Guitarist of note

Saturday, April 15, 2006
Guitarist Zach Priester practiced playing jazz in his basement music area of the family's rural Jackson home. (Don Frazier)

When it comes to talking about his guitar playing, 18-year-old Jackson student Zach Priester doesn't use many words. He prefers to let his hands do the talking.

They have a lot to say, speaking the legacy of great players of different styles -- Jimmy Page's blues-rock intensity, Django Reinhardt's gypsy-jazz virtuosity, Steve Vai's sonic theatrics.

He spends hours each day in his guitar study, a room in the basement of his family's home outside Jackson. In the room, he's surrounded by images of the greats who gave him inspiration, whose music taught him how to play.

On April 26, the Jackson student will go to Minneapolis for the next round of Guitar Center's Guitarmageddon contest. He's already made it through two rounds. Two stand in his way before a champion will be crowned. The champion wins a new car, thousands of dollars' worth of equipment, a one-year endorsement deal with Gibson Guitars and a chance to record in Los Angeles with bluesman Pete Anderson.

To hear Priester tell it, the contest is just fun. At the competition, he'll be expected to go on stage before the judges and play blues solos to backing tracks on CD. He'll be alone in the spotlight.

No pressure.

"I don't look at playing guitar as a competition," Priester said. "Once I get up there I'm not nervous. I get so into it I don't notice anyone else."

Local musicians familiar with Priester's playing know why he's not nervous. He's too good to have to worry.

"I can just quite simply say that he has a gift that many people struggle to attain," said Bill Shivelbine, co-owner of the Cape Girardeau music store where Priester works part time. "They can attain it. It just takes them 20 or 30 years. And he's still going. That's the thing about it; he has the drive."

Priester is almost completely self-taught.

"I learned just basic chords at first, then I read a lot of books," he said after whipping out a Reinhardt lick, seemingly without effort. Ask him to play guitar and there's no hesitation, but words almost have to be pried out of him.

"He's certainly one of the humblest guitar players I've really seen of his age," said Shivelbine. Priester sells music equipment at Shivelbine's and gives lessons.

Shivelbine has had plenty of acquaintance with teenage guitar players who sometimes get big heads. If anyone could have a big head, it would be Priester. While some guitarists his age are doing well just to play simple three-chord punk and power rock, Priester is working on mastering jazz style.

But he doesn't act like a virtuoso. His playing space looks like the typical teenage guitar player's haven.

Guitar chords, pedals, vinyl albums and method books litter the room. His five guitars include a Stevie Ray Vaughan Fender Stratocaster.

When he plays the blues, it seems almost as if Priester is channeling the spirit of the late blues master Vaughan. His fingers fly all around the neck, scaling from the low to high end with ease.

His father, Kevin, knows his son's drive is unstoppable when it comes to guitar. "I've never personally seen anybody so single-minded about something," he said. "If he hears something he wants to learn to play, he'll play every note until he learns it all."

Priester took to guitar quickly when his father bought him his first six-string at age 11.

"Within a matter of a couple of weeks he could play several songs almost right away," Kevin Priester said. "I was actually pretty amazed."

But his abilities also come from hours and hours of practice and study -- sometimes up to 12 hours on a summer day.

Priester started out with the classic rock greats like Led Zeppelin and progressed to blues soloing. His desire for more complex material soon led him to jazz and fusion.

"The better I got, the more I discovered I wanted to play more complicated things," he said. He also plays guitar for his high school's jazz band.

Unlike most teenage guitar players, Priester doesn't front a rock band. His only experience playing out comes when he's invited to sit in with Shivelbine's co-workers Ken Keller and Scott Bierschwal.

Other musicians already know of the young virtuoso's prowess.

"'Awesome' doesn't begin to describe his ability to play," said John Thurman, who formerly fronted the local hard-core band This, Is a Virtue. "I walked in one day and I'd never seen him before. He was scaling all over the neck of this acoustic.

"I was like, 'Who is this guy?' I can't describe it. He is a prodigy."

335-6611, extension 182

How the contest works

Guitarmageddon is a contest for guitar players sponsored by the national music store chain Guitar Center.

This year's theme is "King of the Blues," with contestants showing off their prowess playing solo blues guitar. Contestants are judged by a panel on overall performance, technique, originality, stage presence and style skills.

There are four levels to the competition, ending with the national finals in June.

If Zach Priester wins in the April 26 district final (there are 20 districts in the United States), he will advance to the regional finals in Chicago on May 17.

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