the musical connection between father and son.
It was something that Brian said he didn't appreciate until much later in life.
"I could just look at him and he knew what direction I was going," Brian said of times the band would improvise during songs.
"That is something that either takes years and years to achieve or is just something that happens naturally, and that is what we had," he said.
The band also brought the already tightly knit Ghirardelli family closer together.
"There were people that had watched us that not only appreciated the music that we were playing, but that we were doing the Partridge family and all of that," Brian said. "…They thought that was pretty cool, and it was."
'A lifelong process'
The blues is all about "the drive," Stephen said.
"It really gets some people," he said. "It is all about rhythm. It is more rhythm than it is melody."
Brian considers blues to be the most passionate style of music. As such, people can learn to play the blues, but true blues players are few and far between, he said. The difference is easy to tell, he contends.
Playing the blues, when it is organic and heartfelt, can send "chills up your spine," Brian said.
"The thing that I saw that I could really capitalize on playing blues guitar is because of the freedom with it," he said. "There are no limitations on what you can do with it — it is such an expressive style of music."
Brian continues to play the blues in The Blue Rooster band without Stephen, but both are OK with it.
The band, Brian said, is something more than just a hobby, but not quite a career.
"One of the reasons I don't go for broke with it is because I don't want to be a struggling musician," he said.
Since leaving The Blue Roo-
ster Band, Stephen said he is revisiting the roots of the blues — reading about its history, the players and learning many of the songs not quite forgotten by history.
"It just feels good to create this music, and that's the bottom line," he said.
In fact, decades after learning to play guitar, Stephen still practices an hour-and-a-half each day.
He contends there is always something more to learn about the music and the history of the blues.
"It's a lifelong process," he said. "It'll never end."