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Stars of the strings

This city has produced more than its fair share of great guitarists over the years. Steve Strongman, Terra Lightfoot, Luke Bentham and Mike Trebilcock reflect on their careers with their six-string companions.

Hamilton’s a rock ’n’ roll town.

It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. Yes, new artists are more likely to be deft with a microphone, a mixing board or modern music software – but the city’s roots are in rock, in the classic collaboration of drums, bass and guitars. It’s no surprise, then, that Hamilton has produced innumerable guitar players, some of whom possess immeasurable talent.

Guitar players usually choose the instrument at a young age. Why, though? Why not the violin, or the accordion, or simply the piano? One answer might be that the guitar is still the embodiment of a certain kind of cool. That might sound trite, but when you’re choosing an instrument at 13 years of age, it matters. 

Veteran blues player Steve Strongman can’t quite recall what led him to the guitar. After 40 years slinging one, it has all become a blur.

“I probably saw somebody on TV playing guitar and thought that looks pretty cool,” Strongman says, trying to recall his 10-year-old mindset. It’s easier for him to recall the teenage inspirations – such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan – who led him from rock ’n’ roll to the blues.

“If you distil all the rock music that I was listening to down, it was essentially just blues music,” he says. “Blues is like a blank canvas for me and the guitar was the best way to express myself through it.”

Why he picked up a guitar is a bit of a blur for Steve Strongman but it’s been an extension of him for 40 years.
Photo: José Crespo/Crespo Media Works

Terra Lightfoot came to the guitar via her mother, who bought her a guitar with five strings for six bucks at a garage sale. 

“I had lots of examples set out for me in my family,” she says. “My aunt on my dad’s side played lead guitar in a country band and sang and was basically an explosion of cool. I wanted to be just like her.”

Like Strongman, Lightfoot started with modern music. She went from punk and power chords (“the easiest way in to learning how to play guitar,” she says) into learning other, older techniques. “As I got a little bit older, I really paid attention to finger-picking experts like Mother Maybelle Carter,” she says. “A guy like Leadbelly is still one of my favourites.”

Luke Bentham, singer and guitarist for The Dirty Nil, fell in love with the guitar for that elemental rock ’n’ roll reason: his parents would hate it. 

“It would have had to have been seeing my parents physically recoil when Nirvana’s ‘You Know You’re Right’ came on MuchMusic,” says Bentham. “That gave me an indication that this was something that I should look into. Anything that can piss off my parents that much was very interesting.”

Bentham maintained an interest in punk and hard rock, citing Pete Townsend and James Williamson of The Stooges as two of his favourites. “Pete Townsend mystified me when I was a kid,” he says. “I got a copy of (the film) The Kids Are All Right and watched all the playing sequences.”

Bentham also credits his guitar teacher with real-world inspiration. That teacher was Mike Trebilcock, film composer and frontman for the rock group The Killjoys. Trebilcock loved to sing and saw that the guitar seemed best suited to the pursuit. “That was the real draw. My father had a kind of three-quarter-size acoustic guitar with rusty strings on it, and I just kind of sat around with my thumb trying to pick out tunes on it.”

For Trebilcock, it was the songs that came first, and his favourite artists used the guitar in a different way. “It was Alice Cooper and KISS and things like that,” he says. “The (guitar) leads were melodic, there wasn’t a lot of jamming or soloing. The solo is like a song within a song. It has its own arc. That’s still the way I play now.”

Mike Trebilcock of The Killjoys has developed a percussive, harmonic style of guitar playing. Photo: submitted

Style is important for a guitarist, whether that means versatility (for artists who hop genres) or simply knowing what sounds best in your own music. Bentham and Trebilcock, who both front three-piece rock groups, are adept at filling in space to make their sound fuller and richer. “With The Killjoys, even when I’m soloing, I’m playing all the strings,” says Trebilcock. “I got good at muting certain strings, but still getting sound out of them. You’re getting a percussive quality, harmonics and that muted string sound, even when I’m playing a solo. I didn’t even realize I’d developed that sound. It was by necessity, just to keep the noise going.”

Bentham describes a similar approach to his own music. “I’m a terrible improviser,” he says. “I came from pop music and punk music. It’s all about taste, because nobody gives a fuck how fast you can play guitar. There’s nothing less interesting to me. It’s about getting a good sound and having the taste of knowing when to not play.”

