Confessions of an 80’s Guitar Shredder

I learned guitar in the 80’s. This was a time when guitar solos were fast, squealy and played by real men… dudes dressed as women that worshipped the devil and wore makeup (to quote the great comedian Bill Burr).

I was obsessed with the Steve Vai guitar duel in the classic movie Crossroads where actor Ralph Macchio (Karate Kid) out-plays the master. The movie is basically the guitarist version of the Karate Kid.

The end piece is a neo-classical shred fest, full of arpeggios and incredible picking. I spent ages trying to recreate it by ear from a tape recorder held up to the tv (no internet/tabs/youtube etc). I was quietly confident in my own ability to shred as I’d been playing for just over a year. Surely that was enough time to rise to guitar god status?

One morning the phone rang and it was for me… that usually never happened. It was a friend saying that the local radio station was running a competition for tickets to go and see Jeff Healey (Blind Blues guitar legend) during his international tour. I thought, “This is my big break”. I pretty much had the crossroads solo sounding… well… close enough. So I called them up and waited in a queue of random guitar players.

When my time came, I found myself live on radio talking to a couple of famous local dj’s. I was full of nerves, but I was sure that my adrenalized state would create an even better, and more precise (definitely faster) version of the crossroads song.

“Ok Mark…go for it!…”, the dj said. So I placed the phone next to the speaker (I didn’t have an actual guitar amp) and cranked the volume on my Strat copy with 12 month old strings to full, so it would make a fuzzy sound (no amp… or effects).

A small radio silence was shattered by the most agonizingly imperfect guitar playing ever to hit the radio waves… even worse than that guy from Oasis. My fingers froze then fumbled, time slowed down and I felt my body begin to heat up. I was only into the 3rd arpeggio…”God I’ve got a whole 3 minutes of this to go!!”. The dj’s felt the awkwardness and began to talk over my solo in an attempt to salvage the remainder of the audience.

After the mess was over, I grabbed the phone, hoping they never noticed that most of the notes I picked, my fingers weren’t actually ready for.

Then they spoke… I could hear the awkwardness through the plastic coiled phone I was holding to my ear. Even with all of their professionalism, I could tell they were struggling to comment favorably on what must have been a very difficult piece of New Zealand radio air time.

After I hung up the phone and the adrenaline had eased, I had this huge heavy feeling of disappointment and sadness… “This is what I live for…and I’m **** at it!”, was the general PG version of what was going through my mind.

I didn’t have good looks, wealthy parents, confidence, charm, charisma, jokes…and I hated golf. This was what I was banking on to lift me out of this sad little life and onto stardom or whatever… or at least the thing that would pay the bills.

Incidentally, the dude who won the tickets simply strummed out a basic blues and sang along to it (hint: keep it simple and always play within your ability).

After a few days of feeling lost, I got back into the guitar with a fevered passion. I never wanted to feel that “Heavy” feeling again. I read about the power of goal setting and I DID THE WORK! I played from the moment I got home from school until I went to bed. I know this for a fact because I kept a journal, logging every minute I spent practicing and playing guitar and what I was practicing. I clocked up between 3-9 hours everyday. I allocated time for scales and jamming, and even just ‘muck around’ time where I would just play along to my favorite tunes at full volume in my bedroom.

I hung out with my guitar playing buddies, watched music videos and concerts from Gary Moore and Yngwie Malmsteen. I played with the school rock band and any other band that would let me.

The thing is, I actually thrived on the focused and disciplined mindset that I had achieved. This was the journey, and it was actually really fun and exhilarating. Mate!! I’m playing guitar all day!! How tough is that? It beats the hell out of doing Maths or digging holes. Or stuck in a factory job having the life sucked from me.

Was it scary? Hell yeah! But I had no alternative in my mind… it was all or nothing and I believed the payoff would be worth it. I truly believed (and still do) that the time and energy I put into my craft will be payed back to me ten times over.

I was wrong on that last statement by the way… I was paid back, and I’m still being paid back for all the hours and hours… AND I think it’s WAY more than 10 times. And not just financially, but spiritually, physically, emotionally and on and on it goes.

We all suck when we start something new. We all wish we were better than we are at the moment. We must remember that we are better today than we were. And to enjoy the process of progress.

If you do the work, the rewards will come.


