School of rock

Is Sid Lewis’ Acoustic College creating the future rockers of America?

STARPOWER Isaac Garrett (left, and inset) is the model student at Sid Lewis’ Acoustic College.Only 10-years old, he’s already writing and performing his own songs.

STARPOWER Isaac Garrett (left, and inset) is the model student at Sid Lewis’ Acoustic College.Only 10-years old, he’s already writing and performing his own songs.

Photo By Tom Angel

He’s known as The Thrasher. When he picks up the electric guitar he takes command of the stage with reckless improvisation, from heavy, crunchy riffs to Van Halenesque tapping, from speed runs to drop D-tuning growls. Diminutive and shaggy-haired, clad in an over-sized T-shirt and baggy jeans that might make a mother say, “You aren’t going out of the house in those, are you?,” he doesn’t just play—he shreds.

Stephen “The Thrasher” Vielbig can out-attitude all the rest.

“I play hard rock,” Vielbig emphasized. “It’s definitely not pop music!”

He’s right.

If you didn’t know it, you might never guess he’s only 11 years old and a sixth-grader at Hooker Oak Elementary School. Vielbig is one of a number of youths who study with local guitar teacher Sid Lewis at Lewis’ Acoustic College.

Like the formidable young musicians in last year’s hit movie School of Rock, Chico’s kid rockers have as their good fortune a devoted, inspiring teacher. Best known locally as the front man for several local rock and bluegrass bands over the past 20 years (Fire Monkey, Lewis Brothers, etc.), Lewis created his Acoustic College a little over a decade ago. Focusing on teaching students, no matter their experience level, how to play actual songs from the outset, Lewis has become a catalyst for more than a few blossoming artists.

Of his metalhead student, the intensely blue-eyed Lewis shared, “He’s written eight original songs now,” describing the young Vielbig as “a ball of energy.”

Vielbig said he has fun learning heavy-metal tunes from Lewis. “He’ll play some chords, then I’ll solo. Then I’ll play some chords, and he’ll solo.”

The confident youngster said his ability to interact with his audience comes from “not caring what other people think.”

But people who hear him likely think one thing: “Dude … awesome!

GRRRL POWER Christina Ulsh (left) and Tessa Love as The Electric Betties.

Courtesy Of Sid Lewis

A winner of multiple banjo and guitar competitions, Lewis says that while the rewards of teaching music are many, the pinnacle is seeing kids develop their own sounds and start to exercise—through original song-writing—their innate creativity.

“I also enjoy watching them build a sense of identity through music. I’ve seen kids come from a place of being an outcast to having a complete fan club through the self-confidence they found through playing an instrument. This is especially touching to me, as I come from a similar background.”

Thoroughly animated as he speaks about the guiding passion in his life, Lewis said music was his key into a world he could previously look into only through a small window. Coming to Chico around 1989, after moving out of the hippie school bus in which he had spent most of his childhood, Lewis began developing his own teaching method in the early ‘90s.

He came to music in the context of a home-schooling family, where the parents promoted the arts to Lewis and his five younger siblings. For a while, starting at age 15 on the banjo, he played in his family’s band in the Redding area. Before long, he taught himself the guitar and mandolin too.

Lewis now plays dobro and bass as well and teaches at least 40 students a week while frequently traveling out of the area to play at music festivals. He has also collaborated with the celebrated Joe Craven, of the David Grisman Quartet.

What’s his “secret” when it comes to drawing out the musician in kids? “I think most of the kids stay with my school simply because I manage to keep it fun,” he explained, relaxing in his Humboldt Avenue studio, surrounded by an impressive collection of stringed instruments. “The key is to never lose sight of the original spark of excitement and build a positive relationship with one’s musical instrument.”

Lewis emphasized he also sees the discipline kids acquire from studying with him transfer over to other aspects of their lives, and some of his students have amazed parents with scholastic improvements they’ve made as a result of the influence of music lessons.

Another tenet of Lewis’ teaching method is student-led curriculum, wherein the student picks the direction of his or her studies. In the world of teens and pre-teens, this means students bring in their favorite CDs, and Lewis then teaches them how to play the songs they want to perform. “I may not like the music someone wants to learn, but I support his right to learn it!”

