You might say Tony Obrohta ’91 is “a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.” Although Obrohta now performs as a guitarist with well-known country music artists, the classic British rock band, The Who, provided his early inspiration.
After struggling through piano lessons as a youngster, Obrohta realized the piano was not for him. Then he saw The Who perform on television and guitarist Pete Townsend rocked his world.
Switching from piano to guitar lessons at age 12 was instrumental in developing Obrohta’s love of music and his natural talent. Playing in bands throughout high school and college strengthened the Streator, Ill., native’s musical skills. As a commercial music major at Millikin, Obrohta learned how to further develop his abilities and turn his passion into a career.
“Being at Millikin with all of the great teachers gave me the confidence and focus that I needed to stick to my goals early in my career,” Obrohta says. “My education gave me a leg up on the competition in the real world because after you’ve sat in front of your teachers and peers and played 45 minutes of solo classical guitar, you don’t feel like you’ll ever be that nervous again.”
Obrohta quickly put that confidence to good use in pursuit of his dreams.
“I moved to Nashville two weeks after I graduated and tried to start meeting other players,” Obrohta says. “A bass player I knew introduced me to an artist making his first album. He hired me to do a run of shows with him, and that was my first professional gig in town.”
However, that particular artist didn’t find success in Music City, and Obrohta soon found himself out of a job. Then fate intervened. Suzy Boggus was looking for a guitar player and her associate asked him to audition.
“They called and asked if I could be at the rehearsal hall in three hours to audition,” Obrohta says. “I drove across town, picked up the tunes, raced home and spent 15 minutes on each song, packed up my gear, raced to the hall, auditioned and got the gig. The moral of the story is you never know where your first real gig can come from.”
Since then, Obrohta has traveled all over the country playing guitar for a variety of musical talents, including Gretchen Wilson, Wynonna Judd, LeAnn Rimes and others. It’s a career he never takes for granted.
“My proudest moment happens every day when I wake up and realize that I’m a professional musician,” he says. “It’s what I set out to be when I was young, and I’m living my dream. Not many people get to say that, and I never take it lightly.”
He has fond memories of the lessons he learned at Millikin and of the professors who taught him, especially music professors Manley Mallard and Dave Burdick.
“They pulled everything they could out of me,” Obrohta says.
Their expert advice struck a chord with Obrohta, providing valuable guidance he still uses today.
“Manley taught me to be focused on the task at hand and to make sure my technique was correct, yet still expressive,” Obrohta says. “Dave was less concerned with technique but guided me to find the creative improvisational side of my talent. They provided a potent one-two punch that I am forever grateful for. I use their respective approaches every day, plus they’re just cool men to hang around.”
While Mallard attributes much of Obrohta’s success to natural talent, he believes Obrohta has excelled in the music industry because of his education.
“He is able to read and write music, not merely play it,”
Obrohta recently had the opportunity to rely on another valuable skill he learned at Millikin.
“I was on ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ a few months back and it was just Gretchen Wilson, a cello player and me on acoustic guitar,” Obrohta says. “I really had to work to control my nerves because you only get one shot to sound good on TV. Thankfully, because of the techniques that Manley taught me, I was able to relax and give a good performance.”
Now living in Nashville, Obrohta still promotes the university that helped teach him how to live his dream. “I always recommend Millikin to anyone who wants a great education,” he says.
by Margaret Friend and Hollie Logsdon ’11