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Confessions of a Talented & Gifted Dropout: 2000’s – How I Started Playing Guitar – The Red Harmony

Eric's red Harmony electric guitar (1998) (c. Eric Hepperle)
Eric’s red Harmony electric guitar (1998) (c. Eric Hepperle)

Good morning,I had a dream last night that recalled to mind some experiences I had around the second half of the first decade of our new Millennium regarding how I almost became a world-famous rock musician.

Ever since I was a wee toddler I had always gravitated toward guitars. I had a tiny plastic guitar about a foot or two long when I was no more than 2 years old, and there is a photo of me playing it somewhere. But, because I had lost my boldness due to being brought up by a abusive single parent, and because I learned from my Mom that the only way to get ahead in life was cheat, steal, and lie, and because I wasn’t willing to do that, I had never really had the money to buy anything I wanted growing up.

I would watch classic old black and white TV shows at my Great grandma Crow’s house. Shows like “Leave it to Beaver”, “My Three Sons”, and “Dennis the Menace”. Shows featuring kids who often received something called “allowance” from their TV parents. Allowance was essentially financial payment for doing good, used as a tool by middle-class white collar parents to train their children in correct and acceptable behavior.

But, I observed the gulf between the children on TV and myself as a young precocious child and noticed that I never received this mysterious payment called “allowance”, and thus that was why I never had money to buy anything for myself that I wanted. The exceptions were on birthdays and Christmas my mom’s mom, Grandma Rosie, would give me $5 in a birthday card.

The first time I had my own money was when I worked detasseling. Having lived in many different states across the country I’ve learned that in every region of the USA there is farmwork to be done in summers that leads to employment opportunities for teenagers to make some money during the summer.

In Alabama where I live now, the kids pick beans and cotton when school is out, to earn “extra cash”. It is called “extra” because most kids who do this work likely have two loving parents at home who provide most of their needs and possibly even an allowance, but at the very least, they provide the necessities.

Because we were on welfare and very poor (my mom would collect around $400 a month which was somehow supposed to last the whole month and feed her and three boys) having money to buy anything was a very scarce proposition.

As a side-note, my dad came back into my life when I was around 10 years old. He was working as a fireman at the time and sported a two-inch thick beard. I had no idea who he was until Mom told me. He was kind, smart, funny, strong and rode a motorcycle and I pretty much instantly liked him. This was around 1984-85. After a brief year living with him in Ames, Iowa where he was a janitor at Iowa State University (ISU) 1986, I moved back in with my mom in 1987. I would have been twelve. Then when I was 14 or 15 he had moved back to Waterloo and I was offered an opportunity to move in with him again during my high school years and I took it.

While living with Dad from 1990-1994, he tried to encourage my entrepreneurial spirit. One thing I remember was how had several businesses he started including renovating old 6-bedroom Victorian houses into “rooms-for-rent” where mostly older men, veterans with no close family, could rent a room to live and sleep in for $100 a month (most rentals costed around $400 minimum at that time). He had another business where he sold building materials that he formed with my cousin Tony on called “JR T’s” (pronounced “Junior Tees”).

The point is, he was industrial, entrepreneurial, and had that American go-getter spirit that makes America such a great country. One day I was complaining about not having any money and he came up with a business plan for me to make money on the spot. He basically explained to me how to start a lawnmowing and lawn-mower repair business. This was when I was 15. He showed me that all you had to do was look in the newspaper classified for somebody selling lawnmowers. Now, mind you this was in the days before the internet, before Craigslist, or even cell phones. The only way you knew that a private owner (as opposed to a business) had something for sale was by driving around and seeing a rummage sale sign, seeing something placed near the curb in the suburbs on the lawn with a “for sale” sign, or by seeing a “for sale” advertisement in the “Classified” section of your local newspaper.

So, in those days a good lawnmower (what ya’ll call a “push mower”, as opposed to a rider) would cost around $300. When a lawnmower stopped working, that was a lot of money you would be out. If the mower had an easy fix like a fouled spark plug or something, you could spend $3 and have a working lawnmower again. If a person knew the signs to look for, they could buy a non-working mower for $25, repair it, and sell it for $100 and make a hefty profit.

And I tried to follow that plan. I enjoyed learning about how 2-cycle engines worked, but I ran into too many problems with the first 3 lawn mowers I worked on that I soon gave up.

All that was to explain that though I was raised with a welfare mentality, my dad started to steer me in the direction of being an responsible bread-winner and entrepreneur, though it didn’t stick because the habit of victim-mentality was too engrained by that time. And I didn’t even realize there was anything wrong with thinking I was a victim. It seemed like the truth, and was definitely what I learned from my mom.

So, back to detasseling. I learned my first guitar chords while living with my dad. He taught me the intro riff to Smoke on the Water, the basic I-IV-V (1-4-5) blues boogie shuffle, and the intro to Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Within a month or two I was teaching myself Metallica’s “One”, my absolute favorite song at that time.

The first time Dad taught me my first chord (E5) I was hooked! I loved playing guitar. I was mystical. It was magical. It was pure joy!

But, the only guitar I had available was his, a hollow-body electric with violin-style S-holes and a starburst finish. It was not the kind of guitar that sounded great for heavy metal, though it was perfect for country and country rock.

It was obvious that I needed my own guitar.

So, that was actually my motivation to start detasseling in the summer. To earn the money to buy my first guitar. I was lazy and unaccustomed to hard farm work. But, as a Hepperle, the son of a U.S. marine, I was taught early on that Hepperle’s don’t quit when the going gets tough. “Always finish the mission”, Dad would say. So, as hard, difficult, and uncomfortable as I found the work to be, I saw it through to the end. I think I make around $300-500 — it wasn’t much. But, I had enough to go buy my first guitar.

One beneficial thing I learned from my mom and my aunt Glenda was how to shop for bargains. So, in September I remember going to a local pawn shop and after looking at a bunch of $200 used Fender, Ibanez, and Gibson guitars, I found a deal – $100 – on what seemed to me an off-brand stratocaster knock-off: Harmony. I negotiated and ended up paying $75 for my first guitar. A red Harmony and that guitar lasted many years before I outgrew it. That was around 1990.

That guitar was really my best friend for several years and that is how I first began playing guitar.



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