Milwaukee Guitar Club won’t string you along

October 1, 2010

Story & Photos by Jay Bullock

A guitarist in the wilds of nature has three enemies: Darkness. Mosquitoes. Thirst.

So when guitarist and Bay View resident Brad Hoernke comes to South Shore Park on a muggy August evening, he’s prepared for all three. Little lights to read music by. A can of bug spray that looks to be from the 1970s. And beer, always beer.

Hoernke, a Milwaukee Public Works inspector, is one of the founders and core members of the Milwaukee Guitar Club, a loose-knit organization of guitarists from all over the Milwaukee area who met Tuesday evenings this summer at the south end of the park for an hours-long, laid-back jam session. With the change of seasons, the club now meets indoors at the Bay View Brew Haus on Tuesday evenings around 6:30pm.


Members of the Milwaukee Guitar Club warming up in the sunset at South Shore Park.

It’s part social club, part music party, and part guitar clinic.

“It’s a nice mix, from semi-professionals to people who just started,” Hoernke said. “So many people don’t play their guitars at home and they want to. This is a chance for them to get out and get a little experience without the pressure of performing.”

I’m at the park, too, my own guitar in hand, because months ago I was asked to write the story of the club, and it’s just too fun to quit. The weekly commune with my fellow players—like Backwards Gary, who plays a right-handed guitar left-handed; Bob, who has a welcome bathroom in his truck; Denny J and Jilena, singing Johnny and Roseanne Cash; Don and Mel, the first people I met—is relaxed and a great way to learn some new tricks.

The club is just over a year old. After celebrating at the South Shore Frolics in July 2009, Hoernke invited a group of guitar-playing friends back to his basement to play. One of them was Ricardo Trinidad, also of Bay View. Trinidad, who runs a Milwaukee telecommunications firm, was the one who came up with the idea of a weekly club meeting.

When younger, Trinidad supported himself as a professional musician in Chicago and first saw a guitar club in New York City. “I was in Greenwich Village in a park, and I saw all these guys with guitars,” he said. “It was real informal. I hung out for a while, and thought I had to do something like this when I got back to Chicago.”

And he did, gathering a group of musician friends on Chicago’s North Avenue Beach every Saturday. “It was real easy to get spotted out there. In short order, there was a crowd, a full spectrum of musicians, young and old, black, white, Latino. There was a real mixture of music. That’s what I liked about it.”

That story inspired Hoernke and some of the others in the basement to commit to meeting weekly in public at South Shore Park.

News of the club’s existence spread primarily through word of mouth, with a significant assist from Bob Simmons—he of the bathroom truck—who faithfully posts a weekly ad on Craigslist about the club’s meetings.


Members of the Milwaukee Guitar Club playing together at South Shore Park.

Each Tuesday session is a little different, depending on who’s there. Hoernke estimates that over the last year, the club has seen more than 100 different people sit in, playing well over 500 songs.

One night in July, there were 30 people gathered; a few weeks later, just six. But the format is roughly the same regardless: Someone introduces a tune, explains the chord progression, and then everyone who wants to or who can plays and sings along.

“My idea is to play with people who are better than me, or play in different styles, so I can learn something,” Trinidad said.

Several regulars have used the club in lieu of guitar lessons. Melanie Warren, for example, was one of the original people in Hoernke’s basement and would show up at the park. “But I would just bring a book and hang out,” she said. “Then I was like, ‘Hey, these guys are having fun.’”

She knew three chords from when she was a teenager, and her partner, Don Madden, also a semi-professional player, showed her the 12-bar blues. This summer Mel was at the park every week playing along and occasionally leading songs.

Hoernke and Trinidad actively encourage the more reticent members to lead the group in as many songs as they want, even when pros or members of local bands, like The Britins and Old School Duo, are at the meeting. “Some of the established jam sessions,” Hoernke said, “are pretty stuck up about it; you only get one song and that’s it.” The Milwaukee Guitar Club is much more inclusive.

In the winter, and on rainy nights, and whenever the mosquitoes defeat the bug spray, the Milwaukee Guitar Club meets at the Bay View Brew Haus. Owner Steven Fix, himself a performing guitarist, has been very accommodating. Last March, as a fundraiser and in a bid for publicity, the club staged a concert with Milwaukee jazz guitarist Jack Grassel at the Brew Haus. Hoernke hopes to do more events there in the future, including possibly concerts by the club.

Trinidad, for his part, really wants to see the group expand, particularly in the diversity of musicians attending. He thinks that a meeting place more visible than a corner of South Shore Park, someplace like Bradford Beach, might attract more and different players. He is also interested in partnering with a local instrument retailer to spread the word, and draw more players to the jam sessions.

And the group is not just for guitarists, Hoernke said. Over the past year, the group has seen many instruments you’d expect, like banjo, bass, and harmonica. But there have been violins, mandolins, keyboards, and drums. Once, he said, someone brought a harmonium, which is a wind-powered keyboard instrument.

He stressed that the Milwaukee Guitar Club is for any and everybody. “It’s what the people want it to be,” he said. “If you don’t like it one week, come back the next, and it will be different.”

I, for one, will be back next week.

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2 Comments on "Milwaukee Guitar Club won’t string you along"

  1. Mark Hunt on Thu, 9th Dec 2010 11:48 pm 

    Very cool – inspiring – I may have to find ya’ll some Tuesday night. Guitar n’ all that go with it, has become my greatest hobby. You are the people I need to find. 3 chord blues, everybody joining in, 3 part harmony on the choruses – can’t get any better than that. Keep it up. I will find you. Didn’t ChinickChinook say that just before diving through the waterfall to save his life from the English in the movie …ah! wanna say “Pathfinder.” no. “Trailblazer.” no. mmh. Anyway.., I will find you. Marko

  2. oj krieger on Tue, 3rd May 2011 9:34 am 

    hello I was wondering if you guys and gals would like to do a jam at a cancer benifit for a little girl, at sherwood forest archey club in sussex wis,on sunday june 19th,if interested e-mail me, this is a outdoor club with a nic e club house on 28 acres of woods,

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