In November of 2011, Michael Rays, a Montana native and an amateur guitarist since 1989, decided to take on learning the solo – a minute and and twenty seconds long, 57 measures, and clocking in at 168 bpm – to “Highway Star,” played by guitarist Ritchie Blackmore of the band Deep Purple from their 1972 album Machine Head. Rays, realizing he lacked of a solid repertoire in his guitar bag-of-tricks, decided to chronicle his journey towards learning the solo and the lessons he’d learn along the way.
His new eBook, Guitar Odyssey: A Journey in Musical Growth [$4.99], is the result of that project which ended up lasting two years. You learn, as Rays did in real time, that the journey towards achieving something, even if it seems simple at first blush, can be trying, surprising, and fulfilling with ample happy accidents in between.
Guitarkadia: Tell me about yourself growing up. What were you listening to, reading, and watching? Do you come from a musical family? A lot of it you cover in your “Musical Memories” but if you could set this up that would help readers get a background.
Michael Rays: Growing up in Colorado Springs, CO, I mostly listened to pop and rock. The Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” was my first album. The first group I ever really “got into” was Devo, in junior high school. In high school (82-85) it was Zeppelin and Lynrd Skynrd. Spinal Tap, too! I not only loved the movie–I loved their Black Album (which was really the movie soundtrack). As for books, I only read what I had to read in school; I didn’t get into the joy of reading until college. Movie-wise, I enjoyed Steve Martin’s films (The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) and I watched a lot of SCTV, Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Sports-wise, I enjoyed playing basketball and also tennis, which I played on my high school varsity team.
I come from a very musical family, but only on my mother’s side. Both of her parents were musical (her father, my grandfather, was drum major at U of Kansas way back in the 30s), and she and both her sisters played instruments. My mother still plays violin in a community orchestra, as well as piano–in her mid-70s.
G: What’s your first memory of the guitar? What lead to the image to first acquiring a guitar of your own?
MR: My first memory of the guitar? Hmmm… I never really knew anyone who played guitar until college. I do have memories of being blown away by the virtuosity of guys I heard on the radio; Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Ray Vaughn, the guys in Skynrd, and certainly Jimmy Page. The first time I heard “Whole Lotta Love” on the radio, it was one of those “stop everything” moments. When I was in junior high and high school, playing air guitar was just coming into its own. I played a LOT of air guitar, but for reasons unknown I wasn’t drawn to the real thing. I suppose I was scared by the complexity of all those strings and weird hand positions. I had my trumpet with three simple valves–why go beyond that?
I caught “guitar fever” senior year of college, when I stayed in my apartment over the week-long spring break and played around on a loaned acoustic using some chord diagrams. Playing was indeed difficult–making the chord shapes was not at all natural–but the act of going from one chord to another and getting the desired sound–the desired mood–was magical. As I tinkered around with Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” I thought, “Yeah, there is something to this.”
I didn’t buy my first guitar until a year or two later, but the seed had been planted. When I did get my first guitar (I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was a crummy acoustic from a pawn shop), I continued self-teaching using chord diagrams, and I figured out how to play one major scale in one position. It had not yet occurred to me that scales and chord shapes could move up and down the neck.
G: What were the lessons like in the early days? What came easily for you and what was hard? Who were you taking lessons from?
MR: By the time I started playing guitar (about age 21, when I bought my first one), I had three years of piano lessons and eight years of trumpet lessons behind me, so I knew a little bit of theory, but not much. I was living in Jacksonville, FL (I was in the Navy) and my first teacher was a college guitar student. At our first lesson, I showed her what I had figured out on my own, and she asked, “Did you know you scales and chords can have patterns?” Coming from a background of piano and trumpet, I was like, “Come again?”
Much musical growth followed. I learned about the circle of fifths, different scales, different scale shapes, the modes, and barre chords–above all, barre chords. They allowed me to play all kinds of stuff (jazz, standards, rock, you name it) that I never dreamed I’d be able to play. My attempts at soloing (mostly blues) were not very good, but I was on the path to becoming a decent rhythm player, which was fine with me.
What came easily? Some of the barre chord shapes, remembering where to play the barre chords, understanding the theory behind why certain chords are used for a given key signature.
What came hard? Some of the OTHER barre chord shapes, soloing, and really getting a grip on the circle of fifths.
G: What do you do for a living? How did, if it did, guitar play a part in what you do for your profession? Guess I’m asking if playing guitar was an advantage.
