The magic is in the music at Will Luckey’s

Musician and teacher Will Luckey playing one of his guitars.
Photo by Ralph Stewart

Musician and teacher Will Luckey playing one of his guitars.

Falling off a 28-foot ladder ended Islander Will Luckey’s promising career as a hand nailing house shingler. He now teaches music full time, with no regrets.

Will Luckey is a musician’s musician who teaches music to seven-year-old beginners and to accomplished musical 70-somethings and most anyone in between. He holds court on guitar, bass, piano, voice, and composition in his state-of-the-art music studio in West Tisbury.

Some of his students have gone on to promising musical careers and some come from successful musical careers, but most are people who just want to learn to play or learn to play better. Among his students are Kate Taylor, Jesse Wiener, Willie Mason, Max Currier, Barbara Dacey, Adam Lipsky, and Bill Murray, who wanted to learn some guitar for an appearance with Eric Clapton.

Mr. Luckey is a six footer with a mellifluous voice and longish blond/greying hair that gives him that touch of a 60s look. He earned that look playing guitar with several bands in the 60s and 70s, bands that opened for some of the top folk and rock and roll groups of the time: Cat Stevens, David Bromberg, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Youngbloods, Michael Murphy, Doc Watson, Todd Rundgren, Ritchie Havens, and more. He was part of the Alex Taylor band called Luckey Strike for about eight years.

Last year one of his more successful bands from his early days, Magic Music, held a reunion concert in Colorado and met on the Vineyard last summer. The remaining members are now putting the finishing touches on an album of music they first wrote 40 years ago when they were “the most popular unrecorded band in Colorado,” according to Mr. Luckey.

“Will was sort of the spiritual leader of the band,” said guitarist Chris Daniels, a band-mate in Magic Music and an assistant professor at University of Colorado Denver, and. “He gave us all our nicknames: Tode, Spoons, Das. It was great. He is a fantastic mandolin and guitar player with the most beautiful high tenor voice.”

Mr. Luckey was the third child of Marine General Robert and Cary Walker Luckey. The family moved to Martha’s Vineyard when General Luckey retired in 1963. Mr. Luckey attended both the West Tisbury and the Vineyard Haven schools before finishing high school in Colorado.

A two-week college education was all he needed to push him into a fulltime musical career. After dropping out of Colorado College, “Some friends and I would panhandle on the campuses, put the hat out and play. We would get $100 to a $150 every time. It was great.” He played music across America until 1980, when he returned to live on the Vineyard, and he has been here ever since.

Mr. Luckey began teaching music part time out of a garage studio in Vineyard Haven and worked shingling houses until he fell off a ladder in 1991. “I broke just about everything on my left side except my leg bones,” he recalled. “I smashed my elbow, my wrist, all of my ribs. I didn’t think I would ever play guitar again. I still can’t get up on a roof. After the fall I was ill equipped to do anything but music.”

He packed up his family, moved to Boston, and studied music at the Berklee College of Music, majoring in piano. He attributes part of his recovery to his time at Berklee when he played piano four hours a day. He still has limited left wrist movement, which has forced him to learn to play guitar in a different way. “I can’t make the classic barre chords, and that catapulted me to learn a bazillion different ways to play,” he said.

After graduation he moved back to the Vineyard and has been teaching since. He said he is also “half-way through a masters program” in harmony at the Boston Conservatory of Music so all of his students “get some harmony lessons as well.

“All the guitar players learn some piano, and the piano players learn some guitar. Everyone learns harmony and composition, and they get to record their music in my state-of-the-art studio — all for the price of the lessons.”

His studio is filled with stringed instruments, mostly guitars, a grand piano, and an impressive collection of computer screens and recording equipment. In the studio, one of his students, local high school student Noah Stuber, has put together a three-song demo that Mr. Luckey said he could approach a record company with.

