Guitars Under the Stars hosts music camp for budding junior shredders

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
It was probably Vincent Helstrom’s proudest – and perhaps most embarrassing – one minute of his life when former Megadeth guitarist Chris Poland took his green Dean ML guitar, strummed a few notes, tried tuning it, then handed it back to him saying he couldn’t play it.
But Helstrom, of Lebanon, also got to tinker on Poland’s own Schecter guitar, of which only two were made (and this one was modified by Poland himself), during that minute. Hanging out with and learning from Poland for a couple hours was a “very cool” experience for Helstrom, who said it was one of the reasons he signed up for the Guitars Under the Stars music camp experience.
“He’s really, really good,” Helstrom said. “He’s, like, one of the forefounders of that style of music. Any of the Megadeth stuff he’s done, I’ve paid attention to.”

AN EARLY CROWD forms at Cheadle Lake Park while a Metallica tribute band warms up for its Guitars Under the Stars performance on July 29.

Jason Cripe, who cofounded GUTS with Jeff Gilbert, put on the fifth festival at Cheadle Lake Park on July 29-30, but it was the event’s first year hosting a four-day guitar camp preceding the festival.
Cripe had only three months to pull the camp and festival together following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, so he didn’t get the numbers he wanted, but he gave himself a “passing grade-needs improvement” on a pass/fail scale, he said.
“I think that the timeline and the COVID stuff contributed to a small camp turnout, but it showed us what we need to do [next time],” Cripe said. “In some ways, it allowed us to give those kids an awesome experience.”
He was referring to the one-on-one time campers had with musicians such as Poland; Grammy award-winning producer, engineer and performer Larry Mitchell; Stone Sour guitarist Christian Martucci and The Loyal Order’s Brandon Cook.
Cripe has dreamed of providing a guitar camp experience for kids (adults were welcome, too) since Mitchell planted the idea in his head some seven years ago. In fact, Mitchell was responsible for bringing in most of GUTS’ inaugural lineup in 2014, and Mitchell himself has returned to perform at each event.
Mitchell said he started with a toy guitar when he was 3 or 4 years old. For a time, he also played drums, but shifted back after his mom threw the drums out the window. His influences include Prince, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai, but more recently he’s been vibing on Tori Amos and Prince.

Larry Mitchell kicks off the camp on day one with some tunes and talk.

The producer/musician attends guitar camps across the nation, and told Cripe it was feasible to pull a guitar camp off in Lebanon based on the names it attracts. So Cripe printed his goal on a T-shirt: “100 kids, 100 guitars” (“I want to put 100 guitars in the hands of 100 kids,” Cripe said), which caught the attention of musician/producer/marketer Thom Hazaert at the 2018 National Association of Music Merchants Show, and the two partnered to make the dream a reality.
Hazaert pulled in Phil Demmel, Mark Mendoza, Jason Bieler, Ernie Iniguez, Jeff Scott Soto and Mark Heylmun, in addition to Poland, Martucci and others, to participate in the guitar camp. After settling in at an Albany hotel, the group poured out of a van at Cheadle Lake on July 27 while the festival stage was being erected and campers were waiting.
Mitchell kicked off the camp that night on a small stage under a grove of trees, and quizzed the campers to find out what they already knew.
“This camp here, particularly, is probably more about inspiring to keep going, to do stuff, to pick up an instrument,” he said. “Hopefully it makes a difference in somebody’s life.”
It’s probably a safe bet to say it has.
Wesley Chace, 11, of Dallas, won a scholarship to the camp with an essay describing how music helped him bond with his father.
“He doesn’t get to see his dad or his mom very often,” Chace’s uncle, Gabriel Rodriguez, explained. “What he wrote in his essay is that music means a lot to him. It helps him cope with all the baggage that he carries sometimes.”

Wesley Chace warms up his strumming fingers on his guitar.

