Features, Print February 5, 2020

Sultans of Shred: Greeley Teen’s World-Class Guitar Chops Run In La Familia

by Dan England

Instead of cartoons, Liam Garcia spent his early years watching jazz fusion concerts on DVD. By the time Wanda Vasquez-Garcia and Socrates Garcia gave him his first guitar, a small one most kids would treat like a toy, he was ready.

The Garcias didn’t have to do much to nurture his talent, other than be the musicians they were. Wanda sang around the house and Socrates played guitar at night. Liam was already noodling on one of his father’s guitars at age 3. As he grew and his talent blossomed, Liam continued to watch the concert DVDs. “That’s what I fell asleep to at night,” he said.

He’s now 17, a junior at Greeley West High School, and by all accounts plays guitar better than just about anyone else in the world his age (and honestly, most people twice his age). He traveled to London in September for the Young Guitarist of the Year competition as the only American selected for the finals. He plans to study at the Berklee College of Music’s summer school on scholarship – the third year in a row for him. He’ll decide about college soon, leaning towards the iconic institution because he listens to everything, and believes Berklee can match his eclectic interests.

Composer, Band leader and UNC professor Socrates Garcia grits his teeth to keep up with the shredding of his 17-year-old son Liam, Greeley West student and finalist in 2019’s Young Guitarist Of The Year competition. Photo by Michael Olivier

Berklee got wind of Liam when he (with no help from dad) sent a video of himself playing a Stevie Vai tune to an administrator. He was all of 8. It instantly got a reply essentially telling him he had a spot waiting for him when he was old enough to attend. Vai, the world renowned rock guitarist, even mentioned Liam’s version of the tune in an interview.

Socrates admits that Liam is much more advanced than he was when he was 17 and trying to make it in a heavy metal band. To put that comment in context, Socrates is kind of a prodigy himself. He’s the director of music technology at the famed University of Northern Colorado School of Music and a touring musician who also runs the well known Socrates Garcia Latin Jazz Orchestra. He began playing guitar when he was 6.

Socrates won’t go quite so far as say Liam is better than he is now, but that rarely comes up, anyway. He prefers to stay out of his son’s way after he attempted to give him a lesson a few years ago. “We were like this,” Socrates laughed while bashing his fists together. “We butted heads too much.”

Playing guitar all over the world, the two have revelled in the joy of playing together – on stage with The Socrates Jazz Orchestra or just trading licks at home. Photo by Michael Olivier

Socrates came to the United States to study composition and music production with Wanda when Liam was 2. They both had good music careers in the Dominican Republic but wanted a better life here. Wanda was 20, a great singer, pianist and conductor, but she gave that up to raise their two kids. Socrates both adores her for that and regrets it for her, even if she is now a music teacher for Pioneer Bilingual Elementary in Lafayette and a director for two choirs in the First Congregational church in Greeley.

Socrates studied production and arranging, realizing when he was 25 that he didn’t want to spend his life on the road as a guitarist – a difficult way to make a living. He’s spent the last decade at UNC teaching, though he also got his doctorate there. He doesn’t want Liam to have to make those same difficult decisions right away. 

The trip to London, for instance, was wonderful. Liam got to learn licks from Marty Walsh (Supertramp), meet other incredible musicians his age and legends like Paul Gilbert, Devin Townsend and John Patitucci. They even endured the 30-minute wait to take a Beatles-mimicking photo of themselves crossing Abbey Road.

It’s possible that Socrates has influenced Liam more than he believes, as Liam also wants to go into producing records instead of being a guitar hero. The music business is changing so much, Liam said, and producing and arranging are valued more than the ability to shred guitar. He’d do a hip-hop record, for instance, if someone wanted him to produce it.

Socrates and Liam Garcia in the guitar amp booth at UNC’s recording studio.
Photo by Michael Olivier

Socrates doesn’t take credit for Liam’s ability, but he is still Dad, and loves to talk about his son. He loved London, for instance, but prefers to talk about what happened a week later, when he asked Liam to join his latin orchestra for a show in Miami.

It was serious stuff among world-renowned musicians, the kind of gig usually filled by one of Socrates’ colleagues at UNC. It was Liam’s first time with a professional orchestra and Socrates smiles at the memory of it.

“He was playing with ME on stage, and that was exhilarating,” he said. “It made me a proud dad. But just seeing him around all the professional superstars holding his own…that was super cool.”