Long highway 

Guitar Odyssey turns rock solo into life lesson

So, let me get this straight: a Montana guitar player taught himself how to play a 40-year-old hard rock solo and then wrote a book about it? Excuse me for a moment while I gouge my eyes out and hurl myself in front of an oncoming bus. At first blush, Guitar Odyssey sounds like a tedious, geeky eye-glazer with little appeal to anyone not into pointy guitars and geezer rock. But, hold on there Jasper, this thing doesn't suck. In fact, Billings writer Michael Rays has crafted a literate, interesting, funny and, oddly, moving account of his six-string journey to learn the solo from Deep Purple's "Highway Star," that is really about so much more. (Make that a four-string journey. More than a year after launching his quest Rays realizes that the solo uses only four strings. It's just one of a series of surprising revelations in the book.)

Ritchie Blackmore's Mozart-inspired solo from the heavy metal progenitors' 1972 album Machine Head is a benchmark of hard rock guitar wizardry. Blackmore has stated in interviews that it's one of the few solos he wrote before writing the song itself, and it stands as one of the most beloved and iconic guitar solos in the hard rock pantheon. Learning how to play it is a formidable task, even for seasoned shredders. Rays vowed to stick with it no matter how long it took him, figuring it might be a couple of months or so.

It took almost two years.

Why did Rays choose this particular solo? "Just as mountain climbers go up Everest because it is there," he writes in the intro to the 28,000-word e-book, "so I will learn every note of Ritchie Blackmore's masterpiece—because it is there, and it is awesome."

Guitar Odyssey, Rays' debut, has a whip-smart, conversational style that grabs the reader early on and ultimately rewards him with a potent lesson in perseverance, goal-setting and the surprising things you can learn about yourself in the pursuit of a seemingly insignificant dream.

The one-minute, 20-second solo, he points out, could be learned quickly and easily by an accomplished player. But who wants to read about that? Guitar Odyssey bristles with enough technical details to stupefy all but the most guitar-obsessed, but Rays' journal-style entries are hilarious, insightful and just flat-out entertaining. Self-discoveries and life lessons abound.

click to enlarge Guitar Odyssey - Michael Rays - e-book, Smashwords - $4.99
  • Guitar OdysseyMichael Rayse-book, Smashwords$4.99

As the amateur musician sets out on his journey, he is buffaloed by the sheer speed of Blackmore's playing. "I feel like 168 bpm (beats per minute) is light speed," he writes, "and I am a theoretical physicist. If I ever play it for an audience at full speed, I will look out when I am done and see that they have aged 50 years."

After dividing the solo into five discrete sections, he averages a half hour of practice a day, building up the muscle memory and technical chops needed for each segment. From whole-step string bends to single-string speed-picking, he pushes onward with the gumption and dedication of an elite athlete. "If I am ever going to summit," he writes after a particularly grinding session, "I need to do my time at base camp."

Rays' sense of humor and love of classic rock come together frequently in the little poems he sprinkles through the story. His "rockus," as he calls them, (think: haikus) are welcome diversions, as are his anecdotes that chart his early musical education. Sample rocku:

"Southern Man" song and solo by Neil Young

Searing and cutting

Then chaotic and dripping

There's no one like Neil

While Rays is repeatedly knocked off the path by injury, equipment hassles, family obligations, false plateaus and periods of self-doubt, he never stays down for long. Some of his reactions to the struggle had me laughing out loud. As he tinkers with the "speed section," he decides to change his picking stroke: "Trying to change upstroke to downstroke (at 155 bpm) is akin to screwing the top on a plastic soda bottle while driving at 100 mph."

Guitar Odyssey is a fun, fascinating ride for rock fans and guitar players of all abilities, but there is something heavier at play here that gives the book a much broader appeal. Rays wrestles at times with self-loathing over his admitted lack of skill, and at his lowest points he seems ready to scrap the whole project. But he soldiers on, exhorting himself in his notes: "No matter how bad you screw up, DO NOT STOP!"

The takeaway here is that you can accomplish whatever oddball objective you choose, as long as you muster the discipline, desire and motivation. Not to mention a serious dedication to practice.

"I am willing to pursue nailing this solo for as long as it takes," he declares after one discouraging session. "I am not willing to hate practicing to get there. I've had enough of hating practicing."

Does he eventually master the solo? Of course he does. But, like many undertakings in life, the destination becomes less important than the journey.

Michael Rays' Guitar Odyssey is available at smashwords.com.

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