My Musical Journey

My Name is Mike Philbin and I was born in The Bronx in 1950. A real rock and roll dino. I went to school there, studied music there, and lived there happily until 1988, when I moved to New Hampshire.

In the late 60’s, we used to hang out at a place called Poe Park on the Grand Concourse, in the Fordham section of the Bronx. We had plenty of aspiring musicians in that crowd, and we had some strong players as well. The girls were there, so we were there. One of the regulars was a kid named Paul Frehley. I think he later joined a band that had some success.

We didn’t realize it then, but we were in the middle of an incredibly rich and creative time for music, that would later come to be known as “Classic Rock”. I can tell you, being young and excited during that amazing musical time was a true gift. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

                First instrument up: Gee-Tar

mike at long island studio 3

Me in the late 70’s

My first acoustic guitar was a God-awful, Japanese finger-slicing pawn shop abomination.I think there was a little chord chart and “how to tune a guitar” pamphlet in the case. During the first few months I taught myself some open chords and built up some callouses, but let me tell you, the horrific action almost waylaid my plans to learn guitar altogether.

I guess you could say  my “formal” musical education started around 1965. There was  a wonderful lady by the name of Laura Weber who had one of the early instructional shows on PBS teaching folk guitar , and I picked up a lot from that show.  When my parents saw that I was pretty serious about learning guitar, they bought me a used F-hole Harmony, which was light years better than the Japanese slicer. I would just practice chord changes over and over with the folk songs I knew. Lead guitar was still a pipe dream.

I decided that maybe I’d better find a guitar teacher to speed up my progress . I found a teacher right near Fordham Road. He was a grumpy old Italian-American guy from the big band era with one eye that drooped, and he had almost no sense of humor. At that point,  I just wanted to learn Beatle songs, and he wanted to teach me “The Bluebells Of Scotland”, “The Hokey Pokey”, and other lame shit (or, at least that’s how I perceived it when I was 15).

In all fairness to him, however, he wanted me to learn the right way. to learn proper technique, ear training, and to read music. He was absolutely correct in his approach, but I was a little snot nose who wanted to be the next Beatle.

We worked through the music instruction books available at the time, which were very limited (Mel Bay was THE guitar course at the time). I realize now that it was actually a very good series, but to me it was just torturous drudgery. “Down In The Valley” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”. Dear God, please make it stop.(Funnily enough, these are the same songs I used years later to train my ear)

We butted heads several times because I would rarely perfect the lesson in the book during the week as I was supposed to, and when we sat down to play duets at the next session, I would invariably make mistakes in my reading. Sometimes he would lean back in his chair, focus his gaze on me with that zombie eye, and ask “What the hell is wrong with you?”. I would start to laugh, which of course, pissed him off to no end, and while He had every right to throw me out, or break the fucking guitar over my head, he never did, God love him.

A couple of years later I was a decent little player. The man certainly had perseverance. I don’t think we actually ever learned any Beatles songs, but all the while, I was figuring stuff out on my own, and my more advanced guitar playing friends were showing me good stuff too, so, I made slow but steady progress.

Learning the piano

Now in 1968, for my high school graduation, my parents and dear old Irish grandmother, ponied up enough cash to buy me a little spinet, and I loved it! The sound was so rich and , it immediately won me over…..and my fingertips didn’t hurt after playing it!. Someone showed me the “every other note’ chord shape, and I would bang out all these triads thinking I was a musical genius. I decided I would go back to guitar teacher Al, who also taught piano, and learn it right.

I remember the day I walked back into his studio and expressed my desire to add the piano to my itinerary. We had had a good hiatus from my guitar lessons, but he was cordial enough. “Okay, Michael. Are you familiar with bass clef? Uh-oh. Here was the new wrinkle. it was called the bass clef. I could read pretty well in the treble clef from my guitar studies, but here was this whole other staff with the same looking notes, but they all had different names… and both clefs had to be read together…like at the same time… Funny guy. You’re kidding me right?

He pulled a book out from a shelf behind his desk and handed it to me, saying, “This is a good basic book”. I flipped through the pages. “She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain”, “Ol Black Joe”, “Down In The Valley”

This can’t be happening!. I want to learn some Jerry Lee, and he’s got me down in the valley again? I’ll spare you the details of any more incidents I had with my poor teacher, but I hung in there a year or so, and in the end I was decent on keyboard too.

There have been many teachers since, but I guess you never forget your first. He’s long gone, and so is that little Bronx music studio, but when I walked out of there for the last time, I was at least able to get around on what became my two strongest instruments, and I’ve taken what I learned from him and applied those skills my whole musical career. Good enough. Job well done.

Thanks, Al. Sorry for busting your balls. I hope I didn’t do anything to accelerate your going towards the light.

Messing with lots of other instruments, too.

Sometime in the early 70’s, I started playing electric bass out of necessity. I was freelancing in bands, and guitar players were a dime a dozen. Guys would call all the time, and ask if I played bass, so I bought a Yamaha electric bass, and was playing my first gig a few days later. It was an easy transition, and I’ve always loved bass anyway.

I was in bands that played (classic) country music for a while, and learned all that repertoire. I got okay on the pedal steel guitar (another beautiful instrument). I got adequate on the 5 string banjo, and fooled with the mandolin a bit. I learned a little fiddle, but never had the discipline to master the fingering and subtle intonations. I basically wanted to learn everything, but, hey, this is only one lifetime here.

I once tried to teach myself the trombone, but the only note I could get out of it sounded like a rhino fart, so my trombone studies ended with a “Pffffttttt”

I bought a trumpet on ebay, and went to a teacher here in NH to learn it. First thing he said was “This is not a Trumpet. This is a Flugelhorn”. (Oh, nice). I did take a few lessons and could read some trumpet parts, but would I ever play stuff from The Tijuana Brass? Or Chuck Mangione? Nah. Next lifetime. Put the thing up in the attic with the box of other abandoned instruments.

I took a few oboe lessons and had acceptable results, but I knew I wasn’t going to be first chair for any Mozart Concertos anytime soon. I was using a rented student instrument that sounded little more than a musical duck call, so it was a little discouraging

On top of that my teacher was a smokin’ hot girl in her early twenties. The teaching cubicle was about the size of a closet (Don’t stand so close to me….) Summer came around, and I remember she walked in one day wearing really high shorts, and she had killer legs. I don’t want to sound like a lech (yes I do), but I knew my concentration level was going to be non-existent that day. Playing a harmonic minor scale while trying to glance down at her ass wasn’t easy, but I think she was fully aware of what was going on, and gave me a wry smile. Sadly, I wound up quitting the lessons, but I still think the Oboe is one of the most beautiful instruments in the world.

Of course I bought a 5 piece Pearl Export drum kit, and could eventually play along with some tunes. It didn’t take as long as I thought to get fair on them . Well,I had done it!. I was now my own one man band, haha. The drums wound up being placed in the classifieds after I lost interest and finally realized that they were taking up way too much room. Oh, well. It was fun learning them.

There was a succession of teachers through the years, and I wound up studying harmony, theory, orchestration, arranging, ear training, a little conducting, the usual stuff. I enjoyed it all. It gave me a good grounding for being a more complete musician.

Even though I’ve played all kinds of different music, rock has always been a mainstay. You can find me at Classical recitals or Bluegrass concerts, or any number of other music genre performances, but don’t be fooled. In my heart of hearts, I am a rock and roller.

And always will be.