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60 Seconds in the Limelight

The Search for the Ultimate Guitar Hero

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Ray was 21 and from Berwyn, had a clear, angelic complexion and sported a tufty head of black hair that made him look a little like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. He'd been playing electric guitar for years and thought he was good, but still didn't really have a band--with him was a pal named Brian, who was a drummer, but not the drummer, if you get the distinction. Ray had been practicing for this night at Limelight, this potentially momentous night, for some time. "For something like this I wanted to set something up," he said. "You want to touch all the bases."

Jamie was a defending champion, of sorts--he hadn't placed last June but had run away with the joint the previous September. He said he liked Eddie Van Halen, a statement that, in a room full of young heavy metal guitarists, reverberated with all the meaningfulness of an "I heart Reagan" button in New Orleans last month. He added that he also liked the melodic work of pure popster Todd Rundgren. Jamie was as cute as or cuter than Ray, in a funky heartthrob kind of way, and actually has his own gigging band, Eden. The Todd influence counted: "I don't go out and blaze," he said. "A lot of the guys here are faster than me, I'm sure. I'm just a little more tasteful." Guitar solos, he noted, went through a long period of disuse. "In the early 80s, when there was a lot of new wave and dance music, solos became outdated; people thought they were self-indulgent." Now, he allows, they might be coming back, a little tamed. "A good solo is a song within a song, a different way of expressing the same thing."

John was a lot older--possibly in his mid-30s. He had shortish dark hair and a beard and wore a red bandanna and a serious, thoughtful mien. With his seniority came more professionalism and a pleasant, dry humor. "One minute will be plenty for some people," he said. Like some of the other contestants, in fact, he was a professional, playing in a local blues band. His 60 seconds in the spotlight would be a cagey, open-tuned slide solo, "with no reverb or delay--there's plenty of stone in here to bounce the sound off of." This last with a rueful glance around one of Limelight's feature rooms.

Soon after John stopped speaking, the Ultimate Guitar Hero contest began, and an awesome string of guitarists hit the stage, each attempting a 60-second, six-string epiphany. The prize--to be awarded by a panel of four people who sat directly in front of the stage--was a $1,400 Kramer guitar the color of fresh Pepto-Bismol. There were short guitarists and thin guitarists, ham guitarists and shy guitarists; there were guitarists with frizzy hair and guitarists with long silky hair, but there were almost no guitarists with short hair. There were guitarists with talent and guitarists with dreams of talent. There was one female guitarist, one left-handed guitarist, and five black guitarists, including Jamie and one guy who actually played a bass.

Ray from Berwyn was on first. He climbed up onstage, doing a good imitation of a kid who'd never been up on a stage in front of anybody before. He plugged his guitar into the Marshall stack provided by Limelight, fiddled with its knobs, tuned a string, essayed a quick run, turned up the distortion, tuned another string or two, ran a scale.

"Thank you. Ray," said the emcee. "Can I have contestant number two, please."

The emcee dropped off the stage to confer with the judges on another matter. Ray looked like he'd heard a strange sound a long way off. He stood there, alone on a stage with a stack of amps, and hoped against hope that what had just happened to him hadn't really happened.

Suddenly the emcee was back. 'Thanks," he said again, pointedly this time. Ray tried to articulate a thought, failed, and left the stage.

By the time Jamie, number eight, trotted onstage, it was clear that the field was evenly divided between those who could and those who could not play a cohesive one-minute guitar solo live onstage before their peers. Almost everyone's solos started off promisingly with a riff of some sort, but even the solos of those contestants who were halfway proficient were frequently misconceived. As for the nonproficient ones, the effect was that of a Model T being driven by a beginner: all fits and starts, with real disaster just around the comer.

Jamie--with the possible exception of the guy who played his solo on a bass--was the most imaginative musician there. A few light chords quickly blossomed into an extremely melodic and highly dramatic cascade of guitar pyrotechnics. He finished to rousing cheers.

John, the slide bluesman, was almost as good. He got a good, thick sound out of his "crummy Strat copy"; even in 60 seconds, he managed to sound like everything from an Appalachian picker on a rickety back porch to Jimmy Page rolling up layer upon layer of sound in a studio. The hand he got was respectful.

A judge ambled onstage a few minutes after the last note was heard. A play-off was decreed, between John and a kid named Eddie who was fast as the wind but didn't have much to say. Each played twice more; by the end John seemed a bit lost: it's hard to really throw sparks with a slide, and the kid, Eddie, just played faster and faster and faster. John and the kid chatted as the judges conferred again. A decision was reached. Eddie got the Kramer.

The kid held John's hand high and led another big hand. John wasn't overjoyed, but he was gracious. "The kid needed the guitar," he said later. "I've got 15 at home."

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