An ax to grind

Just after we all thought indie rock had saved the planet from overt guitar posturing, leave it to MARS, the super-slick chain of "music and recording superstores" to launch a contest for would-be rock stars. Seems the equipment-shop-cum-amusement-park knows its patronage well: money-spending lawyers and CPAs who still dream in rock-and-roll Technicolor and make regular weekend treks to the nearest MARS to pick up yet another effects pedal, and teenagers in the market for their first shiny Fender Squier. It's a great marketing ploy, and should make for some oddly fascinating two-minute guitar solos (if not haircuts).

For four consecutive Wednesdays starting July 8 (registration is already under way), area stores will host auditions, with winners from each category--age 17 and younger in one group, 18 and up in another, split up by genre: acoustic, electric, and bass--going on to a central competition Saturday, August 8, at each store. While today's quieter, more dignified guitar enthusiasts likely would prefer spending an evening drinking beer on their porches while contemplating whether to change their strings for the first time in six months, I suppose there are a few who might go in for the prize package, especially since it includes equipment. (And strings cost money--especially bass strings.) Also in store for winners: the "Ultimate Guitar Challenge '98 Certificate"--perhaps not something the sonic followers of Jay Farrar or Bob Dylan would covet, but the kid players might proudly display that proof of performance.

Really though, the prize package and certificate aren't the draw here. It's the brief, bright spotlight--the opportunity to riff in front of like-minded hobbyists. And to play these glorified scales in the controlled, secure confines of amateur hour, since pros (anyone who makes their primary income from music) aren't allowed to compete. But that certainly doesn't disqualify most area musicians, since Dallas is brimming with great players who pay their rent from day-job salaries; though, again, it's hard to picture the likes of virtuoso Reed Easterwood or rock-house Joe Butcher entering. Viewers will likely see more of another type: 43-year-old Steve Vai holdovers, or high-school seniors who listen to too much Creed. Still, eccentric or thoughtful diamonds could appear from this roughest of the rough.

The judging panels, reportedly made up of area radio-station employees, music vendors, musicians, and of course, MARS' own staff, will rate individual performances by timing, style, and originality. Timing? As in, How fast can your fingers move? Style? As in, How tight are your vinyl pants--I mean, What genre do you dig? "Originality" might mean that a contestant can't just learn a Joe Satriani pass note-per-note, though who'd know the difference, really? (Oh, right--the other contestants would.)

All in all, it's a good-natured little competition, designed to be enjoyed by longstanding and first-time customers and gee-tar fans. Grab that ax and grind, baby. Just don't make mercilessly public what is meant to remain private. We wouldn't want Jimi Hendrix to turn in his grave or anything.

--Christina Rees

MARS Ultimate Guitar Challenge '98 takes place at area MARS locations. For information, call (954) 938-0526.

 
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