Murtha shares journey to becoming lead guitarist for Head East

Courtesy/Mark Murtha: Mark Murtha has been the lead guitarist for the classic rock band Head East since July 2022. In previous years, he played with several popular Kansas City area bands, including London Drive. He recently assisted with playing on the upcoming Head East album “Full Circle.”

At an early age, Mark Murtha pursued an interest in music that continued to grow through the encouragement of a classmate with whom he performed in bands for several years.

He would go on to refine his musicianship and eventually became a member of the classic rock band Head East, embracing opportunities to learn from the experiences and leadership of one of the band's founders, Roger Boyd.

Many of Murtha's formative years were spent living in locations like North Carolina, Long Island and Texas, since his stepfather was frequently transferred because of his work. But in 1973, when Murtha was 11 years old, his family finally settled in Gladstone, Missouri.

"I attended Oak Park High School and became friends with a student named Greg Manahan, and we spent a lot of time together," Murtha said. "When I was about 15 years old, I bought a Teisco guitar, which wasn't anything fancy, but good to learn on."

"I remember going over to Greg's house, and he had a Gibson SG guitar that sounded amazing. He let me play it, and I was really impressed ... and then I had to go home and practice on that old Teisco until I could afford something better," he added with a chuckle.

Since Manahan had already been playing guitar for a few years, Murtha was able to learn several things from him, such as using barre chords in rock songs. Additionally, Manahan taught him to play iconic rock songs like "Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry and "Dust in the Wind" by Kansas.

"During high school, we formed a band called Axe and played events like high school assemblies," Murtha said. "We would practice quite a bit at Greg's house and were pretty loud, but his parents were fortunately quite tolerant of all the noise."

Graduating in 1980, Murtha, Manahan and another friend moved into a house owned by Murtha's grandparents. They were in a band called 133 and continued to practice and further develop their skills as musicians. Manahan, he recalled, soon began playing in another band, while Murtha started performing with the local group London Drive.

When London Drive broke up a few years later, Murtha played with several other groups. But in the late 1980s, he and fellow musician Carl Worden re-formed London Drive.

"I played for a number of years with London Drive," he said. "Greg Manahan joined the band around 1990 and several years later, Darren Walker, who is now the lead singer of Head East, joined."

Murtha remained active in several capacities outside his band performances by operating a studio in his home from 1989-94. In the mid-1990s, he obtained a full-time job at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, retiring from there as a computer science faculty member in 2016.

"Education was important to me, and I went on to earn my master's degree in communication studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City," he said.

In the early 2000s, Murtha was extended the opportunity to begin performing with Oscar Polk, a jazz-influenced saxophonist. During the times when he was not able to play guitar with London Drive because of commitments to Polk, his friend, Glen Bridger, filled in for him.

"Glen eventually took over for me in London Drive because of his availability," Murtha said. "Then, in 2005, Greg and I started a band called Now and Then that was an eight-piece band. That band also included my wife, Lisa, and Oscar Polk."

Although he is no longer with Now and Then, Murtha said the variety group still performs. The next major step in his music career came when his friend, Greg Manahan, asked him to fill in for Glen Bridger.

"By this time, Greg and Glen had been members of Head East for 16 years," he said. "I agreed to do it and had only a short time to learn all their songs. That first show had me a little nervous, but I had a lot of fun. A week after that, I was asked to fill in for Glen at another show Head East was playing in New York, and a few weeks, another show with Kansas -- and that was incredible."

Murtha added, "Both Head East and Kansas are bands whose music I had grown up listening to ... and the entire experience just blew me away."

In July 2022, Murtha officially became lead guitarist for Head East. Since that time, he has continued being a "side man" in other bands, but is appreciative for all the experiences he has been given with Head East.

"We have a new album, 'Full Circle,' coming out soon, and I was able to play acoustic and electric guitar on it, do some singing, play keyboard parts and even helped with some aspects of the production," he said. "Also, my wife sang some backup vocals on it."

He added, "I've known most of the Head East guys for years since we've played together in other bands -- and they are great people who would do anything for you. And Roger Boyd, the band's leader, and a founding member, is a pleasure to be around. He has so much knowledge from his years in the music business and is a fantastic advocate for the band."

Jeremy P. Ämick is the author of the forthcoming book "Movin' On," a biography of the band Missouri.

  photo  Courtesy/Mark Murtha: Mark Murtha, center, is pictured as a member of London Drive in 2000. Many members of this band later were recruited by Roger Boyd to play with Head East.