By Kathy Cichon
As a teenager in a California high school band during the 1960s, Gary Pihl took the advice of a fellow student and guitar player. The friend had heard about an older guy who was giving guitar lessons in the next town over.
"He said he was so good, we should all take lessons from this guy," Pihl said.
At age 15, he was too young to drive, so his mother drove him to the lessons.
"He was really good, and he taught us some stuff. And he was in a band called The Warlocks at the time," Pihl said. "In fact, we went to see them play -- they played in a pizza parlor -- they were excellent.
"About six months later, they changed their name to the Grateful Dead. That was Jerry Garcia giving us lessons."
Garcia, he said, was nothing but professional.
"People will ask, 'Man, was he stoned, or what?'" Pihl said. "No, no. He was very professional and taught us some cool riffs. He knew exactly what we needed and was patient with us, because I'm sure we were probably terrible as guitar players."
If Pihl was a terrible guitar player, it certainly wasn't for long. The famed guitarist spent several years playing with Sammy Hagar before joining Boston 30 years ago.
Known for hits that include "More Than a Feeling" and "Don't Look Back," Boston -- along with Night Ranger -- will perform at 7:30 p.m. July 3 at Festival Park at Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.
"We're certainly going to play all the hit songs that people love to sing along with, but we're also going to play some songs that we haven't played for a while," he said. "People will write into our Facebook page and request a song or two and say, 'You haven't done this for a while,' so we're going to throw out some stuff that we haven't played for a while. And of course we're going to play some songs from the new album, 'Life, Love & Hope.'"
As for which songs from the 2013 album, he wouldn't give that away just yet.
"I'll just say that we've been very happy with the response," he said. "People seem to like the new stuff, and so we're going to spring something on the folks there in Elgin. I'm not sure which ones."
As for the classic hits that everyone knows, Pihl is still happy to play those.
"People ask us, 'Do you get tired of playing the same songs for the last 30 years?' Well I would if I just had to sit in my living room and play them," he said. "But when you're standing on the stage and people are smiling and singing along, these songs obviously mean something to people. I tell you, I get a lump in my throat, it's the best feeling in the world. So there's that special connection. When we're playing these songs live, in front of a real audience that loves them, that's what keeps us going and obviously keeps the audience coming back to us."
While Pihl spent his teens on the West Coast, he was born in Park Ridge. As a child he lived for a time in Mount Prospect and Park Forest.
"People will ask me, 'Gee, were you a Chicago blues player?' Not when I was 10 years old, no. I wasn't hanging out in the clubs with Muddy Waters," he joked.
He still returns to visit family and friends who live in the Chicago area.
"When I go back there, the names of the towns and roads are familiar to me, so that feels like home," he said. "When I go to California, I lived there for 20 years, that looks familiar and feels like home. And now I've been in Boston for 30 years, so this feels familiar and like home as well. I'm a bit of a transplant."
Pihl's relationship with Boston began long before he joined the band and moved to the city. In 1977, Pihl had been performing in a local band in the San Francisco Bay area. The group was looking for a singer, and having heard that Hagar just left the band Montrose, approached him. Hagar told Pihl he didn't want to join the band but that he was looking for a guitar player.
"I went down to audition for Sammy and got the gig. One of the first things we did was open up the end of Boston's first tour," Pihl said. "Their first album came out in 1976; they were still promoting it in '77."
After that, they were asked to open Boston's entire second tour. They spent 1978-79 touring the country. While working with them, Pihl got to talking with Boston's founder, Tom Scholz, about their common interest in electronics, and they became friends.
In 1985, Pihl was still playing with Hagar's band when Hagar got the call to join Van Halen.
"Of course he said, 'This is an offer I can't refuse, I got to go with Van Halen. I hate to break up our band, but I just got to do it,'" Pihl said.
Scholz heard about it and called Pihl and said, "Hey, I heard you're out of a gig. Why don't you come back here and help me finish the 'Third Stage' album? There was one more song to be recorded.
"So I went back, and that was the end of '85, and I've been here ever since. Thirty years later," Pihl said. "I was so lucky. Our last show with Sammy was Farm Aid 1 down in Champaign. I flew directly from Champaign back to Boston to start working with Tom. So I wasn't out of work for a day. How lucky can a guy get?"