By Matt Munoz
Bakersfield guitarist Ray Vargas believes in the power of rock 'n' roll.
Standing in front of a full class of bright-eyed future shredders during his after-school guitar class at Washington Middle School, he knows exactly how to hold their attention: keep it interesting, timely and avoid sounding too old.
It's a lesson learned 18 years ago as a beginning student of music, holding his bright, shiny axe with glistening strings. Vargas is eager to share his musical knowledge with his students, but there always seems to be one problem at every class: not enough guitars. To help his school of young rockers get going, Vargas has enlisted several local bands for "Band-Aid," a daylong benefit concert Saturday at B Ryder's.
Vargas' idea for the afterschool program came to him at the end of 2010, while working at Washington as a campus activities team leader for programs sponsored through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Bakersfield. Unable to get his vision off the ground due to lack of funds, he found an ally in site coordinator and Washington staffer Norma Berisha, who helped secure enough money to purchase a set of five new guitars. The following January, Vargas debuted his first guitar class to a group of 30 kids.
"She (Berisha) is really artistic and helped get things done," Vargas said. "She was always the one to say, 'We need more art for these kids.'"
Vargas' lack of instruments required that all students share in 10-minute intervals, which taught them patience. He said he modeled many of his techniques after the film "School of Rock," starring Jack Black. In the film, Black uses classic rock, not classical music during lessons. Instead of Andres Segovia, he uses Kurt Cobain and Rivers Cuomo as his foundation.
"I don't wanna sit here and bore them with music theory. I wanted to show them chords and scales they can use. When they call out 'Sweater Song' by Weezer, I say, 'OK, here's G, C, D.' From there I show them songs that relate within that structure. I try to tell them to focus on something that's going to get them somewhere. They have to practice, too. I don't believe in naturals. They may be inclined to have rhythm in their fingers, but you don't become Eddie Van Halen overnight."
Vargas described an example of how he demonstrates the seamless nature of many iconic rock songs.
"The first couple of weeks of class is just about chords. I'll show them basics like G, C, D mi, on the fretboard, and finger placement," he said. "I'll then show them that with G, C, F, you have 'La Bamba.'"
"You'll be surprised at the songs they want to learn, they want the real guitar jams," he added. "Turn the Page" by Bob Seger, "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns N' Roses" and "About a Girl" by Nirvana.
Vargas credits the popularity of videogames like "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" with introducing kids to most of the songs before they signed up for the 90-minute class.
"They all really like 'Wanted Dead or Alive' by Bon Jovi. Kids are even asking me if I like Slayer. I thought they'd wanna play Paramore."
To demonstrate to parents and teachers the significant progress of the students, Vargas introduced the class during a nighttime concert in front of parents and teachers. Playing the role of back-up band along with fellow musicians Kris Borbon on drums and Bryant Borbon on bass, he said the reaction was phenomenal.
"It's cool for them to see and experience. One of the things a lot of music teachers do is not teach kids how to be in a band: how to give cues, taking the lead, and about the camaraderie that comes with it. They love the big rock endings."
After a year of constant playing, Vargas said the wear and tear on the instruments is becoming more noticeable, but securing repair funds isn't easy.
"If the kids get passionate about something like this it could become something very positive in their lives. It's really important to support them."
What better way than with a mammoth rock spectacle? Saturday's line-up includes 12 acts from every genre and sub-genre currently making local heads bounce, rock and skank: Memoirs of a Blackened Sky, Less Weight for Atlas, Vlad Arthur, Nada Rasta, Crooked Folk, The Ease, Kenny Reeves and the Clones, With My Resent, The Easy In, Kelli Aparicio, The Aviators, Never See Death, Ticking Time Bombs, Kalladium, plus Vargas' band, Vanity Avenue.
In addition to the music, there will be a gear drive, where musicians are welcome to stop by and drop off any slightly used, working guitars, strings and accessories to be donated to the Washington Middle School Guitar Program.
"It's going to be a day of giving back to music and the arts, and a great way to see bands you haven't seen before. I'd like to get a total of at least five to six new guitars, plus a bass and drum set to form a complete student school band. That's my main goal."
Jazz fest lineup announced
The 26th annual Bakersfield Jazz Festival lineup has just been announced, with famed James Brown band saxophonist Maceo Parker headlining on Friday, May 11, along with Steve Cole and The R & B Bombers. Performing on the festival's entry stage will be local Latin rockers Velorio. On Saturday, former Tower of Power saxophonist and smooth jazzer Richard Elliot will cap off a day that also features pianist Amina Figarova, drummer Alphonse Mouzon, Cuban percussionist Melena, Ray Zepeda with Jamael Dana Dean, the Jim Scully 4tet, the Kern County Honor Jazz Band, plus the big fireworks display and more.
Friday's showtime is 7 p.m., and Saturday's show starts at 2 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Prices and packages vary with senior and student discounts available. For more information, visit Bakersfieldjazz.com or call Vallitix at 322-5200.