So Then I Wrote a Rock Opera

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This article was originally published at Linkedin

In early 2014, I moved to Michigan where my wife's family is from. I started working for an Ann Arbor based software company, Duo Security, which has been a lot of fun. But I really missed playing music with my tech buddy Rob, who remained in California.

So the original idea was for us to each write ten songs, then pick the best and record them. But somehow it spun out of control. Why not a concept album? Why not... A ROCK OPERA?

The oddest part about all of this is that neither Rob nor I have ever written songs or recorded before. Our only qualification is a combined 50 years of listening to classic rock. And if we might not hit the heights of The Who's "Tommy" or Greenday's "American Idiot" perhaps we could do better than KISS’s "Music from the Elder."

I mean, how hard could it be? It was, of course, an absurd idea. How could two rookies possibly scale the heights of rockdom? I don’t even think Rob had ever listened to a rock opera before. (I mean who has in recent years, amiright?) But much like a software startup that aims to make the world a better place, the audacity of our goal inspired us.

Next thing you know I’m recording some creepy bass riffs in GarageBand and overlaying drums and guitars. Our first song, “The Creeper,” was the embodiment of an evil surveillance government. And it sparked the whole story: 50 years of winter, a dystopian future, rock music is illegal, yada yada yada. This is pretty much the plot of every rock opera. But it's a darn good one.

Since Rob and I were in different cities, we did most of the collaboration over the interweb using Skype, iMessage, and Box for sharing files. (Box is the official cloud content management system of leading rock operas everywhere, don’t ya know?) Every few months I'd get back to California, goad Rob into singing or recording some guitar parts, and then continue editing in GarageBand.

As positive as I’d try to be during these recording sessions (“That was great, Rob. But let’s do one more take…”) the next day I’d listen to what we’d recorded and I’d be overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. I had this vision in my head of an epic rock opera but all I had was a handful of recordings of two guys failing. This feeling of hopelessness occurred at least as often as the feeling of elation throughout the entire course of the project.

They say every startup is a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs and lows. That matches my feeling on writing a rock opera. Whether it was writing melodies, drafting lyrics, recording solos, mixing, or working on videos, there were countless times where I thought the most expedient solution was to delete all the files and give up. There’s no blueprint (or at least none I could find) on “The 7 Steps to Writing a Rock Opera.”

Every time I faced this situation, I simply moved on to another part of the project. If one song proved to be a dead-end, there’s no reason I couldn’t make progress elsewhere. When I put something aside for a few days or weeks and came back to it, I had a kind of unwarranted optimism: maybe I can improve this. A leap of faith was required at every milestone. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but a more basic "Can I make this suck less?"

I won’t say that the work was easy. It takes many more hours to edit a song than it takes to record it. But I found that by gradually chipping away at something I could improve it. Often the results were surprising: a song I’d given up on now sounded pretty cool. Better than I hoped for. In my book, brute force perseverance is an under-rated skill.

Ur selfmade lyricsRob and I brought a startup attitude to the project: just keep working at it and let's see how far we can get. Lyrics got written, story lines developed, solos recorded and re-recorded. Occasionally we’d share songs with our beta testers. Their feedback was often the only motivation we needed to keep on going. And we did all this while holding down full-time jobs and managing family obligations.

Other songs were written weekends, evenings, on airplanes. If Rob had recorded his solos in a more timely fashion I might have stopped writing new songs. But eventually we got to 20 songs and I wondered: what the hell happened here? We’ve actually written a rock opera!

But there was one thing missing. All the songs were pretty basic: me and Rob with bass, guitar, drums and a few keyboard parts and a couple of friends adding vocals. It wasn’t quite grand enough. Then I came across an interesting item on Kickstarter: the $99 orchestra. Wait —what? Yep, for $99 per minute, we could get a 30 piece symphony orchestra to record one of our songs. For another $100 they’d create the score. I sure as hell didn’t have a score for them. I’m just a 3 chord rock guy.

We had one song where I’d weaved together multiple guitar parts that Rob and I had recorded separately. It epitomized our collaboration on the project. It was just some overdriven guitar parts, but in my mind it always sounded like a symphony: I heard strings, horns, piccolos. I don’t know what instruments are in an actual 30 piece orchestra, but it must be something like that, right?

Ur orchestraLong story short, we got the Western European Symphony Orchestra to record it. And we got to watch a live video stream of the recording. It felt pretty amazing to hear someone else’s interpretation of our music.

