Chase Fogleman strums the strings of his electric guitar, a long mane of wavy hair draping in front of his face as he sways to the sound.
He’s at ease as he plucks the notes to “Wagon Wheel,” expertly delivering a clean, straightforward sound. In the end, he loses to his opponent, Kyle Vessa, who offers up a more rock-and-roll version of the hit, garnering more points from the judges.
Both are competing in the first annual Leadsboro guitar competition hosted by the Tyler Millard Band at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on a recent Friday evening. A dozen competitors have shown up to mash their frets and prove they’ve got what it takes to take home the $300 first prize.
Dressed in a red flannel long-sleeve with a full-grown beard, Fogleman could pass as drinking age, when in fact he’s only 15.
“I stumbled across the event on the Facebook page,” Fogleman explains. “People tell me I’m pretty good, so I thought I’d come out.”
Fogleman made it to the quarterfinals of the competition, beating out players with significantly more years of experience, some who were more than twice his age. He says he’s only been playing for two years.
“I started on bass in middle school,” he says. “I play in my school’s jazz band. I’m big into jazz but the other side of me is rock.”
Just like Fogleman, the first annual lead guitar competition proved to be a pleasant surprise. Tyler Millard, the lead player in the band and the organizer behind the event, says the idea for the contest came naturally.
“When I first started music, I met mostly blues players,” Millard says. “The ability to play improvisational and to be able to play along with everything is big.”
He figured, Why not make that concept into a competition?
“There are more guitar players than anything else and it’s just the nature of the beast that guitar players — and I’m one of them — they want to show off,” he says. “That’s what the competition fosters. That kind of thing, the competitive nature.”
Millard says he hopes to make it an annual event.
After the qualifying round, in which the players picked songs from a predetermined list that was released a few months in advance, judges selected eight participants to move forward. Then, players went head to head, playing loops from randomly selected songs one after the other. After each contestant played, a panel of judges scored their performances based on speed, style, spirit of the song and creativity.
And on this night of guitar heroes, Hunter Routh comes out on top.
Wearing all black except for a white beanie and his silver electric guitar, Routh played uninhibited throughout the competition. At one point during the night, the 25-year-old covered his eyes with his right hand while furiously strumming with his left. A few seconds later, he was two-hand tapping the frets and playing the strings with his teeth, Hendrix style. In the finals, Routh battled it out with Vessa, lead guitarist for the band and thusly ineligible to win prize money. Still, Routh won over the judges after shredding to Tupac’s “California Love.” His hands moved rapidly up and down the neck of the guitar, so fast it was hard to believe that he was actually playing any notes as he grimaced and moved into the spotlight at the front of the stage. After his win, Routh explained how his love affair with guitar began.
“One day I was sitting in the Books-a-Million parking lot with my dad,” he says. “I heard a song come on the radio and I asked, ‘What’s that sound?,’ and he told me it was Van Halen and it was over.”