Mind-Expanding Guitar

By Glen Starkey - 1997

It'd be easy to pigeonhole 16-year-old Corby Yates as some sort of musical savant, a guitar "freak" of interest only because of his young age. But the Shaver Lake area high-schooler is much more than a mechanical prodigy capable of pyrotechnics sans soul. He plays with all the guts and instinct of a veteran performer. Close your eyes and he'll take you to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix land; open your eyes and you simply won't believe that so much pure emotional energy can be expressed by so young a fellow.

Corby, young as he is, is the real thing. His father plays bass in Corby's band, and the elder Yates weaned the young guitarist on blues rock.

"When I was a kid," explained Corby's dad, Jim, "I had a love for music, too. I played in bands and whatnot, but eventually went on to do other things with my life. Then Corby came along. I'd play a little bit for him. Pretty soon I'd show him a lick or two, and he'd come back the next day with 20 variations on it. I was like, 'Wow!' Here was the guitarist of my own dreams and it was my own son."

Corby remembers that as early as age 3 he wanted to be a guitarist: "I remember my dad playing [the Deep Purple classic] 'Smoke on the Water' to me and I'd say 'smoke on the water, smoke on the water.' I loved that song. My dad tried to teach me some things when I was younger, but it wasn't until I was 6 that I started to get serious about it. Dad would teach me a little and I just practiced."

What makes young Corby such a phenomenon is not his technical prowess, which is nonetheless prodigious, but rather the emotional intensity of his performance. Off stage, Corby is a polite, gentle young man, but on stage he turns into a ferocious guitar demon evoking emotions usually reserved for much more seasoned performers. It's as if he's channeling all that youthful testosterone and adolescent anger into his guitar. The results can be breathtaking.

"It just comes from inside," said Corby. "I get this really pumped-up feeling. It's not sad like the blues. I'm happy up there."

Even though Corby isn't "sad like the blues," he certainly is influenced by blues artists. He said he likes "lots of the old dead blues guys like Albert King --all the Kings -- Buddy Guy, any of those guys with their own cool style of playing. I also like the way Jimi [Hendrix] and Stevie Ray Vaughan' took what those guys did and made it their own. Now I'm taking what Jimi and Stevie did and making it my own, too."

Corby's ability to affect Jimi Hendrix like emotion and pyrotechnics is now legendary. In January he won the 17-and-under category of the Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Competition and Festival organized by the Jimi Hendrix Foundation. During the festival Corby stunned the crowd when he jammed with former Band of Gypsies members Buddy Miles and Billy Cox. Jimi's dad, Al Hendrix, presented the young guitarist with "The Voodoo Chile Award" and a rare prototype of a Hendrix model Stratocaster handcrafted by Fender's prestigious Custom Shop.

Corby also won a $25,000 scholarship from the Director of Musicians Institute, although Corby, a high school junior, has other plans after graduation. "I want to go on tour after high school," said Corby. "That's the life to me. I love being on stage. To have a record deal, play places with huge crowds -- that'd be bad!" Corby's dad is a bit more reserved: "We're taking it one step at a time.

We're going to be doing some limited touring this summer, some East Coast dates, focus on writing some original material. There's some record label interest; we've got good people behind us like [manager] Nigel Paul [who worked with with Joe Satriani, among others]. In May we're going to play Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco."