Orange County Register/ Front Page.
Larry Samson is committing blasphemy. Heresy. High treason, of a musical sort.
He doesn't just acknowledge this; he relishes it, with a feral smile and a slightly maniacal gleam in his eye. "The magnitude of this," he says, "is just so enormous. It involves rewriting 1,500 years worth of music and musical history. No wonder there's such tremendous opposition. It's like telling the pope there is no God."
Samson teaches guitar. His tiny studio in Mo's Fullerton Music Center is a cyclone of books, papers, amplifiers, guitars and Dodgers memorabilia – but he plucks his evidence from the chaos with aplomb. "A Guide to Musical Acoustics" by H. Lowery. "Science and Music" by Sir James Jeans. A yellowing Wall Street Journal article about a man with a similar obsession.
"Chu Tsai-Yu, a prince of the Ming dynasty, published all this in 1584," Samson says. His eyes shine. "I really believe that the discovery of the 12 could very well be the purpose of why I've been put on this earth. To notice there was a flaw in music and to correct it."
• • •
Larry Samson, provocateur. Born in Lynwood. Raised in Downey. At age 9, he ordered a Silvertone from the Sears Roebuck catalog. It was instant, fervent and all-consuming love. Hours, weeks, months sped by as he played 45s and pored over chord books, trying to reproduce what he heard. Next came garage bands, surf bands, and, in 1966, Jerry & the Diamonds – a firm footnote in the history of surf music. Right there, in Robert J. Dalley's "Surfin' Guitars: Instrumental Surf Bands of the Sixties," Samson wears a dark suit and white shirt, his '64 Fender Stratocaster angled toward heaven.
There were other bands, original songs, countless gigs, times they came this close to being signed. He started teaching – at first, a simple matter of showing kids how to play his favorite songs – then studied music at Cerritos College and Cal State Fullerton. He started teaching at the Fullerton Music Center in 1971 for extra cash.
Formal music education did not go smoothly for Samson. He'd play a single note on his guitar. Sometimes – thanks to a system developed hundreds of years ago – it was called C sharp. Other times it was called a D flat. But, always, it sounded exactly the same. It seemed ridiculous. To become proficient in all keys, the Music Notation Modernization Association says, one must master fifteen different key signatures, which became more and more complex.
It was in a dusty used-book store near the bus stop at Harbor and Lincoln that he began to understand. The proprietor handed him two books – "A Guide to Musical Acoustics" (42 cents) and "Science and Music" (66 cents). There was the problem, in black and white: Western music had 32 note names, but only 12 tones.
Sharp, flat, double sharp, double flat. Surely there had to be a better way. He was not alone in his thinking: "The need for a new notation, or a radical improvement of the old, is greater than it seems, and the number of ingenious minds that have tackled the problem is greater than one might think," wrote composer Arnold Schoenberg in 1924.
• • •
Samson never left the Fullerton Music Center, now better known as Mo's. He has refined his own approach to music theory. Every day, he shares his ideas with 16 students in the tiny practice room with the big window onto Harbor Boulevard.
A clock stands on his desk. In place of numbers are the names of the 12 notes. He uses it to teach budding (and veteran) guitarists to understand the distance between the 12 notes, just as they understand the distance between the 12 hours. He teaches them to use this wheel of 12 to navigate the maze that is the guitar neck. He teaches them scales, to write their own chord progressions, to never say "I'm sorry."
He insists they bring notebooks to each lesson, and inside he writes secrets, by hand, in pencil, which can transform their understanding.
Glenn Cornick has one of those notebooks. The founding member and bass player for Jethro Tull – who had been a musician for 30 years – met Samson while scouting for lessons for his young son.
"I was looking at my son's notebooks, and realized that he was learning things that I didn't exactly understand," Cornick said. "So I started to take lessons from Larry.
"I had a lot of practical experience, but Larry managed to show me how it all fitted together," Cornick said. "It was a revelation. The best way I can describe it is, it was as if I had collected 300 or 400 random pieces of typewritten paper over the years, and suddenly someone came along and put them into order and they became a great novel."
John Crawford, founding member of the band Berlin, took lessons with Samson, too. As did Leo Fender's grandson, John Maurer of Social Distortion, Greg Bergdorf of Zebrahead, John Taylor (executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace), several Orange County Register staffers, and Glen Thompson of Whittier, who sought Samson out after 40 years of playing.
"I came in here thinking I knew something about the guitar, and he's showing me how to hold the pick again," Thompson said. "He's my mentor. My doctor."
Samson is at work on his treatise, "The Unmasking of Equal Temperament: What Really Happened to Music." Theory can be used to foster creativity, rather than to confound it, he believes. To that end, each of the 12 notes should have its own name: A through L. No sharps. No flats.
But he doesn't teach A through L. Not yet. Musicians still need to work inside the traditional system. So he teaches the traditional note names, along with the understanding that such names are just a formality, a hangover from an earlier time, and based, at their root, on the 12.
Folks who are comfortable with the traditional system roll their eyes at Samson's quixotic aspirations. He doesn't care. "For my students, the whole point is that the system can be taught for creative purposes. I teach people to play, not to copy. I have 8- and 10-year-olds writing their own chord progressions, writing music. It doesn't get any better than that."