'My schoolwork suffered greatly but my guitar playing got really good'

'My schoolwork suffered greatly but my guitar playing got really good' »Play Video
Brooks doesn't usually have music to read while playing; instead he often only brings a list of song names and sometimes not even that. He says he does not read music well but plays more by ear and memory. (Photo by Brandy Dominguez)

EUGENE, Ore. -- With no apparent effort, his fingers sweep across the guitar strings sending out notes that seem to come from three different guitars, as a bass line, chords and melody intertwine to form a single breathtaking tune.

Others call him a phenom, but 23-year-old Brooks Robertson does little to call attention to himself. Until he picks up a guitar.

He won the National Public Radio Prairie Home Companion talent competition for younger musicians from smaller towns when he was 14, beating out 500 other contestants. Six years later he received second place overall in the Yamaha Six String Theory Guitar Competition, an international event in Los Angeles, and he won the country category.  He is also one of the youngest players to endorse Godin Guitars.

Until he was 11, Brooks thought he was going to grow up to be a baseball player, but that was before he saw Buster B. Jones playing fingerstyle guitar at the first annual Nokie Edwards Festival near Eugene. Winner of the National Fingerpicking Championship in 1990, Jones was considered one of the best, ranked right next to Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed.

“By the time I left the concert I was a serious dedicated young student of the guitar,” Brooks says. “I wanted to play so bad, and that’s really all it took for me to realize that this is what I have been searching for and want to play.”

Brooks got to meet Jones a few times behind the stage and within a year Buster had taken him on as a student. They were almost inseparable from then on and after six months Jones starting bringing Brooks along to play beside him at concerts. Brooks was 12. 

“It kind of took over my life really,” Brooks says. “My schoolwork suffered greatly but my guitar playing got really good.”

He did not immediately adapt to life on a stage but over time he adjusted.
“Live shows are wonderful; I really like doing them,” Brooks says comfortably. “But when I first started playing live shows when I was 12 years old, I was terrified to get up on stage. Slowly as I got older, performing for more and more audiences with Buster, he would do a thing that I used to just hate. He would get up in the middle of our set and just walk off the stage and announce, ‘Here’s the Brooks Robertson show,’ and I was forced to talk to people and try to entertain.”

He remembers his first concert with Jones as being an interesting full circle, since it was at the same festival where he had first met his mentor: “There I am sitting right next to my hero, and the guy that inspired me to want to play. So it was a pretty great day for me. One of the best days there’s been.”

In the beginning Brooks molded himself after the top fingerstyle guitarists, learning their songs and techniques. Gradually he started creating his own sound and starting four or five years ago he has been writing some of his own tunes.  Yet it might not be considered “writing” since he plays more by ear than anything. Even in concerts he usually just has a list of song names before him, nothing more.

“I don’t read music very well, if any at all,” Brooks admits. “And as Chet Atkins used to say, ‘I don’t read enough music to hurt my picking.’”

Another unusual aspect of Brooks’ childhood—aside from playing live shows before he was even a teenager—is that he also started teaching Buster’s other students while still learning himself.

Now Brooks lives in Portland and teaches monthly clinics and weekly group and individual classes at Artichoke Music, a non-profit music community center. He also has Skype lessons with people from all around the country.

“I like teaching a lot,” Brooks says with a half-grin. “It’s made me a lot better guitar player.”

Buster B., his mentor, teacher and friend, passed away in February 2009, but that did not stop Brooks from continuing his meteoric rise.

“I got a lot of insight of things you wouldn’t normally get from your typical guitar teacher,” Brooks says. “I attribute what I’m doing now to what he did for me then.”

Buster called his student “the future of American fingerstyle guitar.”

“I’ve been playing now for about 12 or 13 years and the better I get, the more I realize that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to master this,” Brooks says. “I just want to be playing the best I can, and playing music that I love to play.”

The JAM Workshop — Journalism Arts Multimedia — is a brand new class taught at the University of Oregon’s School Of Journalism and Communication. Conceived by Prof. Tom Wheeler, the JAM Workshop brings together student writers, photographers and videographers to profile local artists — musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, art photographers, and more.