It was inevitable, more or less, that Alicia Gbur would at least play a musical instrument. The guitar, however, was her idea, and after performing in an acoustic teen duo with another girl, she recognized the importance of the guitar as a songwriting tool, so taught herself to play on a used Taylor 710.
“Both of my parents are music teachers, so I’ve been forced to play musical instruments regardless,” the Detroit native said, noting that she can also play piano, stand-up bass and violin. “I bought a used guitar one day and told myself I would learn how to play come hell or high water. It was good to learn on an acoustic because it’s so much harder to play than electric. Your fingers become torture victims but I pushed my way through it.
“I use it more as a tool for songwriting, and I basically learned to play for that reason alone. I do not count myself among the amazing guitar players. I’m a rhythm player and I use it to write. Plus it’s more portable than a piano to go out and about playing.”
Gbur said that she’s not a “major guitar nerd,” but when she finds a guitar that she likes the looks of, she changes pick-ups or whatever other modifications it takes to make it a sweet instrument.
“I currently play on an Eastwood Airline guitar, and it’s not a super-expensive guitar though I’ve had it slightly modified,” she said. “I also own a 79 custom Les Paul, but it’s so heavy I don’t lug it around. It doesn’t matter how cool your guitar is. You make it cool by how you choose to play it or what you do with it. Sometimes it starts with the guitar being fashionable. The color is the first thing that draws you. I’m a visually aesthetic person. Then maybe the history behind the guitar that I’m playing. And also you can wear guitar like fashion sometime. I had a 70s Fender Mustang, which was like a super-fun, fashionable guitar to play. It didn’t sound the greatest, but it looked really cool. People would say, Oh, it looks so cool with that racing stripe and I’d say, ‘Yeah, but it sounds like shit.’ It looks sweet, but… whatever.”
At the same time Gbur started cutting her musical chops with the bands The Nice Device and the Von Bondies, she also picked up a camera, first as an assistant to New York fashion photographer Paul Mobley, then as an art student at Wayne State University, taking a job as a commercial product photographer after graduation.
She took a break from photography to tour Europe and the East Coast with The Von Bondies, and when she returned pursued her passion for photographing people and ended up shooting stills for movie productions, and even served as producer for the reality series “The First 48,” and has since juggled the twin passions of photography and music, and when asked which one is her main career and which the sideline, she starts to say, “Music,” but can’t get the whole word out without equivocating.
“They’re pretty equal actually,” she said. “Free-lance work usually comes in waves anyway. It’s the feast or famine syndrome. It’s whatever comes along to keep me busy at that time. Both are draining jobs and they both keep me busy in different ways, so it’s nice to take a break from one to do the other. When you’re writing an album or touring, you’re in it. WIth photography, I do a lot of movies, so when I’m on a movie, that’s all I can do for five weeks straight is work on the movie.
“It’s tough to schedule all of that, but I’m totally ADD, so I’m all over the place anyway, so it doesn’t faze me too much.”
Two years ago, she met up with fellow Detroit guitarist Christian Doble and fell into an easy musical partnership and formed the band Fawn with drummer Matt Rickle, and released their first album, “Coastlines,” last month.
“It was actually a great melding. You’re always meeting people you like and say, ‘Yeah, we should form a band,’ or ‘Yeah, we should write some music,’ but it’s usually not easy,” she said. “It’s hard to find someone to click with, but it was the perfect timing for that. Our voices actually sound identical, which is bizarre, but it’s cool.”
But since both Gbur and Doble played guitar, she switched to playing bass.
“The hardest thing is singing and playing the bass because it’s a different rhythmic thing. It was easy to play in terms of playing it because I’d write in a single-note style because I’m a melody-driven person, but the difficult part was that we were doing a lot of harmony singing, and I’m sorta rhythmically challenged. So I’m like, ‘Bear with me, I’ll get there.’ And I did. But playing bass is also more fun in a way, maybe because I always admired the bass players in bands. They’re always the quiet hot ones.”
Gbur said the the best advice she can offer to up-and-coming guitar girls is to “embrace it, have fun with it and do it because you love to do it. If it’s not your thing, it’s not. Some people really get into it. Make sure you’re having fun. Bottom line.”
That, she said, is what keeps her coming back to music even when she’s immersed in her second career.
“I used to think that one would outdo the other or that I’d get tired of one, but when one goes on vacation for a while, it always ends up coming back. I don’t think either will ever be totally gone,” she said. “I’ll do it as long as its fun and we’re accomplishing things and if we stay lucrative with it. But if you burn out from the touring that’s a different story. I trust that I’ll just know. When that happens you can see it on your face.
“Being in a band is like having a serious relationship with three other people. Everyone knows everything about everyone and it can be a lot. I have to say that Fawn is the easiest band. It works and is stress free and I really hope it stays that way. Once you stop enjoying what you’re doing, please stop. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and go become a dentist.”
Photo credits: Alicia Gbur Photography
~ Richard O. Jones