Mastering the guitar solo is much more complex than simply playing like Eddie Van Halen. It’s about feel as much as it is about fingers. Being a better lead player is something Lightfoot strives for constantly. 

“When I was a kid,” she recalls, “my teacher said, ‘You’re never going to be very good at soloing so why don’t you focus on playing rhythm?’ I listened to him and I wish that I hadn’t in some ways, because it took me many years to even try.”

Terra Lightfoot took up the guitar because she wanted to be just like her aunt, who was an ‘explosion of cool.’  Photo: Mat Dunlap

Loving the guitar can, for some people, become a bit of an obsession for the physical object. Fair enough, guitars – even mass-produced ones – are works of art. Each one feels different in the player’s hands and they all have their own personality. “Having worked at a music store in my earlier years,” says Lightfoot, “I know that every guitar that comes to the store is different. Even from the factory. They all play differently. They all have different strengths, weaknesses, beauty, flaws, all of that.”

Lightfoot, Bentham and Strongman each have about 15 or more guitars. Strongman isn’t a collector, per se; he simply has a guitar for every occasion, be it a Dobro, a 12-string, a full-body acoustic, a Les Paul, and so on. Strongman’s favourite, though, is the guitar he nicknamed Number One, a Gibson ES 335 he has owned for three decades. Bentham has a 1975 Les Paul Custom that he got when he was about 25 years old, and that’s basically the only guitar he really plays, despite having a collection of them. Lightfoot’s fans know her favourite guitar is named Veronica, a Gibson SG she has owned since she was 17.

“As you grow with only one instrument, it becomes a part of your sound,” she says. “Like Willie Nelson’s Trigger, he’s never really put that down. He’s always played it and even if it’s had multiple holes, he has them repaired and keeps going. I find that inspirational.”

Trebilcock is the outlier of the group. “I have an electric and an acoustic, which I think is all I need,” he says. “I’m not really a collector. When my dad gave me my first decent guitar, he said this is not something to be babied. This is a work tool.”

Mind you, all four agree on that statement. Each of them is a working guitarist. Playing guitar has become the “day job.” It’s a fortunate position to be in. Lightfoot hopes she can use her platform to inspire others, especially young women and girls, to consider picking up the guitar.

“It’s not often that women are considered as guitar players,” she says. “There’s a lot of sweet little kids who will come out and see me play guitar and go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, I’d like to do that.’ Anybody can sing and write a song, but it’s quite another thing to pick up an instrument and bond with it and get to know it, and be able to express yourself in a language without words.”

Trebilcock continues to teach and share his talents with up-and-comers as well. “I’ve had some pretty great students,” he says. “It’s gratifying when they go on. I’m sort of helping them do what they already have in them. Most of the ones that go on, there’s this fire they’ve had since they were, like, 12. Even the ones that are just there to have some kind of experience outside of the house and learn something fun, it’s still gratifying because they’re learning social skills that they wouldn’t otherwise learn.”

So what makes a great guitar player, in the minds of these professional players? Again, it’s not speed or flashiness or the ability to kick mid-air (though Bentham throws a mean scissor-kick.) 

“The best guitar players are guitar players that you know it’s them as soon as you hear them,” says Strongman. “There’s a signature style to their playing. BB King plays two notes and you know it’s BB King.”

“The ability to listen,” says Lightfoot. “Sometimes you get a technical guitarist who can go, ‘Look at this blistering solo!’ but they barely seemed to be paying attention to the song that came before it. That’s never fun.”

Guitar, as the focus of modern music, is currently waning. That doesn’t mean it will never come back to take the lead again. So far, all the clichés – “rock ’n’ roll will never die” – have proven true. 

Yet, whether or not playing the guitar is the height of cool is irrelevant. In fact, making a living playing guitar is irrelevant. Playing in front of people is irrelevant. Not to get all Zen about it, but what matters is simply the playing itself.

“It’s been a really good companion over the years,” Bentham says. “Especially as a teenager. I think most teenagers feel like they don’t fit in most places. It was a fantastic companion through all that stuff and continues to be now. When the world’s crazy and doesn’t make any sense, you can always strap on your Les Paul and play a really loud E chord and everything will be all right.”

Dirty Nil’s Luke Bentham fell in love with the guitar for the age-old reason kids do things: his parents hated it.  Photo: Submitted
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