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    Pat Lentz was a clerk at a South End store called the Music Shop in 1973. He was standing behind the counter one day when one of the store’s owners walked in and announced that the Music Shop needed a new guitar teacher. Lentz, then making $1.10 an hour, knew this was a big deal. The Music Shop banked enough money from lessons alone to cover its rent, and there was the added benefit that students often bought their instruments at the store. Lentz, age 20 at the time, was surprised when the owner turned to him and said, “You’re it.”

    “I was little more than a novice player myself at that point,” Lentz remembers. “I’d just started taking the guitar seriously. But I soon realized that I didn’t have to know everything about the guitar because it would take my students so long to catch up with me.”

    Four decades later, the 62-year-old has taught everyone from multimillionaires to people who had to mow his lawn to cover the cost of lessons. Notable students include: JK McKnight, founder of the Forecastle music festival; Johnny Siegel, guitarist for the local group Junkyard Dogs and a member of rockabilly star Wanda Jackson’s touring band; Brian McMahan of Slint; Tim Furnish of Parlour; Ethan Buckler of King Kong and Slint; Bodeco guitarist Ricky Feather; jazzman Danny Kiely; Danny Flanigan of the long-running Rain Chorus. “My philosophy has always been to take the student in the direction they love, and they’ll pick up the other stuff along the way,” Lentz says. “Everybody is different. I’m a good jazz player, but I don’t expect all of my students to become good jazz players. Some of the people who made a name for themselves in the music business weren’t the best students, per se. But I enjoyed having them around because they were so creative.”

    Lentz and his wife Tina live on Richmond Avenue in the Highlands with two small dogs. Lentz is about six feet tall with a wiry frame. His hair is a mixture of sandy blond and white. He loves telling stories and talks like the hyperactive kid he once was. Guitars hang on a wall in the home, and photos throughout the place capture various bands Lentz has played in. Next to the dining room, through a pair of French doors, is a space full of instruments. It’s where Lentz gives lessons nowadays, and it’s also the practice space for his group, the Juggernaut Jug Band. Lentz also handcrafts instruments for American Archtop Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The company is owned by Dale Unger, the only apprentice of renowned guitar maker Robert Benedetto. Lentz’s work can sell for anywhere from $2,700 to $6,000.

    “Pat has always been a renaissance man,” says Jimmy Brown, Lentz’s childhood friend and former employer at Guitar Emporium. “Ever since we were teenagers running around and getting in trouble, he has been totally committed to whatever he turned his mind to.” 

    Lentz was born in 1953, one of eight children of Gene and Martha Lentz. Gene worked for South Central Bell Telephone Co. and had a second job as an electrician at the Ohio Valley Dragway. He was also a great harmonica player and competent guitarist. Martha was a homemaker. When Pat was born, the family lived in the West End near 20th and St. Louis streets, but Gene soon relocated his brood to Pleasure Ridge Park. 

    Pat was a nervous, anxiety-ridden kid. When he was 13, the family doctor told his mother to get him involved in an activity to calm him down. Because his older brother, also named Gene, played bass in a band, Pat wanted a guitar. Despite money being tight, his mother scraped together five dollars a week for lessons, which Pat hated. His teacher was traditional. Pat wanted to rock. “Everybody taught the same thing back then,” Lentz says. “There were two books every student used: Mel Bay’s Guitar Chords and Alfred’s Guitar Course. Most teachers started on the E string and moved up from there. That just didn’t click for me.” (Lentz also dedicated much of his teenage years to attempting to become an Olympic kayaker.) 

    Young Lentz taught himself to play all the songs on two of his dad’s albums, plus Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and a compilation by honky-tonk artist Roger Miller. “That was really the first thing I learned on guitar besides my brother’s bandmates showing me things,” he says. He listened to early Louisville rock bands like Soul Inc. and Exile and went to a teen club every weekend to listen to live music. “I remember hearing a band called Eve do the Eric Clapton album with ‘Crossroads,’ the one with the wah-wah pedal on it. I was like, ‘Wow, what is that? This is it,’” he recalls.

    He got a 12-string guitar, listened to and transcribed records by Bob Dylan, Poco and the Allman Brothers. After he mastered those, he moved on to Steely Dan, King Crimson and Yes. At the Music Shop, he worked with several friends, including Jimmy Brown, and the owners let employees’ bands practice upstairs. One of Lentz’s groups played in a battle of the bands at a car show, and a popular DJ at WAKY named Tom Dooley was the judge. Dooley fronted a band called Tom Dooley and the Lovelights, which covered James Brown, cape and all. He liked Lentz’s sound and invited him to join a new band, Tom Dooley and the Cosmic Cowboys. “The outlaw bands were just getting hot,” Lentz says. “People like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. We had the steel guitars and the country picking. It was going pretty well until Dooley flipped out. He had this long hair. One day he shaved his head and left town. He just needed something different.” 

    One of the stories Lentz tells like a hyperactive kid has to do with nationally acclaimed Louisville guitarist Jimmy Raney. In the mid-1950s, Down Beat magazine named Raney the best jazz guitarist in America. One day in the late ’60s, Lentz was working with his own teacher, learning to read music. “I’m sitting in a lesson, and I hear this jazz guitar down the hall,” Lentz says. “I said, ‘Who is that?’ My teacher said, ‘Just some old drunk guy they give a job to every now and then.’” In the music room of his Highlands home, Lentz has a painting of Raney playing a guitar. That guitar hangs on the wall next to the painting.

