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Lovin' guitars: Iconic instrument is a joy to hear, play and behold

Spotlighting Tri-Valley guitar scene ahead of new shows at Firehouse, Bankhead

John Kibildis (left), owner of JAMS Music in Dublin, notes that the guitar expresses feelings and emotions, and is relaxing to play. Here, he talks with customer Fred Engineer about acoustic guitar options. (Photo by Mike Sedlak)

Pick up a guitar. With your left fingers hold down a string or two. Strum with your right hand. Sound! Music? Magic.

John Kibildis, owner of JAMS Music in Dublin, said his favorite instrument has always been the guitar.

"It is such an expressive instrument that can do many different things, whether electric or acoustic," he said. "The electric can add textures and colors and modulations to be expressive, hard and heavy, or light and delicate. Acoustic can get all different types of sounds as well -- feelings and emotions. It's a very relaxing instrument to play and very enjoyable."

"The guitar is relatively easy to learn," noted Chris Carter, a Pleasanton enthusiast who started playing in high school and continues almost three decades later. "You don't need to learn how to read music. You can pick up a guitar and in an hour can play a song."

The piano, of course, can be similarly satisfying but is not so easy to tote. And the guitar is special in that it can stand alone.

"The trumpet is portable, too, but you don't just go and play the trumpet for somebody," Carter said with a laugh. "The guitar is fun and it's easy."

And then there is the versatility of guitar music -- from Spanish classical to folk ballads, from lullabies to hard rock.

Carter performs in a small group called the LK Project.

"I've played the guitar since I was a teenager and started performing in college," he said. "I'm not super-serious; I do it for fun. It's one of those great things -- if you love it, you don't ever stop doing it."

Fans of the guitar include those who don't play but love to listen. Carter's wife Katie is such a person, and a recent remodel of their home includes a room for his 12 guitars.

"She doesn't play but she lets me run with it," Carter said. "I like to write songs, too -- she tells me if a song is good or not."

Carter became director of development and communications for Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center four years ago, partly drawn by the Bankhead Theater.

"I have a love for live music and especially the guitar, and the Bankhead is the place to go if you really want to see and hear incredible acoustic guitar," he explained. "The acoustics in the room reverberate in a special way. The guitar shows here are my favorites."

One of his favorite performers came to town a few years ago, Leo Kottke, the famous 12-string guitarist known for his unique style of finger picking.

"I own a 12-string guitar signed by him," Carter said.

International Guitar Night will be returning to the Bankhead on Feb. 28.

"It is typically in four different styles," Carter said. "They are all virtuosos. They come out one at a time, there are a couple of duets, and at the end of the show they play together and blow everyone away."

The Bankhead is also offering "Will Ackerman: The Gathering 4 Guitars" on March 28; and "San Francisco String Trio" with guitar, violin and bass on May 12. They draw big audiences, Carter said, because for many folks around here, the guitar is a part of their lives.

Electric guitar shows are also in the lineup: blues guitarist Robert Cray was on the bill last week; rock 'n' roller Don Felder from the Eagles will perform March 18; and blues artist Keb' Mo' is May 14.

Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center is hosting the Oshima Brothers, who play contemporary folk and acoustic pop, on April 19.

"We try to book one or two 'guitar gigs' each season," Pleasanton recreation supervisor Rob Vogt said. "We know that we have audiences that really appreciate guitar, both acoustic and electric."

In October, the Firehouse presented Raul Midon, who is known for his guitar virtuosity in addition to his songwriting and singing.

"The Oshima Brothers are more known for their songwriting abilities," Vogt said. "They just happen to both be wonderful guitarists."

The brothers will also hold a masterclass for musicians in the Pleasanton High School Music Collaborative, all part of the Spring Youth Music Festival.

Another Tri-Valley guitar enthusiast is Michael Ferrucci, who owned Fretted Friends Music on First Street in Livermore for 30 years and is one of the founders of Two Day Town, a music festival held at Lake Del Valle each April since 2001.

"I've always been a guitar player -- my grandfather from Italy played the mandolin and the guitar," Ferrucci said. "My mother and father were jitter-buggers. He was a World War II vet and that's what they did."

