Eli Dykstra started school this week, a sophomore at Boyden-Hull. The first day of classes -- Wednesday, Aug. 23 -- meant an early dismissal for Eli and his peers. By 2:25 p.m. they would have likely rushed out those school doors to go home or attend extracurricular activities. But Eli’s after-school hobby that particular day was nearly 66 miles away from his home in Boyden, Iowa.
The 15-year-old guitarist, with the help of his parents, was to make his way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and open the show for a handful of rock bands. Call-time was 7 p.m. at Bill’s Bar. Eli was to perform first, playing a solo-guitar set in front of strangers and fans of the featured bands Next to None, Doll Skin and Marah in the Mainsail.
It’s the type of gig Eli is used to, especially around Siouxland. The young musician has played in places like the Sioux City Conservatory of Music, The Huddle and Whiskey Dick’s, and has even been booked a slot at Awesome Biker Nights. Not bad for a small-town boy two years shy of graduating from high school.
Eli’s most recent accomplishment is his involvement in the O’Keefe Music Foundation, a volunteer-run organization from Cincinnati, Ohio, designed to “help bring the work of young musicians to a global audience and educate them about music production.” In 2013, the O’Keefe Music Foundation received a great deal of public attention when it released a video of children performing a cover of Tool’s “46 and 2,” which went viral and garnered nearly 15 million views on YouTube.
“It’s for kids like me who want to play music,” said Eli. “It gives a cool experience of learning how to make a music video, learning how to record well -- I’ve learned so much from those experiences.”
Boyden’s young guitarist was able to contribute his talents to two music videos organized by the O’Keefe Music Foundation. The song -- yet another Tool cover -- is “The Pot,” and was produced into five separate versions. Eli plays in version No. 3 and No. 4 — the former has gained more than 61,000 views since its release on Aug. 10 (and at the time this article was printed).
In that video, Eli plays with four other “kid musicians” and is visibly the most energetic of the group, shifting his weight from each foot and letting his hair flail about as he fully immerses himself into the rock song. When he’s given a solo, Eli tackles it head on. His fingers are frantic but precise. All the while he’s moving to the music. He’s not just playing; he’s putting on a show.
Eli will be featured in three more O’Keefe Music Foundation videos to be released at later dates. One of which is a take on Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” filmed in a skating rink. And another is a studio recording, which took place at Lattitude Studio South in Nashville — the same studio the thrash metal band Megadeth recorded its Grammy Award winning 2016 album “Dystopia.”
Cooped up in a small town in Iowa, Eli manages to find ways to break free from classwork and an endless sea of cornfields. Traveling with him to shows throughout the Midwest, his parents support him not only with transportation but with real-world critical thought toward his playing. Jen, his mother, isn’t afraid to tell her son how she really thinks of Eli’s songs. Some of which he’s worked on for hours, if not longer. It’s a harshness motivated by love. It stings at first, but it’s for the better.
It’s probably not something Eli expected when he asked for a guitar for his ninth birthday, but it was the inevitable outcome when it became clear that playing electric guitar was more than just a hobby for Eli. That first guitar -- a black Fender Squier -- may have been Eli’s first introduction to the instrument, but he had been an admirer long before that.
“It’s funny, I didn’t even have a guitar but I’d watch guitar tutorials on the Internet,” said Eli.
Once he received the gift from his grandpa, Eli tried playing what he previously watched. Within the first hour he started to pick up on a few things. And then he watched even more tutorials on YouTube. Noticing her son’s continued interest, Jen suggested that Eli take guitar lessons now that he had his own guitar.
Jen hinted that Eli’s fascination with the instrument started at an even younger age than 9, suggesting that one of his first words was probably “guitar.” She bought him what she thought was a miniature guitar -- in actuality, it was a ukelele.
“He’d strum that all the time and make up songs,” she said. “Then we got him one of those plastic blue ones where you push the buttons and it makes noise. But every year he’d keep asking for a guitar.”
