Guitar camp: serious workshops for would-be musicians

Bob Doherty, NBC Universal's vice president of broadcast operations, still goes to camp at 56.

His playground is the 120-acre Fur Peace Ranch in southeast Ohio, where guitarists of all stripes come to learn from masters such as Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna bandmates Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen.

Doherty was intimidated the first time he visited the Fur Peace guitar camp in 2000, but it has become a big part of his life. He's been there 32 times, more than any other student, and now plays mandolin, ukulele and lap steel guitar, as well as the folk variety.

"They're like family now, the students, the instructors, the staff," Doherty said. "I learn something new every time I go."

Fur Peace, opened by Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, in 1998, isn't a fantasy camp for fans who want to hang out with their rock heroes. It's an intense workshop for guitarists who want to improve their craft by working with some of the best in the business.

"These guys take music seriously," said Marjorie Thompson, a student turned instructor at Fur Peace who also oversees the undergraduate biology department at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "You leave your obligations at home and immerse yourself."

Students perform as well as learn at Fur Peace, whose $1,350 tuition covers all meals, workshops, cabin accommodations and concerts during their four-day visit. (You can stay outside the ranch on your own dime. I roomed at Ohio University Inn in Athens, about 10 miles away.)

Each Sunday, campers show off their stuff at the main concert hall, part of a complex that includes a dining room, two classrooms and a library decorated with posters of the Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and other 1960s musical icons.

One afternoon I heard songs ranging from Mason Williams's instrumental "Classical Gas" to the bluesy "Mustang Sally."

Joella Walker, who works for a financial adviser in Atlanta, played Hot Tuna's "A Little Faster" on her Fender bass guitar for an audience that included her tutor Casady. Casady, whose eyebrows arched and dipped along with the driving melody, was impressed with her performance.

"She did great," the 67-year-old bassist said.

"Secretly, I've always wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star," said Walker, 39, the only female student there during my visit.

Howard Monaghan, a public relations executive from New York who has been to the ranch six times, wasn't so smooth during his one and only time on stage.

"Just before I started, I lost it," the 49-year-old recalled. "My hands wouldn't work. I stumbled through and everybody came up after and said, 'You did a great job.' They're all supportive and non-competitive."

While I was there, Kaukonen gave advanced lessons in finger-picking in the library while next door former "Saturday Night Live" bandleader G.E. Smith was banging out electric guitar riffs.

Lester Levy, a mediator/arbitrator from San Francisco, brushes up on his guitar playing several times a year at Fur Peace. His daughter Jane, 21, an actress who stars on the ABC sitcom "Suburgatory," recently gave the place a plug during an appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

"He goes three times a year," she told Kimmel. "He's like a six-year-old about it!"

Fur Peace tries to match groups with similar skill and interest levels.

"We want everyone on the same page ability-wise, so we divide classes into four levels," Kaukonen, 70, said.

In addition to guitarists Kaukonen, Casady and Smith, the ranch features guest instructors such as mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff and singer/songwriter Chris Smither.

"I try to take one concept and hammer that in during the weekend," Casady said. "If a student's tone is tinny because he's hitting with the tips of his fingers, I tell him to use more meat on the string. At the end, he can walk away with one thing he can solidly work on."