I was born in Mackay, a small sugar cane farming town in Queensland. My father’s employment was based around the sugar industry and my mother was a well-known local jazz/blues singer. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing tunes from the old musicals and jazz standards. When I was about 13 years of age, my father brought home an old steel-string acoustic guitar that had been given to him by one of his workers. I was totally enraptured and the thing rarely left my hands. I’m sure my parents and the neighbourhood were relieved as I left my experimental science/invention years and flying saucer patrols behind!
During my high school years at Christian Brothers College, I played the bugle for the Army Cadets’ band, but guitar was always supreme. So in grade 10, I was given my first electric guitar, and like every ‘wanna-be’ teenage star without wheels, my parents would drive me to and from weekend gigs. I was listening to heavy prog rock/ blues: Led Zepelin, Focus, Genesis, Robin Trower, Hendrix and Clapton (all early influences).
By the time I was in my senior year at school, my brother Mark was playing bass and I was playing lead guitar (Fender Mustang) in bands such as The Confederates and Tapestry. We tried desperately to convert the good people of Mackay to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Santana (Blues Rock in other words). Unfortunately this was not really what folk wanted to hear at their country weddings and dances but it always was an enjoyable, if not frustrating struggle.
By 1975 I was playing in a show band with ex-professionals from overseas and interstate and dreaming of how to get out of town.
It was there that I learned about playing other styles like funk, and to read charts and back artists. At age 20 I got my first professional gig playing in the resident band on Lindeman Island in the Whitsundays. It was four sets, six nights a week, playing dinner music to rock and roll; days were spent sleeping or at the beach. By then I was comfortable playing just about any style of music convincingly. My live rig consisted of an acoustic 100 watt amp (with a horn), a Fender Strat (1961), a Hagstom Swede (Les Paul type), and a Gibson SG. I also had wah and distortion pedals.
In Brisbane I joined a touring band called Coventry, playing disco and funk exclusively. We got to Sydney where I was sacked – calamity! Home again to Mackay to lick my wounds, but not for long.
Once more in Sydney, I joined Snatch playing a punky batch of tunes. This was my first band with another guitarist; everything prior had been a power trio or with keyboards, so I began arranging for two guitars.
1980 was a pivotal year. I was 23 years old and playing a Gibson 335 through a Mesa Boogie amp (like everyone) and listening to Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Steve Morse, Al Di Meola and others. I used to hang out at The Basement and The Paradise Room (both jazz clubs in Sydney), where I saw fusion bands playing four and five nights a week.
I joined a touring rock band called The Azmatics and went on the road for ten months. From Sydney we toured through outback Queensland and into the Northern Territory to Darwin, doing school clinics and playing in all the regional city centres as well as every one-horse town and Aboriginal community from Doomadgee to Croker Island in Arnhem Land. At night after gigs, I would sit in my motel room (or swag) figuring out Carlton licks and working through my Berklee Series guitar books. In Darwin we supported Midnight Oil. The power and intensity of that band was stunning, and Peter Garrett on stage – utterly mesmerising. They flew in a sound engineer from Scandinavia just for that gig. It was the first time I had seen a flying consul in the sound and lighting booth; what an eye opener.
My playing improved exponentially that year and the band was doing a few of my originals. Another band we supported around then was The Angels. The secret to their live guitar sound? They would construct a massive wall of mostly speakerless Marshall cabinets purely for the look. Somewhere hidden behind would be a lone mic’d 50 watt Mesa Boogie amp.
In 1984 a gig came up that was too good to refuse, even though it meant leaving the touring band. I joined the cruise ship ‘Fairstar’ as a guitarist in a jazz quartet. So again I was off, sailing the South Pacific and playing seven nights a week from 6pm to 2am. Some of my originals were getting air time and I was also sight reading charts behind comedy acts, magicians, musical theme nights, jazz singers, and even Elvis impersonators. Some of the charts were great, beautifully written and professionally copied. Others were shocking – written on scraps of paper, drink coasters and quite often the artists wouldn’t know their tunes. Whenever I hear the Tribal Tech tune ‘Boat Gig’ I think of those days.
Two years later and I was starting to feel ‘played out’. Looking for a change of direction I auditioned for the new jazz program at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music and was successful, and so began my first academic study of the guitar and music after 10 years of professional playing. I majored in improvisation and arranging.
As with any major career decision, there were pros and cons: the study was wonderful and mind-opening and I got to lead a settled life (apartment, cat, cupboard, washing machine, and see more of my daughter Ann Marie), but there were touring opportunities in Sydney that I had to say no to.
After graduating I secured a job as a guitar teacher for a private college in Brisbane. The years 1987-1995 were a blur. I was teaching like a demon (70 students a week in every style from classical to jazz and heavy metal) and playing in Midas Touch, followed by Maiden Voyage, Alphabet, Test Pattern and other covers bands. Midas Touch was a regular support band for Rusty and The Ayres Rockettes which featured a young Keith Urban on lead guitar. I was always impressed with Keith’s work ethic. In addition to being a nice bloke, he would arrive early and very diligently go about attending to his sound and work station. Maiden Voyage was a brilliant covers band with a very good lead singer. We were a circuit band touring year-round in six week stints from Cairns to Lismore. We had Boom Crash Opera supporting us at The Playroom on the Gold Coast once and we also did gigs with Paul Kelly, The Machinations and others. In those days the circuit could make your career; there was only about 6-8 bands doing it, it was highly competitive.
I could see the music industry was changing. Every band and agent wanted to be the next big thing. Musicians were prepared to believe anything just to step out on a stage. The days of working hard and playing 5-6 nights a week for a reasonable wage were disappearing. I was happily teaching, writing and playing the occasional recording session and gig.
In 1996 despite my initial reservations, I joined an Elvis Presley show band which turned out to be a good decision as I met up with a talented bass player, Brad Wenham. For a few years I had been listening to Frank Gambale, Alan Holdsworth, and Scott Henderson and developing my interest in progressive rock and jazz fusion. Now, with Brad on bass and Scott Dean on drums, I was free to investigate this further – my fusion band INDABA took flight and I was composing again. INDABA’s first CD, ‘Something Serious’, was meant to be a demo to get work in Brisbane. However it jettisoned us beyond Brisbane to big gigs in Adelaide and Melbourne, airplay in Australia, Europe and the USA, with exceptional reviews from around the world. It also received distribution in Australia through Vorticity Music and in the USA through Abstract Logix Records.
However at that point in our lives we were all ill equipped to being in a band as big as INDABA was about to become. It was like staring into the sun or holding a hot coal – you blink / drop it – and we did. It was one of life’s many lessons.
INDABA taught me a lot about dealing with a marginalised musical genre. It also taught me there is a market for true art which goes beyond fads, celebrity and the cult of personality. Coinciding with this frenetic time in my life was the completion of a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology (UQ), black belt in karate, and a couple of overseas trips.
For the last ten or so years, in addition to being a contemporary guitar examiner for the AMEB, running workshops for the Academy of Music and the Guitar Exchange, my main music focus has been teaching through my business, Navigator Music. I like seeing people have a lightbulb moment, or leaving a lesson being able to do something they thought they’d never be able to do.
To anyone reading this biography – the music industry is a beast. Surviving even in its fringes is all about discipline and persistence. It’s about finding something you love to do and backing yourself all the way, knowing your boundaries and above all having the (clichéd) courage to follow your dreams. There will be mistakes and successes, highs and lows, fat years and lean years, good people and not-so-good people. It’s these invaluable life experiences that I draw on to underwrite the theory and the way I teach. If my hindsight can give my students better foresight then I am very glad!