So we finally put the album up on Kickstarter after Thanksgiving, partly to defray the final mixing costs and partly to develop an audience. It was fully funded fairly quickly (never underestimate the power of email to VCs, especially if you helped them make a lot of money.) Kickstarter prohibits raising money for charity, so since we’ve hit our goal we’ll either mix some bonus instrumental tracks or get some videos made. Either that or we’ll spend the money on hookers and blow.

I hope you'll go to the skills section of my Linkedin profile and click on Rock Opera to show your endorsement. 

Update: The project overachieved on its funding target by 150% and was completed on time. All of the music, the bonus tracks and the Libretto are available for free download at You can also listen for free at SoundCloud. The music is published under an open source Creative Commons attribution license and can be used, copied, shared and re-mixed freely.

Zack Urlocker is a software executive living his rock and roll fantasy in Traverse City, Michigan.

Over 1,000,000 Videos Served

I'm not sure how it's happened but some of the videos I've posted here on GuitarVibe have gotten way more views than I ever expected.  There are now about 600 videos with a total of more than 1.2 million views in total.  The average (2,000 views per video) is not great, but there are some videos of me playing with the Electric Buddha Blues Band that barely have double digit views and so clearly there are other videos pulling in some big numbers.

Some of the concert videos have certainly benefited from fanatical fans and maybe got some prominent blogs or websites to link to them.  However, that doesn't even begin to explain the top 10 rankings.  In the #10 spot is Queen + Paul Rodgers "Feel Like Making Love" live from Latvia with 31,000 views.  Admittedly, the Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis replaced Roger Taylor on drums later in the set and maybe he legislated mandatory YouTube viewings in schools.  Who knows.  It was a good show, but pretty high volume of traffic for something this obscure.

Those numbers put Queen + Paul Rodgers way ahead of more mainstream artists like Aerosmith or Coldplay.  Heck, the Grateful Dead and some great blues artists like BB King, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa are barely cracking 1,000 views, bumping along with local bands like The Blind Pilots.  So there's no accounting for taste.  But it gets weirder.

I don't know how to account for the fact that Lenny Kravitz comes in the #6 position with "American Woman" live from the Oracle conference a few years ago.  I mean, I like the song, but 42,000 views?  Really?  And that concert was so loud it's one of the few videos where my Canon G9 sound gets distorted.  Must be that 70's time machine problem.

Speaking of which, Buffalo Springfield and Pearl Jam w/ Neil Young at The Bridge School Benefit come in positions #4 and #5 with 70,000 and 46,000 views each.  I can understand that given the significance of the Buffalo Springfield reunion after a 40 year absence.  Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have braved the cold and rain for another 30 minutes to shoot the entire set.  (And it came out remarkebly well considering I was shooting off a video screen.) But I'm sure in another 40 years, God willing, they'll do it again.  Maybe by then, Bridge School Benefit will be sufficiently well organized that they can run the concert in less than 6 hours with 30 minute breaks between every set.  

Coming in the #3 position AC/DC live from Oracle Arena in 2010 with their song "Big Jack" off their last album.  You knew they released an album in 2010, right?  "Big Jack" is a good song in that it sounds exactly like every other AC/DC song.  I'll save you the trouble of reading the comments posted on YouTube; they all say "I waz there, that show rocked"  or "That crowd sucks."


Ok, but now the really weird part.  The top 2 videos (with 111,000 and 88,000 views respectively) are me reviewing some cheapass guitars I own.  I don't know how that's possible.  But there sure are a lot of teenagers who hate my playing, my talking, my amp, my shirt, my haircut and my taste in music.  Luckily they let me know by posting misspelled comments on Youtube.  (Even I'm slightly embarassed by these videos, so no links!)  Yet somehow they've made me more popular than AC/DC.  

Angus, Malcolm, I love you guys, but the numbers don't lie...


FTC Cracks Down on Fake Guitar Review Scam


Following on the 2009 FTC guidelines for bloggers to disclose commercial relationships when writing product reviews, the FTC has fined Legacy Learning Systems $250,000 for deceptive advertising practices.  Legacy Learning Systems, publishers of the "Learn & Master" Guitar course has been accused of planting phony reviews for years. 

According to the FTC:

The FTC charged that Legacy Learning and Smith disseminated deceptive advertisements by representing that online endorsements written by affiliates reflected the views of ordinary consumers or ‘independent’ reviewers, without clearly disclosing that the affiliates were paid for every sale they generated.”

"Whether they advertise directly or through affiliates, companies have an obligation to ensure that the advertising for their products is not deceptive," says David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. 

While the FTC settlement is a good sign, it's still a slap-on-the-wrist for Legacy Learning Systems.  The company generated more than $5 million in revenue through it's affiliate program.  

