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Bryce Kunkle, the Guitar Man

  • Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The famous “selfie” taken from the podium before Kunkle’s valedictorian address. The selfie went viral, he said. Photo by Bryce Kunkle

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As the years go by Bryce Kunkle will forever be remembered, not simply as the 2014 Berkeley High School Valedictorian, or even a two-sport Stags athlete, whose baseball walk-up song was an original composition for which he played every instrument, but as the guy who took the “selfie” at the start of his graduation speech.

His idea was an original expression that can only be copied from here on out. Any future valedictorian that tries the “selfie” ploy will get tagged as a copycat.

“I thought it would be nice to take a selfie,” Kunkle said. “I had the Twitter feed all set up so when I took the picture all I had to do was hit enter and I tweeted the photo.”

Kunkle said the tweet went viral in minutes.

“My phone started vibrating like crazy during my speech,” he said, as classmates and friends in attendance at the North Charleston Coliseum followed and retweeted Kunkle’s post. “My phone vibrated like that for two days after the ceremony.”

It was one of those great ideas that turned into a special moment for the Class of 2014 and it gave everyone associated with the Stags commencement ceremony a nice look at the proceedings from Kunkle’s perspective.

It’s that kind of thinking outside the box that fills Kunkle’s resume as he prepares to attend Clemson in the fall and study engineering.

Between now and then, the boys’ recipient of the first Berkeley Athletics Hall of Fame scholarship plans to spend the summer having a lot of fun.

Included in the fun is a senior class trip to Europe next week and working with his guitar teacher Richard “Chip” Chipman of Bluegrass Academy on Main Street in Moncks Corner, to learn how to play the banjo and become a better guitar player.

If that’s possible.

“I’ve been teaching Berkeley students and Moncks Corner kids how to play bluegrass guitar for more than 30 years,” Chipman said, “More than 2,500 Berkeley County students, and there are a lot of really good guitar players out there.”

Chipman paused a moment to reflect on the students he has taught.

“Yeah, there were a lot of really good guitar players over the years,” he said. “But none were better than Bryce. He’s the best I’ve ever had.”

Kunkle and Chipman have been “strumming the wire” for more than six years. Kunkle wanted to learn how to play after taking a music appreciation class at Northwoods Academy in which students learned the fundamentals of music composition.

“One of the assignments in the class was to write a song, both music and lyrics, and then at the end of the class you would get on stage during an assembly and play the song for the school,” he said.

As Kunkle watched the various guitar pickers play their original music, he thought, “Hey, I can do that.”

That’s when Kunkle sought out Chip.

“I wanted to learn how to play,” he said.

A year later it was Kunkle on the stage playing an original song he wrote.

And speaking of original songs, it is safe to say that Kunkle was the only baseball or softball player in the state whose walkup song was an original composition, a walk up song for which Bryce played every instrument, guitar, bass, piano and drums.

“I played lead, rhythm and then bass, which those are just different ways of playing guitar,” he said. “Then I added a drum track.”

The piano though, was difficult for Kunkle to master.

“It was hard coming off the guitar to play the piano as those two instruments don’t follow the same format,” he said. “Plus they don’t make lefthanded pianos.”

As for Chipman, who is known around town as Chip, he knew right away he had a special student in Kunkle.

“He’s a lefty and lefties turn out to be special guitar players,” he said. “Playing any musical instrument is easy once you build the finger memory. It just takes lots and lots of practice.”

While he preaches the gospel of guitar playing, especially bluegrass style, Chip’s fingers dance up and down the neck like Minnie Pearl tap-dancing to a Flatt and Scruggs rendition of the Orange Blossum Special.

“It is impossible to play a bluegrass song and be sad,” he said. “Just as it’s impossible to be sad playing the banjo. You can be sad and then start playing the banjo and before you know it people are tapping along with their feet.

“The banjo is a happy instrument and bluegrass music is happy music.”

The only thing keeping Kunkle from beginning his mastery of the banjo is finding one strung lefthanded.

“Left handed instruments are out there but they can be pretty hard to find, especially the banjo,” Chip said, who claims he can play anything with a box and a wire.

“Give me a wire and I’ll pick it,” he said sporting a wry grin.

Chipman gave a short clinic about picking technique, explaining that the guitar pick is the most important part of the instrument when playing: “What you pick with and where you pick on the guitar, is how you produce the best sound.”

Chip said players need to select a good, sturdy pick.

“It’s important to really smack that wire,” he said. “That’s how you get your good tone. With bluegrass you brush the rounded edge of the pick over the wire and you get that good tone that lets you go fast.”

Chipman demonstrated by jumping into “Constant Sorrow” from the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.”

“Guitar is easy to play once you know what to do with your fingers.”

For Kunkle, playing the guitar and his songs in front of people was the biggest rush of his life so far.

“I started playing the song and I was playing in front of about 250 people, and they just start clapping along.”

“It was such a rush,” he said.

While Kunkle will study engineering at Clemson beginning in the fall, being an engineer ranks a distant third in career choices behind being a politician and of course, playing guitar for a living.

“I want to be a musician,” he said. “But there are so many good guitar players out there. Becoming an engineer is sort of my backup plan if nothing else works out.”

Chip agreed: “You have to be something special to make it in this business because there are so many very good guitar pickers. But if you work hard at it and write good songs, anybody can make it.

“He’ll do the work he has to do to be good. That’s just the way Bryce is made.”

“He not only thinks outside the box, but I think he invented the box,” Chip added.

An original thinker, like taking a selfie in front of more than 200 classmates and they’re families and taking a perfect picture to boot.

“I figured, why not?” he said.

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