“I am producing two records of my own compositions right now in the studio with an Island band, the Confessors: Tim Goodman, a childhood friend who has played with the Doobie Brothers on guitar, Tom Major on drums, Wes Nagy on piano,” continued Mr. Luckey. “Jeff Patterson will eventually play bass. Tim and I wrote the songs.”

His teaching schedule is usually booked solid, but a number of his long-time students are graduating from high school and moving away, so he currently has openings. He has weathered down times in the past. “Things slowed down a few years ago. I found out that my name had been mistakenly dropped from the phone book, and people stopped calling.”

Mr. Luckey does not miss his shingling days much.”I remember when it would be so cold the nails would stick to my fingers and we would have to break the bundles of shingles apart like chipping away at a block of ice. Some things are so much better as memories.”

The Times asked a few students and friends of Will Luckey to comment on their experiences with him.

“Will was sort of the spiritual leader of the band, Magic Music. He gave us all our nicknames: Tode, Spoons, Das. It was great. He is a fantastic mandolin and guitar player with the most beautiful high tenor voice.”

-Chris “Spoons” Daniels, Assistant Professor, University of Colorado Denver, and band-mate in Magic Music from 1972 to 1976. He is the leader of the band Chris Daniels and the Kings

“Every day with Will is a sunny day. He has a lot of grace, humor, and talent and he is patient. When you take a lesson with him you want to practice. He is fun and lighthearted and a wonderful songwriter.”

-Kate Taylor, Island singer-songwriter

“I like to see Will when I get musically blocked. His knowledge of music seems to be encyclopedic, yet he is so fun to hang out with. He clearly loves music and likes teaching, and I feel like he is able to work with people at their own level and it never seems over serious. I have the feeling he can be as serious as he would like or as you would want to be.”

-Historian and author, Paul Schneider. Playing piano is his “thing that is not his real job.”

“Will makes it fun and cool to practice. He makes you work while having fun.”

-Island musician Adam Lipsky

“Will taught me how to solo like a champ.”

-Willy Mason, world traveling singer, songwriter, guitarist.

“I got a lot of love for that guy.”

-Max Currier, bass player for the Brooklyn-based band Shake the Baron, credits his piano teacher, Will Luckey, with instilling a love of music in him.

Jesse Wiener grew up on the Vineyard, studied music at Harvard, and is now an in-demand New York musician, composer, and teacher. He replied to questions about Will Luckey with the following email.

The Times: What was it like studying with Will?

Jesse: “Above all, Will wants to cultivate a love of music in his students. There were weeks that I didn’t practice or didn’t practice enough, and he was never the stereotypical strict music teacher reprimanding his students for being unprepared. That lack of pressure made it feel like he was a friend as well, and made his lessons hit home all the more. That student/teacher barrier was there, but it was the most comfortable such environment I’ve ever experienced.”

- What do you think of him as a music teacher?

“The best. I’ve had a lot of teachers since I left Martha’s Vineyard, but Will is the most patient, funny, easy-going yet brilliant and knowledgeable teacher I’ve ever had.”

- How did he help or inspire you? What did you learn from him?

“I consider my time with Will to be the foundation on which my whole career is built. Having a true mentor at that point in my life was invaluable. I was learning guitar and piano, and I was interested in writing my own music. Now I’m playing guitar and piano on Broadway, and I just had my music debuted in New York at City Center, conducted by Broadway veteran Michael Rafter and orchestrated by the multi-award-winning orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. I trace the roots of my music education to Will. My training in college was firmly based in the world of classical music. Having such a strong foundation of jazz and pop with Will combined with the classical training in college has given me exactly what I need to work in musical theater, with its wide range of styles.”

- Any anecdote or fond memory?

“I still hear his voice in my head, ‘Don’t worry about other people. There’s always gonna be someone out there better than you. Don’t worry about it.’ ‘Stay true to yourself and things will always fall into place.’ ‘Don’t noodle in rehearsal!’

He was so focused not only on technique and music theory, but also on being a musician. And for an awkward, nerdy, know-it-all kid with no idea of how to act in these situations, his advice was invaluable.”