I’m getting back to the point where I want to dust off my acoustic guitar and get back into playing it. I’ve owned it for around five years, but my level of self-criticism towards my playing is so harsh that I end up leaving it in the case for far too long. While I can pick it up and teach myself a riff or two without much difficulty, I want to approach it from the perspective of a beginner. While I’ve played bass off and on since I was 16, my music theory knowledge has always been my weakness. If I gain some more knowledge about scales and chords other than discovery from playing by ear, I’ll be satisfied.
My thoughts about the instrument are taking me back to the point when my brother (the more-seasoned musician of the two of us) and I first took an interest in playing as teenagers. It’s natural that the first thing you want to do as a musician is learn songs from some of your favourite artists. We’d mostly just buy Guitar World magazine or go to a few select websites to find tablature, but every once in a while we’d find a video tape that had what we were looking for. Of all the instructional material we found back then, the videos that we seem to most-frequently look back at with fondness are those by Curt Mitchell.
You can’t look up guitar-related videos on Youtube without coming across enough instructional material to last a lifetime. You are so spoiled for choice that you may have a difficult time on deciding where to start. Guitarists didn’t have these wallet-friendly options available since video streaming wasn’t what it is today, and not everybody had a friend that could show them how to play “Black Dog” or “T.N.T.”. Guys like Curt Mitchell, one of the O.G.s of these play-through style videos, were all that some people knew. Thankfully, when we were first frequenting musical instrument stores, Curt Mitchell tapes were often a significant portion of the stock of video material, and it was just what a beginner-level player could hope for in a tape. Not too-theory-heavy, just how to play what you hear on the songs that you love.
Our disposable income wasn’t very high, so we’d often settle for second-hand purchases when it came to VHS tapes. That’s exactly how a copy of Curt Mitchell’s Guitar Method In the Style of Van Halen ended up in my brother’s possession. The funny thing is that we heard Van Halen through this tape before ever actually hearing Van Halen. Well, I probably had heard Van Halen, but never really knew it since unlike other rock giants like Jimi Hendrix or The Rolling Stones, neither of my parents listened to them. Edward Van Halen had the ring of a classical music composer to his name, and based on how various music publications described him, he was held in as high esteem as some of his classical influences.
It was a unique experience watching Curt approximate Eddie’s parts and tone, and he did a fantastic job on both ends. Curt seemed to have most if not all of Eddie’s gear, but emphasized that it is more in the technique than what you play through. It was interesting and rather mind-blowing hearing the licks and riffs outside of the contexts of the songs. Many of the licks were actually such a small part of their original songs, and hearing them isolated like this quickly got our curiousity working into overdrive. I bought a copy of the first Van Halen album soon after Alex bought the video, so we quickly caught on to the main parts he showed of “Ain’t Talking Bout Love”, their “You Really Got Me” cover, and the ultimate Eddie showcase, “Eruption”. As we went on to get copies of the likes of Van Halen II or Fair Warning, we’d delight in finding the riffs for the first time in their actual songs. And I finally grabbed a copy of Women and Children First this past week, so I’ll have a good time combing that record for more of the riffs that Curt first introduced to me.
Next, one of us acquired his Metallica tape. We may have co-owned that one actually, which is something I’m sure other twins can relate to doing when you either both want something bad enough or both your names are slapped onto the same present. This time, we were already familiar with Metallica’s albums before grabbing that video. We already knew how to play a good amount of Metallica’s material based on whatever tabs we could find, so we mostly wanted this one because we were impressed enough by his Van Halen video that we were curious about how this one would be. Once again, he’s got the technique and tone down fairly well. He takes some liberties in the material where it’s not quite the way they sound on the albums, but that could be where the “In the Style Of” portion of the titles comes from. I don’t know if any of the artists were eligible to get money from these tapes or if any of them really cared, so perhaps some differences kept him protected legally, but I haven’t looked too deeply into copyright law. There are also certain riffs he tackled that weren’t guitar parts, but were rather transcribed for guitar for instructional purposes. Knowing what I know now, the intro melody of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” is a bass part, but he shows it on guitar. A purist may scoff at the idea, but adapting any musical idea onto a different instrument is never a bad idea in my opinion. Besides, I thought that intro was guitar until I saw them play the song on yet another VHS tape, A Year and A Life in the Life of Metallica.