Eli eventually received guitar lessons in Spencer, Iowa, about an hour’s drive east of his hometown. Back then when Eli would watch guitar tutorials, he’d look up songs by bands he enjoyed. And the ones he enjoyed most were rock bands. Groups like Skillet and Disturbed and other rock groups that he’d listen to with his dad. Even as a child, Eli would be rocking out during car rides.
“I’d be in the back seat throwing up ‘the horns,’” Eli said, making the heavy metal hand gesture by extending his index and little fingers upward and holding down his middle and ring fingers with his thumb.
After nearly a year’s worth of guitar lessons, Eli played his first live show in front of an audience at the age of 10. He took part in and won a talent show. He was nervous and self-conscious of his playing, even going so far as to try and convince himself that he should just leave and go back home to practice some more.
Eli remembered when the presenter asked him who he was, the kid guitarist nervously answered with his life biography (“I’m Eli Dykstra. I’m 10 years old. I was born April 12, 2002…”). After some good-spirited laughter from the crowd and host, Eli played a seven-minute montage of spliced rock songs and riffs that he had half-learned. Despite that rough start, Eli earned the win and got a taste of what his life would be like in a few more years.
“I feel like that just boosted my drive to want to do it even more,” said Eli. “I realized that I could do something with the guitar. That really started to motivate me. Then I started doing more talent shows and started with my own shows.”
Today, Eli regularly plays shows throughout Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska. Since he’s younger, Eli tends to play early as an opening act for hard rock and metal shows.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize I’m 15 until I say it,” he said.
And as a result, it’s tough for his parents to find gigs for Eli. Convincing venue owners to give a teen-aged solo act a chance to play before a regional metal band can be difficult.
“Most people think a 15-year-old [will be] strumming an acoustic guitar,” said Jen. “But when they see him, they’re like, ‘What! Was! That!’ and then their whole attitude changes.”
While not opposed to playing a coffee shop setting, Eli is the kind of musician who wants to rock out on an electric guitar. He thrives in an environment where he can play loud. And while he will sing songs from time-to-time, Eli’ shows tend to be more instrumental -- most of which are still original songs. But the end of shows are reserved for Prince’s “Purple Rain,” a popular closer.
Eli is an “on-the-fly” guitarist, meaning that he’ll often play whatever emotion he’s feeling onstage. It’s a mindset that also carries over to his writing process.
“A lot of it is off-the-cuff,” he said. “I’ll just hit ‘record’ and play something or freestyle over the top of it. I’ll be like, ‘That was really cool. I like that. Save it.’ Then that will be my lead part in a song. Typically when I would do it live, I wouldn’t follow any lead part. I would just play whatever is in my head.”
A trait he had to keep in check when recording at the O’Keefe Music Foundation. There he learned the importance of structure and consistency, which is just as important as freestyling. At 15, Eli is still learning. And he’s eager to do so. But his mother isn’t the kind of person to let him off easy. If Eli is serious about a future in music, then Jen is going to tell it like it is.
“I’d bring something down and she’s like, ‘Hate it! Start over!’” said Eli with a laugh.
Jen added, “I am not the mom that blows smoke up his butt. There have been several times where he’s played me something and I’m like, ‘I don’t like it all.’”
Eli, who could have worked on that song for three days straight, is at first disheartened, and even a tad bit angry. But he’ll return to his room to either improve the song or write another one entirely. Other times he’s challenged by his parents to write songs with specific styles in mind, like a ballad. Nowadays, he’s taking criticism and building from it. Less tears.
“There are too many people that have told their children that they’re special in everything they do,” said Jen. “I want him to know that it takes a lot of work and it takes more than just wanting to be it. You have to work for it. That’s just life.”
When Eli starts a new song, there’s usually a riff in mind. He’ll set the tempo and time signature and start recording his play. He builds from there. It’s a time consuming process.
“I’m always trying to make it better from the last one,” said Eli.
It’s a principle he’ll carry with him as the school year goes on. On top of his educational and at-home responsibilities, Eli has a responsibility to himself to improve his skills. His future aspirations haven’t changed since he first picked up that Fender at 9 years old.
“I want to play Madison Square Garden,” said Eli confidently. “That’s the goal. I want to do music. And I’m going to work hard to get there.”