Amped On Music
story: Jim Dyar photo: Kara Stewart
MARVIN ALLEN’S PASSION FOR MUSIC
Marvin Allen remembers the exact moment he heard the sound that set his life’s course in motion. It was Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Allen, a fourth grader at the time, was riding in a car with his father on North Street in Anderson in front of Duffy’s Liquor Store.
“It rocked my world so hard I knew I was going to die if I didn’t learn how to do that,” Allen says.
He learned the Zeppelin solo and so many more. Allen, now 46, went on to pursue guitar as a living and has been pouring his love of music on the North State for more than 25 years as a performer, teacher and songwriter. As a 19-year-old in the early 1980s, he was the red-hot, rippin’ guitarist playing six nights a week at Doc’s in Redding and the Top Flight in Chico. His band at the time, Inside Straight, toured throughout the Pacific Northwest and Allen sealed his reputation as a scorching six-string sensation.
But it was also before age 20 that he started sharing his knowledge on the instrument as an instructor. Many hundreds of students have taken lessons from Allen over the past two and a half decades. Many have gone on to become well-known performers themselves, including Jeremy Edwardson of the Myriad and Abbey DeWald of The Ditty Bops.
He also co-founded the Shasta Blues Society in 1990, an organization that has hosted weekly performances and annual music festivals for nearly two decades. Three years ago, he organized a group of young guitarists called the Shasta Blues Kids and presented them as the opening act at the society’s Blues by the River Festival. He’ll do it again at this year’s 18th annual festival, which takes place Sept. 19 at Lake Redding Park.
“I’m really proud of it and happy to have been able to add something culturally to the area,” Allen says of the society. “To have everyone get together and share the joy of music - that’s what it’s all about.”
As a performer, Allen has entertained audiences in groups like True Blues, Earthbound, the Marvin Allen Band, Broadband, Wild Hair and the Rattlers. He’s collaborated on projects with a variety of songwriters, including Trisha Harris and Chase Gilwreath, and over the past 12 months has performed on the Cascade Theatre stage with three different acts: Wesley Jenson and the Wildcats, Kristene Mueller (opening for the Myriad) and the Jim Dyar Band (opening for Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women). He’s also performed on a variety of album projects over the years.
“You want to spend your life in a meaningful way doing something good for the right reasons,” he says. “I have no aspirations of being a star. I just want to be a good songwriter, teacher and to perform with all my heart. That’s my life path. I pretty much have been doing music all day every day for as long as I can remember.”
Despite his impressive guitar chops, Allen says less is often more when it comes to making good music.
“When you’re playing in a group, No. 1 it’s about the song,” Allen says. “Then after that, it’s how you create space for the other musicians and how you fill the space they create for you. More often than not, it’s about showing restraint. Magic happens when you tune into that.”
Though he’s performed hundreds of shows over the years, one memory that stands out is the 10-minute standing ovation he and the cast of “Tommy” received after the final performance of the rock opera at the Shasta College Theatre in 1991. Allen, the show’s music director, finished the production with a scorching solo, then lit his guitar on fire and smashed it to pieces a la Jimi Hendrix. Not typically a fan of smashing guitars, Allen allowed himself to obliterate the instrument for the sake of theater.
“It was pretty primal,” he says. “It was quite a moment that a lot of people won’t ever forget.”
Despite being so well-known on guitar, Allen’s first instrument was piano, which he still plays. His grandmother Maxine Self, herself a piano teacher, taught him at age 8. As a fourth grader, he picked up the guitar and started playing with his childhood friend, the late Darren Farris.
“I would walk five miles to Darren’s house with my guitar in my hand,” Allen says, his eyes misty thinking about the memory. “In sixth grade I was as serious about music as I am now.”
He spent two decades of his teaching career at Herreid Music, taught for three years at Bernie’s Guitar, and since 2008 has been teaching at Music Max in Palo Cedro. Music Max hosts monthly workshops and performances, in which Allen often plays a key role.
“My philosophy about teaching is that I have the greatest job in the world,” Marvin says. “I’m honored to share my love of music.”