Ryan McDonough dreams of being America's next guitar god.
And he thinks his big break could come next week. The Harford County teen will be one of eight finalists Saturday at Guitarmageddon in Los Angeles, the guitarist's version of American Idol. The tournament began in March with 3,000 contestants competing in Guitar Center stores nationally. The winner gets a new car and a gig as the opening act for Sum 41 - and a dose of invaluable exposure.
On a recent afternoon McDonough, 19, gave a demonstration of how he plans to take Guitarmageddon. He furiously strummed his Brian Moore custom guitar, head bowed, eyes focused on his dancing fingers. His attire was the standard uniform of the alternative rocker: jeans - they came pre-ripped at the knees - and a faded gray T-shirt.
"I don't have much of a stage presence, but I score really high in technique," he said in his parents' Jarrettsville living room.
McDonough is grasping for eternal fame in a specialty that has long fallen out of favor. The days when guitar giants such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton towered over the music world are gone. For proof, take a look at the current Billboard charts: pop stars Mariah Carey and Gwen Stefani and rapper 50 Cent are at the top.
"Someone like a Hendrix or a Clapton or a Jimmy Page not only had such a huge shadow over music but a huge shadow over culture as well," said Michael Molenda, editor in chief of Guitar Player magazine. "It's difficult right now, no matter how talented or Greek-god handsome, to kind of ascend to that level. People are more interested in Britney Spears or the Michael Jackson trial."
But guitar sales are climbing, Molenda said, proving that amateur guitarists are far from extinct.
McDonough, who attended North Harford High School before earning his GED at age 17, owns a $3,000 Brian Moore guitar, which can go from electric to acoustic with the switch of a plug. He's attended guitar workshops in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle.
McDonough became a fan of the electric guitar at age 8, by watching alternative-rock bands such as Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins on MTV.
"Even before I played I was obsessed with it - the sound you get out of it, the raw energy, the emotion," McDonough said.
After asking his parents for a guitar, he found a new one hidden in a closet in his home several days before Christmas. It was a $300 Washburn Lyon, and McDonough didn't bother to wait for Christmas to play it. His father came home from work one night and was surprised to hear an electric guitar playing in the house. He wasn't too mad.
He took a year of lessons, and by his teens he was rather good, playing up to three hours daily. Then, four years ago, he was fooling around with a guitar in Guitar Center in Towson when a salesman suggested he enter the store's national competition. He did, and the next year he advanced to the district finals in Atlanta.
This year, he won competitions in Fairfax, Va., and New York to get to the finals.
He already has earned recognition locally: He played a few minutes of airtime on radio station 98 Rock, and last week he was interviewed by Baltimore guitarist Tobias Hurwitz for the Web site Shred Planet, www.shredplanet.com.
Winning Guitarmageddon will require more than just mastery of the guitar. The contestants will be judged in several categories: originality, technique, style, skill, showmanship, stage presence and overall performance.
"Some players have the tendency to just play the guitar and stand there," said Kyle Rogers, Guitar Center's director of promotions development. "We're looking for the guitar players like Angus Young, like possibly a Jimi Hendrix. We're looking at those guitar players that are savvy, that has the ability to connect with the audience."
At the finals, McDonough hopes to impress the judges by playing a part of his riff with one hand. "I'm going to get right in front of them when I'm doing it, make 'em feel like I'm involved," he said.
Winning Guitarmageddon is no guarantee of stardom. Said Guitar Player's Molenda: "Have the Guitarmageddon winners previously gone on to a record deal, and we've put them on our cover? No. Have they been able to expand their outreach [on independent labels]? Absolutely.
"You have to take that notoriety and build on it," Molenda said. "You can't just disappear. Whether he's more comfortable as a solo artist or lead guitarist in a band, he just gets something that's commercial enough to put himself in the public eye, or uncommercial enough that it's so interesting that people want to hear him."
McDonough is the youngest of the eight finalists; the oldest is 42. He will follow his dream as far as it takes him.
"I don't have any girlfriends," he said. "This is all I do. These are my girls," he says, pointing to two guitars in his parents' living room.