The Guitarist: Michael Bay and the Music

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As in the early days, when Bay would toss Rainbow Bridge onto the turntable and dive deep into the canon, each day and each night remain dedicated to practice. Jam nights are shows for an audience—the evening's entertainment—but the fulcrum of everything going on is the intensity and dedication of the individual musicians.

"Every time I've opened a door, there are 10 more on the other side," Bay says, referencing at least one method for how he visualizes his practice. "I've got to do the work to get through those 10. When I first started playing, I figured in a year I would know everything. Then I didn't. So I figured in five years I'll get it. When I made it to five years, I realized maybe in 1,000 lifetimes I'll begin to scratch the surface of what I need to do."

Barrick and Wall carry similar thoughts. The bassist references his old trumpet teacher, Jack Schantz: "He used to say 'Practice, practice, practice; then, when you get onstage, forget everything.' That's a brilliant way of looking at it." And that's precisely what's going on, as he and the other guys elaborate.

Bay jumps in: "For me, the joy and the fascination with it is within this simple form we play over and over again, we find different ways to say what we need to say."

His studio, the aptly named Guitar Conservatory, is a mindful little storefront. It is exceptionally clean and well designed, all due to the loving eye of Denise. A print of a Bodhisattva from the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, hangs on the wall and broadcasts a message of simplicity. Goober maintains a windowsill vigil over Kenilworth Avenue.

Bay has geared his teaching over the years more toward professional, established musicians. Those seeking a master's teachings often have a strong foundation already. Teachers like Bay merely navigate the ever-deepening waters. Still, he remains a student in many ways.

"I practice the same things you do," he says. "What I practice now is what I practiced 40 years ago. Not with the same intent, but those are the tools I have."

Against the back of the room, Bay's guitars hang loosely. The Orville Les Paul has been the iconic guitar in his toolbelt for most of his life. When his car was stolen outside his old studio in Lakewood several years ago, he lost the Orville and most of his gear. Several weeks and many trips to area music stores later, a friend helped Bay find it.

Still, it seems his heart lies with another ax lately. You'll most often see him play his Fender Telecaster these days, though for most of his life Bay abhorred the model.

"A student was moving out to Colorado and needed to unload his Telecaster," he says. As a teacher with dozens of students stopping in each week, he typically offers a helping hand in this situation: "Bring it in, we'll hang it on the wall for everyone to see. It may sell, it may not." Turns out, Bay himself loved the instrument. The fit was impeccable.

"I don't like Teles; never have. But it's this magical moment, and it's in great shape. We're talking about this thing that's made up of wood, and each piece of wood is different," Bay says. "It's just that these parts came together in the factory just right and arrived in my hands."

After his first night with the guitar—a blistering evening of soulful blues, though with something different about it—Wall came up to Bay and told him that the guitar was perfect. "That's your guitar!"

***

There is a very old story about a man who practiced in a Zen monastery tucked among the foothills outside Kyoto. He had spent years there, chopping wood and carrying water. And after many years of living there, he left. He went to work in the prefecture.

But his practice remained strong, and the pull of zazen drew him back up the hills and into the monastery once again. "This place is wonderful!" he exclaimed upon walking into the room, blinking his eyes as though seeing the wonder of life for the very first time.

With nary a smile, his former teacher emerged from an alcove and said, "This is how it has always been." The young man pondered this.

"When you're here in the monastery, you just do you what you do," Bay says. "You eat, you pray, you sleep. That's part of how I see it. I always like to try to remember how special it is, and I'll never take it for granted. You gotta remember: The cool stuff is happening now. It's only until later that many of us realize that."

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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