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Posted June 1, 2016

The Player

17-year-old Cal State East Bay student Roberto Granados strikes the right chord

What do you do when you’re 17 and you’ve already conquered the world?

Roberto Granados didn’t come to Cal State East Bay in a traditional way. Considered a virtuoso in classical and Flamenco guitar as well as ukulele, Roberto was home schooled before enrolling full-time at CSUEB at age 15.

Meet Roberto: The 17-year-old plays Flamenco and reflects on his short yet immense music career.
GARVIN TSO

He spent much of his youth traveling the nation, playing guitar and sharing his love of music, which he acquired at a very young age.

“His uncle was a self-taught guitarist,” says his father, Erwin Granados. “He would play for us and Roberto was just fascinated. When he was 3, my brother bought him an inexpensive acoustic guitar.”

One evening, Erwin came home from work and was dumbfounded.

“I noticed something different about his guitar and couldn’t believe it. During the day, Roberto had restrung the guitar so he could play it left-handed. When I asked him why he did it, the precocious Roberto merely said, ‘Tah-Tah, Jimi Hendrix!’”

Erwin, an insurance and risk management executive in San Francisco, would also share his own musical tastes from the  ’60s and ’70s. He would play albums by Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young and Steppenwolf, yet the artist that Roberto became enthralled with was Jimi Hendrix. Repeatedly, Erwin says his son listened to Hendrix’s albums and watched videos of the legendary guitarist.

The next Christmas, when Roberto was four years old, Erwin and his wife gave their son his first electric guitar. He was obsessed with playing it. Roberto would not put it down. “It was a blue, battery-powered plastic one from Toys “R” Us that had a built-in speaker,” Roberto recalls.

“Roberto would play his new guitar while listening to Hendrix songs for hours,” says his mother, Rebecca Granados.

Since that day, Roberto’s life has consisted of one extraordinary development after another. Despite still being just a teenager, he’s met and played for President Barack Obama; performed as the opening act to Jennifer Hudson and Earth, Wind & Fire; played a duet with Jon Anderson, lead vocalist of the iconic progressive rock band “Yes”; given a Ted Talk; performed on National Public Radio’s “From the Top”; played with ukulele virtuoso and composer Jake Shimabukuro; and performed at the 36th Emmy Awards.

At age 6, Roberto began taking lessons from classical guitar teacher Gyorgy Vass. By age 8, he was studying with master flamenco guitarist Jason “El Rubio” McGuire. At 12, he made his professional solo debut with the California Symphony.

Neither Roberto’s mother or father is a musician, which leaves them marveling about their son’s gift.

Neither Roberto’s mother or father is a musician, which leaves them marveling about their son’s gift.

His mother tells stories about their young son staging performances in their living room. “He would even make and pass out tickets the day of the concerts!” she says.

“To me, it was just my version of child’s play,” Roberto adds.

To supplement his homeschooling studies, at 14 years old, Roberto came to Cal State East Bay in the fall of 2013. He took a few select classes that year — including Introduction to Biology, a lab class he enjoyed — before becoming a full-time student in 2014. 

“I chose Cal State East Bay for several reasons,” says Granados, whose younger brother Ernesto is a talented percussionist. “Obviously, there was the convenience of living so close. I also appreciated they had no minimum age limit policy. After I met some of the school’s professors and learned more about the music department, I was convinced it was the right place for me.”

Classical guitarist Marc Teicholz, a faculty member at both the university and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, started giving young Roberto lessons five years ago and continues to play a prominent role in his growth.

“I first met Roberto when he was 12 and he came over to my house in Berkeley,” Teicholz says. “He had been hired to play the "Concierto de Aranjuez," a guitar concerto for an orchestra, and wanted coaching. It was a very advanced piece, but he played it pretty easily.”

Roberto Granados plays custom-made guitars by Glenn D. Canin, a San Francisco-based luthier, who tweaks the features of the instruments to complement Roberto's sound. Granados's classical guitar is made of spruce from the Carmona Valley in Italy and Madagascar rosewood.

As the lessons progressed, it became obvious that Roberto’s music aptitude was extraordinary.

“Most of us go from A to B to C, slowly improving,” Teicholz says. “He just jumps. If you tell him to go to the moon, he just goes there.”

The challenge has been to find normalcy in a life very few youngsters will ever experience. According to his parents, Roberto, both a kid and a prodigy, never exhibited those two lives more poignantly than when he was asked to perform at a Democratic fundraiser at the Beverly Hills Hotel at age 10. His father, a big Earth, Wind & Fire fan in his younger days, shared a story about the two of them meeting the group and Jennifer Hudson in the green room before their performance.

“When we got close to the start of the program, the bass player for Earth, Wind & Fire began jumping up and down to get psyched for their performance, and Jennifer was very quiet in the corner of the room,” Erwin recalls. 

Yet, while the pros were focused on getting ready to perform, 10-year-old Roberto was only eyeing the complimentary food spread in the room. “Can I have one of those sandwiches, Tah-Tah?” 

The challenge has been to find normalcy in a life very few youngsters will ever experience.

After consuming not one, but two sandwiches, the young guitarist took the stage. Understanding the platform he was given, he delivered a brief speech before he played his first note.

“The gist of it was that music can break down barriers,” Roberto says. “My Flamenco teacher used to say if we can find compᾴs or rhythm together, the world would be a better place. There is so much hate, killing and violence these days, we can build a better world if we can find that compᾴs. Then I said I was going to dedicate this song to all the people of the world, especially the children.”

After his performance, the audience of 800 was silent. Then, Roberto’s parents say everyone rose to their feet and applauded. When the program had ended, award-winning actress Glenn Close approached Roberto. 

“She told me my performance was incredible, but my words were even more incredible,” remembers Roberto, who was not even aware who Close was.

Seven years later, Roberto still believes that music can break down barriers and wants to pursue a career as a performer, teacher, composer, conductor, audio engineer or music producer. He says he’s not yet ready to settle on just one role.

“Being a musician is like connecting with the entire universe at your fingertips,” Roberto says. “There is an endless realm of possibilities and I only seek to continue following the path I have been traveling all along — to pursue music I love and share it with others. I will dedicate the rest of my life to this.”

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