    In 1980, Lentz answered a call from the man who would become his main music collaborator for the next 30 years: the late Steve Ferguson, the co-founder of NRBQ (New Rhythm and Blues Quartet). NRBQ, which had a national cult following, needed a rhythm guitarist, and Ferguson reached out to Lentz. When Lentz was 21, he remembers seeing Ferguson and Louisville musician Tim Krekel jamming at the Mason Jar, a club owned by Ken Pyle, who would go on to start the Rudyard Kipling in Old Louisville. “Fergie was a man of his own world,” Lentz says. “He had to do his own thing. We could have made the big time. We would never have been rock stars, but we could have made it to a Stevie Ray Vaughan or Fabulous Thunderbirds level.  Fergie would never let it happen.” Ferguson wanted to control every aspect of the band and actually complained if the musicians looked like they were having too much fun. “We were told that the band was not a democracy,” Lentz says. “It was a monarchy with a nice king. It wasn’t malicious. He was tunnel vision, totally.”

    While touring behind the album Jack Salmon and Derby Sauce, the group played several dates with Los Lobos, which was gaining popularity for its cover of the 1950s hit “La Bamba.” Los Lobos wanted to take Ferguson on a national tour, offering to cover Ferguson’s expenses and to give his band a stipend. Lentz was going to get a home-equity loan so he could supply T-shirts and records for the tour. But Ferguson turned down the opportunity. Lentz says Los Lobos wanted Ferguson to play for 40 minutes, but Ferguson didn’t think he could get into his act in fewer than 50 minutes. “Our mouths dropped open when he told us that,” Lentz says. “God knows I loved the guy. I played with him, I was close to him. But he just never could quite figure it out. We were big. Everybody wanted Fergie, but Steve didn’t have any skills where he could reason. He was a genius, but his day-to-day life skills, he had none. A guy once told me he’d never be a Steve Ferguson because he could drive a car and write a check.” Lentz's breaking point came after Ferguson turned down a lucrative deal with Chicago-based Alligator Records. Ferguson told the band members that the label wanted him, not them. Lentz called their manager and found out that wasn’t true. Although Lentz would continue to play off and on with Ferguson over the next three decades, he was never a full-time member of the band again.

    In 1986, he enrolled in the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles, a private music school in Hollywood. It is now a four-year program, but when Lentz was there it was an intensive one-year course. He rubbed shoulders with some of the best rock, country and jazz musicians in the world. Most of the teachers were L.A. studio pros or touring musicians who taught workshops. “I’d strap my guitar on when I got there at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning and never took it off until I left,” Lentz says. “That’s when I started to get really good at playing guitar. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave until midnight. Sometimes I would leave and just go home to practice.”

    At the end of the year, the institute named Lentz outstanding guitar player of the year, an award that came with a Howard Roberts Gibson guitar and a teaching position at the school. Lentz turned it down because he didn’t like LA — the traffic, he says, made it hard to get around to gigs and the money was the same as he made in Louisville — and returned home to find out that Jimmy Brown had become a partner at the Guitar Emporium. Lentz helped with construction of its current Bardstown Road location, even building a teaching room for himself on the second floor. The Guitar Emporium had booths for people to test their instruments at high volume, but Lentz often had to instruct people how to use them. One day, he was giving a lesson when he heard a particularly bad guitarist going at full volume. “Kept waiting for someone to stop him,” Lentz says. “But when it kept going on, I went downstairs. I was walking toward this guy with long blond hair. Just when I was starting to say something, he turned around and said, ‘Hi, mate.’ It was Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin.”

    The students Lentz remembers best from his days at Guitar Emporium are those who became good jazz players, such as Siegel of the Junkyard Dogs. “After high school, I moved to New Orleans,” Siegel says. “A lot of time I would get a gig and have to learn the music on the spot. Pat prepared me for that. He is one of the only dudes I know who could probably go down to New Orleans and make a living. He’s that good.”

    Forecastle founder McKnight went from being one of Lentz’s disappointments to one of his favorite students. McKnight, now 34, started taking lessons at the Guitar Emporium in 1989. The music he brought in to learn was too complex for a novice who didn’t like to practice. Lentz told McKnight he was wasting time and money because he wasn’t serious about the guitar. But a few months later, McKnight’s mom called and asked if Lentz would reconsider. “I think the problem originally was that I was trying to learn these complicated time signatures,” McKnight says. “But when I came back to Pat I was into Nirvana and these grunge groups. That was easier for me to understand. I credit Pat’s approach with keeping me going. He really fosters his students’ love of music.”

    Lentz left the Guitar Emporium in 2013 when Brown retired from the business. Brown plays in Lentz’s Juggernaut Jug Band, and he’s also one of the few students Lentz still teaches — usually $25 for a 30-minute session. “I had to slow down,” Lentz says. “Sometimes a day of construction is easier than a day of teaching because your mind can never settle when you’re teaching. I always tried to give my students more than they could give me back. That can wear you down. But every now and then, I get a student who can give it back to me. Those are the ones that keep me going.”

    Article by Michael L. Jones, photo by Gail Kamenish. 

    This article is courtesy of the May 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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