MR: I’m an ad man who owns my own agency in Billings, MT. I do enjoy reading about science (especially physics) and math, and I try to stay abreast of what’s going on in those worlds. I suppose there is something about the “Highway Star” solo that appeals to the mathematical side of me. It’s structure is somewhat straightforward, and while it’s difficult to play, it can be figured out. I find solos with less structure and more “feeling,” if you will, (e.g., Blackmore on “Black Night,” David Gilmour on “Another Brick In The Wall”) to be quite intimidating. I know they can be learned as well, but mentally they are further from my comfort zone.
G: Why “Highway Star”? What about it fascinated you and why do you think you chose to take on that challenge at that point in your life, according to your diary, a month or so before Christmas in 2011?
MR: What can I say–it’s a jam! I wanted a big challenge that would make me a better player, and it had to be a solo I loved. “Highway Star” was the perfect fit. I loved not only the solo but the entire song (I still do), and it was daunting yet seemingly accessible.
There was no special significance to Thanksgiving/Christmas 2011. I had been kicking the idea of this project around for a couple years, and I just decided it was time to get rolling.
G: When did you know you wanted to chronicle the journey for a book?
MR: Chronicling the journey for a book was part of the plan from the start (though I waited a month to start the journal–mainly to get my guitar legs under me). Writing a book has been something I had thought about doing for a long time (probably since college; I was 44 when I started the project and the book and I’m now 46).
An early attempt at “Highway Star” solo, recorded on March 3, 2012
G: Let’s pick some dates from your book:
a) On 12/28/11 you mentioned singing the solo in 168 beats, your ultimate goal for playing it. Why sing and how did it help?
MR: I learned about singing an instrumental part in high school jazz band. A guest instructor had us sing improvised blues solos; he made the very good point that if you can’t even sing a good solo, why on earth would you expect to be able to play one? The singing technique is one I’ve kept in my bag of tricks ever since.
b) On 1/19/12 you mentioned your regular practice duration is 20-30 minutes. How do you maximize your practice time when you’re allowed such a short duration? Do you still maintain that routine?
MR: 20-30 minutes continues to be what I can squeeze in on a regular basis, maybe an hour now and then. I consciously tried not to be too structured in pursuing the “Highway Star” solo as I did not want to lose the fun factor. Consequently, many of my practice sessions were not as efficient as they could have been. Had I been more rigorous, the project probably would have taken less than two years–but that was the beauty of it: I had no deadline, so I was able to keep it fun and practice on my own terms. If I felt like screwing around for a night or two, I did.
c) On 9/6/12 you reveal that you’d never owned a “Deep Purple” album until that day. It’s also the day you played along the solo to the song the first time, on an acoustic guitar at work. Can you talk about the significance of that day as you look back?
MR: There’s playing along with the metronome at 168 bpm, and then there’s playing along with the actual “Highway Star”–also at 168 bpm. The tempos are the same, but it’s a different feel–and certainly a bigger thrill–to play along with the actual song. This day (9/16/12) was about nine months into the project, and it was a watershed moment because I could finally start to visualize success. I was making tons of mistakes, but I was getting through the entire solo at full tempo. That day, my mindset changed from “Can I do this?” to “I can do this–I just need to do it cleaner. Much, much cleaner.”
G: Can you talk about a couple of breakthroughs you’ve had during the journey – both musically and personally?
MR: I had several musical breakthroughs on this journey–but they were ephemeral. I would absolutely nail a certain section one day, only to butcher it the next. The breakthroughs that will last–better speed-picking, more subtlety in my string-bending, and just a better overall feel for the guitar–all came in a glacial, two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression.
Personal breakthroughs came in the form of increased confidence on guitar, more respect for rock musicians (rocking for two minutes is hard work–how the pros do it for two hours is beyond me. And guys like Angus Young, who play a ton AND move around like that? Unbelievable!), and more respect for anyone who does something every day and has the patience to know it will pay off in the long run.
G: What’s next?
MR: What’s next? I’m working on “Guitar Odyssey 2,” in which I tackle C.C. DeVille’s solo on Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me.” But this project is not nearly as focused as the first one. After two years focusing almost solely on “Highway Star,” I’m now jumping around on a few different areas: Mel Bay barre chord exercises, blues soloing and riffs from various other songs. The odyssey continues!
“Highway Star” guitar solo – final attempt. March 26, 2014
A live version of “Highway Star” from 1972.