They also introduced him to a range of music while he was growing up in San Francisco, where he saw the Beatles twice, at the Cow Palace in 1964 and at Candlestick Park in 1966. Ferrucci studied botany and biology at Cal Poly and became a specialist and salesman of laboratory instruments, but he kept pursuing music and opened a recording studio in his home.

"It was called Little People Studio," he said. "I recorded kids when they played instruments in their early life because they may not do so in later life."

This led to opening Audio Voyage Recording on Research Drive, where Ferrucci kept a variety of instruments that overflowed into his home.

"My wife Pam said, 'Enough with the instruments, go open a music store,'" Ferrucci recalled with a laugh.

He revels in memories of youngsters who learned music thanks to his store, as well as the Rotary Music Scholarship, which can be used to help buy a good instrument.

"It is horrible when a kid plays an instrument that is substandard," Ferrucci said.

Quality is also important when learning to play the guitar, he added.

"There are a lot of variables and it might be difficult to play or might not stay in tune, which is discouraging," he said. "You can buy a decent guitar in the $200 range."

Kibildis agrees and said he often helps people buy their first guitar at his JAMS Music shop.

"I have people all the time inquiring about starting on the guitar and they need guidance with lessons," he said. "I ask them, 'How committed are you wanting to do this?'

"We're here to help people make an educated decision," he continued. "Two hundred dollars is my starting point, for electric guitars around $150. Anything lower than that, I do shy away from.

"At our store, we want to make sure we are giving you the best situation to be successful. A $300 guitar will stay in tune better, be the right shape, have structural integrity, and hopefully provide an enjoyable playing experience."

Kibildis earned a master's degree from Cal Poly in city planning in 2008 so he graduated at a time when nobody was doing any building, he recalled. He always found jobs in retail -- and enjoyed music.

"I started at 4 on the piano and picked up a guitar around age 12 and haven't stopped playing," he said. "I played with a number of teachers and have a good theory background."

He eventually worked at a music store in Fremont and worked out a business plan to buy it since the owner of 50 years seemed near retirement but she was not interested. Then he looked into the space in Dublin.

"It was an outstanding location, close to the 580-680 interchange," Kibildis said. "And there is money out here, and more people interested in music."

He opened in a 1,200-square-foot space seven years ago but has expanded to just under 5,000 square feet with a full range of instruments, classrooms and two full-time repair technicians.

"I have 130 guitars in stock at any given time, from all the quality name brand manufacturers," he said.

Guitars are also attractive to look at, Kibildis noted.

"The wood is different from guitar to guitar, and they all look different even if they are the same wood. They will have a different tone," he said. "They are like sculptures, each is an art piece unto itself. I have customers who have large collections -- they love to look at them."

Kibildis said a number of professional and big name musicians live in the area and tour.

"I think the guitar scene here is a little under the radar because there's a lot of players but not a lot of places for the players to go play," he said.

Kibildis observed that all kinds of people -- men and women, young and old, experienced and beginners -- like either or both acoustic and electric guitars, so one cannot generalize.

"I had a gal come in playing for a number of years who had three nice electric guitars but now wanted a nice acoustic," he said.

He urges new guitar players not to get discouraged.

"If you are interested in the guitar, keep practicing, don't put it down, you will reach a different plateau of accomplishment," he said. "Stay with it and you will see results, you will see success. Rome wasn't built in a day."

Carter also mentioned that time is required for proficiency.

"I took my son to a show two years ago and introduced him to a guitarist and asked him for advice," Carter recalled. "He said, 'Every day wake up at 5 a.m. and practice for 12 hours.'"

But for most folks, playing can be pursued as time permits for a lifetime of pleasure. The same is true for listening and learning to appreciate the nuances of the instrument.

If you haven't heard guitar music featured onstage, check it out. You might get hooked.

Guitar concerts

Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton

* 8 p.m., Friday, April 19 -- Oshima Brothers: Magnetic Sibling Sound

Bankhead Theater in Livermore

* 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 28 -- International Guitar Night featuring Luca Sticagnoli, Antoine Boyer, Samuelito, Cenk Erdogan; $20-$30

* 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 18 -- Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Don Felder

* 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 28 -- Will Ackerman: The Gathering 4 Guitars

* 3 p.m., Sunday, May 12 -- San Francisco String Trio; The Sgt. Pepper Project

* 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 14 -- Keb' Mo'

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