GREENSBORO — Eric Gales is one of the best guitarists in the country.
With his dazzling fluidity and soaring creativity, he has long been touted as the heir apparent to Jimi Hendrix.
In fact, Gales performed at War Memorial Auditorium in March as part of the Experience Hendrix Tour, sharing the stage with such fellow hot shots as Buddy Guy, Jonny Lang and Robert Randolph.
The Memphis-born Gales was a child prodigy who began playing guitar at age 4. He first performed in public at age 11. He cut his debut album — “The Eric Gales Band,” released in 1991 on Elektra Records — at 16.
Now, he has nine studio albums, along with a recently released concert CD and DVD, simply titled “Live,” and a 2009 compilation disc called “Layin’ Down the Blues.” He also has made contributions to tribute CDs for artists such as Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Robert Johnson.Continue Reading
“He is a strong writer, singer and guitarist and an amazing performer,” says Mike Varney, who signed Gales to his Shrapnel label in 2006. “I was drawn in by his immense talent in all areas.”
In 2011, the British magazine “Guitarist” called Gales the best blues player of the year. Gales is currently on tour as Lauryn Hill’s guitarist. He also recorded with Elton John this year.
He even has endorsement deals with guitar and gear makers. Two-Rock Amplification makes an Eric Gales signature amplifier series, while E.W.S. markets a Brute Drive distortion pedal that bears his name. Magneto Guitars custom-built a guitar for him based on their Fender Stratocaster-inspired Sonnet model.
In short, the 38-year-old musician has made quite a mark on the world.
And, oh yeah, he now calls Greensboro home.
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Gales orders a cup of coffee at Tate Street Coffee House. The sleepy-eyed guitarist looks like he needs it, having flown in from a tour-closing date in San Francisco the night before. He initially appears wary — or perhaps he’s simply weary — but quickly warms up as he talks about his love of music and the woman from Greensboro he met and married earlier this year.
Last May, only a few months after his appearance here on the Hendrix tribute tour, Gales headlined the Carolina Blues Festival in downtown Greensboro. While playing, he spied LaDonna Chandler, a Greensboro native who drove city buses and directed her church’s music program, in the audience. He actually stopped the show to ask, “What’s your name?”
LaDonna had been given a ticket to the show as a birthday gift. Her parents had introduced her to blues at a young age. Although she’d never heard of Gales before, she says, “I instantly became a fan that day. I felt the music.”
Their meeting was something like love at first sight, and they got married two months later. Of his new home in Greensboro, Gales says, “I’m enjoying life and the new people I have in it.”
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Although Gales greatly admires Jimi Hendrix, he is no Hendrix clone, having carved out a niche for himself with an approach that includes elements of old-school blues and rock, the virtuosity of jazz fusion and an occasional nod to rap and hip-hop.
He says he was more influenced by guitarists who were influenced by Hendrix than Hendrix himself. He ticks off a list of musicians to whom he grew up listening. It is a broad cross-section that includes Cream, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Wes Montgomery, as well as later arrivals such as Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Gales even has a hip-hop alter ego, “Raw Dawg,” and has guest-rapped with Three 6 Mafia under that name.
He was tutored on guitar by his brother Eugene, who is 10 years his senior. Three of the Gales brothers — Eric, Eugene and Manual (who performed as Little Jimmy King) — learned to play guitar upside-down and left-handed, just like their grandfather, Dempsey Garret Sr. (who jammed with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf back in the day).
“Eugene was my mentor and still is, pretty much,” Gales says. “He gave me the right tools to take it on and carry the torch. All of my family helped me learn stuff, but Eugene was hands-on in showing me the do’s and don’ts. He was like, ‘If you learn this tonight, we’ll go get ice cream tomorrow.’ ”
“There’d be some pretty difficult pieces to learn, too. It wasn’t one particular kind of music, either. I think that was a big factor in me liking different kinds of music.”
His first show was at a Memphis music store named Amro’s, which sponsored a jam. Eugene said, “We’re going to try you out and see how you do in front of a crowd.”
“He wanted to know if I was gonna be nervous,” Gales recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m cool, man. I ain’t worried about nothin’.’ ” While he was playing, he saw Eugene giving him a thumbs-up from offstage. Gales’ show-stealing performance was widely reported in the local media.
That same cool-headedness extended to his appearance with Santana at Woodstock ’94 before a crowd of 350,000. Carlos Santana became another mentor to the young guitarist, adopting him as his godson.
“It was one of the highest experiences of my life to see so many people out there, and I’m onstage with someone who was at the original Woodstock,” marvels Gales.
As they played, five jet-fighter planes flew over the crowd, discharging a purple haze of smoke in tribute to Jimi Hendrix, who, like Santana, had performed at the 1969 Woodstock Festival.
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Despite such heady pinnacles, life hasn’t always been easy for Gales. He got involved with cocaine in his 20s and was busted a few times, serving a year in a Memphis correctional facility for a parole violation in 2009.
Between “Left Hand Brand,” a 1996 album that Eric made with brothers Eugene and Jimmy, and “Crystal Vision,” a 2006 release that inaugurated his ongoing relationship with Shrapnel Records, he put out just one album. “That’s What I Am” appeared on MCA’s Nightbird label, an imprint overseen by the Hendrix estate.
It was a bright spot in an otherwise fraught period for Gales, who periodically wrestled with the lure and rigors of street life. He called his decision to try cocaine “the worst decision I ever made in my life.”
He finally decided that for his own sobriety and survival he had to escape his hometown. That, he said, “was the best decision I made.”
He lived in Minneapolis for a few years. “It didn’t matter where I moved to," he said. "I just needed to get somewhere else.”
And then he met LaDonna.
“She was like, ‘Where is home?’ ” he remembers. “I said, ‘Nowhere, really. I’m on the road a lot.’ And she said, ‘Well, I have a home, and you can come here and see if you like it.’ Turns out that it wasn’t too shabby!”
He breaks into a big smile.
“Eric has started to focus more on the big picture and is making up for lost time,” says Mike Varney. “Everything he’s shot for these past couple of years he has attained, and he keeps raising his goals and reaching them. As long as he continues on the straight and narrow, I don’t think anything can stop him.”
Gales’ albums are full of candidly autobiographical songs — including “Transformation,” “A Change in Me” and “Freedom From My Demons” — that address his aspirations and challenges.
“They are musical pictures of experiences in my life,” Gale acknowledges.
And what does he hope that others might get out of them?
He gives a one-word answer: “Inspiration.”
Contact Parke Puterbaugh at email@example.com