How My Guitar Hero Let Me Down

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 12/16/11 •  7 min read

This is a very different post than I normally write.  I debated for a long time about posting it, but I think there’s a really important lesson that we can all take something from – and hopefully this doesn’t make me come across as the disgruntled kid who thinks his favorite band sold out 🙂

Let’s start this with a little story…

When I was 17 I stumbled upon a guitarist who I could tell was destined to be great.  He was young, had some of the best guitar skills I’d ever seen, and actually wrote good songs (unlike some guitar virtuosos).

I was active on the message boards of his site and have probably turned hundreds of people on to his music over the years.

Back in the day, no one had ever heard of this guy (chances are you still haven’t).  I went to no less than half a dozen shows where there were less than 50 people in the audience – some of the best of my life.

There was one show in particular that I’ll always remember.  It was at a now defunct blues club in Salem, Oregon and it was a 21 and over show.  Being only 17 at the time, I had no idea how I was going to get in, but I knew I had to find a way.

One of the guys on the message boards happened to be good friends with Joe, and he got my on the guest list, which theoretically was supposed to allow me to bypass the age restrictions.

My dad, uncle and I drove the hour to go see the show, and sure enough I was on the list.  However as I was walking into the show, the hostess yelled and said, “sorry I forgot to check your ID.”


Long story short, the owner of the club, came out and said he was willing to risk his liquor license for the love of the blues and he wanted to see it instilled in a younger generation. So he put us in a corner booth directly in front of the stage out of site where no wandering OLCC officials would be able to see me.

Joe Bonamassa Portland, Oregon

Joe at the Roseland Grill playing for about 50 people in 2002

It was the show of a lifetime. Nearly a 2 and a half hour set, he played all my favorites and TORE it up.

After the show things got even better.  I got to hang out with my guitar hero for a good 20 minutes talking about guitars, touring and what it was like to be a child prodigy.

He was so impressed that I made the trip and found a way to get in to the show, that he even gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him the next day.  If I could make it up to Portland for his next show he said he would bring me back stage so I could watch from there, since it was also a 21 and over show.

Doesn’t get much cooler than that.

However unfortunately, that night would be the last night I ever got to see him in this type of venue.

Fast forward nearly a decade, with a few shows in between, and I went to go see him again last night.

Oh how things have changed.

Now instead of 20 person blues clubs, we were talking about a nearly sold out 2500 person theater. The tshirt and jeans have been traded in for an expensive suit, overly shined leather shoes, and sunglasses.

This was not the Joe I remembered.

Now instead of sitting 10 feet away for 10 bucks, I was sitting in the nosebleeds for $70.  Want orchestra seats? You’re looking at close to $100.

Now that is all fine and good, I couldn’t be happier to see the growth.  I remember being mad that people like NSYNC were selling out stadiums, while quite possibly one of the greatest guitarists ever was playing to barely more than my dad and I.

Now, before I go too far down the “I remember you when, and now I’m pissed because you sold out” route, I want to get to my point.

Last night Joe talked to the crowd for a grand total of about 90 seconds.  He made a brief mention of back in the days where he was only playing to 10 people (ie my dad and I), he mentioned how grateful he was, and then he said this:

“12 Albums, 134 songs, and you know how many hits I’ve had? Zero”

This really struck me.  While I wouldn’t say his music is mainstream per-say, some of it is certainly mainstream enough to have a couple of hits.

You know why he doesn’t have any hits? I’ll tell you, it’s not because of the music (which is as good as ever).

It’s because he forgot that it’s his audience and his fans who buy the music. 

As mentioned over the years I’ve probably turned hundreds of people on to Joe’s music.  He was more personal and genuine than almost anyone I’d seen in the early days – times have changed.

If you’d never seen Joe live before, last night would have blown you away – but I’d be willing to bet that most of the long term fans have been slightly disappointed with the direction he’s gone.

Obviously with greater status grows greater responsibility, and you can’t give every fan your phone number. But there is a lot you can do.

Talk to the crowd, tell stories, show why you’re grateful rather than just saying it.  Do something unique with your setlist, you used to play awesome Jimi Hendrix covers that were always a treat to see, and now he’s had the same ones in his setlist for the better part of 5 years.

Most importantly: Engage them on social media.

In the weeks leading up to last night’s show I sent Joe about half a dozen tweets with everything from “looking forward to the show” to “help me cross #81 off my bucket list“.

Not a single response.

In fact if you look at his stream, there were hardly any responses to anyone.  Now I understand, you’re a busy dude. You’re nothing short of a guitar god in some circles, but if Justin Timberlake and Ashton Kutcher can take a few minutes a day to respond to fans, I’m pretty sure you can too.

As someone who has supported this guy from the very, very beginning, to see the increased distance he’s placed between himself and his fans, the sunglasses on stage, to the lack of any personal communication, is a bit disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always love the guy.  I’ve listened to his music perhaps more than any other person in history.  He was always one of my inspirations to keep learning guitar, and I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity in the early days, but times have definitely changed.

So if you haven’t figured it out yet, what’s the point of this semi-tirade?

I don’t care who you are or how big you get, your success is a direct result of the fans or audience that put you there.  The more success you see, the more you should strive to give back to them.

There’s people that are probably reading this now who one day will be big time. Whether on a national scale, or perhaps just in their own small communities, regardless, don’t forget why you’re there. Don’t just express gratitude, show your gratitude.

And Joe, if for whatever reason you happen to see this, don’t hate me. I still have the utmost respect for you, and your music has helped to shape the last 10 years of my life. And one day I still hope to check off #81 on the ole’ bucket list 🙂

Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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