Durham’s Magic Fingers

So coming up through middle school and high school as an introverted wannabe guitar shredder is tough business. I could barely strum chords in front of my parents at home, let alone cut heads like Jack Butler in Crossroads in front of my peers. There was a definite “who’s the best?” vibe in high school. Every guitarist in school knew who the others were, either by word of mouth or directly from the mouth of said guitarist.

Cuttin’ heads with Jack Butler(aka, Steve Vai)

I kept my shredding to myself. I didn’t want to flaunt my skills or attempt to build up some kind of reputation about my playing, mainly because I was one who preferred to stay in the shadows and play because I loved to play. I was happy to let the other wannabe guitar heads take all of the spotlight. They could have the accolades. I’d just practice my scales, work on chord progressions, and quietly idolize guys like Satriani, Vai, Bettencourt, and Malmsteen in my basement practice space.

Despite my best efforts to keep my playing on the down low I had a few friends that knew I was a closeted guitar slinger, and they felt it imperative to let me know about other would-be guitar Gods roaming the halls of Warsaw Community High School. One such name was Doug Durham. I didn’t know the guy, as I think he was a year or two older than me. But a friend had gotten a cassette tape from Durham himself, with Doug laying some fiery chops down on a tape recorder for posterity’s sake.

The friend let me borrow this tape so I could hear what I was up against, so after school I went down to my basement guitar lair and put the cassette into my boom box to see what all the hubbub was about. I hit play and heard about 10 seconds of analog hum, then a smattering of notes with no rhyme nor reason picked at a high rate of speed. After about 30 seconds the playing stops and a voice says “I’m just fucking around.”

I thought he could pick fast, but other than that there was no form or personality to the playing. Just fast and pointless. I gave the cassette to my friend the next day and said I thought it really wasn’t that impressive. He said “Seriously? Then you need to play for me so I can compare.” Since this friend had given me several rides home from school, with me living probably 15 miles out of the way I felt I owed him that.

So after school one day my friend, myself, and another mutual friend came back to my place after school. We all came in and I introduced them to my mom as we walked through the kitchen and then downstairs. I turned on the Randall half stack that my brother bought from a guy our guitar teach knew and plugged in my Squier Strat. This was my sophomore year, so I didn’t really have anything original to play. I thought for a minute then did a drop “D” tuning and went into Tesla’s “Heaven’s Trail(No Way Out)” off of The Great Radio Controversy. I played a few lines from that, then did some blues licks I’d picked up off a White Boy Blues cassette that featured Clapton, Beck, and Page playing with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After a couple minutes I stopped playing, looking up at my friends standing slack jawed staring at me. “Holy crap, man. Okay, you can play. Not sure what Doug Durham is doing.”

I felt vindicated.

And I also felt kind of good playing in front of friends. It’s not so much showing off as it is sharing in our collective love of music. That’s the whole point of playing in front of others; spreading the gospel of rock and roll. There will always be those more interested in showing off and showing up other players, but for me at that moment it was like opening up and being myself for the first time in front of friends. It felt damn good.

I didn’t suddenly become an extroverted guitar noodler, playing all around school and flicking my tongue as I flit the high E with blistering 32nd notes. But it was enough of a confidence boost that I entered a guitar playing contest later that year and came in fourth place. A year later one of my best friends and I got together with a drummer from the High School Band and we three played at the Talent Show. An instrumental original piece we came up with in said drummer’s practice room at his house. My amp died minutes before we were to go on, but luckily one of the other band’s guitarist had a half stack amp he let me use. And my senior year we did the talent show again, this time with a different high school band drummer. The song was tight and I had a killer solo in it(complete with a Cry Baby pedal.) But things sort of fell apart, and we dropped out last minute.

That’s how it goes in rock and roll.

Spring, 1990. “I was a teenage shredder.”

As for Doug Durham, I’m not sure what happened to him. Honestly, I don’t remember him after that year of school. He disappeared into the ether. Was he real? Or was he a lesson-in-waiting; a building block to help me get out of my practice room-shaped shell? Who knows? Though, I’m guessing since other people knew him and had even shared his cassette with me that he indeed did exist. Maybe he just moved away. Maybe he changed his name and became a famous guitarist. One everyone knows and loves and he’s been an influence and inspiration to others for a handful of years now.

Probably not.

One thought on “Durham’s Magic Fingers

  1. This is awesome. I wish I’d played guitar in high school, as it was a small school and there were only a couple of players (that I knew of) and they were cool dudes, we could probably have jammed. But I didn’t and now here we are. I bought my first guitar for first year university, definitely a late start.


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