Eric Lambert is 56 years old, and for 43 of those years, he's been obsessed with his guitar.
The veteran musician has played in more groups than he can remember in that time, struck out on his own and been called on to perform around the world. No matter where he's gone, music has been central to his life.
"I've been playing guitar longer than I've been doing anything, besides breathing," said Lambert, who will perform Friday, June 21 with his band at Donnie's Homespun Pizza in Decatur. "It's certainly the only thing I've wanted to do."
For Lambert, though, playing guitar has rarely coincided with staying in one place for long. He's moved from group to group every few years, always looking for the next experience as a sideman, lead performer or solo artist. As he puts it, "all groups have a shelf life," with occasional opportunities to "get on the tour bus for a few years." In his decades of playing, he's been a member of bluegrass and folk-rock bands like Big Shoulders and Heartsfield, and most recently the successful Chicago bluegrass band Henhouse Prowlers.
Wherever he's been, Lambert has been known for his technical skill with the guitar, particularly in the flatpicking style of play. Popularized in bluegrass and country music by artists like Doc Watson and Tony Rice, flatpicking generates a continuous sound through use of the guitar pick instead of the fingers.
"It's a continuous attack with the pick, striking the strings both on the down motion and the up motion," Lambert said. "It's an aggressive style where a lot of notes are played. In recent years, it's become especially popular to adapt old fiddle tunes to guitar and flatpick them."
As prolific as he's been as a performer, Lambert's true calling may be as an educator. He has a great passion for teaching others how to learn the guitar, something he feels as a serious responsibility. He compiled his best beginner's knowledge onto a DVD called "1-2-3 Bluegrass," a labor 20 years in the making.
"I feel it's a responsibility for me to do it, if not everyone who plays," he said. "I know that I've been given an ability to teach and communicate. There are some great musician who just might not be able to do that, but I know I can, so I do. It goes back to the oral tradition of a place like the Appalachian Mountains, where if you wanted to learn, you had to find someone to show you how."
The guitarist has even participated with programs that combine his love of teaching with physical therapy and mental stress relief for weary, blue-collar workers. Working with steelworkers, his music therapy groups have taught middle-aged men who have never played an instrument before how to pick up a guitar and begin learning.
"I think it increases a fella's confidence and self-esteem immensely," he said. "A lot of these guys had walked into the mill after high school and have been there a long time. But once they start making some music on this instrument you can see the glow in their eyes, and these are some burly, lifetime steel workers. It helps them decompress a bit."
As a musician, Lambert still has goals of his own. He is in the process of recording another solo album and would like to focus on his own original music as much as he can at this point in his career. At Donnie's, he'll take listeners on a musical tour through a four-decade love affair with his instrument.
"My guitar-playing has been recorded for years, but I really want to get my own compositions out to the public more," he said. "That's what we'll be doing in Decatur, entertaining everybody, getting them dancing and singing."
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