So if you want high quality guitar courses without scam reviews, my recommendation is Metal Method.  Doug Marks, the developer of this series, has always played it straight.  It's a great product and one that doesn't need scam reviews to promote it.  

This is definitely a win for the little guy!

Will FTC Disclosure Rules Cut Down on Bogus Review Sites?

Apple Bans Developer for Bogus Reviews on iTunes

Normally I just write about music and guitars on this site, but Doug Marks, the guy behind the  Metal Method DVD Course, let me know about a pretty serious issue: the proliferation of  bogus review sites and misleading Google ads.  For most people, guitar lessons are a hobby, but for Doug it's how he makes a living.  So he has a vested interest in getting this problem fixed.

I blogged about it on InfoWorld:

 These sites purport to provide objective evaluation of consumer products, but they are simply paid advertisements.  The sites are typically either selling the products or receiving a kick-back or commission for referrals.  If you dig into these sites its not uncommon to see half a dozen similar sites with the same format and content, but slightly varied graphics.  I have no idea whether these sites make much money, but the fact that there are so many, is a strong indicator.  Even Google is benefiting from the ad words these sites are running.

Doug has exposed some of the dubious practices among his competitors and has raised the issue to Google. But so far, no response.  And its not just scams about guitar and piano lessons.  There are fake review sites on language instruction, vitamin supplements, exercise equipment and even software packages.  I don't know if the competing guitar instruction sites are good or not, but it makes me suspicious when someone goes to the trouble of creating these kind of misleading ads.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons the FTC's is requiring bloggers to disclose their financial relationships effective December 1.  And hopefully it will get tougher for these scam sites to operate.  

Apple Removes Developer from iTunes

Interesting note that today, Apple uncovered a developer who was posting bogus reviews for their applications on iTunes.  Apple wasted no time in removing all of the developers applications and their reviews for violating Apple's iTunes policies.  Looks like at Apple takes this a lot more seriously than Google does. 

Have you seen these bogus guitar lesson review sites?   If you've used any of these other products, let me know what you think of them.  In fairness, I should also say that I'm an affiliate with Metal Method.


  • Metal Method: Main site, Complete Basic Course,Speed Kills, Forum
  • GuitarVibe: Guitar Lesson Scams, Guitar Mastery, More Time for Guitar

  • Turn Down the Suck Knob


    Sometimes when you're playing guitar it feels like someone is adjusting the suck knob the wrong way. I don't know that there's a cure for this other than practice, practice, practice.  But here's some links to some resources that might be helpful.

    Yngwie Malmsteem & Nigel Tufnel

    Yngwie Malmsteem is one of the uber-shredders of the guitar world, up there with Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert and Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap.  Not your cup of tea?  Well, it's a pretty, ah, specialized area with an audience that is becoming "more selective," if you know what I mean.  This parody showcases Yngwie's special talents quite well...

    And as a bonus, here's Nigel's classic guitar solo where he outdoes Jimmy Page's use of the violin bow from the funniest rock and roll movie ever, " This Is Spinal Tap."

    As Spinal Tap's David St Hubbins says, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." 

    Guitars at

    Alltop, all the cool kids (and me)

    Over on the left margin in the Sponsor links you'll see a new link from Alltop, the "online magazine rack" created by top-rated blogger, enterpreneur, and hockey fanatic Guy Kawasaki.  Alltop now has now added a new category (which features this site along with, GuitarFlame, GuitarNoise, GuitarNoize(!) and many other good sites with goofy names.)

    I've met Guy many times over the years and he's one of the nicest (and smartest) guys in the tech industry.  His blog, "How to Change the World," is a must-read for startup companies who want to build great products.  He's recently published a book called "Reality Check" which culls some of the best material from his blog including essays on the "Top 10 Lies of Entrepreneurs,"  "How to Bootstrap a Company" and "Hindsights" his speech to graduates which is his recommendations to kids going out into the world includes this gem:

    Learn to play a musical instrument. My only connection to music today is that I was named after Guy Lombardo. Trust me: it's better than being named after Guy's brother, Carmen. Playing a musical instrument could be with me now and stay with me forever. Instead, I have to buy CDs at Tower.

    I wish I'd taken guitar more seriously earlier in my life; instead I wasted years working hard and studying.  But I'm making up for it now by playing guitar and hanging out in low-life bars.  If you're in your twenties or thirties, trust me on this.  You will never have as much time to learn a musical instrument as right now. 

    Alltop also has other categories that might be of interest including Music, Gadgets, Photography, Movies, Books, Running, Tech News, and Startups.  Or at least these are the topics I find interesting.  Alltop is growing every day and there are now hundreds of different categories.  Check it out, you will find a few gems in here.