The Fur Peace Experience
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The first thing most people ask when I talk about the Fur Peace Ranch is 'what does the name mean?'. What it means, in the local vernacular, is that it's a "fur piece from anywhere". Located in southeast Ohio near Pomeroy the FPR is a little piece of heaven on earth. A guitar instructional camp run by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen it provides an incredible experience for anyone interested in playing guitar.

The first that I heard of Hot Tuna was the song Sea Child. I still remember the feeling like my spine had been plugged into a 220v outlet when the opening chords came across the radio waves. I then found the original albums, the live acoustic and electric albums. Although my musical taste ranged pretty wide, this was the first music that I can remember feeling driven to play as well as to listen to. Somehow though I never found the time or money to learn guitar. In January of 2002 I was given a beginner's electric guitar and amp by friends and I was determined to teach myself. I purchased the set of videos that Jorma has out for Homespun Video and set out to learn. Unfortunately since I was trying to learn the guitar as well as fingerpicking, I was concentrating more on the chords and the left-hand fingering and not so much on my right hand. Try as I might, I couldn't separate my thumb from what my other fingers were doing. I needed someone sitting with me to tell me "Yo, dummy, like this!".

Way back from last year I was planning on attending a session in '03. However, by the time our bonuses at work came through all the courses I was interested in taking were full up. So I resigned myself for signing up early for the '04 courses. On the brighter side I'd at least get another year of practice under my belt. In January of 2003 I finally purchased an acoustic guitar followed by a better electric. I found out that playing an acoustic was a lot harder than the electric and had to relearn a lot. Then one day in March, by some sort of miracle, I was browsing the web site and saw a course over Memorial Day weekend that hadn't been there before and had openings. Convinced it was a mistake, I called the ranch and found that there were in fact openings. I printed the application and had it and a check in the mail within minutes. I couldn't believe that I was actually going.

Now, I had only been playing the guitar since January of 2002, so I consider myself to be a beginner. It started to sink in that I was probably going to be the least experienced person in Jorma's fingerpicking class. As it turned out, there were a couple of other people with one to two years experience there and while there were also some very experienced (and talented) students, we all blended together fairly well and I never felt out of place.

From Metuchen, NJ, it took about 8 1/2 hours get to Pomeroy. I came out on Thursday and stayed at the nearby Meigs Motel. I began to get nervous when I started hearing the sounds of various guitars wafting from the rooms. They all sounded so much better than me.

Day 1:

Arriving at exactly 9:00am the next morning at the ranch, I appeared to be the second student there. I was trying not to let my excitement run away. Vanessa greeted me and began the check-in process on the porch of the kitchen. While this was going on G.E. Smith came to the door and introduced himself. After seeing him perform for so many years on SNL, it was absolutely amazing to be standing there chatting with him about the drive in (we both took the same, southern route). I think part of me was convinced that this was all a dream and that I'd come to any minute back in a meeting at work.

Vanessa then introduced me to John Hurlbut, the ranch manager. John showed me my cabin and gave me a tour of the grounds. Like everyone else at the ranch, John is very friendly and helpful and concerned with making everyone's stay as pleasant as possible. And, he turned out to be a great guitar player. More on that later.

After showing me around, John left me to unpack. After doing so, I began wandering around the grounds and checking things out. At the Fur Peace Station, the concert hall, Ralph Kylloe was setting up. Mike's blues class was being held here and Ralph was making his eleventh trip to the FPR for it. He's primarily a bass player and this class provided him with an opportunity to play with the rhythm guitar players. After talking a bit he said that when I was done if I wanted to grab my guitar and come over he'd jam with me. I should add that up until this point I had only ever played with another musician once. Needless to say I 'wandered' straight back to my cabin, collected my acoustic, and returned. While he was clearly a class (or two, or three...) higher than me in ability he never made me feel that it was beneath him to play with me. This was a quality I found present in all the instructors and students this weekend.

After a while we broke, and I wandered back to meet the others who had been arriving. It turned out that most of the 30 or so people that weekend were 'repeat offenders' back for another dose. G.E.'s electric class was setup in the 'old' concert hall and Jorma's class was to be held in the library.

