World's Worst Guitar Player Contest has lots of awful players happily fretting

November 24, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

As a child, Nick Svalina showed scant aptitude for the guitar. At age 12, after two guitar lessons, he announced that he preferred playing football. His parents didn't argue.

"They could see my lack of talent," Mr. Svalina recalls.

When he decided to pick up the guitar again a few years later as a budding singer and songwriter, Mr. Svalina didn't let a lack of formal training or ability stand in his way. He's been playing for fun ever since.

Today, at 37, he still doesn't know any chords. It doesn't matter whether he's banging away at the strings of an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar at his home in Calumet City, Ill. -- he admits that it sounds "crazy" either way.

Fortunately, Mr. Svalina has other skills that are in demand; he's a tax attorney for a legal publishing firm. But these days, there's a gleeful edge to his guitar playing.

Mr. Svalina doesn't want to seem immodest, but he figures he has as good a shot as anyone at winning the 1992 World's Worst Guitar Player Contest -- and, presumably, a little respect at last, along with prize booty that includes an electric guitar, a trip to Rochester, N.Y., and a one-way bus ticket to Canada.

That's right, the World's Worst Guitar Player Contest. Now in its third year, the cacophonous competition is the brainchild of guitar-playing brothers Armand, Bruce and Blaine Schaubroeck, founders of House of Guitars Inc., a Rochester music shop that reports sales of $7 million worth of new and vintage guitars each year and boasts a clientele that includes Ozzy Osbourne, Chubby Checker and members of Def Leppard.

"In 1990, the music industry declared April to be International Guitar Month, and there were a lot of 'best guitar player' contests. We didn't see why the best should get all the prizes, so we decided that we should have a contest where the worst would be the star," explains Armand Schaubroeck, a 47-year-old free spirit.

The inaugural contest, won by a Connecticut art gallery owner who was unable to tune his guitar, drew more than 3,000 cassette tape entries from all over the world, according to Mr. Schaubroeck. He says more than 5,000 hopefuls, a third of them women, entered last year's competition, won by a Scottish guitarist whose tape caught the judges' ears thanks to his rendition of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water."

Thanks to snowballing media attention, Mr. Schaubroeck expects the 1992 contest, which ends Dec. 31, to be the biggest and most musically impoverished yet.

"Usually, most of the tapes arrive right before the contest closes, but we've gotten more than 1,000 entries already," he says. "A lot of them are really wretched. Especially some of them from Chicago and the Midwest. There must be something about that part of the country that brings out the worst in guitarists."

Entering is easy. Grab your guitar (or borrow one), tape a couple of songs, and mail the tape with your name, address and phone number to World's Worst Guitar Player Contest, House of Guitars, 645 Titus Ave., Rochester, N.Y., 14617.

"Last year we started to get a lot of entries on video, including one from an elderly woman who sat on her couch playing country and western songs," says Mr. Schaubroeck. "But audio cassette tapes are fine, and they cost a lot less."

The task of judging the tapes falls to the House of Guitars sales staff, which numbers around 15. Mr.Schaubroeck freely admits it's a subjective business -- there are no formal criteria for ascertaining awfulness -- but maintains that generally everyone agrees on the winning tape.

"The worst usually jumps out at you. It's just something you can't ignore," says Mr. Schaubroeck, who describes the judging process as a "grueling experience" that goes on for months and often involves listening to countless renditions of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog," the Kingsmen's "Louie, Louie" and the Troggs' "Wild Thing."

"We get all types of music, though, from punk to country, and a lot of original compositions," he says.

"We do a little listening to the entries as they come in, but most of it is done at the end of the year. At that point, we start playing the tapes constantly over the public address system in the store so that the staff hears every single tape."

Mr. Schaubroeck acknowledges customers who come in to buy a guitar or browse through the CD and tape bins often express dismay about the sounds blasting over the P.A. system.

The lucky contest winner, to be announced in February or March, will be treated to a free round trip to Rochester, where he or she will stay in what Mr. Schaubroeck describes as "a good hotel."

Other prizes include an electric guitar valued at $400, a guitar instructional video, a deal with Mirror Records (the Schaubroeck brothers' independent label), and a one-way bus ticket from Rochester to Canada.

"We're located on Lake Ontario, just across from Toronto, and we hope that the winner will go deep into Canada and not come back," Mr. Schaubroeck explains.

"If a Canadian wins, they'll get a round-trip ticket."

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