Local man vies to become King of the Blues

Posted 7/14/10

Starting when he was 9 years old, Kirby Joe Velarde used to play his guitar in his room every day from the time he got home from school until he went …

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Local man vies to become King of the Blues


Starting when he was 9 years old, Kirby Joe Velarde used to play his guitar in his room every day from the time he got home from school until he went to bed. But his parents never knew the extent of his guitar skills until he was 14.

“I surprised them,” Velarde said. “They had a pool party and I asked if I could play guitar. I just smoked the other guitar players. It was pretty cool.”

Twenty-five years later Velarde is still smoking other guitar players and proving he has the talent to make it big.

On July 15, the Littleton resident will be strumming alongside four other undiscovered blues artists, all of them regional semifinalists, at the Guitar Center King of the Blues contest in Dallas. The winner of this competition will go on to the finals in Hollywood to vie for a chance at the $25,000 grand prize.

To get to this point, Velarde had to beat out other musicians at two district competitions in the Denver area.

Velarde says he never wanted to do a competition, but one day this spring when he walked into the Englewood Guitar Center to buy some strings, he saw there was only one slot left for the district competition. His girlfriend and a store employee talked him into signing up.

“There was one slot open; what are the odds?” Velarde said. “I came in the very next night and won the competition.”

The 39-year-old has not had any formal schooling in music. He did, however, grow up in a musical household. His parents played six nights a week in a band, with his mother singing and his father playing the drums. At 17 Velarde began playing in his dad’s band.

“My parents did it for a living,” he said. “That’s how they raised me and my brother and sister. I just kind of grew up with it.”

Velarde plays with his band, which still includes his dad, at local bars and clubs. But his real bread and butter is touring the world as a guitarist with Houston-based gospel singer Kurt Carr.

Gospel music has figured heavily into Velarde’s musical career. He currently plays at three different area churches.

“Playing gospel really helps you out on all your styles,” he said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, especially in the gospel world, but I’ve always wanted to be a blues player and make my mark in the secular world too. This could be an opportunity to do that. That’s what I’m praying for anyway.”

For the semifinals Velarde must choose one of 30 songs written specifically for the competition to play before the judges. But players are judged not only on how well they can play the song. Their creative talents will also be a factor.

“What you want to do is give them something they are not expecting at all but really lightens their ears up, just something different,” Velarde said. “You have to be able to bring your ability. They want creativity.”

Inspired by blues and jazz greats like Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Louis Armstrong, Velarde likes to incorporate smooth jazz and rock into his blues, and describes his playing style as aggressive. Originally from Alexandria, Va., Velarde also plays drums, keyboard and bass.

“I don’t sing, but neither did Kenny Wayne Shepherd and he made it,” he joked.

Velarde has been studying the musical stylings of past King of the Blues winners and says that at this level, winning is less about talent and more about what styles the judges prefer.

“Certain players can get so good that it comes down to what the judges want to hear,” he said. “I’m going to mix up some different styles into it and if those particular judges just want to hear the blues, I’m out the door.”

Winning the regional competition would earn Velarde some impressive prizes, like his choice of Gibson electric and acoustic guitars, but the grand prize is what he is after. In addition to the prize money, he would win endorsement deals, a feature story in Guitar World Magazine and would meet Derek Trucks and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

“I don’t sell myself short to anybody, and I don’t sell anybody else short either,” Velarde said. “I think I have a great chance. I think its up in the air for anybody. I could win. It doesn’t mean I will.”


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