A long time ago there was this thing called “the 80s”. It was a time of wondrous things, readers. It was a glorious decade when network television perfected the sitcom. It was a time when things like “parachute pants”, “acid-washed jeans”, and “spandex” were fashions worn by young and old. “Where’s the beef”, “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis”, and “I pity the fool” were key phrases heard in nearly every schoolyard and office break room. An actor and close friend of a chimp named “Bonzo” was our elected President for 8 years straight, and his wife was a soldier in the “war on drugs”(a war that was never really won.) Iran/Contra, Ollie North, John Hinckley, Pop John Paul II, Trickle-down economics, and Lebanon were key words that led to many heated discussions and debates. In January of 1980 I was 6 years old. In January of 1990 I was 16. You could say the 80s were my formative years. I went from toys and coloring books to progressive rock and Stephen King in that decade. But in-between there was a whole lot of crazy fun. Within this decade I began to play guitar, which would lead me to a makeshift stage in a music store in Fort Wayne, Indiana playing guitar to a crowd of mulleted headbangers and dead-eyed onlookers alike. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Around 1984 I began to take an interest in music. Like, a big interest in music. My parents always had records in the house and 8-tracks in the car. As a small kid I can remember always bugging my mom to put on The Beatles’ White Album so I could hear “Back In The U.S.S.R.”. When it would end I’d get sad, then “Dear Prudence” would come in and settle me like some otherworldly lullaby. This would go on for years. My parents would leave me and my older brother(6 years older)at home while they’d go out and have some time to themselves. While they were gone my brother and I would put those Pioneer floor speakers to the test. Scorpions “Blackout”, Sammy Hagar’s “Love or Money”, and Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” would often make the living room windows shake and rattle as mom and dad dined on gourmet subs and downed them with a pitcher or two of beer. These were my formative years of becoming a music-obsessive.
So in 84′ I’d asked my parents if they’d buy me a guitar. I’d heard The Best of The Kinks and Jimi Plays Monterey enough in our little Honda Accord’s cassette player that I’d decided I wanted to make sounds like that. “Sure”, they said as long as I took lessons. Lessons? What? What if this “guitar teacher” was some sort of weirdo? I saw that movie ‘Adam’. I didn’t want to end up like that poor kid. So I declined the offer for a couple years until I was 12 and gave in. A non-child murdering guitar teacher was found and I took to the guitar immediately. Within two years I was showing the teacher stuff, so he said he couldn’t in good conscience take my parent’s money anymore. He suggested this other guy that gave lessons in a local guitar store. Well, after this new yahoo joked about playing slide guitar with his man bits, I told my mom I was done. My uncle mentioned a guy that lived out in the middle of nowhere that used to be in some hot-to-trot band that “almost” made it. Well, he took my brother and I over to meet him and I was instantly floored. You see, by this time in the 80s I was into that stuff they called “hair metal” and was wanting to be an aspiring “guitar shredder”. Yep, one of those guys that talk about things like hammer-ons, arpeggios, picking techniques, and guitar tabs. Well, the guy that my uncle introduced me to, Tim Bushong, was one of the best guitarists I’d ever heard that was standing two feet in front of me playing, so I was smitten. My brother and I started taking lessons from Tim, along with quite a few other local guitar-shredding wannabes. This was around ’88 or ’89. The decade was coming to an end. But in 1990 lay something new, wonderful, and horrifying: Hot Licks.
By 1990 I was well on my way to becoming something of a guitar hero. I played to crowds of no one in my basement practice space, but in my head I was shredding at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the Cathouse, and the Troubadour. Guys like Nuno Bettencourt, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Jason Becker were asking me about my technique. I was selling instructional videos in the back of magazines like Guitar, Guitar Player, and Metal Edge. The future was so bright, I had to wear shades. Unfortunately my prescription glasses prevented me from wearing any. Since this was all happening in my 16 year old overactive imagination my near-sightedness and slight astigmatism didn’t matter. At one Saturday morning guitar lesson in February/March of 1990 Tim had told me about the Junior Division Hot Licks guitar contest. Tim had won the year before in the not-Junior Division. He thought that I had a chance at winning. He also thought another student of his, Mike Voorheis, had a chance as well so we both sent in audtion tapes.