Chace’s dad introduced him to bands like Motley Crue, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Van Halen, Nirvana, AC/DC and Tom Petty. The GUTS festival was his first concert experience, highlighted by the fact he got to learn licks from Poland and take a photo with Demmel’s guitar.
“Those are the kind of moments we were hoping to capture,” Cripe said.
Chace’s dream is to be a lead singer in a band, which he thinks he’ll name Blood Chain. He plays a black and white Stratocaster electric guitar.
While Rodriguez plays a little guitar, himself, he said he mostly came to bond with and encourage his nephew.
“I’m here to show support for him and hopefully help him achieve his dream one day,” he said.
Helstrom and Alijah Boyd, of Medford, began hanging out at the camp. They said that the experience was good despite some expectations that “fell flat.” For one, they pointed out, it was the hottest week of the year and the park had no showers. Also, the scheduling didn’t seem well-planned. However, other experiences overshadowed any negative feedback, they said.
“I can’t really blame them because this is the first time back in two years,” Helstrom said.
When asked if he could name a song to describe his experience, Helstrom quickly pointed to Megadeth’s “Wake Up Dead.”
“Because every time I wake up, I feel f–ing dead,” he said. “We go to bed super late, we sleep on the floor. I always wake up and I’m super tired. But then I get up and still do all the stuff anyway because it’s fun.”
Boyd referenced Pantera’s “The Art of Shredding.” Although he likes rock and roll, he said, “metal made my passion stronger.”

Poland shows some tips to camp attendees.

Poland’s clinic, where the instructor strummed his guitar for a minute, was Helstrom’s most memorable experience
“That one was my favorite,” he said, “not just it being Chris Poland, but also seeing the excitement from the other professional musicians getting as excited as me about seeing him,.”
It’s true. Cook, Martucci, Mitchell, Heylmun and Bieler sat in on the clinic and asked questions.
“They’re also taking this as a clinic for themselves to try to learn,” Helstrom said. “A lot of them had really good questions about, like, ‘How do you actually play this solo?’”
“They were asking questions for us, too,” Boyd added. “The questions they’re asking help us.”
“I feel like banter between two musicians is just as important as if I was asking the questions,” Helstrom continued. “They can ask technical questions and get a lot of information out of it, but specific things about solos, they’re people, too, and they’ll ask questions that I’m kind of thinking.”
During the clinic, Poland shared how he learned a jazz riff when he was about 10 years old, and how he kept practicing it until he could play it fast.
“Then one day I was watching a (John) McLaughlin video and he was doing the same warm-up,” Poland said. “I was so blown away. I was like, ‘That guy, when I was 10 years old, showed me McLaughlin’s warm up!’”

TALENTED MUSICIANS in their own right, Christian Martucci (left) and Jason Bieler (right) glean information during Chris Poland’s clinic.

He also shared stories about working with Megadeth, how an injury prevents him from playing with his index finger, how he learned to play – but not to read – music, and his preferred tricks and equipment.
After wrapping the event and settling into post-GUTS mode, Cripe reflected on his fifth festival production. In agreement with Hazaert, he described the camp as a proof-of-concept run that he expects will be better next year because he’ll have more time to plan it. Now officially a nonprofit, GUTS has received five guitars to help the bootstrapping organization continue to next year. Raffle tickets to win a $2,300 L-guitar are being sold at Ash St. Music Exchange, 70 E. Ash St., for $10 apiece. A signed guitar by Liliac and Poland’s rare Schecter guitar will be sold online to benefit GUTS next year, and the last two guitars – donated by a local musician – will be given to two campers.
Cripe said the Lebanon High School music class earned about $2,500 at the event by operating the parking lot and earning tips from drinks served.

GUTS PRODUCER Jason Cripe shows an L-guitar that he is raffling off at Ash St. Music Exchange. Donated by L-guitar, the proceeds will help fund the next GUTS event.

Providing a venue for nonprofits and young musicians plays a big role in Cripe’s vision. By offering a guitar camp open to children and adults, and by providing fundraising opportunities for the school band, he wants to “inspire the next generation to be involved in music and take an interest in it.”
“Right now, young people actually playing musical instruments is on the decline, big time,” he said. “They’re sampling; they’re taking pieces of stuff that’s already been created. No one’s creating full albums anymore. Everyone’s putting out individual tracks. It’s the single-serving society. We kind of want to keep the art of creating music alive. That’s always been kind of the goal.”
Music is strongly connected to memory, Mitchell said. For instance, he explained, we learn our ABCs through music, every indigenous group sings and Alzheimer’s patients recall memories through music.
“We learn through songs, so it does something to the brain,” he said.
Though he won’t encourage many to pursue music as a profession, he encourages many to find ways to incorporate music into their lives and family traditions.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing for everyone to learn an instrument to some degree, whatever makes them happy,” he said.