It was the summer of 2015 when music promoter Ken Rexrode invited me to play a few tunes on my guitar at his open mic night at McGee’s Tavern in Fallbrook. He told me that there would be a 14-year-old electric guitarist on the bill that I should be very impressed with upon hearing him with his band. His name, Anthony Cullins, already donning the moniker “the Fallbrook Kid.” Having heard the endless dribble of young prodigies parroting their guitar heroes, past and present, in note-for-note mechanical muscle-memory fashion, I assumed I would be witnessing another one of the same. As Cullins took the stage with his backing band of gentlemen at least three times his age, I expected a robotic rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” or Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” two commonly played blues tunes often synonymous with the endless stream of young guitar slingers dotting the Sixth Street Ausin, Texas club scene as often as chickens coming to roost.
Much to my surprise, Cullins busted into “Cissy Strut,” a hip R&B instrumental by the New Orleans group the Meters. A few minutes into the tune I was immediately blown away by the young man’s guitar tone, note phrasing, dynamics, and funky groove. After a half hour into his set it became apparent that I was listening to someone certain to make some noise in the not-so-distant future on local and national stages as he further dazzled my senses with the playing maturity of someone way beyond his years, demonstrating a total command of the fretboard with fierce string bends, wicked vibrato, and a lick vocabulary akin to a guitarist that’s been at it for decades.
His dad, Kenny Cullins, observed his son’s affinity for music early on. “At four years old he would run around with a stick playing air guitar as well as bang on pots and pans,” he stated. “Shortly afterward, my family acquired a small-sized guitar in Tijuana for him,” he smiled. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but when he was ten years old, I bought him an acoustic guitar. I phoned around and found a five-week group lessons deal for $50 at a community center in Fallbrook to get him started, “ he reminisced. “His teacher, Larry Robinson, immediately noticed Anthony’s ability to learn songs and chords quickly,” he said. “Larry told me that there’s something special about your boy and that in terms of Anthony’s progress, he hadn’t seen anything like it in all his years of teaching.”
Cullins echoes his dad’s recollection of those initial guitar lessons. “Larry taught me my first chords—C and G—then I got ahead of the class by learning A and D on my own. When the five weeks ended, Larry gave me private lessons out of his house,” he said. “Instead of teaching me how to read music, he taught me songs and chord progressions, mostly oldies from Richie Valens and Santo and Johnny, along with other 1950s songs. We would just start jamming and talking about music most every lesson.”
Robinson then accompanied young Cullins to his first open jam experience at Sorell’s Restaurant in Temecula, subsequently followed up by jam night appearances at the Valley Fort Steakhouse in Fallbrook. It was there he met Paul Alvarado, a veteran guitarist who appealed to Cullins’ liking. “Paul taught me about tone and how to spice up my playing,” he said. “By playing with him and watching him, I learned a lot of licks over two years of attending those weekly jams.”
By this time, Cullins began to gravitate toward the electric guitar side of things, particularly upon hearing the Led Zeppelin IV album in addition to Jimi Hendrix and Queen. “I loved the look and what they sounded like,” he said. “That’s when I decided I want to do that.” Strutting his Gibson Les Paul Deluxe gold top now, his trio, Lucid, comprised of a drummer and bassist in his own age group, worked up a 45-minute set, often opening for Alvarado’s group the Rogue DeVilles.” Paul really encouraged me to start my own group and get exposure that way,” Cullins recalled. “He really was a big help in giving me confidence to succeed on my own.”
After he moved on from Lucid, Cullins comfortably settled into playing with Alvarado as a quartet aptly named the Fallbrook Vigilantes in which Alvarado was gracious enough to spotlight Cullins, billing him as the Fallbrook Kid, an experience that became a valuable learning curve while playing three-hour gigs at the Pala Mesa Resort and jamming at the House of Blues in San Diego.
Cullins has no problem naming numerous well-known guitarists as influences. “Too many to name,” he sighed, “but the obvious ones for me are Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mick Ronson, Ritchie Blackmore, and Randy Rhoads.” After a brief pause he rattled off a few more. “Oh, then there’s José Feliciano, Zakk Wylde, Alvin Lee, Robin Trower, of course Stevie Ray, Johnny Winter, Tony Iommi, Albert Lee, George Benson, Wah Wah Watson, Carlos Santana, and Eric Gales.” Cullins is hip to the fact that writing your own material and being the lead singer is a familiar path that many of his aforementioned guitar favorites traveled. In that light, he has taken up that role in his band settings in addition to periodic voice lessons as well.
Currently, Cullins has also become a regular at open mics and jams, sitting in with bands, playing with anyone he can, often established guitarists who are more than happy to share the stage and trade licks with him. “Anthony is a truly gifted player who “listens” and plays with a passion beyond his years,” exclaimed touring rock guitarist Roni Lee. “I welcome him on my stage,” she added. Blues jam organizer and bandleader Chet Cannon echoed her sentiments. “That young man absolutely rocks and just about tears that guitar apart from the seams… an amazing talent for his age.”
As Cullins’ talents leave many baby boomer and weekend-warrior guitarists shaking their heads in amazement at his ability way beyond his years, it can sometimes leave the door open for many to lend advice and constructive criticism. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for those who offered constructive criticism,” he acknowledged. “Although I get lots of compliments, I tend to ignore them and take to heart those who offer constructive criticism.” Typically, a few of the well-traveled blues players will react to young guitar slingers with the phrase: “you’re not playing real blues.” In Cullins case, he is a student of the genre and is well aware of its history and how he’s going about translating it into his own style. “Blues is expressing the way you feel. If you listen to most players in the genre, they don’t all play it the same,” he stated emphatically. “You can’t really put a label on how to play blues.”
Now as a 15-year-old and a freshman at Mission Vista High School, a magnet school for the arts in Vista, Cullins reflects on what has transpired over the past five years. “I guess I had an ear for music early on and so I was able to pick up parts to songs and melodies, too,” he said, “especially through videos where I would always be watching the guitarist’s fingers. I usually copy parts of a guitarist’s solo, but then I put my own twist to it as well.” Cullins thirst for knowledge is unbridled as exemplified in his daily practice routine. “I wake up at 6am, get ready for school, eat breakfast, then practice an hour until I leave for school at 7:15,” he said with a smile. “When I get home at 3pm, other than dinner and a shower, I usually practice and watch music videos until 10.” However, his grades in school haven’t suffered due to his zealous practice routine, as he maintains As and Bs in all his subjects. As far as the future is concerned, Cullins wants to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston once he completes high school. “I just want everything to go fast so I can see where all this takes me.”
One of his musical mentors at his high school is Anne Fennell, who teaches music composition and steel drum. “Anthony is a superb, intuitive, soulful musician who has a sixth sense about every note he plays. I’ve never met anyone so talented at such a young age,” Fennell raved. “He has a thirst for musical knowledge and is fast to take an idea and make it something more musical than one could have ever imagined. I feel so fortunate to know him and to have a chance to teach him as I watch him make his mark on the world.” Fennell sums up what so many of us pedestrian folks have surmised and are anticipating about Cullins’ future. “I know we will be seeing him play on national and international stages in just a few years. He’s got the ‘it’ that so many people wish they had… he’s.truly amazing as a human being and a musician!”