Real-life guitar hero inspires youngsters
TAMPA - Who was Rich Eckhardt's favorite Beatle? George Harrison. He was one of the guitar greats. "I don't think people gave him enough credit," said Eckhardt, lead guitarist for country star Toby Keith. He was in Tampa on Friday to perform with Keith at the 1-800-Ask-Gary Amphitheatre at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Earlier Friday, Eckhardt rocked out for an hour with more than 30 guitar-playing students at Oak Grove Elementary School as they practiced chords and learned the basics, rock-style. He is among many professional musicians, including B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt, who volunteer with Little Kids Rock. The nonprofit group provides free music classes, donates instruments and teaches children and young adults through a music curriculum of rock, blues, hip-hop, country and other genres.Rock really draws the students in from the start, said Oak Grove teacher David Hendricks. "Once they learn about music they like, it expands and they learn there is this music out there and this music out there," Hendricks said. "I like stuff that's challenging," said 11-year-old Adam Perez, who is in his second year with Little Kids Rock. "Sometimes I forget chords and have to re-learn them." About 700 Oak Grove students are among thousands of Hillsborough County students who participate in the program, which came to Tampa more than two years ago. Nationally, the program is in more than 20 cities. Three workshops will be held to train teachers to use the music curriculum, said Melanie Faulkner, supervisor for elementary fine arts. Little Kids Rock has donated guitars and this year also will donate more than a dozen keyboards. "Funding for music is extremely limited," Faulkner said. "In partnership with this kind of program, there is funding that allows us to do what we wouldn't ordinarily be able to do." Eckhardt's visit was the second for Oak Grove. In 2009, the school received a free drum set delivered by drummer Carmine Appice, who has played with rock stars such as Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd and Ozzy Osbourne. Students peppered Eckhardt with questions. Ever played at the White House? Yes, for four presidents: Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Get nervous playing for, say, one million people in Philadelphia at a Live Aid Concert? Not really. It comes naturally after a dozen years with Keith and before that with performers such as Shania Twain, Aerosmith and Ted Nugent. But playing his own song for the Oak Grove music class, an instrumental written about his dogs, "Shelby and Puppy," that's different. "I was nervous doing it for you guys," Eckhardt said. Seeing professional musicians is a treat for the students, Hendricks said. "It kind of gets them inspired to go home and practice," he said. And how many hours does Eckhardt practice? Four to five hours a day, except when he's on stage constantly playing during tours. "When I was your age I'd practice all the time," he said. "My Mom would have to call me in to dinner three times."
Reporter Kathy Steele can be reached at (813) 259-7652.