The Music Of My Life01 August 2015 Written by By Billy Burr
Published in July 2015 Articles
I was born in a Walnut Creek hospital on September 12, 1960 and raised in Concord.
I started simply as a musician but ended up following the musical track into my real profession, which is as a musical instrument repair-and-refurbish technician. I’m working at Antioch’s Music & More.
One day a sales person didn’t show up for work, so I learned how to use the cash register and began helping with the retail end of the business, as well. I now run the store when Russ Lanier, the co-owner and manager is absent.
My association with music began in seventh grade at Concord’s Loma Vista Intermediate. From the moment I held that acoustic guitar and struck that very first EM-11 (open strings) chord, I fell in love with the instrument and with the opportunities for creative expression that it provided. Music made me feel good and my guitar skills quickly advanced.
The acoustic guitar was limited so the next year, when I was 12, I traded my mini bike and my 10-speed for an amp and an electric guitar — a Japanese knock-off of a Stratocaster. The electric guitar was easier to play because the strings were thinner and it was easy to create sound at higher volume levels. You can’t make a very big sound on an acoustic guitar if you strike the strings with a piece of cement, but, when I cranked up the volume on that electric amp, I could create a satisfying wall of sound, at least in the confines of my bedroom.
MASTERING THE GUITAR
In eighth grade, I enrolled at Concord’s Oak Grove Intermediate and signed up for a class in Beginner Guitar. However, they said I was too advanced and actually got me enrolled as a member of the school’s Stage Band where we had a wonderful time playing covers of such musical greats as Stevie Wonder and Santana.
The next summer, as I was preparing to enter ninth grade at Ygnacio Valley High, I became serious about mastering the guitar. I taught myself to follow the chord progressions I heard on albums by the masters and learned to play along, note-for-note, with such musicians as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston, and ZZ Top.
They played the progressions too fast for me (or anybody) to be able to follow the details of what is happening, so I deconstructed each riff by playing the recordings at half-speed — 16 RPM rather than the normal 33. I could then figure out what the soloist’s fingers were doing on the shape of the guitar neck. I practiced at the lower speed until I had the progression down, then cranked the speed back to normal, and played at the right tempo and in the right key. I was 16 years old, had been playing the guitar for less than two years, but was now able to play “Free Bird” and other important guitar solos note-for-note.
When I got to school that fall, some of the accomplished guitarists who had known me the year before were amazed at my newfound skill. “How did you learn to play like this?” they asked. Each of them, of course, had learned the melodies and chords, but had never imagined actually performing the solos in the exact way that the original artists had played them. In fact, they suspected that I was perhaps only playing air guitar since I was so perfectly on top of the notes. They became convinced when I would lay the pattern down with the music turned off. I now have 30 videos on YouTube playing note-for-note. (Find it under Blazemanmusic.)
In 1984, I opened the MTV Basement Tape Winners’ show at the Concord Pavilion as lead vocalist and guitarist with a band called Vengeance. That was a long time ago, but I’m still having a good time playing at whatever jam nights and club scenes I can fit into my schedule.
FIGURING OUT HOW THINGS WORK AND GETTING THEM TO DO SO
As great as my fit seemed to be with music, while still in middle school I began to swing towards the profession that would really turn out to be my calling. In ninth grade, I took a class in Electronics. The teacher, Mr. Armstrong, was a cool guy who had decorated the sides of his glasses with little resisters. During that class, I discovered that I possessed a genuine gift for understanding how things work. I was especially able to easily comprehend the inner workings of an electronic device, and to grasp how the various components — both physical and electronic — worked together to make the device operate.
For a classroom assignment, I built a “fuzz box,” which is a circuit designed to impose gain distortion on digital sounds. When Mr. Armstrong saw my creation, he said to my fellow students, “Gather around class; I want you to see how it is done.” Then he hooked up an oscilloscope to demonstrate how my fuzz box was changing the character of the sine wave. I was a little embarrassed by all the attention. “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” they used to say, so I took my fuzz box home, hooked it to my guitar, and produced a transformed sound that I thought sounded just wonderful.
