Thayer Aletheia-Zomlefer went from playing “Guitar Hero” to becoming one.
The Ahwatukee teen started his journey when he was 9. Now that he just graduated last week from Chandler Preparatory Academy, he’s about to take his next big step on that journey to realizing his goal of becoming a performing artist on the electric guitar.
He is one of only about six students from around the world who have been admitted to the 2019 freshman class at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami to study in its highly competitive Contemporary Guitar program.
And after tracking him on YouTube and social media since he was in eighth grade, the school gave him a $200,000 to do it. School officials even waived their standard in-person audition requirement after listening to the tapes he submitted with his application.
That was partly because Thayer has handled his classroom work and homework with the same virtuoso skill as he brings to his strings.
He was one of 10 members of Chandler Prep’s Class of 2019 to have a perfect grade point average throughout high school.
It should come as no surprise that Thayer is as comfortable talking about — and expressing his passion for — Plato and Montagne and other philosophers as he is about Eddie Van Halen and other guitar giants, especially of the ’80s.
The younger of two sons of Jay Zomlefer and Leslie Aletheia-Zomlefer — Ahwatukee residents for 15 years — Thayer studied Latin for a few years, then switched to learning Greek. He also was in two choirs at Chandler Prep, played percussion in the school’s orchestra and was captain of the varsity chess team as well as one of the school’s mentors for incoming sixth graders. For all his academic and extracurricular accomplishments, Thayer received the school’s Meritorious Academic Performance Award and was inducted into the school’s Fine Arts Hall of Fame.
Thayer started out playing the piano in his early grade school years, recalling, “I enjoyed the music, but somehow it didn’t feel like the right thing for me to play.”
He also was a fan of the popular video game “Guitar Hero,” which puts a guitar-shaped game controller in players’ hands so they can simulate playing lead, bass guitar and rhythm guitar while rock music songs play out on the screen.
And somewhere along the line, he said, inspiration struck.
A star was born.
“I thought to myself, ‘I could be playing the real thing instead.’”
So, he enrolled at Music Makers Workshop at 3233 E. Chandler Blvd., a popular academy offering instruction in a broad array of musical genres and instruments.
“That’s when I started to get serious,” he said, praising the instruction he got there.
Eventually, he moved over to the House of Rock Ahwatukee, where he played with a variety of bands and further refined his techniques, perfecting riffs he learned by listening to ’80s guitar musicians like Eddie Van Halen and heavy metal guitarist Randy Rhoads.
Then, in 2014, he got the first of several big breaks — opening for rock legend Lynyrd Skynyrd at a bikers festival at WestWorld in Scottsdale.
The second came the next year when he was invited by another rock guitarist idol, Jason Eli Becker, to play at the opening of his Open Studio in San Francisco.
Becker is a musician, songwriter and composer who became a heavy metal guitar wunderkind at age 16. But in his early 20s, Becker was diagnosed with ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Despite the progressive deterioration of his muscles, he still plays guitar and writes music. He is believed to be the oldest living victim of the disease since the death of English physicist Stephen Hawking.
Thayer, who still stays in contact with Becker, has been on a lot of rock professionals’ radar.
One such professional is John M. Knight, who has been photographing rock stars for four decades and started the Brotherhood of the Guitar to keep track of rising guitarists like Thayer.
Of Thayer, Knight has written:
“Thayer possesses a unique playing style infusing neoclassical shred, blues and rock. Thayer began playing at the age of 9. He was enthralled from the moment he held his first guitar. Thayer is known for his speed, accuracy, fluidity, passion and soulfulness in his playing.”
Thayer’s now alma mater also took notice well before he graduated, and had him be the half-time show at homecoming games the last few years.
He writes his own music and has released two recorded songs — “Take It,” which is says is a mix of funk and ’80s rock, and “Days End,” which he calls more in the style of an ’80s ballad. Both are available on iTunes.
Like many musicians his age, he finds himself as a musician most influenced by ’80s rock.
“That’s the music our parents grew up with and so we heard them listening to it when we were growing up,” explained, who also is known as Tazshredder — a play of words on his initials and a slang word for a virtuoso guitarist who can make the strings of his instrument scream with rapid passages and advanced techniques.
He has no particular regimen for practicing his shredding — particularly because he also has been spending an average three hours a night doing homework to maintain that perfect average in a school with a rigorous classical education.
Indeed, the great ancient and not-so-ancient philosophers have had as much influence on him as the rockers of the ’80s.
He fondly recalls his days at Chandler Prep in English and philosophy classes.
“We read a lot of philosophy — Montagne, Plato, others like that,” he said. “I loved discussing ideas.”
He’s looking forward to the next chapter in his formal education, when he will be studying musician artistic development and entrepreneurship.
Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he said, “I’m hoping to be a professional musician and performer. That would be the dream.”
Yet, he’s not about to let that dream get ahead of him.
“At this point I don’t want to have too fixed an idea about what I am going to do,” he explained, “I feel I’m going to learn so much that I might not get the full experience if I do.”