This approach results in remarkable diversity among his students, and he creates many opportunities for students to perform before live audiences.

“These events are the antithesis of the stuffy recital,” he explained. “They are more like rock shows.”

With a stretching, toothy grin almost as wide as he is tall, Isaac Garrett is another of Lewis’ outstanding students. “He learned how to play guitar remarkably quickly,” Lewis remarked about Garrett, who starting learning at 7 or 8 and is now 10. “And it’s rare for kids his age to crank out new songs every week, which is exactly what he does.”

HOME ON THE RANGE 15-year old singer/ songwriter William Clenathan leans into his muse.

Courtesy Of Sid Lewis

Garrett, an aspiring Christian-rock singer, said he looks up to Steven Curtis Chapman, a popular Christian singer. He recently won a school district arts contest and will go on to perform in a state competition in the spring. “I’m never nervous to perform,” Garrett said, poised and polished as any adult performer. “I don’t get embarrassed.”

Lewis believes that Garrett—charming, bright-eyed, and offering a highly stylized R&B voice—has “true star potential,” and that his songs seem to spring from a place of sincerity not often seen. ‘Get this kid on Star Search! I mean, this is real stuff, not American Idol pre-chewed pap!” Lewis exclaimed.

Not to be outdone by their younger peers, Nels Ferre and Adrian Hammons, who go by the band name ‘Muff’n,” are actually ready to start playing local gigs. A junior and a sophomore, respectively, at Chico High School, both hail from musical families.

‘I play because school is stressful. Music feels good,” the blond and ruggedly handsome Hammons said. Ferre plays guitar while Hammons takes care of drums, bass, and piano, and the two describe their sound as ‘what would happen if the Bloodhound Gang and the Dead Kennedys ganged up to slaughter Johnny Cash and Tenacious D.”

Ferre, who has the sensitive and soulful face (as well as the creative attire) one might expect of an emerging songwriter, has played guitar for just a few years—but, says Lewis, he stands out as the Acoustic College’s most prolific songwriter, excelling in creative subject matter. ‘Any songwriter usually focuses on a certain area, but Ferre is all over the map,” Lewis explained, adding that as a songwriter he is simply ‘brilliant.”

The duo recently made a demo CD so Lewis can start booking them at parties and other events.

Also under Lewis’s tutelage are The Electric Betties, Christina Ulsh and Tessa Love, both 14 and freshmen at Chico High School. Although they’re looking for a bass player to fill out their band, Ulsh and Love (who remind some of The Indigo Girls) won’t allow the lack of one to hold them back. “We hope to get out of Chico someday!” Ulsh explained.

“Yeah—we want to get as far as we can get, while still having fun,” Love added.

Aptly named (they are both betties—sporting luxurious manes—and they rock out!) for now they have fun playing local events, such as Ulsh’s mom’s wedding reception. Love described, with the sort of well practiced ennui of an entertainment superstar, how she and Ulsh found performing before a live audience “nerve-wracking at first, but then we didn’t want to leave the stage!”

“Yeah,” Ulsh confirmed in her trademark understated manner. “It was pretty cool.”

Lewis said Ulsh and Love demonstrate the “fun side” of learning music, with their playful brand of “youth rock.”

The lone country rocker in Lewis’ group of students, William Clenathan, 15, says he’s grown immensely as a musician since commencing his studies. “Sid has taught me bluegrass—he has me jumping all over the neck,” explained Clenathan, a clean-cut, plaid-shirted home-schooled student who sometimes plays at his church in his hometown of Orland. He briefly pantomimed his new style of playing as he sat in Lewis’ studio, his husky physique consumed with “air guitar” as a country ballad played in his head.

Although he plays solo right now, “A band would be nice!” Clenathan cheerily remarked. Some of the country players he admires include Joe Nichols, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. “I don’t like the Dixie Chicks!” he said, still smiling as he shook his head.

“He’s the real deal," Lewis remarked, "working on a dairy by day and singing country ballads by night."