When I was six months old, my folks moved us to Brentwood seeking a more kid-and-family-friendly environment. We lived on a three-acre almond grove off Lone Tree Way in the distant days when the area was still all fields and cast iron and wooden slats windmills of the kind that used wind-power to pump water for stock tanks.
The countryside provided a wonderful environment for a young boy. The life had a positive impact on my growing spirit. I spent my free time playing outside, working with our almond trees, and helping on our neighbor’s farm. I raised a lamb in 4-H. While in grade school, I developed a reputation as being good in sports — basketball, baseball, and football.
My life of music goes back to a moment in the fifth grade when I was visiting some family friends and saw a guitar sitting in the living room. It seemed a fascinating object. As I stared at it, carefully examining the strings, fingerboard, bridge, and other parts, I suddenly believed that I could play the instrument, if I had the chance. I shared my sudden insight with my folks. They discounted my impression, but I needed to get my hands on a guitar.
In 1968, my parents took me on a trip to Mexico, and I saw some guitars for sale. I begged the folks to buy one of them for me. They gave in and paid $8.00 for my first guitar. It was not a very good instrument but it had six strings and made music. The guitar was a lot of fun, and I quickly learned a few chords and began playing some songs. I couldn’t play it instantly, as I had imagined, but I turned out to have a musical gift including a natural sense of rhythm. The first song I played was my own composition — “The Robert Aguirre Blues.”
The music quickly consumed me. On some days I would spend eight hours playing — especially during the summer months. I began to feel more drawn towards music than to sports. A neighbor friend, Hugo, was learning to play the drums. We began jamming together and inspiring each other. Hugo had a piano in his garage. I was proud of picking out the same chords on the piano I had learned to play on the guitar. I wouldn’t recommend anybody learning to play by the method I used because I would simply watch people’s hands and then try to imitate them. Hugo and I collaborated on a lot of songs. We would play duets; he playing the piano; I the guitar. At other times, I would play Hugo’s drum set while he played his guitar, or I would play the piano while he played his drums.
When I moved up to middle school, the band teachers, Rod Pocock and Emil Geddes recognized my skill and acknowledged my passion. When I was in sixth grade, they had me play my “Robert Aguirre Blues” in front of the whole school body. It was my first public performance, and I felt that I had accomplished something. It was a proud moment playing in front of my fellow classmates. I especially enjoyed seeing the look of admiration in the eyes of “the big kids” — the 7th and 8th graders who didn’t commonly even notice sixth graders, let alone give them any credit or respect.
At the end of the first year, Rod told me to take the bass guitar and amplifier home for the summer; the bass became my instrument of choice. I spent most of my free time that summer practicing and returned the next year having mastered the instrument to the point that Rod, himself, invited me to join him on a gig at which he played keyboard with Jeff Gill (of Gill’s Music) playing drums.
I also began playing accompaniment for the Edna Hill chorus, which was a notable musical group with about 100 talented singers. I played bass, Rod the piano, with a third person — a drummer, Ron Lasater — rounding out the ensemble.
Emil Geddes is a gifted pianist and clarinetist with a passion for music similar to my own. That year, the two of us began a life-long friendship. Emil spent a lot of time with me, talking about music. The two of us would listen to the greats of that time — people like Carol King, Elton John, and (of course) The Beatles.
In the seventh grade, several of us started a band called Dirty Butter. It was nothing to speak of musically but we imagined we were great and were having a lot of fun. “Smoke on the Water” was our signature piece (just as it was with a hundred other Junior wanna be rock bands of the time). As an acoustic guitarist, I was originally prone to playing country, but my musical tastes expanded to match my growing skills. I added jazz to my repertoire of classic rock and learned to play harmonica. I continued writing original songs and began playing in several rock and blues bands. I was always the youngest performer in a group of what appeared to my young eyes to be seasoned musical veterans.
When in high school, I joined a band called Star Chaser that performed in the El Cerrito/ Berkeley area. We never did covers but always performed original playlists that included numbers contributed by the four of us. Star Chaser began playing an increasing number of clubs in Berkeley and Oakland, and I would sometimes get home at 4:30 in the morning and then four hours later show up for first period.
After Star Chasers shut down, I formed a local band called THC, which was the street name for tetrahydrocannabinol, the main ingredient in pot. I imagine some people came to hear us play because they knew what THC was.
Middle school ended and I enrolled in Liberty High where I performed for four years with their main band, Stage Band III. I was studying music and performance with the incredible Allen E. Jones who spent a lot of time training me in the serious business of music theory.
My home life was deteriorating at the same time my musical world was expanding. My parents divorced when I was in the eighth grade, which plunged me into despondency and depression that I attempted to offset with liquor, drugs, and other things that I won’t go into. One day Allen confronted me about my destructive behaviors. I tried to explain, “No one inspires me,” I said. Allen responded with a truth that was to remain strong in my spirit for the remainder of my life. “You need to inspire yourself, Robert.” The episode came to a memorable conclusion. “Come into the band room,” Allen said. “You are happy when you play music.” He was right.
That was the beginning of another lifelong friendship. Things started to change from that moment. Allen began working with me reading chords, learning music terminology, and mastering transcription. I would play an original composition for him, and Allen would say, “That’s good, Robert. Now write it down.” At the beginning, it seemed an impossible challenge, but Allen helped me figure it all out.
When I was 20 years old, I was feeling empty and looking for answers so I moved to South Lake Tahoe. I sat in with a couple bands playing in local clubs. Answers to life’s questions began to become clear for me when I joined a band called The Orchestra that performed at Glad Tidings Pentecostal Church. My folks had been nominal Catholics but stopped attending church following their divorce, so the positive spirit at Glad Tidings washed over me and lifted me up. Under the influence of the warm religious spirit in the Glad Tidings Church, I began writing a different kind of songs with themes that were only somewhat religious, but having a deeper spiritual meaning than my earlier pieces.
The Glad Tidings Church was itself changing. The religious music genre was being redesigned, and hymnbooks were being left in the pew racks during worship. Christian Music was beginning to take its place as a major genre influenced by artists like “The Eve of Destruction’s” Berry McGuire and Phil Keaggy, who Jimmy Hendrix called “the best guitarist in the world” and who Paul McCartney chose to play at his wedding.
I played in an instrumental trio that had an eclectic playlist including classical music and jazz. We would perform a Bach prelude straight up and come back with jazz improvisations on Bach’s musical themes. The music we performed fit into my own musical tastes, which had become vast including everything from Bach to Rock.
Chet Atkins was my greatest influence perhaps. He was the master, plus he was a gentleman and always conducted himself in a friendly and gracious manner. I appreciated his truly awesome technique and the huge range of styles that he was able to master. I actually had several encounters with Tommy Emmanuel, who was one of Chet’s sidemen, and who recorded an amazing album with Chet called, “The Day Finger-pickers Took Over the world.”
My current musical business includes teaching, performing, and especially recording — with a side business as a piano tuner. I’ve recently released a CD, “Dos Chihuahuas,” in which I not only play the lead guitar, but also perform the sidemen roles on percussion, bass, rhythm guitar, and vocals.
The life of an artist can be lonely and uncertain, sometimes. However, there isn’t anything better in life than to earn an income doing the very thing you would gladly do for free. I’ve found my gift and calling. Therefore, my role as a music professional isn’t a job. This is who I am; this is what God put me on earth to do — and ultimately to do it for His glory.