From classical music to Kiss classics, guitarist plays with passion
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
When it comes to music, 19-year-old Zach Rockafellow does things in a big way.
As a kid learning to play the guitar, Rockafellow bypassed easy standards like “Brother John” and “Tom Dooley,” instead perfecting the heavy metal Kiss classic, “God of Thunder.”
Even before his promotion from middle school, Rockafellow was impressing audiences and catching school music teachers off guard. For his eighth-grade talent show at Altimira, he performed Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” hardly the stuff of adolescent accomplishment.
“People were saying they’d never seen anything like that,” recalls the soft-spoken teen, stating fact without a trace of bravado. “I knew I had something amazing to make people’s heads turn.”
The young musician found both his passion and his professional path once he began strumming a guitar more than seven years ago.
With lightening-speed fingers and an ear for everything from classic rock to reggae, classical to contemporary, Rockafellow is a guitarist comfortable with all genres of music. He plays both acoustic and electric guitar, performing whatever strikes his mood: blues, jazz, Bach or hard-core rock among his selections.
“I think I just have that guitar-player gene in me,” he says.
A second-year student at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, Rockafellow is taking his natural talents to a new level. He’s studying performance guitar at the private college, with instruction from some of the top guitarists in the country, including Paul Gilbert, whom Rockafellow considers a “true legend.”
“Going to college was my first private lesson,” Rockafellow says. “I gave private lessons before I ever had one.”
Rockafellow’s first guitar teacher was his father, David Rockafellow, who owns a swimming pool service in Sonoma Valley but is a longtime guitarist himself. The senior Rockafellow encouraged his son to study guitar in grade school, but he wasn’t quite ready.
At the time, Zach Rockafellow considered the guitar “way too complex.” Instead, he opted to learn the trumpet in his grade-school band class at Sassarini Elementary School.
Then came “God of Thunder,” note by note on guitar with his father as his guide. To speed the process, Rockafellow jumped online for further instruction, putting his “big hands and skinny fingers” to the test.
“I spent all my days practicing from then on,” Rockafellow says. “After that I pretty much took it on my own.”
Rockafellow grew up surrounded by his father’s guitars – the family now has nearly 20 – and listening to his parents’ classic rock albums. “There were always guitars around and they always had good music playing,” Rockafellow says.
When his friends at Sonoma Valley High School “hopped on the pop train,” Rockafellow was listening to rock bands that had been around long before he was born, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC among them.
Rockafellow could often be found hanging out at the Sonoma Plaza, decked out in a rock ’n’ roll T-shirt (which he still favors) and playing acoustic guitar for his friends. At home, his father and mother, Rachel Rockafellow, encouraged his guitar playing. Even his older sister, Alicia Rockafellow, was supportive.
“They let me play my amp as loud as I wanted,” he says, “so I could feel it in my stomach.”
All the while, the guitarist practiced and jammed, switching from classic rock to heavy metal, taking on speedier songs and shreds and adding rhythm and blues numbers. He gave another show-stopping school talent-show performance, this time the difficult metal rock number, “Mr. Crowley Crazy Train.”
Rockafellow also performed with the Sonoma Valley High School Jazz Band, an acclaimed group that gave him several opportunities to showcase his solo talents. He credits now-retired music instructor Barbara McElroy with teaching him complex music theory and giving him greater focus as a musician.
By his sophomore year, Rockafellow began writing his own music. Just recently, he’s begun writing lyrics as well, primarily short songs and sonnets.
“I always wanted to sing,” he says, “but I never could.” He can match pitch and sing melody but doesn’t seek a spot on “American Idol” or any other TV singing competition, despite his proximity to the hub of the music world in Los Angeles.
Living in Hollywood isn’t as glamorous as one might imagine, he says.
“It’s quite different going from Sonoma to Hollywood. It makes it especially nice coming back home.”
His neighborhood has its share of Michael Jackson lookalikes and panhandlers, with so many celebrity sightings they’re barely noteworthy. Despite the congestion and craziness, Rockafellow is right at home attending Musicians Institute.
He especially loves working with so many talented musicians – staff and students alike – and devotes more hours than he can count to practicing and perfecting his diverse guitar repertoire.
“It just takes a lot of practice to maintain all those kinds of genres,” he says, noting he devotes plenty of “late nights and early mornings” to his music instruction.
Rockafellow plans to return to the Bay Area after graduating with an associate of arts degree in May. He’d like to offer private guitar lessons, do some networking and perhaps join a house band and begin work on a music theory book.
Mostly, though, he wants to share his talents with listeners of all ages, from classical fans to classic rockers.
“I just want to play music for people, really,” he says. “If people feel moved by what I’m doing, then I’ve done my job.”
To listen to Zach Rockafellow, go online to YouTube/ZachRockafellow or soundcloud.com/zachrockafellow.