Photograph by Tyra Robertson

Shane Provost, left, and Austin Johnson compete in the Hoosier Guitar Idol competition at Max's Place. The popular event, sponsored by the IU Business Careers in Entertainment Club, raises money for the Bloomington Hospital Emergency Room. Johnson won this year's competition.

It all started with a simple brainstorming session. IU senior Eric Butte, from the IU Business Careers in Entertainment Club (BCEC), wanted to put on a show that would draw a crowd, be fun and worthwhile, and maybe draw a little profit in for the Emergency Room at Bloomington Hospital, which saved his life from a near-fatal motorcycle accident several years ago.

He wanted something fun and simple. What he got was Hoosier Guitar Idol, a two-year-running, rip-roaring good time of a guitar talent show that attracts the best axemen this side of State Road 37.

"There's just something about guitar playing that brings people out, that people love to see," Butte said. "People love guys like Slash and Jimmy Page, and they also love [shows like] American Idol. So the idea just combined the two."

***

Last year, Hoosier Guitar Idol brought out an impressive lot of players, with winner Kyle Gilpin earning a spot with Bloomington bar band The Buzzkills. While there were no such spots to fill this year, the turnout nearly doubled in size, and the winner earned a sweet cash prize and whatever glory that comes with the title of 2008's Hoosier Guitar Idol.

It also sparked a continuum of giving back, not only to the original cause, but to everyone involved.

The student-run BCEC's goal was to bring in a generous donation for the E.R. It succeeded, by bringing in somewhere around $500 in tickets and donations.

The event also brought good business to Bloomington staple Max's Place, especially since it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day when the establishment is usually closed. And it brought local talent out from behind closed doors to a real stage and an enthusiastic audience so their talents could actually be heard in public.


Photograph by Tyra Robertson

Hoosier Guitar Idol finalist Tyler Baker shows the guitar who's boss. Hoosier Guitar Idol is held each year at Max's Place, located on Seventh Street between College and Walnut.

In the end, everyone won.

***

Now, some basement "Guitar Hero" showdown this was not. Held at Max's Place, contestants were put through a series of tests, ranging from solo riff work to one-one-one face-off onstage, backed by the house band. This year, the preliminary rounds were held on Jan. 21, with the remaining five finalists performing seven days later.

Both nights were packed with people, many making fast friends and sharing food and table space all in the name of quality rock 'n roll. The crowd was diverse and plentiful.

On the first night, the rules were simple: the first round was dedicated to solo skills, where the contestants could show off their face-melters and wow the crowd. The second round featured a panel of judges -- David Baas from Roadworthy Guitar; Dan Sumner, a local musician and IU assistant instructor at the Jacobs School of Music; and Scott Hubiak, an IU senior and director of the music committee in the BCEC.

The six finalists were Tyler Baker, Kyle Gilpin (last year's winner), Austin Johnson, Casimir (Casey) Lewandowski and Shane Provost. Each brought his own unique style of playing, and each looked totally at ease and fluid onstage. But many had improved from the first night, per the judges' request for more personal composition instead of just showing off their fretwork or pedal skills.

Provost, a finalist with blond dreads, a memorable stage presence and a genuinely sweet demeanor, said, "It's easy to fall into that trap of treating it like a sport, rather than playing from the heart, as cheesy as that sounds." By the end, each guitarist seemed to play like he meant it, which made the final decision difficult.


Photograph by Tyra Robertson

The competition was judged by a panel of local guitar heroes and was sponsored by Roadworthy Guitar & Amp. This is the judges' view of Tyler Baker and Austin Johnson.

After an "icebreaker" opener by acoustic guitarists Bryn Clark and Chris Dollar, the first round began, with each finalist playing an original riff with the backing band for 5-10 minutes. After one was eliminated, the musicians faced off in pairs, based upon similarity of style. One player from each of those pairs was eliminated, leaving the final two - Austin Johnson and Tyler Baker -- in a 12-bar blues showdown.

***

Ultimately, the judges couldn't decide right away and offered a second chance for the finalists to show their skills, per the audience's request. After another five minutes, the judges selected Johnson, a senior at DePauw University and habitual jazz guitar player.

Johnson, caught up among the praise and congratulations from audience members, friends and fans, said, "It feels great, and I'm really excited [to have won]. It was a pretty close competition, but a lot of fun."

Johnson walked away with various prizes from the Bloomington Hospital and other vendors, as well as a cash prize that was rumored to be around $300.

And as for Butte, who felt "euphoric" after the show, he looked back on Hoosier Guitar Idol 2008 with pure pride.

"Overall, it was a complete success on many different levels," he said. "It was a success for the contestants, the hospital, Max's Place -- it's really special."

Caitlin Brase can be reached at cbrase@indiana.edu.