6-string showdown: Local guitarists tune up for Real Guitar Hero contest

2008-12-18T23:00:00Z 6-string showdown: Local guitarists tune up for Real Guitar Hero contestJACI WEBB Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 18, 2008 11:00 pm  • 

Add a pinch of Grateful Dead, a heaping cup of Led Zeppelin with a sprinkle of Gershwin, then chill for an hour.

That's the way the 5:01 Real Guitar Hero showcase came together last weekend. Six of the seven contestants performed eight-minute solo sets at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co.'s Garage Pub on Saturday. Votes counted double at the live event, heating up the competition that had been brewing for a month on the 5:01 blog. Even members of the Portland blues band, The Insomniacs, who were on the bill Saturday night, cast their votes at the showcase.

Art Eichele and Gene Onacko, who had been less than 10 votes apart for most of the month, tied in the final minutes of the contest, which ended at 5:01 p.m. Monday. They both earned 212 votes of the 621 that were cast in the contest. Voters were restricted to voting only once for their favorite guitar player, based on online videos. The videos can still be viewed at 501blog.com.

Here is a look at the seven Real Guitar Heroes:

Art Eichele cleaned his aunt's apartment complex in Billings when he was 12 to raise the money to buy his first guitar. It took him another year to buy his first amplifier by selling a pig and a filly he raised on his grandfather's farm near Silesia.

"I wanted to start playing when I heard Peter Frampton's 'Do You Feel Like We Do' and the band KISS. I still love the Frampton song today; not KISS, though."

His first rock band was Maxx Watts and their only gig was an outdoor talent show held outside Lewis and Clark Middle School. Scatter Gun, a group Eichele helped found when he was a senior in high school, was his first professional band.

"We were a Southern rock band with three guitar players. We had great players known throughout the town. I was spoiled."

One of Eichele's most important mentors was another contestant in the 501 Guitar Hero contest, Steve Melia, better known in the music world as Monster.

"He was always incredibly cool to me. He's a terrific guy and an awesome player."

Eichele performed with the rock band Soma for 13 years before joining the Billings band ZeN.

"I've had some of my best times in my life playing, touring with Soma. Some of the biggest shows were opening for Bad Company and April Wine."

Last summer, ZeN opened for Molly Hatchet in Red Lodge.

"That was so cool, hanging out with those guys. That was the highlight of the year," Eichele said.

Eichele has also backed country artists Ray Price and Barbara Fairchild. He traveled to China and Switzerland with Patricia Ryan and the Yellowstone Band. Eichele has worked at Hansen Music for 19 years and taught guitar around Billings for 21 years.

"That's all I ever wanted to do was play guitar, teach guitar and work in a music store," Eichele said.

• • •

Gene Onacko isn't as well known in the Billings area because he grew up in Pennsylvania where he played with several rock bands. He moved here in 2001 to get away from the humidity of the East Coast and entered the 5:01 Guitar Hero contest to help find a performance partner.

"I do a solo acoustic thing around town, but I'm trying to find a good acoustic partner," Onacko said.

The environmental engineer first performed at the Garage Pub in early 2007, a night he won't forget.

"I saw in the paper the Garage Pub had an open mic night. So I went down and talked to the sound man, Randy. 'Are you any good?' he asked. 'I told him I was OK.' So I played a bit and everybody enjoyed it and the owner, George Moncure, came up to me. 'Dude, who are you? Where have you been playing?' That's how our friendship started."

Onacko said he tried the guitar lesson route when he was a third-grader, but it fell short of his expectations.

"I was playing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' and I wanted to learn how to play the Eagles. So it went by the wayside."

He returned to the guitar as a teenager and started a long run of bands that played all kinds of music, from disco to Top 40 pop and rock.

"The main group I played with had two girls and three guys and we played dance songs with two- and three-hour sets. We played everything from Abba to Stevie Nicks to Boston and the B-52s," Onacko said. "Here, I'm doing solo stuff and I play and sing songs by Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Jack Johnson, the Goo Goo Dolls and the Red Hot Chili Peppers."

• • •

Ryan Lotgering began tinkering with plastic guitars as a toddler, and started strumming songs on a real guitar when he was 8 or 9. Of the half-dozen guitar teachers he's had over the years, one in particular stood out - Art Eichele.

"After studying with him for a while, Art told my Mom, 'I can't take your checks anymore; just let him play.' "

And that's what Lotgering has been doing. He has opened shows at the Garage Pub for bands including Termerity, a side project of the jam band Loopian Zu, and performed solo acoustic sets at Rocket Gourmet Wraps. As for playing in a band, Lotgering says he may some day, but right now he prefers to fly solo. His favorite band for the past four years has been the Grateful Dead.

"I love all the '60s and '70s music; it's pretty easy to go into your parents' record collection and steal stuff. It's not like you have to go very far."

Lotgering plans to apply for the chance to play Garcia on film in a biopic that Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh is doing.

"I'm about the right age and have the right mindset that if I can play my cards right and get the right video to them, they just might pick me," Lotgering said.

• • •

At 21, Tiffany Melia is the youngest player in the 5:01 Guitar Hero contest and is the only female. Primarily known for her talent as a stage actress, Melia is in Venture's "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol" and will appear in Billings Studio Theatre's "Flea in Her Ear" in February. But because she grew up watching her dad, Steve, play guitar, she picked one up at age 9.

"It looked like so much fun when he played and my dad was so good, I wanted to try it, too," Melia said.

She has shared the bill with other female guitarists around town, including Hana Pestle, who moved to L.A. to launch her career but is returning for a show here Dec. 27, and Melia's good friend Erin Schneider.

"I'm the kind of person where, if they need a guitar player in the theater world, they ask me, 'Can you learn this song?' I try to be flexible."

But given her druthers, she prefers playing songs by the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Led Zeppelin.

"I see how much music can affect someone's mood, a piece can make them cry or laugh. As a guitar player, you can feel those same emotions. I think that's really cool; it keeps me playing."

• • •

Steve Melia, who is Tiffany's dad, arrived in Billings in 1974 and discovered a welcoming music scene. Melia had fled the big city of Kansas City after touring and recording with the band Cobra in New York.

"They told me they wanted me to wear spandex and a wig. I told them if you want me for me, I'm in; otherwise I'm not interested," Melia said.

The first night Melia was in town he went to Billings' hottest nightclub, the Sundowner in the basement of Sunset Bowl on Central Avenue. The Southern rock band Harvest was playing that night and the band invited Melia to jam with them on stage. The band befriended Melia and when Chris Michels broke off to form his own band, The Chris Michels Band, he asked Melia to join him.

For the next three decades, Melia would move in the highest of music circles in the Billings area, performing with bands like Cottonwood, Nye Express, Shotgun Annie - which was first runner-up in the national Colgate Country Showdown - the Jared Stewart Band, and Strange Brew (a band he formed with his wife, Laurie).

Melia said he had as much fun playing concerts with Jared Stewart as anyone, but around 2000, he had to quit the band because of nerve damage in his hands. These days, he does an occasional show with Strange Brew, teaches guitar lessons to a dozen select students he auditions before he teaches, and performs in Venture Theatre shows.

"It's really hard for me to quit playing," Melia said. "I had some of the best times in my life performing music."

• • •

The lone jazzman in the group, Alex Nauman joked at the 5:01 Guitar Hero showcase, "I never thought I'd be the first Jazz Guitar Hero."

When he took the stage with his handcrafted Heritage guitar, it was clear that his would be a different set than the rest. Nauman leaned low over his guitar and played a piece by Wes Montgomery and a well-known Gershwin tune, the rolling "Summertime," another joke given the sub-zero weather outside.

"I like jazz because it's got more complex harmonies and it's just more challenging to play than rock. I can only play the same rock type stuff so much and then it gets old," Nauman said.

Nauman grew up in Basin, Wyo., and started taking piano lessons, then played saxophone in the school band. He finally found his niche in guitar when he was in high school. When he got to college, Nauman switched majors a few times and then decided to study what he was most passionate about - jazz guitar. He earned a bachelor's degree in jazz studies and guitar performance from the University of Northern Colorado in May and moved with his wife, Jill, to Billings over the summer.

Nauman has a regular Saturday night gig playing jazz at Tiny's Tavern and has enjoyed collaborating with some of the city's best musicians there, including Parker Brown, Clay Green, Mark Bryan and Brad Edwards. This Sunday, he will perform at Walkers Grill with Brown, Green and Ben Johns. Nauman also plays classical pieces at weddings and other occasions and has performed solo acoustic sets at Off the Leaf.

He said the reward for playing music for him is "just the joy."

• • •

Dave Padilla, guitarist in the classic rock band 7th Avenue Band, was 13 when he figured out that playing a guitar would help him get girls.

"In high school at Shepherd, I played with a band at the homecoming dance. We did 'Let it all Hang Out' by the Hombres. I was automatically a guitar hero. I was the outsider at that school before that show and then I was instantly a guitar hero."

When Padilla served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, he toured the Pacific with a rock band, Short Fuse.

"I spent my last 18 months in the Navy touring in this USO show. The Navy bought me a couple of guitars and bought me an amplifier. It's been with me forever. I still use part of the cabinet."

When he got out of the Navy, Padilla moved to L.A. and did demo work for RCA and Columbia Records, but eventually got homesick for Montana so he returned. He shared emcee duties at open mics at Casey's Golden Pheasant with Liz Berg and Dale Renee, who he's still friends with. Padilla performed in a band with Berg called Native Stranger, and some of their contemporary Native music is held in the National Archives.

"It was ethnically based and dealt with Indian issues, a Native American experience, but it was a rock band," Padilla said. "We did some cover stuff, but by far our best stuff was when we were being radical aborigines."

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