Laura Chavez

Young woman plays the blues
A talk with Laura Chavez, an outstanding guitar slinger of tender years

By John Orr
January 30, 2004

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Laura Chavez traveled the same path to the blues as countless guitar players before her: hearing Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin blues-rock on the radio, then finding B.B. King and falling in love with the real deal.

The difference between her and most blues guitarists -- besides her being a cut or two above most club players -- is that she's only 21. ''Led Zepplin'' was released in 1969, 13 years before Chavez was born. Hendrix wowed the crowd at Monterey 15 years before she was born. And King? He was a hitmaker before Chavez' parents, Tony and Catherine, were born.

Laura ChavezBut here she is, all 5-foot-3 of her, pulling big, rich, sweet tones out of her Fender Stratocaster or her Gibson 335, pushing music through a 1964 Fender Super Reverb amp that is 18 years older than she is.

Those little tiny hands of hers reaching around the guitar neck Hendrix style, using her thumb more than her little finger, and wrestling with heavy gauge strings -- she says she likes a guitar that fights back -- Chavez plays with soul, depth and intensity that is rare among younger players.

''I don't want to force the music,'' she says of the way she plays, ''I've never been about seeing how many notes I can play per measure.''

Instead, Chavez lets the notes stretch out when that works best for the tune, with a style that reminds of B.B. King, the late Albert King, or South Bay greats Chris Cain and Michael Osborn.

''A lot of the music I listen to isn't guitar-based,'' Chavez says. ''I listen a lot to singers ... it's more melody based.''

Chavez has been a regular at JJ's Blues in San Jose since she was 18. She wasn't allowed near the bar and had to take her breaks outside the club. She is guitarist for the excellent Lara Price Band, which used to run the Tuesday jams, and now is striking out for bigger clubs and more lucrative gigs. Weekend shows at JJ's, maybe, and shows at clubs in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Monterey and other cities. The band recently completed a nationwide tour.

Chavez herself was one of three featured players at the 2004 Guitar Extravaganza January 30, 2004, at JJ's, the other two being club vets René Solis and John Wedemeyer. Solis' band, the Persuaders, backed all three. Solis is an excellent guitarist who has played just about every type of music ever heard from an electric guitar, and usually slings a Gibson 336; Wedemeyer is a magician with his 335, doing more with it than is dreamt of in most guitarist's philosophies, Horatio.

Chavez can be heard on ''Faces of the Blues,'' a fine album by the Lara Price Band for which she co-wrote (with Price) a majority of the tunes. Perhaps Chavez' best performance on that disc is ''Where ... When ... Why?'' -- which was recorded live. (To buy the CD, visit the web site for the Lara Price Band.)

At the Fog Bank in Santa Cruz Chavez is known as ''The girl who plays 'Little Wing,''' the Hendrix classic.

She started with classical guitar lessons when she was ''about 8,'' but ''couldn't stand the teacher. My feeling was that -- being a girl -- he wasn't sure I should be playing the guitar.''

But when she was 13 or 14, she hooked up with Greg Vaughn at Draper's Music in Palo Alto. Vaughn was willing to teach her to play the rock 'n' roll she was interested in at the time.

By the time she was at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, she was playing guitar in the jazz band, and also playing drums.

When she got into the blues, she started playing at the JJ's jams, hooked up with Lara Price, and now the two have one of the better blues bands working in the Bay Area. And Chavez is now teaching guitar herself at Draper's Music. ''The great thing about teaching,'' she says, is that her students get her to listen to all kinds of music that they want to play. ''There's not a single kind of music I don't listen to,'' she says, ''or that I don't like.''

And Chavez is still coming up against sexism, from fans who are surprised when the find the guitar player is a petite woman.

''People look at me and -- I always get the surprised looks -- 'What's this gonna be about?' I had one guy say, 'You're the guitar player? I'll try not to throw things at you.'''

But, after the shows, Chavez gets her props. ''It's nice to see people eat their words,'' she says.