At noon, we all gathered in the library for the introductions. Vanessa went over the rules and introduced the rest of the staff, the instructors were introduced and played a few songs, and the class folders were handed out. We also got what looked like backstage passes on tethers, which were a great idea. These were primarily for those weekends when there were public performances at the FPR Station, to let security know who the students were. There was no concert this weekend (an additional class was inserted instead) but they're a nice momento of the weekend.

I had met Jorma twice before, both in the previous summer. The first time I was 'stalking' him after his show at the Bottom Line to get an autograph and the second was after the J&R Jazzfest performance when he had a record signing session. Both times I found him very down to earth and sincere in what he was doing. Nevertheless, I found it somewhat unnerving to be in his presence.

After the orientation the conch sounded and we all headed over for lunch. Now, most accounts of people's experiences here mention the food a lot. I should say that I have very plain tastes to start out with and a restricted diet (for medical reasons) to boot. So, gourmet food is pretty much wasted on me and I won't be mentioning it much. However, to vouch for it, I can say that I never once heard anyone complain about the food and did hear much praise of it. Chef Mark was on the receiving end of much applause that weekend.

After lunch we began gathering our instruments and assembling in our various classrooms. Presently Jorma came in and sat down and talked a little about what he was going to teach. I was happy at first that the first song that we were going to learn was West Coast Blues. I had learned this ( I thought) from his video tape and thought that I'd benefit by knowing the song and not having to learn new chords as well as the fingerpicking thing. I had also purchased a Creative Labs Nomad IIc mp3 player, which would also record live voice with a built-in mic. The quality was not great, but with an additional 128 meg flashcard it would hold up to 16 hours of recording. Smaller than a pack of cigarettes it clipped to my belt and never needed to have the tape changed. I did find out that it did shut off when it reached the end of built-in memory and had to be restarted using the flash memory but I didn't lose too much when that happened. In my awe-struck state, however, several minutes of class did go by before I remembered to switch it on.

We went around the room and each of us introduced ourselves and played a little bit of anything that we knew to give Jorma an idea of where we were at. I played the first part of what I thought was West Coast Blues. Amazingly I remembered all the chords, though I think my leg was shaking as I had never played before more than two people and a cat before. Despite their experience, most of the others seemed as nervous as I felt. I have to say that for the first hour I found it difficult to focus. Part of me still couldn't believe that I was here and listening to someone who has been a musical hero to me for 30 some odd years. It wasn't till I began trying to play what Jorma was teaching that I really began to focus on things. I won't go into the lesson details, except to say that we started with the thumb, and built upon that. I found that my prior knowledge of the song was working against me in that my right hand wanted to go back to doing things the 'old' way. The 'new' way was also causing me some problems in coordinating my left hand, especially in the part where your pinky walks up the strings on the third fret into a G chord. Playing 'my way' I had the coordination down pat. Trying to play in time while keeping a 6-4 bass going was not easy. As we practiced it slowly began to sink in and each time a part was accomplished correctly it was a victory. I also began to appreciate the advantages in learning as part of a group. When we all played together it was easier to 'stay in the groove' and learn to recover from mistakes. 

In that first session I found Jorma to be an incredibly patient and understanding teacher. You can tell that he enjoys this, even teaching rank beginners. Jorma said that this didn't come easy for him and that he spent many hours of practice developing the techniques, and if it wasn't for the patience of his teachers that he wouldn't be where he is.

My digital recorder tells me that the first session ran for 2 hours and 36 minutes. I would have gone home after that a happy camper! Eventually the conch blew and we adjourned for dinner. Jorma and the other instructors tended to eat at the 'Captain's table' and I was hoping to work up the nerve to take a seat there. I chickened out, though and sat down outside at a table which quickly filled with fellow students. Meals were a great time to meet fellow campers and compare notes.

After dinner it was back to playing!  The evening's session ran a little over an hour. Since it had been raining off and on during the day there was no campfire that night. There was, however, a hot guitarist playing at a club in Pomeroy that night so a number of people headed out to catch the show. The rest of us practiced, explored the library, or just hung out on the porch. I hit the bed somewhere around midnight and went out like a light.
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