Guitarmageddon In Cleveland

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Bill Rice: On the third floor of the rock hall, all eight competitors tend to some least minute preparations for their upcoming performance. Michael Earhart is winner of the Guitarmageddon regional in Dallas. He runs through some acoustic progressions as a warm-up - stuff he won't be playing on stage, but that gets him into a groove. Earhart says he entered the contest initially as a lark.

Michael Earhart: I knew a lot of it would be kids playing rock and roll. And so I laughed when I signed my name up to it, knowing that I was going to bring my acoustic guitar, and here I am after winning the regional competition in Dallas I'm here at the National, and it's a great thrill and a real honor.

BR: Earhart is a working musician, but he's not signed to any established record label - that would disqualify him. That's about the only restriction, says contest promoter Andy Winston of Guitar Center, a national chain of stores that puts on the event. Any age goes, he says, as does any style, as long as you can blend with any one of a dozen or so prerecorded music tracks.

Andy Winston: The guitarists this year are playing to a backing track, as opposed to previous years when they just got up on stage and soloed by themselves. So the players have to play with melody, have to play within the context of the song rather than just rattling off whatever comes off the top of their head.

BR: An hour later daylight has faded outside the Hall of Fame's glass walls. A warm-up set by the New York band Soul Shake has primed the audience, and the competition is underway. John Craig of Chicago is the second contestant to take the stage.

John Craig: Originally I was doing a couple of other tracks in the first two rounds. I tried another track. I just didn't think I was getting my point across, you know, not enough time for some feel and a little emotion. So I switched to track 3 and it worked out really well for me.

BR: The players still get to cut loose on their own. Each gets about seven minutes to play - four or five with the backing track, and the rest as solo.

Most of these musicians can handle a number of different musical genres, and some take advantage of their solo stint to jump off the rock and roll trail and showcase their other interests. John Mason of Boston is a case in point.

Mason says he doesn't know for sure, but he suspects versatility is one of the qualities judges look for in these competitions. He may be right.

And the winner is... John Mason of Bostonnnnnn!!!

John Mason: Probably being able to switch from a blues-type thing right into classical helped. During the track I improvised the whole way because I wanted it to be spontaneous - for better or worse. The classical piece was all worked out. I was just hoping it showed a different side to put it over the top.

BR: Mason takes home more than just a little satisfaction. The grand prize is a brand new Ford Mustang GT convertible, along with a special edition Fender stratocaster guitar. Not bad for a weekend's work.

JM: I'm just astounded that it worked in my favor, there were so many great players I didn't even know if I had a chance.

BR: Out of a total crowd of about 500, only a handful have traveled in with the musicians - mostly family and friends. The rest were there due in large part to a closing set by the 80's rock band the Smithereens. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hopes to host more Guitarmageddon Grand finals in future years. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.

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