Spread across the forested stage at the Redwood Ramble in Mendocino County last July, six adult musicians laid down the framework of a Stevie Wonder cover so that an underage guitarist could come wailing in. The lean axman, who had been strumming bashfully in the background, stepped up to summon electric howls from inside his jet-black Gibson Les Paul.
The song “Superstition” was released 33 years before Oliver John was born, but the 12-year-old Woodacre guitarist grasped the song’s rhythmic structures and stole the show. He was sitting in with his drummer dad JT’s band, North Shore Railroad, but he’s also the newest addition to a Fairfax-based band of middle schoolers called Empire. Next month, he’ll strike out on his own as the opening act of the Lagunitas School’s Fall Music Festival.
With the gig just a few weeks away, the seventh grader has a list of bands he plans to cover: Led Zeppelin, the Grateful Dead and, one of his biggest influences, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Last week, he workshopped the songs in his bedroom—neatly maintained digs replete with guitars and posters of Tom Petty and the
“I don’t really remember a time when music wasn’t my quote unquote thing,” he said. “I do other stuff—I really like to mountain bike, play basketball and golf—but music is still my number one. Probably even over school.”
Mr. John said one of his earliest memories is watching his dad play a Paul Simon song. He was born in Port Townsend, Wash. and lived in Los Angeles for a couple of years before settling in Woodacre in 2012 with his parents and sister. His father, a woodworker and drummer, brought music into the house, and by age 3 Mr. John was playing the drums. He dabbled with the piano but clicked with the guitar six years ago.
Mr. John’s first ax was a Hello Kitty-branded guitar that he’s since painted pink and, like all his later instruments, it is left-handed. Unlike a majority of guitarists—though not unlike Jimi Hendrix or Paul McCartney—he’s left-handed, which has brought both obstacles and benefits.
“It is quite annoying sometimes,” he said. “I’ll be somewhere and [won’t be able to play someone else’s guitar] because I’m a lefty. And if it’s on a special occasion and I’m asking for a new guitar, it’s really hard to find what I want when all I can see are the right-handed guitars.”
Yet there are perks. Last Christmas while was visiting family in Los Angeles, he and his dad were hunting from store to store for a new guitar when they discovered a left-hand-focused shop called True Tone, in Santa Monica. Mr. John began trying out new styles, like the fuller-toned Gibson Les Paul. He locked eyes on a glossy black one, but the price was too steep.
“They wanted to let it go because they had it for a couple of years,” he said, so they slashed the price for him. “That’s just one of the advantages of being left-handed.”
His left hand also puts him in a club with players like Korel Tunador, a Los Angeles-based musician who plays with The Goo Goo Dolls and Katy Perry. Mr. Tunador is a longtime friend of JT’s and remembers receiving videos of Mr. John playing “steady drum grooves at a very young age.” Noticing he was a fellow lefty, Mr. Tunador reserved a Fender Stratocaster for him.
He said he’s impressed with how Mr. John was more interested in taste and melody than in playing just to show off. “Most young guitar players don’t realize that if you want to really be a player and be gigging with people, then 99 percent of your playing is always going to be rhythm playing, so your chords and timing and feel are by far the most important thing,” Mr. Tunador said in an email.
Mr. John said he will often compose new riffs by using a multi-effects pedal to record himself in loops and then jam over his own sounds until he’s fleshed out an idea. Earlier this summer, he introduced Empire to a song he’s been fiddling around with, called “Summertime Daydream,” which pays homage to the blues.
Besides a single guitar lesson, Mr. John is a self-taught musician. “I’m an ear person,” he said, explaining that he can pick up songs just by listening. “Sometimes I’ll go onto YouTube if it’s something I really want to learn right, but I just get the gist of it. We have that advantage now, with this generation.”
His ability to drop into new music serves him well with the rock quartet Empire. He met the other members at a soccer match a few years ago, and they practice every Monday at a studio in Fairfax owned by musician Tom Finch. Mr. Finch facilitates the band, teaching them how to run a rehearsal and helping develop new song ideas. He said Mr. John was an easy fit due to his personality and craftsmanship.
“He pretty much has limitless ideas and inspirations,” Mr. Finch said. “There are these artists in the world… that are ridiculously inspired. He’s one of these types.”
A 12-year-old who counts Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers as heroes could feel like an outsider in middle school, but Mr. John doesn’t mind being different.
“A lot of the music that I like came out in ’70s and ’80s. Some people say I was born in the wrong decade,” he said. “I like hard rock and heavy metal, [but] I’m not as much of an angry rock-and-roll person. It’s more of a happy sort of thing.”
He thinks about it for a minute, then wrestles up an example of his more whimsical songwriting. “Sometimes I’ll joke around when I’m mad at someone,” he said, then continued in a bluesy voice: “Give me an extra cookie or I’ll get really mad!”
Mr. John hopes to eventually attend music school, and has a list of heroes he’d like to share a stage with one day. “One of my lifelong goals is to meet Mike Campbell,” he said. “I don’t know what we’d talk about, but it would be awesome if I jammed with him. I think he’d think it’s cool that a 12-year-old was really into him.”
He paused while looking up at his wall. “And of course, I’d love to meet Tom Petty.”
Oliver John will perform at the Lagunitas School’s Fall Music Festival Montessori Fundraiser on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 1 p.m. The event is free, but donations will fund the Montessori program’s art and music classes, instructional aides and scholarships for field trips. There will also be carnival games, a raffle and paella for purchase.
Editor’s note: Our reporter interviewed Oliver John before rockstar Tom Petty died.