He thought he would major in chemistry. It took just one semester to realize his error — there is no magic in science when music is in your soul.
As a child Kelin (pronounced Kellen) Gibbons was immersed in music. His father was an electrical engineer who worked at the Space Dynamics Lab at Utah State University but who also played cello in high school and throughout college. His mother played the flute, so their home was filled with the sounds and seeds of what would become Kelin’s gift and passion.
His grandfather owned Ross Distributing in Preston, and Kelin has happy memories of listening to classic groups like the Beatles and Abba on the family’s drives north to visit him. His grandfather was also a musician who had possibly the largest Louis Armstrong memorabilia collection around.
Kelin started piano lessons at eight years old and actually enjoyed it, though he never learned to read music. His teacher was exasperated with him when, instead of learning how to read the notes, he simply played back what she played. He laughs, “It drove her nuts.” She left teaching when he began the sixth grade, which propelled him into trying other instruments. He had always had trouble coordinating both hands anyway, which is common for potential pianists.
When students at school were shown various instrument options, he chose the viola because it was, in his words, the “weird” instrument. It wasn’t long before he picked up a banjo and then an accordion. He’s well aware that the banjo and accordion are sometimes regarded as truly annoying instruments, but perhaps that’s why he loves them – he’s not really one to conform.
Kelin took banjo lessons from one of his father’s coworkers but is largely self-taught. After two years working to master the banjo, he picked up a guitar. At first it was just with friends, for fun – the first song he learned was “Sweet Home Alabama,” although he was mostly focused on metal music. It hadn’t occurred to him yet that music would be what he did in life.
He headed to Utah State right out of high school. It was a family tradition. His father, Wally, also attended USU. He played for a few musicals, which provided excellent opportunities to hone his craft. He was the only guitar player who could read music, although he struggled to read the treble clef. He spent time playing in the jazz band as well.
Kelin began working on his degree in music eight years ago and graduated three years ago. He studied under the world-class instructors there, and it shows. Much of his musical education has been done on his own, though, and he continues to grow and learn.
Kelin played hockey in high school, participated in Junior Jazz, and became involved in the ham radio scene. Wally built ham radio kits as a young man, and that knowledge propelled Kelin into an incredibly useful hobby. Nowadays enthusiasts can use handheld units, which, as Kelin pointed out, are extremely helpful when he is in the middle of yet another backpacking trip. His knowledge of electronics is also useful for his side business of repairing amps.
The Gibbons family is highly intelligent and quite accomplished, yet they are close and get along without the typical familial issues. Kelin’s older brothers, Karl and Kory, are multi-talented, playing several instruments each and also remaining active in the ham radio community. His sister, Kierra, the youngest, is getting an education in social work, following in her mother’s footsteps. Clearly music and service run deep in this talented family.
There’s more to it than all that, though. Kelin Gibbons is a musician’s musician. He has the somewhat rare gift of relative pitch, which means he is able to hear where his bandmates are, quite accurately, so he can craft and create at will. This gives him the ability to be highly agile. He can also memorize music almost instantly, which provides easy recall and heightened abilities to improvise. Listening to his recordings and live performances can send chills up the spine because instruments and riffs sound almost unearthly.
Kelin understands the power of all this. His aim is to have his guitar sound like a saxophone or voice so that each note has its own inherent value. It’s a different way to play than most and it works incredibly well. He loves trying new techniques to create different sounds, such as bending into the notes. It helps him step outside the proverbial musical box and create what most people cannot.
His talent is well-known. He plays in several groups, including The Treebeard Trio, with his talented brothers; Entwood, also with his brothers along with a front man, and which focuses on nature, socioeconomic issues, and other influences; Sundown Swing, a Western swing band; Roughstock, a long-running country band; The 3 Sons, comprised of Kelin and his brothers; the Highline Drifters, a very popular group in the Logan area; and Swamp Donkey, a metal band he began years ago with one of his brothers and for which they write all the music themselves.
Kelin describes metal as controlled chaos, noting it is classically based and often much more intricate than people realize. It is the musical genre he has played the longest on the guitar and which has helped his technique and speed. This provides the ability to easily transition to other instruments and playing styles – Kelin doesn’t just exhibit mastery on everything he plays, he is able to employ various techniques many are not familiar with.
Playing the banjo seems common, but he uses not only the standard banjo, with five strings, he plays a three-string, created by Earl Scruggs and popularized by Roy Clark and others, plays a plectrum banjo, with just four strings, and also utilizes the clawhammer approach. Kelin carries a full teaching load through KSM Music and particularly enjoys teaching the banjo.
Kelin’s performances aren’t limited to the groups he’s a part of. He still plays for musicals, including Big River at the Lyric Repertory Theatre. Most of his gigs are in Utah and occasionally southern Idaho, but once he traveled to northern California to spend two days playing for a contra dance gathering, which he really enjoyed. At USU he participated in guitar ensembles at Abravanel Hall and at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
As a musician he has learned the incredible value of trust. Creating high-quality music with bandmates you can rely on is invaluable. Kelin is also a generous musician, happy to remain in the background instead of needing to be featured constantly. He has many opportunities for both, though, since he stays very busy with the various groups he’s involved in.
Catch him at Jack’s Wood Fired Oven, Caffe Ibis, the Beehive Grill, and venues in Ogden and Salt Lake City. He particularly enjoys playing at the Cache Valley Gardeners’ Market, where he and his bandmates enjoy solid support from market vendors and the community. Wherever he picks up an instrument, the magic begins again.
Kelin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An expanded version of this story will be featured soon on Facebook at Cathy L. Mason – author.