  1. thierry

    hi marks,
    Thanks for sharing your story. it is very inspiring.
    I am very glad to what your classes did to me, improving my playing skills since i have started following you.
    But it sometimes hard to stick on playing a strumming pattern for long as sometimes my arms loose focus or the plectrum starts moving a lot. But I am sure that it will get better but i still need some advises on it and how to strengthen my fretting fingers in order to move easily from playing cords to cords.
    thanks a lot for sharing all that and keep it up.
    be blessed..

  2. Richard Morgan

    Never heard of the film but enjoyed the clip. And the soul-baring.

    Got a question for you. I played the guitar a little at uni and I’m thinking of re-starting on the back of your course. But I’m a leftie in a right-handed world and I’m wondering if I should go left-handed or right-handed – used to play a right-handed, but I’ve been playing the piano for the last few years and I notice that my right hand is actually more fluid and relaxed than my left, curiously. I don’t know if it’s all that compensation we have to do as everything is for right-handed people, but it made me wonder if it wouldn’t be best to use the right for the frets and the left for plucking, which would mean a leftie guitar. Anyway, what’s your take on this?

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Hi Richard, I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule here. Of course, learning right-handed would mean your ‘strong’ hand is doing the fret business. There’s an advantage in this; mainly that you’ll pick up chords, scale patterns, and moving between the two, quicker than most righties. But guitar is about two hands working in unison, so we’re really only as good as the weakest link. Strumming and picking are perhaps even more critical. That’s where the rhythm and feel comes from. You can know all the chords and scales in the world, but if your strumming hand is weak then your whole sound will be weak. The guitarist with excellent strumming and picking skills can take 2 chords and make it sound like a symphony (I’m guessing that if he were at the symphony producing level, his fret hand skills would be quite good also). I think what ever you choose, you need to feel comfortable with it. That’s probably the most important factor. There’s a great article for lefties (written by a left-handed guitarist) here: It includes a great quote from Bruce Dickinson, who is the head of the Brighton Institute of Modern Music:

      “I’ve seen many lefties who play right handed and have difficulties later on because their picking/strumming hand is the less sensitive and controlled of the two. Typically, if they are fully left handed, their sense of rhythm in the right hand will be less developed or just unmanageable. This problem, which does not build up until later along the learning curve, can be an insurmountable obstacle. This is why I don’t recommend that left handers learn to play right handed unless they feel very comfortable with it.”

      I hope this helps.

  3. Peter Dalton

    Great movie, I wish I could play like that but having fun learning anyway. i am about a year in and enjoying the learning curve immensely.
    Thanks for a great course!

  4. June

    I find your last paragraph very encouraging as I am “sucking” at the moment learning a new technique.

  5. James Manship

    Hi Mark thanks for sharing this, can’t believe I’ve never seen this movie but I will now. Coincidentally this is the year for 80’s bands coming here to Ottawa. Have tix for John Corabi next Friday, then it’s Jake E. Lee, Def leppard, Mike Tramp, Motley Crue (Alice Cooper opens), and AC/DC. There may be more will see… you make it fun and inspiring to practice thanks for that too!

    1. Mark McKenzie Post author

      Thanks James. You’re spoiled for choice there mate! I’m jealous hehe. Enjoy the Corabi show.

  6. Dennis Ansell

    Hey Mark thanks for sharing this, life has a funny way of changing your prospective, I was a fan of Karate Kid it’s a pretty old movie now but it had an influence on me and I guess you too with regards to finally being a winner against mounting odds. Didn’t know Ralph Macchio was so talented I presume he was playing in this clip, so I have a confession, I own 2 early Gibson les pauls and a Gibson EDS I got in Japan as I always wanted to play Hotel Cal. and a trusty old Session electric I use to practice on, cant really play any off them yet but I can get a tune out of my Ukelele as the frets are easier, problem is I have reached 3 score and 10 and the fingers don’t stretch like they used too.

    So I confess to have left it a little late in life to learn the Guitar but I want to get some sort of coherent noise out of this EDS before I drift away into the blue yonder lol.

    I don’t want to feel any pressure Mark but you are my only hope hahaha.. I am finding your approach very helpful but can you tell me how to spread my damn fingers please.

    Thank you for sharing your skills, great tuition and understanding, I am maybe the oldest student in here 🙂
    Keep up the good work.

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