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Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013

Lessons with Greg Vaughan, guitar wizard

San Diego musician and instructor takes a holistic approach to shredding

By Peter Holslin
smoking1 Greg Vaughan, aka The Wizard
- Photo by Peter Holslin

Greg Vaughan shreds like a motherfucker. A veteran San Diego guitarist nicknamed The Wizard, he has the skills of a kung-fu master, pulling off gnarly solos and heavy riffs with lethal precision.

But Vaughan, 42, knows the power of his weapon. Only in the right circumstances, he says, must a shredder attack with all his force.

“Music is a form of communication, so think about what you’re trying to communicate,” The Wizard counsels. “If you’re going to back up a gospel singer, you need to be strumming chords and backing up some amazing vocalist in that spirit. Don’t do anything inappropriate.”

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Vaughan pulls up a chair in a cozy practice room at his North Park home, which he’s dubbed the Temple of the Sacred String. A longtime guitar teacher, he’s spent 10 years working on his own teaching approach, funneling his wisdom into a book of lessons he’s working on, Way of the Sacred String. He’s given most of his techniques animal names: “Dragon Whips His Tail”; “The Crane Kick”; “The Seven Steps of the Slippery Penguin.”

With his custom-built, black-and-gold guitar, Vaughan shows me one particularly complex technique. It starts with “Baby Monkey,” a slow, seamless trip up and across the fret board. It then moves to Buddha Monkey, in which he goes faster and smoother. Then it’s Science Monkey, incorporating harmonies and new intervals. Then, Angry Monkey, an extended, high-speed run fit for a thrash-metal band. And finally, Escaped Mental-Patient Monkey— notes flying, fingers flailing across the fret board, the ultimate state of guitar-shredder awesomeness.

“You shouldn’t have to stop and think,” The Wizard says about this final Monkey stage. “You should just be able to fly and not play any wrong notes, ever. And you can go in any direction.”

Vaughan takes a holistic, philosophical approach to his teaching. It comes from his hero and mentor, Uli Jon Roth, guitarist for German hard-rock pioneers The Scorpions and founder of Sky Academy, a series of guitar seminars and concerts. Like Mr. Miyagi or Yoda, Roth extends his teachings into a personal realm. At Vaughan’s first Sky Academy seminar, Roth counseled Vaughan to harness his intense, almost overwhelming personality, which matched his playing style. To master one’s music, he learned, one must master oneself.

Vaughan doesn’t shred for his main gigs: He plays electric sitar and saz (a stringed folk instrument) in the belly-dance group Danyavaad & The Shimmy Sisters and does a Michael Stipe impression as frontman for the R.E.M. tribute band Murmur. But he’ll be shredding more soon: His newly reunited, Led Zeppelin-loving hard-rock band, Phantom Cargo, are playing with Roth at Brick by Brick on Sunday, Jan. 27, and they’re releasing a new album, Doorway to the Sky.

Though Phantom Cargo’s reunion is keeping him extra-busy, The Wizard needs to shred.

“For my sanity,” The Wizard says, “I need to get up, plug into a Marshall stack, rock out... and have fun.”

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.