ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MARCH 21, 1996
Everyone’s heard the stories of starry-eyed youths who journey to Tinseltown with visions of glory and not much else, but they might not have heard about the kid from Richmond who hopped a bus for Hollywood with the dream of becoming a professional guitar player.
Mark Fitchett did just that one March day in ’79, and he actually managed to beat the odds by finding success in La La Land. As well as leading his own instrumental recording act, Cult of the Wrong Note, Fitchett is also one of the L.A. area’s most sought-after guitar teachers. In his spare time he writes instructional guitar books, his latest being Chops Builder, to be published by Cherry Lane Music this month. And his main ambition is to have a symphony he’s composed performed by a full orchestra.
Pretty lofty stuff for a guy who started out with just a guitar, a bus ticket, and 150 bucks.
Fitchett got hooked on music while he was a Richmond elementary-school student. Like most kids, he started out on the recorder, but it didn’t take long for him to become part of the school band and add a much more demanding instrument to his repertoire.
“I loved Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass,” recalls Fitchett, on the line from his Redondo Beach, California, home and studio. “So when they came around with the band instruments and said, ‘Whaddya wanna play?’ I said ‘Trumpet.’ I was always in the music class playing very poor trumpet, and then when I was 12 or so I started taking guitar lessons because my best friend did. I signed up for lessons without any permission, then came home and told my mom, ‘Guess what you got me for my birthday.’ ”
Fitchett took his first guitar lessons at a place called Jack Bourne’s Academy of Music, a refurbished Richmond garage that specialized in accordion lessons. He picked up some chords, a bit of reading, and a few Creedence Clearwater Revival licks from “a guy named Ralph”, but after six months or so he called it quits. (Hands up, everybody else who’s quit guitar lessons!) Then he took the “street learning” route, picking up Hendrix and Led Zeppelin licks from his buddies.
“Out of all my friends who played, I was always the guy that would be the knowledge searcher,” says Fitchett. “More than just learning the thing, I’d try to figure out the theory of it.”
At 17 Fitchett joined his first band, Overproof, which played at the old Surf Cabaret and put on private-hall parties. But besides a few bucks from (unlicensed) beer sales, Overproof didn’t lead to much.
“It led to frustration,” says Fitchett. “I wanted to do some original material, but they were just not receptive, and [the original-music scene] just seemed really dead around Richmond or Vancouver. So when I was 20 or so I hopped on a Greyhound to Portland, and then hitchhiked the rest of the way to beautiful downtown Hollywood.”
Fitchett ended up strolling down Sunset Boulevard without a clue about what to do next. He hung around Hollywood’s famed Guitar Center awhile, but nothing came of that; hanging around a lowlife-laden Denny’s located near his cheap hotel paid off better.
“It was a real seedy kind of atmosphere,” he says, “but I loved it; it was just different. I’d take my guitar because I wouldn’t leave it in the hotel, and people would see me and go, ‘Oh you play guitar, blah blah blah.’ ”
Fitchett eventually found some landscaping work and an apartment, and met enough musicians to start his own group, the Fitch Band, which played a lot of Hollywood showcase gigs. Fitchett handled the guitar and vocals in that band, but after a couple of years made the move to the kind of music that would become his forte.
“Ever since I was about 17 I wanted to be an instrumental guy like Jeff Beck,” he says. “He put out an album in the ’70s called Blow by Blow, and I was just totally influenced by that. I went, ‘God, if I could ever be good enough to do that, that’d be just the thing.’ ”
Fitchett worked toward that goal by studying guitar, composition, and arranging at Southern California’s Grove School of Music, then in ’89 formed Mark Fitchett & Cult of the Wrong Note with bassist Rick Hollander, keyboardist Craig Roth, and drummer Chuck Messana. The band—which took its name from an unflattering 1913 Paris Times review of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—has caught on with the guitar-god crowd enamoured of the likes of Joe Satriani, Carlos Santana, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, and the aforementioned Beck. (Fitchett’s CD is not currently available in Vancouver record stores, but local fret freaks can order it by calling  540-6767.)
When not heading his world-class quartet—which is currently working on its sophomore release—Fitchett can usually be found either giving lessons or taking them, though not from “a guy named Ralph” anymore. He studies with the likes of the Hellecaster’s Will Ray nowadays, as well as Jamie Glaser (sideman to Chick Corea and Jean-Luc Ponty) and jazz “chord maestro” Ted Greene.
“I’m a junkie for knowledge,” stresses Fitchett. “I’m a guitar player professionally, and then for a hobby I study guitar.”