Teen Guitarist From Western Mass. Emulates Blues Heroes, Wins Contests

Mar 15, 2018

This is how a guitar prodigy starts out: Kiam Rennix of Springfield, Massachusetts, was seven years old, watching a Saturday children's show on public TV in his grandmother's house. A segment came on showing how to make your own string instrument. 

"I got so excited that I tried to create my own guitar," Kiam said.

"Kiam was running around the house asking for rubber bands," recalled Kiam's grandmother, Bobbie Rennix, "and he wanted a shoebox, so I gave him a shoebox."

Kiam put the rubber bands around the shoebox, then got a 12-inch wooden ruler for the neck.

"And he was just going around the house plucking," Rennix said, "and I said, 'I know what he's getting for Christmas.'"

That would be a bright red, three-quarter size electric guitar. And Kiam was a natural.

Within a year of starting lessons, he was winning regional guitar competitions by emulating his guitar heroes, most of them blues men: B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn.

"One thing I realize about myself is: if I hear something, I can almost immediately play it, because I just have an ear for the music," Kiam said.

In September 2017, at the age of 14, he won the New England Music Festival in Boston in four guitar categories, knocking out competitors in their 20s. He got a perfect score on Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Pride and Joy."

"The blues is kind of like a soul-reaching thing for me," Kiam said. "Since it kind of like talks to me and understands. So every time I hear it, I feel I'm hearing a story about something or someone."

Kiam lives with his grandmother, Bobbie Rennix, in Springfield's Sixteen Acres neighborhood. His mother lives nearby. But it was his grandmother, a retired public school teacher and administrator, who had time to take him to lessons.

And he's repaid her in kind. There's one tune he plays that Bobbie Rennix said makes it all worthwhile.

Kiam Rennix and his grandmother, Dr. Bobbie Rennix.
Credit Karen Brown / New England Public Radio

"I'm from Arkansas," said Rennix. "I was brought up during segregation, and 'Amazing Grace,' growing up in the 50s and 60s, 'Amazing Grace' was one of the songs that was played in our church a lot. Again it tells a story: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a ... wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, blind but now I see."

The version Kiam plays is not the gospel rendition she knew growing up; it's a jazz version that Kiam's guitar teacher found on YouTube. Now it's one of his mainstays.

"This was kind of like a song only for her, since she really liked the song Amazing Grace," said Kiam. "So I basically learned it for her."

"And I love it whether it's played simply or the way that Kiam plays it now," Rennix said, beaming. "This is Grandma's song."

Kiam owns eight guitars now. He listens to popular music when he's in the car -- Kanye West, Rihanna -- but that's not the kind of musician he wants to be. Blues is where his heart is, and when life gets stressful, it's a release.

"My mind actually goes blank whenever I'm playing guitar, so I really don't think about anything," he said. "The guitar is just like a soothing instrument for me. "

Life is different for musical prodigies today than a few decades ago, according to Kiam's guitar teacher Bruce Yelle.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, when Eric Clapton was God and every 15-year-old guitarist wanted to be him, "those guys did nothing but sit in their rooms for six hours a day for five years," Yelle said. "So a lot of those guitarists, they lost out on a lot of their childhood and a lot socially, by dedicating themselves single mindedly to the guitar. We want to have a more balanced approach."

Yelle said modern teaching methods don't require that much practice, which is lucky, because Kiam's grandmother wouldn't allow it.

"Every time when I came home from school, I would pick up the guitar, and my grandmother would have to stop me from playing, since I was playing so much," Kiam said.

"Well, it was just that he needed to do other things," Rennix explained.

And that's fine with Kiam. He's a serious science student and wants to get a scholarship to college. He's also in a band with two other teenagers. He plays lead guitar -- of course -- but never sings, which Yelle said suits Kiam's personality just fine.

"He’s more of the guy that would stand in the background and be incredible in the back – sort of like the band you hear in dancing with the stars or American idol, backing up all the people," Yelle said. "You don’t know who that guy is, but he sounds great."

At the moment, Kiam's not thinking about a music career. He's been dabbling in acoustic classical guitar, but he's not sure he'll keep it up after high school. He's got other plans. 

"I will basically leave guitar alone for a while, and then pursue my career as a heart surgeon," he said.

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