Arts & Entertainment

12-year-old blues guitarist phenom plays 'like he's about 50 years old'

Ray Goren, 12, started playing guitar around three-and-a-half years ago, and he's already got his own band named after him.
Ray Goren, 12, started playing guitar around three-and-a-half years ago, and he's already got his own band named after him.
José Martinez/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2.0MB

Old-timers who have been playing the blues for decades are in awe of Ray Goren. They say his guitar-playing is phenomenal, they call him a genius and they say nobody compares to him.

They even say he's already got a signature lick – although, if you ask Goren, he's not quite sure what it is.

One more thing: Goren's about to enter the seventh grade.

The 12-year-old, Irvine-based electric guitarist and vocalist picked up the guitar just 3 1/2 years ago, and already he's got his own band named after him.

Goren got his start playing live gigs a few months ago while watching harmonica player Mason Casey perform at a bar. (He was with his dad.) Goren's father and Casey talked, and then Casey invited Goren to the stage to accompany him on guitar.

"It was horrible," said Goren. "My playing was, I mean – the band was amazing. I was horrible. But I'm a lot better now."

He's not the only one who thinks so. He says he's "played a ton of shows" in the past few months, and on Monday night, he played with 68-year-old Bobby "Hurricane" Spencer, who's been playing saxophone for more than 50 years and has played with the likes of Etta James, B.B. King and Otis Redding. Every Monday, Spencer hosts what he calls an all-star blues jam at Lucy's 51, a lounge in Toluca Lake.

When Spencer calls Goren up to the stage, the 12-year-old looks a little, well, small holding his guitar. But after playing just a single bar and watching the way his face contorts with concentration and feeling as he makes the guitar wail, there’s no doubt that he holds his own among the older, more seasoned musicians backing him.

“Ray is an old soul," says Spencer after the set. "He might be 12, but he really ain’t. He plays – like I always say – like he's about 50 years old, and had three divorces and children everywhere, paying alimony."

Spencer isn't the only old-timer who feels that way. Sammy Lee has been playing harmonica for 30 of his 65 years, and was also present for Goren's performance on Monday. He says the kid is incredible.

"Very soulful," Lee said. "Got a whole lot of soul for a young man. He plays with a feeling. I’ve been around a whole lot of blues people. … Lot of people play what they hear. He plays what he feels and you can tell.”

78-year-old Jamie Powell – a blues guitarist for 53 years – was there, too, and invokes the name of one of the greats when asked about Goren's ability.

"They think Stevie Ray Vaughan was bad? This is gonna be bad," he said. "They can't take nothing from him."

The weight of these men's praise isn't lost on the young Goren.

"First thing I have to say is respect," he said. "I really respect the fact they have a lot of experience. I just try to learn from them as much as I can. It's a cool feeling. I like that."

Goren's made a habit of keeping an eye on those with more experience – like Vaughan for example. He's influenced by a gamut of artists, including Freddie King, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Ask Goren to describe his playing style, and he'll say it's some of Vaughan's intensity, B.B. King's "bluish licks" and Freddie King's syncopation.

Ask Spencer, Lee and Powell who the boy reminds them of, though, and there's no disagreement: All three say B.B. King.

"I think he's going to put blues in a place that, in modern times, it's never been," said Spencer. "If he was 50 even right now, he would be a phenomenal guitar player."

For now, though, Goren's focusing on his upcoming gigs, one of which is the Central Avenue Jazz Festival in South Los Angeles, where he'll play on Sunday afternoon. He played last year, too, joining bluesman Deacon Jones on the stage for a song.

And when the fall rolls around, he's got school to think about, too.

"I just have to keep school before everything, which I've been doing," Goren said. "I get straight As. I also practice every day for two to four hours, depending on the day."

But once he takes the stage, nothing could be further from his mind.

"My eyes are closed and I'm feeling it," he said. "I don't really think about anything when I'm on stage. Unless I screw up. But if I screw up, I screw up, and I get over it in a second."

Spoken like a true bluesman.

The Ray Goren Band is scheduled to play on Sunday, July 29 at 3:50 p.m. at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival, which will take place at the intersection of Central Avenue and 42nd Street. For more information, click here.