George Cole doesn’t do Green Day interviews, he makes that clear from the start. Although he taught a young Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt guitar, he’s wary of appearing to take credit for any of their success. An accomplished musician himself, Cole is immensely proud of the achievements of his former students which will become abundantly clear in our interview.
It took three years of gentle prodding to get Cole to finally agree to talk because he has no desire to latch on to Green Day’s success, their continued friendship is what he truly values and he’s highly protective of it. He speaks now only after being reassured that the questions being asked are coming from a Green Day fan rather than a media outlet with potentially dubious intent.
What follows are the highlights of our 30 minute conversation, edited for continuity and clarity.
How long did Billie and Mike take guitar lessons with you?
I think I taught Billie for 8 years, almost 10 years. And Mike on and off for a few as well.
Teaching them for so long you must have got to know their families as well
Mike, I met his mom, he was more of a hardscrabble kid, broken home and stuff like that, while Billie had his brothers and sisters. I played music with Billie and his Dad a few times. There was always a recital at Fiat Music, there was a recital every month.
He played veterans homes, children’s hospitals, old folks’ homes that sort of thing. Yeah, so his Dad Andy, I knew his Dad. And his Mom was my waitress at Rod’s Hickory Pit, I’d go in there and she’d never let me pay for a meal.
In your lessons with Billie & Mike did they only want to learn basic chords to mimic what they were listening to at the time or were they hungry to learn everything they could?
I was just doing George Cole you know? I would teach them the 50’s rock n’ roll, the rockabilly, the Beatles songs. Always with analysis. This is your one chord, this is called the 1-6-4-5 chord progression, you know, this is jazz, this is country. All of it.
So Billie went through all the books and when he was like 15/16 we were getting really heavy into music theory, chord chemistry, building the notes. He just glazed over, he was just not having it. But all those songs that they mess around with in the encores, you know Jessie’s Girl, Scorpion… those were all songs that I taught ’em.
Did their eventual success surprise you at all or was there something there even at an early age where you could just tell they were going places?
I think I have a lot better eye for talent now. It almost seemed normal at the time because you have to think back to the ’80s, I call them the metal years. There was a garage band on every corner. It just seemed like a great career move. People weren’t even thinking of a career move just music drove the culture. That’s what it was all about. There were bands everywhere, people really cared.
Did Billie ever bring his own songs into lessons to work on with you?
He just started writing songs right away, he’d come in for his lessons, he’d come in, “well what do you think of this?” and it was just so embryonic ya know. He didn’t know all the different parts, now he’s an expert. He’s been really good for so long. That’s what drives the whole thing.
But you know like the intro verse, the riff, I explained all that stuff to them and what I would also say – it happened to be me, but I really could have been anybody that would have been a good guitar teacher. I’m not being overly humble but I did teach them all that stuff.
The riff, the verses, the choruses, the hook, the modulation in the bridge, the outro…I showed them all that stuff but that stuff is pretty common knowledge, it could’ve been anybody, it just happened to be me.
Billie sharing his music with you as a young teenager must have been a little intimidating for him, he clearly trusted you and valued your input
My Dad and Billie’s Dad died of cancer within months of each other. It really made us close, you know I really liked him and I really liked the family. You know he was so sad, he just couldn’t believe his Dad had died. He just threw himself into the music. Everything was about the music.
I think the big connection is just on a personal level. I had so many great students back then but we were really tight for a teacher and a student and we used to play at these little recitals and he never made a mistake and he never got nervous and that’s so unusual for somebody that age. It was like he was a little pro then.
Did they ever talk to you about starting their own band?
They said “how do we have a band”, I said well the most important thing is the material, you’re gonna have to write your own material and then they just went crazy rifling through all of rock history – Beatles, Elvis, everything, all of it they just wanted to know what’s this magic thing. They were just rifling so quickly through Cheap Trick, you name it. They were going through all of what was popular then and just digging back to see what was there for them.
Had Billie & Mike come up with a band name yet when you were working with them?
No, but I will tell you where I think their name came from. The name of the band and their true influence. Now, for example, everybody name checks the Velvet Underground, right? Because that’s a cool band, right?
But there is a band that is totally forgotten and overlooked today and it’s not Stiff Little Fingers, it’s a band called the Smithereens. They had an album called Green Thoughts or something and they were popular for a little bit of time and they had this perfect formula of rockin’ guitars with these really catchy simple songs and I think that’s part of their influence.