Mr. Armstrong taught some of the theory behind electronics, but I was dating a girl at that time whose dad had been involved in electronics in the military. The guy had a shelf full of textbooks and reference works that covered everything from underlying theorems to detailed analysis of how the technologies worked in practical applications. I consumed those books and learned how things really worked, but was never content to just color between the lines because every time I built something, I applied my own ideas about how the thing should be designed.
Before long, I was working at the level of an electronics professional. Give me a schematic and I could build anything. My first personal project was building from scratch a Vintage Fender Champ Amp. I built the chassis by fabricating a piece of sheet metal — bending it into the proper shape, and then cutting out holes for the tube sockets. I cannibalized most components from discarded products. More than just saving money, I believe that you get a richer sound from older components than you do from off-the-shelf products. The older parts no longer conform to the exact specified values. The variances serve to create special timbre, or musical tone qualities, which are warm and distinctive. In particular, I prefer the sound of tube amps. New products, of course, are digital, but electrons flying around in a gas vacuum create a special class of sound that is distinctive and compelling. I built my Fender Amp around three component tubes — a 5Y3 rectifier tube, a 6L6 power tube, and a 6SL7 pre-amp tube.
One of my next projects was a JTM-45 Marshall Schematic Tube Amp, which I also built from scratch on a solid state Peavey chassis. The piece worked fine and I took it with me whenever I played onstage. The amp worked too good, actually. The other band members were constantly asking me to turn it down, which was surprising since output was being channeled through a single 12-inch Celestion Speaker competing against Marshall half-stacks consisting of four twelve-speaker cabinets. Turning an amp down diminishes tone quality and bass response, so I figured out how to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater by designing and building an attenuator. The unit effectively reduced decibels in the output between the head and the speaker without losing the tube tone quality. As a result, there was no loss of tone when playing at reduced volume levels. You can buy these things off-the-shelf, but they are expensive, so I just made my own.
FIXING ANYTHING BUT A BROKEN HEART
Even though electronics was a passion, I have a gift for repairing equipment of any kind, whether “plugged” or “unplugged.” In 2004, John Glick, the owner of Antioch’s Music & More, gave me a job repairing trumpets. Before long, I was branching out to other instruments including flutes, saxophones, clarinets, and whatever other instrument was brought to us. I was repadding frayed valves and, in general, fixing whatever was broken or refurbishing whatever was worn. I began working directly with Tammy Levi, an Oakley teacher, repairing instruments at her O’Hara Park School. I soon added clients from the Brentwood School District. Gills Music, and Guitar Center began sending me keyboards and amplifiers, as well as instruments.
I’ve become the Go-To East County guy for music repair challenges — everything from a broken unit in an automobile to a broken guitar neck. I’m able to do all aspects of musical instrument repair — and do them efficiently to the point that my associates have jokingly suggested that we install a drive-through musical instrument repair service. Some people say that, “Billy can fix anything but a broken heart.” I also do upgrades and have installed a Floyd Rose Tremolo system on a stop tailpiece, which is the part of the guitar that anchors the strings. The tremolo lets the guitarist bend the strings up or down to produce special sound qualities. I installed the system from scratch,which was a big job that required precise routing in the body of the guitar.
I’ve been building electronic pieces on the side, as well, working with a brilliant technician named Brian Hunt. The two of us met long ago at DVC College. Brian is an electrician. We had fallen out of touch and hadn’t seen each other for years until one day he was fixing a utility box outside my apartment. Brian saw me and said, “Aren’t you Billy Burr?” One thing led to another and we ended up building commercial quality amps together. We built the first one, copying a design that we found in a book of amp schematics. I thought when I finished that I would have to make some adjustments to get it to work, but when I turned it on, the amp worked wonderfully. Brian and I are good together; we learn a lot from each other. I’m a confirmed bachelor but have been in the role of single dad raising my daughter since she was eight months old. Shyla is now 23 and apparently following in her dad’s footsteps. Like me, she plays guitar, sings, records, and writes music. She has a gift for repairing things, as well, and might take over my business someday.
I’m no philosopher but perhaps the Meaning Of Life is to just figure out what you are good at and then serve others with whatever abilities and skills the Good Lord gave you. At any rate, that’s what I’m doing. My life is filled with music on as many different levels as possible, it seems. Each level is good!