If you look at the above packaging from the Metallica VHS, you might notice that there is some slight false advertising. I can’t completely remember what songs or riffs were covered on the tape, but I am certain that nothing that came after their self-titled album was included. That means no “2 x 4” or “Devil’s Dance”, the latter of which was not released until 1997, one year after the copyright of the tape (though both songs were debuted live prior to their album appearances). I don’t know if other tapes had similar mistakes listed on them, but we weren’t complaining given we spent next to nothing on them. The description may have been lifted from an updated version of this video, and put on this one by mistake. As for the front of the boxes, I can’t help but wonder if the “Extreme Close-ups” is a Wayne’s World reference.
I had always wondered how a guy who could run through all these styles across all his videos, and execute them with such ease, was not in a band. He never really self-promoted through any of the footage that I ever watched back then or now, so I didn’t have an easy way of knowing. I’ve looked into it a little since then, and it turns out he was. Curt’s first band of note appears to be Razormaid, who released the album First Cutt in 1987. His next group, Bangalore Choir, got a bit more traction than the first. On top of being fronted by one-time Accept vocalist David Reece, Bangalore Choir worked with some big names in the studio to make their debut album On Target, with Max Norman (Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeth) producing as well as engineering along with James ‘Jimbo’ Barton (Rush, Queensrÿche). After an extended hiatus, they’ve released some material in the past decade, with 2012’s Metaphor being the most recent. In modern days, Curt has performed with a Nevada-based tribute band called 8 Track Maniacs, where he no doubt puts his instruction to great practice.
While I didn’t know anything about his music career, there were times within his videos where he’d get to express some creativity. In the intros of just about any of his instructional tapes I’ve discovered, he would craft sound-alike songs for the artist of focus. There are still days where I get those songs stuck in my head! The Van Halen video makes use of a composition of his own called “Tone Junkie”, which he’s discussed in other video content. The opening and closing of the Metallica video also features some rhythm tracks that sound quite faithful to the band. I’d describe the sound as a long-lost And Justice For All-era track with hints of Pantera thrown in, a band that Curt also made a video for as well as a tribute composition titled “Spaghetti Fist”. I e-mailed Curt and asked him if the Metallica intro music had a name, and he says he did not title it. I would have loved to hear that in context of a proper song. My brother also used to have a video where Curt shows how to play Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Crossfire” in its entirety, and it also had one of these intros. It was still cool, but it sounded nothing at all like SRV, closer to what I’d expect for Randy Rhoads or George Lynch. The song is actually “Just One Night” from Bangalore Choir, but with additional guitar embellishments. It seems that other copies of the Stevie Ray Vaughan tape have a blues-based intro.
These tapes are worth checking out to this day as a blast to the past about the way guitarists would often get their start. There appears to be variations on how they are titled, and select ones were re-released on DVD. Some tapes in the series are titled Learn to Burn or otherwise have his name as part of the title. Of the tapes my brother or myself never owned (and there are plenty!), here is an incomplete list of ones I haven’t mentioned: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Kiss, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Limp Bizkit, Pink Floyd, Creed, Tom Petty, The Beatles, The Who, AC/DC, The Allman Brothers, Korn, Brian Setzer, The Eagles, Santana, Rage Against The Machine, Legends of Blues Guitar, Aerosmith, Boston, Ozzy’s Hitmen (Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee, and Zakk Wylde), The Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews Band, and Greatest Metal Riffs of the ‘80s. He also had another series of VHS tapes called Fretboard Physics. Here’s one man’s critical opinion on that series, but look for more reviews by all means.
As some additional bonus material, some people who have never watched a Curt Mitchell video may be familiar with the following advertisement or know of others like it from guitar magazines. You’d likely see it in the mix alongside ads for Doug Marks’ Metal Method, Perfect Pitch, or other VHS instructional videos.
I’m tacking this on to the end here because I wasn’t sure if I’d find it before I finished writing about Curt Mitchell’s videos. I always found it odd that Fates Warning were thrown onto his Mosh Mania cassette since the name would make me think of thrash metal or punk and hardcore music. “Anarchy Divine” has some of that energy, but not “Through Different Eyes”. Nitpicking aside, he had plenty of material available to cover most of what was big in hard rock and metal for the time.
Does anybody else have some memories going through Curt Mitchell’s instructional material? I’ve never seen an audio cassette of his out in the wild, and I’ve never even seen one selling on eBay, so I wonder how different the experience would be.