Playing at 924 Gilman was a goal for them, did they express that to you?
This (the guitar lessons) was before they started playing at Gilman which of course I tried to convince them not to be a punk band. I said ‘you don’t wanna play at Gilman, I think you guys should work on harmonies, get a second guitar and get a keyboard’, and they absolutely did not listen to me [laughs].
The funny thing is though, they have all that stuff now. When you see them now, that’s an arena rock show, it’s a stadium show. It’s not a 3 chord slop fest and it never was.
They’re just the little band that did, that could. And they just came out of nowhere and it’s all about the songs. I know he’s a great rock star, he’s cool and everything like that, but if it wasn’t for those songs nobody would care.
They played their first gig at Rod’s Hickory Pit where Billie’s mom worked as a waitress, were you there for that show?
When they did their first gig at Rod’s in the Banquet Room, his guitar was being worked on so he borrowed my Stratocaster which had a humbucker pickup and I just came in there and I had to show them how to do a soundcheck.
I said ‘ok you’re the bass player you stand on the side of the high hat, ok you’re over there, let’s balance your sound’. They said “what’s a soundcheck?” and I said ‘watch, you stand there, ok, let’s get the drums, we match the bass to the level of the acoustic drum and match your guitar to that blah blah blah’ and that’s their first gig and you know what, they were good on their first gig. Not great but there was something there.
Did they play originals at the first show or was it mostly covers?
No they were playing originals, that’s the thing about it, that’s what drives the whole thing. I mean you and I wouldn’t be talking, nobody would give a damn if he didn’t write those songs, it all comes from that.
Although being in a band was pretty new for them, Billie at least had been performing in front of audiences for years
He had been performing for so many years, he had this degree of comfort on stage that not everybody has. And it’s funny, on a sidebar, it’s like when they were doing American Idiot on Broadway, people would say “why’s he doing Broadway?” Those were the first songs he learned were Broadway show tunes. He’d already absorbed all this, you know, the great American songbook with Mrs. Fiatarone with the voice lessons.
I got him later, he had already been singing for a couple years. But he heard the wild electric guitar sounds coming out of the other studio and he wanted to be a part of that.
Speaking of those sounds, Billie’s guitar ‘Blue’ has become an iconic part of rock history and you sold it to him. Did he use it at all in lessons prior to his Mom buying it for him?
I let him play the Blue guitar every time he came in for his lessons and he bonded with the guitar. Just like it was his guitar before it was even his. He would play the guitar during our lessons and he loved it, he had this crap Hohner guitar.
I knew that he really wanted it so I sold it to him for the price that I bought it for, it was $180. He would play it, he just loved it. And his mom is a waitress, was a waitress, and so money was tight. You know he had no Dad or anything, so I probably just should have given it to him, but I sold it to him for what I paid for it.
I drove it over to the house, his Mom wasn’t there, and I just handed him the guitar and the tweed case. I’m older than him however many years, it was just kinda awkward handing it to him because he was a little kid. He just said “uh thanks” and he takes the guitar and the guitar was pristine.
Backing up a bit, how did you come to acquire Blue?
Peter Margen is a friend of mine, David Margen is his brother. David was playing in Santana at the time and he came back from Japan and they gave him, you know people give me guitars, when you’re a guitar player people will give you guitars. So when he was there with Santana of course they loved him, they gave him guitars and basses.
Fernandez at the time was considered… the headstock is just like a Fender. They call it the lawsuit guitar because they had to change, I believe, I’m no expert, but they had to change the shape of the headstock. It was dead on a Fender replica.
And so he had a bunch of these guitars and basses and he was selling them cheap so I think I bought it for $180. So I bought it from Peter who had a bunch of the guitars from David’s trip to Japan. They were all lined on his bed in his apartment in Berkeley. And that’s how the guitar came to me. I only had the guitar for not even a year.
Had you modified Blue at all prior to selling it to Billie?
No, I was going to and you know when you get a guitar, ‘am I gonna do this to the guitar, am I gonna do this or that to it’. But it was a huge upgrade for him. Because he just had this little shit Hohner or something, it wasn’t good.
There’s been conflicting reports on what model year Blue was, can you shed any light on that?
