High above the city, in a bland triangular conference room with grand views of Millennium Park, Lorena Ramos clutches an unplugged Fender electric guitar and earnestly plucks out notes. Now in her third month of lessons at the almost year-old Guitar Chicago, her chops -- honed at home on her own pink Fender -- are gradually improving.
"I've always liked music," Ramos, 37, says later. "I have three boys and they're a little bit older, so I have a little more time. I figured, well, it's now or never. Before I hit 40, I wanted to try and master something."
It won't be easy.
"I never realized how tough [playing guitar] was until I actually did it the first time," says Ramos, who works nearby at the Secretary of State's office and had never played an instrument before. "My fingers would not move, they would not budge. I was aching the first couple of weeks. And he was just very cool about it, letting me know to take my time. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix."
The "he" to whom she refers is her patient instructor, a good- natured former high school jock named Jim Lenger, who's catering his guitar studio to just such potential players. He's banking on the prime Loop location to lure downtown dwellers who yearn to strum but have little time to venture far from work or school.
A guitarist since childhood, he's acutely aware that playing this alluring but perplexing instrument well or even semi-well takes considerable effort.
"If you can get through the first couple of months, that's where it's the trickiest," the tall and still athletic-looking Lenger, 30, says over a late omelet-and-milk lunch at Miller's Pub on Wabash. "The difficulty of moving their fingers from place to place and the pain that they have in their fingers, once they get past that, I find it gets a lot easier. After that, everything starts clicking."
500 students downtown?
A psychology and music graduate of Hope College in his native Holland, Mich. -- where he lives and teaches part-time and from which he is slowly weaning himself to squat full-time near the Wiener's Circle in Lincoln Park, his local base since early 2006 -- the longtime guitar guru and sometime performer rents space Wednesday through Friday in the stylish Smurfit-Stone building at Randolph and North Michigan. He'll soon add Tuesdays.
"It's really convenient," says another student, South Sider and Harold Washington student Hector Cortez, 22. "The other [places], I had to take the Red Line, Purple Line, Green Line -- all the colors of the rainbow."
Thanks to more aggressive marketing -- gift-certificate giveaways at bars, ads on Craigslist -- and the power of Google, Lenger already has more than 30 students on his local roster (at $25 per half hour, just a bit more than Old Town School of Folk Music's rate) and says a few additional ones trickle in weekly. From cops and college students to housewives and lawyers, they're the foundation of what he hopes will become something big. No, huge.
"My goal would be to get 500 students downtown," Lenger says, "and then start another location or have someone else start it up based on [my] program and move it to a few cities and do the exact same thing. But I'll see how it goes in Chicago first."
'I HAVE TO DO SOMETHING'
Like Ramos and Cortez, whose main interest is theory ("I've always wanted to know how music works"), each of Lenger's pupils has a specific reason for coming -- musical and otherwise.
"Some people just do it for a stress reliever," he says. "They're at work and they just want something to come to instead of the spa. And it also gives them something to do after work so they don't just get home and watch TV. They can pursue a hobby."
When 29-year-old Ph.D. aspirant and Dick's Last Resort waiter Tony Carlson began with Lenger a few months back, his ax acumen was nearly nil. Dinking around on the fret board after thumbing through Guitar for Dummies, he says, was pretty much the extent of his guitar experience. Now he's more determined to excel, if only for his own personal satisfaction and mental well-being.
"I have to do something. I can't just wait tables like a robot," says Carlson, a sometime singer who has a masters degree in anthropology from Northern Illinois University and is saving up to pursue a doctorate in paleontology. Doing so is a pricey longshot, he admits, and learning guitar helps temper his frustration.
"I just want to get to that point where I can play music," he says. "I've just got to keep going."
Lenger, a hard-practicing veteran of 21 years, makes it look easy. When a lesson calls for showing instead of telling, as is often the case, he commandeers the Fender and contextualizes whatever concept he's trying to convey by whipping off part of a Beatles tune or Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." As inspiration goes, it trumps even his frequent exclamations of "excellent!" and the dazzling urban backdrop.
If only inspiration were enough.