Adam Terrell - a legend among legends



When I turned 18 years old, my Aunt Anne gave me her gorgeous Takamine acoustic as a present. It was my first guitar. The only catch was, I couldn't actually play. I knew where to go for help. I grabbed that guitar and made a beeline for my friend Adam Terrell. He became my first teacher. Instead of cash, I paid him with Grateful Dead tickets for Saratoga Springs, New York in June 1988.

An insightful, patient, and inspiring teacher, Adam made the guitar come alive for me. Without him, I wouldn't play. It's really that simple. And I'm not the only one. Most of the wannabe guitar players in Durham, New Hampshire at that time, owe a lot to Adam's enthusiasm and skill. He's ignited the rockets of many a player.

Adam's most soaring contribution, though, is the sheer joy he brings to his playing. For the past several years he's toured the country with Reid Genauer and Assembly of Dust. Along the way he's bumped heads and traded riffs with living legends of American popular music. (Dickey Betts, Levon Helm, Edie Brickel to name just a few). Which is great. But one thing I know about my old friend and teacher, he ain't no name dropper. He just wants to jam. If you've got your axe, and half a brain cell, he'll have a go. In my book, that makes him a legend every bit as legitimate as anyone he's ever shared a stage with.

I want you to read what Adam wrote in response to my question about his inspiration. It'll give you a great feeling for the man. And please, for the love of God, check out the YouTube clip below. Pay particular attention to Adam's lead guitar playing around the seven minute mark.

Here are his thoughts kids. Thank you Adam Terrell. You are the best.

This is a great question, and one I haven't really thought about before.
I'm not sure I can narrow it down to a single moment. It was a slower process for me and after giving it some thought I can identify three moments that were instrumental (har har) in leading me to where I am now.

The first was when Steve Denson forced me to sing for him during my freshman (maybe sophomore?) year at ORHS. I had always hummed quietly to myself but I was completely mortified by the thought of singing in front of someone else. I have no idea why he decided to make me do it but he broke me down and I found myself at the piano in the music room one afternoon singing for him. He was major pressure, just gently getting me to try a little more, a little louder, encouraging me the whole time and building my confidence. After that session he told me I was a natural singer and said I should join the chorus. I had never been good at much of anything up to that point so this was a HUGE confidence booster for me. I joined the chorus the next day.

The next was also a Steve Denson moment, indirectly anyway. Shortly after I joined the chorus we started working on a Beethoven piece. Unfortunately I don't remember what it was at this point and I'm not sure how to find out. I'll have to dig through all of his choral works someday and see if I can find it. Anyway, there was one section which, once the chorus had learned the parts and practiced it a bit, was so beautiful that I couldn't even get through it without getting a lump in my throat. I had never experienced music on this emotional level. I couldn't wait for the section to arrive, but I also feared it in a way because looking around me I noticed that nobody else was having the same reaction, and I was afraid I would break into tears in front of everyone. It was incredibly intense and it marks the moment when I realized how powerful a piece of music could be. Up to that point music had always been somewhat of a background kind of thing. More entertainment than anything. That piece of music changed everything for me. I don't know if we were singing it very well or not (probably not!), but that didn't matter. The experience was undeniable.

The other moment, and possibly the most influential moment, was when I discovered improvisation. This came as a direct result of my love affair with the Grateful Dead. This "moment" was not really a single point in time but a gradual realization of what was going on. I knew that they improvised and that sparked my interest. Up until I discovered them I had no idea that musicians would sometimes make it up as they went along. I always thought music was something you read from a sheet of paper like a book, always telling the same story. This was a HEAVY realization for me. "Wait. You mean they're actually MAKING THIS UP AS THEY GO?!"

I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me, and during my teenage years this was in full force. Improvisation was the musical equivalent of "fuck off and don't tell me what to do". It was a healthy way of rebelling, of discovering and asserting my own identity, and I could do it without getting in trouble. I spent hours listening to the Dead and trying to decipher by ear what they were doing. There were no TABS to download from the internet, no YouTube with video lessons. It was press play, experiment, rewind, press play, experiment, rewind. For hours at a time. What a great education! Being a guitar teacher, I find it sad that kids don't have to do that anymore. It's handed to them on a platter these days, and their ear-training is suffering for it. I do my best to encourage them to listen and figure it out on their own but the lure of the internet and its vast assortment of ANSWERS is too strong for most of them. I suppose I would be doing the same thing if I were a teenager today, but I digress. At the time it was like a secret code I was trying to decipher and I was fascinated. I still am, but now I'm focused on trying to crack the jazz code and I suspect I will continue trying for the rest of my life.

I guess if I were to pinpoint a moment where I really saw the power of improvisation, it was during a trip to Florida with my family. We drove down, Ralf and I were in the back seats of my dad's minivan, and I had my headphones on listening to Europe '72. China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that the Dead jammed a lot, but I guess I had never heard them seamlessly transition from one song to the next. It seemed like magic at the time. I must have listened to it 10 or 15 times during that trip. The jam on Truckin' was also incredibly influential and I still think it's a work of freaky genius. That Europe '72 cassette pretty much lived in my tape deck for the next year.

From that moment on, collective improvisation was the most fascinating and surreal type of music to me. It remains that way to this day. In the grand scheme of things the Grateful Dead's improvisations are relatively simple. Still, there's an underlying complexity to X factor type of thing. I can still listen to them and be greatly moved, that is tempered by the fact that I can now see them for what they were: a group of out of control musical freaks on an endless party which ultimately served, and destroyed, their music. Jerry was only 45 when I saw him play for the first time. At 40 years of age, that simply blows my mind. He seemed so OLD. My fascination with them led me to jazz and other forms of improvised music and the learning continues. For that I am thankful.