For guitar teacher extraordinaire Andrew Lovato, it all started at the library.
When he was 12 years old, he was perusing the Santa Fe Public Library’s collection of vinyl when a name caught his eye: Howlin’ Wolf.
He checked the album out of the library and took it home to play. It was a life-changing experience for Lovato, who became a devotee and, later, a practitioner of blues guitar.
The Santa Fe Community College professor recently wrote “The Big Book of Blues Guitar: The History, the Greats – and How to Play,” which was published in late 2019 by Terra Nova Books of Santa Fe.
Along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most famous Chicago bluesmen of his day. “I had never heard anything like it before. It was intense guitar. I started checking out every blues album in the library and discovering all the different artists,” he said.
Lovato, 64, pays tribute to those artists with short profiles of what he calls the “Legends of Blues Guitar,” starting with Duane Allman and ending with T-Bone Walker. There are no fewer than three Kings in the lineup: Albert King, B.B. King and Freddie King.
Imagine if Howlin’ Wolf had gone by his original name: Chester Arthur Burnett. The course of Lovato’s life would certainly have been different, as would that of the 1,000 students he has taught to play guitar over the course of 35 years as a continuing education instructor at SFCC. He also teaches communication classes for matriculated students.
Of course, it wasn’t long after checking albums out of the library that Lovato had to try this blues stuff out for himself. He convinced his father to buy him a $30 Harmony steel guitar from a City Different store of yore called Music Via. Soon, he was trying to copy what he heard on the records.
The old saying goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” and so it was for Lovato. A man named Wally Graham lived nearby and became the future professor’s guitar instructor.
Lovato dedicated his book to his mentor, who died last year at age 79, thanking Graham for teaching him the “fine points of soul surfing.”
“He didn’t just teach me about the guitar,” said Lovato of Graham. “He would tell me what it means to be creative, what it means to be an artist. You have to do it 24 hours a day.”
Lovato used the money he made as a teenager bagging groceries at Kaune’s neighborhood store to pay Graham for lessons. “I wouldn’t pay him for a while, but then he would give me a hint, and say, “My kid needs milk and cereal,'” he said.
Growing up in Santa Fe in the 1960s was a wonderful experience, said Lovato, who attended a now-defunct school for ninth-graders called Mid-High before attending Santa Fe High School. “The Plaza was my territory,” Lovato said. “I used to hang around there all the time.”
His memories of life as a Santa Fe teen during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll inspired Lovato, who now lives in Tesuque, to write a book called “Elvis Romero and the Cosmic White Corvette,” which he describes as a collection of vignettes.
“I like it a lot. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with it,” Lovato said. “As much as I tried, I couldn’t write it in linear form like a typical book. At the beginning of each chapter, which is really a vignette, I do a little haiku to sum up the chapter.”
Loving music as much as he did, there was only one career path Lovato saw for himself after high school: being a disc jockey. He knocked on the door of KVSF 1260 AM, which was playing Top 40 music at the time, and talked himself into a job.
One night, the radio station owner’s son asked him to “take over the board.” Pretty soon, Lovato was working the graveyard shift. Then he moved up, presiding over the night shift from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“It was a great time for radio. Things weren’t formatted they way they are today,” he said.
Lovato chose “The Panda” as his radio moniker because there was a comic strip at the time called Andy the Panda.
But he then realized that, in order to make a living in radio, you have to go where the big markets are. “I loved Santa Fe. I didn’t want to leave,” he said.
He found himself studying at the College of Santa Fe after making a deal with his father, who was a teacher.
“He said, ‘If you write this paper for me, I’ll help you rebuild the engine in your VW van,” Lovato recalled.
Not a particularly auspicious start in academia, to be sure. But Lovato said that even though he hated high school, he loved college. “I loved hearing about philosophy and economics, Shakespeare and poetry,” he said.
After graduating from the College of Santa Fe, Lovato ended up working there, helping students do career planning. Then it was on to the University of New Mexico, first for a master’s degree in communications and then a Ph.D. in intercultural communications. Lovato’s dissertation was published by the University of New Mexico Press as “Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town.”
Asked to describe in a nutshell how that can be done, Lovato responded,”Authenticity.”
Lovato worked at the College of Santa Fe from 1983 until it closed in 2008, while teaching guitar on the side at SFCC.
Although he’s proven his academic bona fides with his doctorate and by being named a Fulbright scholar in 2008, Lovato’s writing style isn’t turgid in the least.
“So many guitar books are dry and inaccessible,” he said. “I wanted my book to be fun.”
Lovato said he tries to make his lessons fun, too.
“The approach I’ve developed after teaching all these years is to get something good coming out of their fingers as soon as possible. I’ve structured the book to reflect the way I teach. There are lots of diagrams and lots of narratives,” he said.
In addition to bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker and Lead Belly, Lovato is a fan of jazzman Miles Davis, the late Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye.
While some who grew up in the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll express disdain for rap and today’s brand of pop music, which relies heavily on sampling, Lovato’s musical tastes have expanded over the years. “I love listening to bands like Incubus and Nirvana. Music has to change because kids aren’t going to listen to their parents’ music,” he said.
But if they want to learn about their great-grandparents’ music and how to play some blues licks, they’ve got a good place to start in Lovato’s book.