John Bohlinger hanging out with his guitar teacher, Mike Hoover. Photo by Kaye Caughey Hoover
“For us to live any other way was nuts.” —Ray Liotta as Henry Hill in Goodfellas
Never imagined I’d be here, but currently I’m homeschooling my 4-year-old daughter. Teaching has taught me that beneath my Zen Hippie Cowboy façade lies a rigid nerd, weirdly unforgiving and bad at concealing my frustration at both myself and the student. I’m the kind of uptight teacher I would’ve dreaded as a kid. My incompetence makes me appreciate the good teachers I’ve had in my life.
For a person who doesn’t seem particularly bright, I’ve spent a surprisingly long time in school (17 years). In all that time, not a single educator taught me a fraction of what my guitar teacher, Mike Hoover, taught me.
I met Mike in 8th grade. By then I’d been playing violin (poorly and mandatorily) in the school orchestra for four years. My mother had also signed me up for group guitar classes during the summers, where I learned my basic chords. Sitting in a circle strumming “Tom Dooley” felt about as fun as math class. Sensing this was going nowhere, mom signed me up for private lessons at Hansen Music, a local music store where electric guitars and amps lined every wall, and long-haired dudes in bell bottoms hung out and jammed, sometimes past closing time. Mike greeted us at the front desk looking like a member of the Outlaws and smelling like he’d just smoked a left-handed cigarette. I was a little surprised my mother left me in his care. Like that old Buddhist proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Mike was my guy.
In the first lesson, Mike sat across from me with his tobacco-burst Les Paul Artisan and showed me the first position of the pentatonic scale. Mike explained how you can make your fingers dance around that box and come up with melodies. I played some chords while he ripped some blues. It was the first time I saw lead guitar up close: Truly, at the time, this was coolest thing I’d ever seen. Then he said, “Now I’ll play the rhythm and you take a ride.” That was when playing notes became playing music—something I’d never experienced in four years of orchestra.
My brain’s reward system gave me a serious hit of dopamine and I felt positively high. I’ve been chasing the dragon ever since. This set me on a lifelong, often ill-fated, wildly frustrating yet immensely satisfying journey. For better or worse, this is where I belong and I’m grateful to be living my life rather than one of the other more obvious, yet ultimately wrong, options. I’m thankful to my mother for being cool and to Mike Hoover for the guidance.
Not only did Mike unlock music, he taught me you can actually make a pretty decent living playing it. To illustrate the point, he hired me to play in his band and paid me way more than I’d ever made in my many crap teen-friendly jobs. Gigging with Mike revealed the working musician’s playbook. Mike taught me to appreciate guitar craftsmanship and tonewoods, and to write off gear purchases on my taxes. He taught me to wear something cool onstage so you look like you’re in the band, not a member of the audience (and write-off those clothes as well). Mike taught me to tip when somebody pours you a drink, even if it’s on the house. Perhaps most importantly, Mike taught me that being a musician means you’re selling fun, so have as much fun as possible, and if you’re not having fun, pretend you are and usually the fun will kick in. He also cautioned me about having too much fun and taught me how to overcome a hangover. My father calls Mike my music father; that’s accurate.
I called Mike tonight to tell him about the 1980 Gibson L-5S I recently purchased. In 9th grade, Hansen Music had this guitar on the wall. At first I thought it was just a Les Paul. Then Mike pointed out the deep-carved, figured maple back with a matching wooden control cover, the ornate binding wrapping the thin body, and the 3-piece L-5 maple neck with abalone inlays running up the ebony fretboard to the flowerpot on the bound headstock. I’ve wanted one ever since and can’t believe I bought the same guitar I saw 40 years ago. As an added bonus, the L-5 had been played for decades by a local guitar hero, Ron Schuster (whom I mentioned in my last column). Mike pointed out that Ron’s mojo is on this guitar. Civilians think the concept is nonsense but we know that the mystical is real. When I offered to send the guitar to Mike, he laughed and said, “No man. If I don’t play my two Les Pauls, they get mad at me and start acting up. They always get resentful if I leave them alone too long.” Four decades later, this guy is still teaching me. Mike is the Zen Hippie Cowboy: I remain the student.