No matter what kind of music Felipe Gardea plays, he always adds a funky spin that’s palpable to all around him.
“We were playing classic rock, AC/DC and all that stuff (at a gig). ... Everyone was feeling it. I have a direct funk and R&B influence; that’s what I studied for years,” the guitar and bass player said. “It just always comes out in my playing.”
The Norfolk native has just finished his first year of school at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. And he said “easily I’m twice a better musician” after just one year of studies, mentorship and participating in student musician communities.
“My friends really pushed me. Between students, there’s just a healthy rivalry going on,” he said. “Like, ‘Check out this thing I learned,’ and then you instantly kind of want to one-up them. Just a personal thing. That was really fun.”
After he arrived at the college, he had to re-audition and then choose a private instructor who would be responsible for shaping his musicianship through one-on-one lessons throughout the year.
Gardea chose Dave Buda, a bass instructor who has performed with the Boston Pops, Patti LaBelle, Bono and more. Buda has described himself as “very direct” and focuses on a mix of jazz, rock, R&B and fusion on Berklee’s website.
Gardea said he was drawn to Buda’s blunt, more “rough-around-the-edges” style. It was the first time he had private lessons, which he said helped him be a more conscious musician.
“(Buda) really helped me out with some technique issues I just figured out on my own. He really cleaned them up,” Gardea said. “He really got me playing more consistently, knowing what I’m doing and why I’m doing when I’m playing certain things.”
Up to that point, Gardea had taken music theory at Norfolk High and also participated in concert and jazz band ensembles.
When he was considering what to do after graduation in May 2018, he was “really intrigued” by Berklee’s focus on music and the possibility of working with staff who all have professional music experience.
“It’s kind of what I’ve dived into,” he said. “I had other plans to maybe go into social studies or social sciences. But I took a chance, I auditioned for Berklee and got in so that’s what I rolled with.”
In his first year, he took classes including Harmony II, Arranging I and Writing for Bands, which he said all tied together conceptually.
“Whatever we’re covering in harmony class directly helps you in ensemble and whatever you learn in your ensemble can help you in private instruction,” he said. “Just overall you’re more aware of what you’re doing.”
And he had plenty of opportunities to collaborate with his classmates who would pull him into projects.
“I’m unknowingly on a lot of projects,” he said. “It would just be, someone would show up to my room and be like, ‘Hey Felipe, can I borrow you for like 20 minutes?’ I’d play on a few of their songs, and that was it from there.”
He also writes his own music, which can be found on all major music platforms.
Over the summer he’s been working at Midwest Music Center and getting experience at area gigs with various bands: Back Road Spirits, Mason Michaels, Baker Explosion and Tucker Hill Citizens Brigade.
One of the main differences between the Midwest and East Coast music scenes, he said, is that here it’s rooted in country.
“Country’s present in all of the styles. So if it’s funk, there’s a little bit of country in it — which is a cool combo when it’s played right,” he said. “Everything out here is based on country and blues, and I definitely have that influence as well on my playing.”
Baker Explosion is a “kind of a jam band” with a combination of a lot of different styles, including country, funk, R&B and reggae, which he said can make for interesting rehearsals.
“We’ll be playing a country song, then we’ll take a break and then we’ll play a jazz tune just for fun, and we’ll play a punk rock song somebody wrote,” he said. “We just play whatever we’re feeling at that time.”
As the summer comes to a close, he’s looking forward to being a part of more projects that were started in his first academic year. His workload also includes taking Harmony IV, participating in an R&B ensemble and taking a general studies course on mythology.
Now that he’s immersed himself in the music world, he wants to keep going. He’s studying to get a professional music degree by combining music performance, business and production majors.
He’s aiming to be a studio musician in a bigger city, possibly in Nashville or on the East Coast, he said.
“My end goal — my dream job if you want to call it that — would be to be a studio musician,” he said. “So I think with those three (Berklee majors) combined, that gives me a great chance of doing that.”