Tim helped me make an audition tape and we recorded it at an old church that Tim was using as a practice space just down the road from his place. You were supposed to come up with 30 seconds of original music to show what you could do. Tim encouraged me to find my inner Eddie Van Halen and I laid to tape a little over 30 seconds of guitar slinging wankery. The tape was made and sent off to Music Spectrum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Music Spectrum was the music store that sponsored the Hot Licks contest every year. They had a world famous percussion center that provided drums for Kenny Arnoff, Greg Bissonette, and none other than Neil Peart(if you have no idea who any of those guys are, just nod your head and say “cool”.) A couple weeks went by and I got a letter saying I’d made it. Out of over 300 tapes sent in I made it into the top ten. I thought to myself, “What the hell did I just do?”
The day came and it was time. I couldn’t believe the amount of people there. It was insanely crowded. This only made me want to vomit in my guitar case. Fortunately my older brother was there to tell me everyone else was terrible and I was great(he was such a great liar.) My parents stayed home as I thought I’d get too nervous with them in the crowd, waiting for my dad to “whoot! whoot!” from the back of the room. We were all shuffled to some back room to warm up and wait for our turn. The room was a massive bundle of nerves, mullets, and torn jeans. Pointy guitars, fingers running up and down their necks going for the ultimate riff, run, and arpeggiated chord. I fought the urge to walk out and say I didn’t feel good. There was no way I could do that. I’d never live it down. Before I could talk myself out the front door “Hubner. John Hubner, you’re up” was heard at the entrance to the practice room. It was time. I walked out with my Strat in hand and the owner of Music Spectrum was up on the stage waiting for me. I walked up and plugged in. “From Warsaw, IN we’d like to welcome J…” then I started in on my “Eruption”-like riff. “Wait! I have to introduce you first”, said Mr. Music Spectrum. “Shit”, I thought to myself. “We’d like to welcome John Hubner. Go for it, John.” He stepped down and I laid into that Strat like I never had before. I quickly forgot where I was and just played. After the initial composition, we were supposed to improvise so I started playing something in C. I made the mistake of looking up and seeing this massive crowd looking at me and flubbed up my part a bit. But a light flashed to the left of me indicating my time was up. I got a rather decent applause and I got out of there. I’d done it. I’d actually done this crazy thing I never thought I could do. Hell, I couldn’t even play in front of my parents, yet here I was in a room full of strangers playing some “hot licks” at the Hot Licks contest. After some deliberation between the five local celebrity guitar judges they came to their decision, and their decision was that I wasn’t going to be in first place. I came in fourth place. Mike Vooheis? He came in second. As a prize for fourth, I received a gift certificate for $50 redeemable at, well, the Music Spectrum of course. I picked up an Ibanez compressor pedal, which I still own actually. First place was a Crate combo amp. Pretty nice. Who cares what 2nd and 3rd got. That’s not important. The important thing was that I did something I never thought I could do. I put those vomit-y feelings aside and played guitar for a bunch of strangers(and just so you know, since then I have played guitar for my parents, too. A few times, in fact. Once was in a crappy underground bar where my dad almost got into a fist fight with some drunk hitting on my mom….well, that’s another story.)
I often wonder what came of my fellow “Hot Lickers” that I shared a stage with on that Sunday afternoon in April of 1990. Third place Jason Gladden, second place Mike Voorheis, and first place Tony Gardner. So guys, did life work out for you? Did the Hot Licks open some doors or close ’em? For me, it was a draw. I realized the live wire world of warmer than average “licks” wasn’t really for me. I’m more of a “electric blanket”-warmth kind of guy. That revelation mixed with an overwhelming sadness that my mullet would never look as good as many of them in Music Spectrum that day made me want to shave my head and become the first heavy metal monk guitarist in Tibet. Winning a $50 gift certificate evened things out. Nothing gained, nothing lost. But I have to say, Tony, you were damn good. You deserved the amp and the accolades from all those teenage girls and 40 year old Steve Morse wannabes.
Either way, we had fun that day didn’t we? Good times, good times.