The guitar was brand new, let’s see, it was an ‘82 or ‘83. Just the most nondescript Fernandez guitar. It wasn’t anything special. It just proves, again, that it’s the player.
I probably wouldn’t have put the pickup in it but I sold it to him and I said put this pickup in it because if you think of all the music that was around him it was the guitar sound, it would have sounded too much like Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits) or something. It wouldn’t have that big bad sound, so yeah, ‘82 or ‘83 something like that.
So the Bill Lawrence pickup was something he added on his own then?
I gave him the Bill Lawrence pickup and I said put this in the bridge and have it at an angle like Van Halen or else at the opposite angle to try something different. Put it at the opposite angle and have my student, he’s just another local guy, he worked on all the thrash metal – anyway, Dan Maloney put the pickup in this guitar, Dan did that for him.
You only had Blue for a short time but did you ever play it on any albums or anything that you recorded yourself?
I don’t think I ever recorded with it because I never got it sounding right. I had a bunch of other guitars, as guitar players do, that were much more in line with what I was hearing in my head and the Blue guitar would’ve needed some work. It was a cute guitar, I think the guitar was a little too pretty for him. So he did all the modifications but it’s really cool that he still has it and plays it.
It must have been a bit strange seeing your old guitar on stage at Woodstock ‘94 and all over MTV when Green Day blew up
That’s a great question but the thing is it was my guitar for such a short period of time. I’m just so fucking proud of those guys like when I see it, it’s not just the guitar, it’s them as people and this incredible music. Music that interests me is music that works and makes the world go round and their music makes the world go round.
They’re already in the history books. Friends of mine have bought me Green Day songbooks as kinda like a gag but I can see the whole picture, I know the guitar is part of it but when I see them I’m just, my hearts gonna leap out of my chest, it’s just amazing.
It’s kind of of amazing that those two kids you taught are still the best of friends over 35 years later
Billie is so lucky to have Mike. Because Mike has been there with him the whole time. Like that time Billie smashed his guitar, the Les Paul Jr. at that award show (iHeart Radio Music Festival). Did you see Mike immediately destroyed his guitar too?
Mike has been there for him the whole time. Everybody needs that. You need that guy that’s right there with you, having the vision and playing all the shows.
Have you had the chance to be reunited with Blue at all since selling it to Billie?
When I was teaching at Unified in the 90’s he was there trying out guitars and he hands me Blue and he goes “check it out” and the guitar reeks of sweat because he played it so much and you could smell the guitar. I said ‘wow man, you put some miles on it’. There’s been different permutations of the decals and all the crap on it but when I sold it to him it was pristine.
Funny story about the guitar, you’ll like this. So I saw them at the Greek Theatre about 5 years ago. When I saw (Billie’s Mom) Ollie at the Greek she said, “Billie’s still playing that old guitar I bought from you” and I said ‘yeah and it turned out to be a pretty good deal didn’t it’.
They’ve obviously achieved a lot, including being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, why do you think they’ve been able to be so successful for so long?
The thing that I would say about these guys is hard workers. Just incredible love for music. The main overarching thing of this conversation is that I’m just super proud of these guys. They’re great people, they’re good friends. I don’t see them all the time but they’re friends. They’re great people and you know, what a great band. I mean come on. They’re amazing.
When you see their show…. I saw them at the Greek and I’m sitting right next to (Billie’s sister) Anna and her Mom and I just started weeping and so Anna puts her hand on my face and she goes “oh my god, tears!” and I said ‘shut up’ [laughs]. I just couldn’t and she said “there’s nothing to be ashamed of, you’re so proud of your student”. And I super, super am.
I mean these guys, who would have thought that these little nothings from nowheresville. I mean nowheresville. They’re out there in Rodeo, refinery town. No hope. No future. No nothing, and then… look at em, amazing.
Well thank you for doing this George, do you have any new projects coming up that fans can look forward to?
I’m working on a new record with John Cuniberti and that’s Joe Satriani’s producer. So we’re working on a record, it’s gonna have some amazing guitar on it, hopefully some great songs. Maybe some guest stars, maybe I’ll get Billie to play on it, maybe sing on it, I don’t know, maybe he’d like to play guitar [laughs]. We haven’t been able to do anything because of the COVID thing right but I’ve got a new record in the works and it’s gonna be great.
Huge thanks to George for taking the time to do this, please check out his website to follow along with his upcoming projects.