Gary Vogensen was 17 when he picked up a guitar for the first time. It was a gift from his parents, and he never put it down.
“It just stuck,” he said. “It felt so natural and it became a passion.” Within a year and a half, he was in his first band.
Nearly 50 years later, he has earned a reputation as a stellar guitarist, singer and harmonica player who is equally adept at playing jazz, blues, country or rock ’n’ roll. A longtime member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, he also has played with the likes of Steve Miller, Carlene Carter, Elvin Bishop and Commander Cody.
Growing up in Marin County in the 1960s gave Vogensen an opportunity to hear live music at San Francisco venues such as the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. He also started going to rehearsal halls, where he met professional musicians.
“I learned a lot just hanging out and watching people play,” he said.
One day, Vogensen met legendary blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, who was producing a record for Barry Melton. “He was brilliant and laser-smart,” Vogensen recalled. Bloomfield and Melton were rehearsing when the musicians started an informal jam session.
“My buddies pushed me forward into the room with my Fender guitar,” Vogensen said. Bloomfield took notice of the young guitarist. “He was very gracious,” Vogensen said. “He told Barry (Melton) that he should take me on the road with him. Over the years, he recommended me to several musicians.”
That was a seminal moment for Vogensen.
“For me, it was an entrée into the world of real artists,” he said.
Bloomfield continued to be a supporter and mentor for Vogensen until his death in 1981. He hired him for gigs and recording sessions and introduced him to many musicians, including Frank Zappa, Maria Muldaur, Nick Gravenitas and Norton Buffalo.
Vogensen played in Elvin Bishop’s band for many years and found him to be, “an extraordinary person. He was a National Merit Scholar who found his way into the music business. Hanging out with someone that long has been a privilege and a rarified place to be.”
One time, Vogensen was playing with Bishop at Lake Tahoe, and Etta James was doing a show at the same venue.
“Her guitar player hurt his wrist and I was recruited to play with her,” he recalled. “At one point during the show, I realized that everyone I had worked with - up to that point - was a second-generation blues and R&B musician. Now I was playing with someone from the first generation. In my mind, it put me at different level. She had become such an icon, and at that time was rebuilding her career.”
One of his most memorable moments was a job he didn’t get. In 1976, Zappa was looking for musicians for his band, and thanks to Bloomfield’s recommendation, Vogensen was invited to audition.
“I spent two weeks with Frank Zappa, trying to get into his band,” he said. “It was an educational experience. But in the end, I didn’t get the gig.”
About 10 years later, his friendship with Russ Gauthier led to a more satisfying conclusion. Gauthier, a multi-instrumentalist in the country-rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage, called Vogensen when their guitar player quit the band a week before they were scheduled to go on tour. It turned into a stint of more than 15 years.
WHERE TO HEAR GARY VOGENSEN
March 17: Powerglide, former members of New Riders of the Purple Sage. Rancho Nicasio. 8:30 p.m.
April 7: Rivertown Trio. Brewster’s Beer Garden, Petaluma. 8 p.m.
April 16: GV and the Ramble Band. Aqus Café, Petaluma. 2 p.m.
April 26: Rivertown Trio. The Big Easy, Petaluma. 7:30 p.m.
May 21: GV and the Ramble Band. Aqus Café, Petaluma. 2 p.m.
May 28: With the Blues Broads. Rancho Nicasio. 4 p.m.