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Stars line up for homegrown guitar hero, 10

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By David Filipov
Globe Staff / April 7, 2009
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NEW BEDFORD - All musicians can recall the moment when they fell in love with their instruments. For guitarist Quinn Sullivan, that moment came when he was 4. He and his dad were watching a performance of the Toe Jam Puppet Band at the Buttonwood Park Zoo. Quinn decided he would rather join the band than watch. He took the toddler-size guitar he had brought along, got up on stage, and began to play.

He has never looked back. At an age when most kids are enthralled by Fisher-Price, Quinn started thinking about Fender Strats. He has performed with blues legends B.B. King and Buddy Guy. He has been a guest of Ellen and Oprah. When school lets out and other boys will be playing ball in the park, Quinn will be playing shows in Hampton Beach, N.H., Austin, Texas, and Chicago; he will also travel to Nashville to cut tracks for an album with songwriter/record producer Tom Hambridge.

And he just turned 10.

Sipping a root beer in the Sullivan family's modest raised ranch in a quiet New Bedford neighborhood, Quinn seemed like any other fourth-grader, albeit one who wears a buckskin shirt and neck beads. He likes riding bikes, playing ball, and watching "Family Guy" with his friends; he has to do his homework and not talk back; for his birthday on March 26, he got a six-barreled toy dart gun, a squirt pistol, and a bowlful of Smarties, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Swedish Fish.

But put a guitar in his hands and he can channel Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or Duane Allman.

"I basically just said, all these guys are doing it, why can't I do it," recalled Quinn, at ease talking to a reporter as he picked tasty blues licks on his white Fender. "It just came to me."

He plugged it into his Chicago Blues Box amplifier - a gift from Buddy Guy - and launched into credible takes on Clapton's classic blues rock workouts in "Crossroads," "Strange Brew," and "Presence of the Lord."

"I have finally found a way to live/Just like I never could before," he sang with more soul than you might expect from the preteen son of a Polar Beverages route salesman.

Quinn's advanced guitar chops at such a tender age present somewhat of a challenge for his parents, Carol and Terry Sullivan - especially Terry, a drummer who once dreamed of rock stardom but realized years ago he would never make it past cover bands. Now that his son is almost famous, Sullivan's role - besides occasionally backing up Quinn on drums - is to find a balance between nurturing his son's gift, avoiding the perils of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, and making sure he is in bed by 9.

"He's gotten to meet some amazing people," Terry Sullivan, 46, said, showing family photos on the refrigerator in the tidy kitchen: Quinn at the beach; Quinn playing with a toy lawnmower. Oh, and there is Quinn jamming with King; Quinn posing with Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and Guy.

"Those guys are my idols," the proud father gushed. Then he checked himself. Quinn is not yet a rock star; he will finish school and go to college ("Berklee," declared Quinn). The boy is playing a few shows this summer, but, said Sullivan, "school is first; he's not going to jump on tour in September, like the Jonas Brothers." Terry Sullivan will go everywhere Quinn goes - not to glom onto his son's budding stardom, he said, but to make sure there is always a parent around.

The senior Sullivan metes out lessons on drugs - "They did that in the Sixties, right?" Quinn asked when the subject came up - and how to take in stride criticism of his improvisations. Sullivan quietly acknowledged that Quinn the guitarist is still learning when to blaze and when to hold back, especially compared with Guy, whose solos gradually build up to a six-string explosion.

Something for the boy to work on, say, in the two years before he turns 12.

Quinn would like his career path to emulate that of guitarist Derek Trucks, who had jammed with the Allman Brothers Band by the time he was 12. Then again, he was helped along by the archetypal Southern rock band's drummer, Butch Trucks - his uncle.

Terry Sullivan sent the CD that resulted in Quinn's appearance, at age 6, on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show." In 2007, when Guy came to town, Sullivan inquired whether the blues icon would sign his son's guitar before the show. Backstage, Quinn recalled, he showed Guy a couple of licks, "and he said, 'Be ready when I call you.' "

Quinn played alongside Guy that night. Since then, Guy has taken him under his wing, letting Quinn share his agent, helping him with a record deal, bringing him on stage.

"I dunno, we just play whatever he wants to play," Quinn shrugged, describing what it is like to jam with a legend. It is the answer one might expect from a kid who picked up guitar, and singing, without much training. He has a guitar teacher, but he does not read music or understand music theory. He took one lesson at Berklee: "Bored out of my mind," he said.

Nor does Quinn sit around playing guitar all day. After an hour of burning up the frets last Saturday afternoon, Quinn skipped outside to ride bikes with his friends, the Kobza sisters: Lexie, 9, Kaci, 11, and Shaina, 12. (They like blues when Quinn plays but they prefer the Jonas Brothers.)

After Quinn left, Sullivan put on a video of his son playing "Who's Gonna Fill Those Shoes" with Guy in Chicago.

"This man can play," Guy tells the cheering crowd. When the dueling guitar solos wind down, he turns to Quinn and says: "You're gonna fill those shoes."

The proud dad watched.

"See, this is where I cry."

On the TV screen, Guy and Quinn kick into Hendrix's "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)," two guitarists on stage and completely in tune with each other.

David Filipov can be reached at filipov@globe.com.