Following the unfortunate death of my first guitar at the hands of my mother I was fairly ambivalent about continuing with the instrument. It was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, it hurt like hell and sounded like shit.
My interest was re kindled on a family holiday when we eventually arrived in Torquay. My parents had some friends there and after a week of being cramped either into a tent or an Austin 1100 it was quite good just to be in a house again. These friends had a son, David, who was given the task of entertaining me. I didn’t have high expectations, David’s interest was ballroom dancing and mine wasn’t but he also had a Spanish guitar and he was willing to show me a couple of chords. Playing an instrument that hadn’t been fished out of a dustbin was a revelation. It stayed in tune for a start but equally importantly it had nylon strings which were a lot more comfortable to my tender fingers.
This was summer and I had to wait until Xmas before my parents were willing to invest £12 in my musical future but eventually I was also the proud owner of a nylon strung guitar and my journey to rock and roll fame had begun.
The problem remained just how I was going to learn to play the instrument. Even in the early 70’s the guitar was a relatively exotic instrument and the sort of people who offered tuition tended to be classical players or dance band musicians, both considered it necessary to be able to read music well which is aright for the piano but doesn’t lend itself that well to the guitar, also I was not looking to play the sort of music that was likely to be in musical notation.
With the lack of internet the only option was books and they were scarce and expensive. One of my first books was a tutor which progressively taught you chords which you then used in a song. It started with tunes like ‘blow the man down’ and ‘little brown jug’ and ended with popular 50’s songs. It was actually a good start but the fact that I cant remember any of the later material points to the fact that it didn’t really rock my world.
The next books were a step in the right direction. John Pearse had written a couple of book called ‘Hold Down a Chord’ which guided me through some simple but effective tunes by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis. Pearse looked the part, a scruffy amiable guy in the mould of John Renbourn.He was amazing influential in his own quiet way simply because he was writing tuition books on the country blues style when no one else was and this proved the template for players like Ralph McTell and the aforementioned Renbourn which in turn were to prove so influential with bedsit white boys. Pearse was to experience a huge personal tragedy when a medical procedure left him paralysed (although he did make some recovery).
This is the sort of thing that I could aspire to
Hot on his heals was Stefan Grossman who had originated from the fertile East Coast folk scene. Grossman was not particularly original and neither was he possessed with a great voice. He was however a passionate educator having spent time learning directly from some of the country blues greats, notable the Reverend Gary Davis who being blind relied on people such as Grossman to escort him round the streets where he played.
My friend Phil had a sister Chris who had already started playing so she was a couple of years ahead of me. When Phil bought a guitar he really hit the ground running thanks to Chris but at least I got a few recommendations as to what books might be useful. The shop that sold music books in Norwich was tiny and had a very limited stock but was abundant in Grossman publications (he had his own company Kicking Mule) so sooner or later I felt I had to buy one. Like a lot of guitarists Grossman used a special form of music called tableture, if done properly this made guitar music a lot easier to read but I found Grossman’s version quite difficult and sometimes my own renditions just sounded a random plonky noise. Through Grossman I was introduced to a multitude of acoustic bluesmen, Gary Davis, Bo Carter,Mississippi John Hurt (my favourite probably because it was quite easy to play and sound good),Blind Blake, Memphis Minnie and so on. The problem I had of course was that there was no way I could actually get to hear these artists, today, thanks to spotify and YouTube, I could listen to country blues all week but I would have to wait for another 30 years before I got to hear most of these artists. Grossman had a quaint system whereby you could write to something called The Black Patty tape service in USA and they would send you a cassette of some of the tunes being played but that seemed incomprehensible to me with postal orders being involved, something I never really got the hang of.
So over time I developed some basic picking skills and graduated to a Steel Stung Eko guitar which wasn’t that great at all but looked and sounded a bit more credible. The trouble is with the acoustic blues and ragtime is that it is musician’s music, I have met countless middle aged blokes who can approximate this style but very few non musicians who listen to this for pleasure. In other words it was all a little academic and I was ready for something more exciting.
One day Phil and came across a T Rex songbook in a music shop and were quite shocked to find that Mark Bolan was using the same guitar chords as us mere mortals. It was exciting and disappointing at the same time. I had assumed that electric music was played in an entirely different way. I memorised the chords and went home and played through ‘Metal Guru’. I kind of grasped what was going on but this wasn’t what I was looking for and T Rex certainly didn’t sound like I did with a cheap acoustic guitar. Another revelation occurred when I visited Woolworths in Great Yarmouth. Woolworths actually sold cheap guitars and amps and seeing me mesmerised by their display of two electric guitars the assistant asked me if I would like to play one. Again this was exciting and disappointing. Playing was a thrill but the sound coming out of the amps was just me playing a guitar but a bit louder, I didn’t sound like Free or even Status Quo just like me. As far as I am concerned electric guitars have never sounded better than in the early 70’s at the time one of my favourite songs was the Carpenters ‘Good Bye to Love’ not only for the dreamy Karen Carpenter vocal but also for the fuzzy guitar solo at the end. Hearing the opening of ‘Layla’ for the first time was one of the most exciting musical moments of my life but I realised that playing a G chord through an amplifier was not going to recreate this experience.
I had reached a bit of a watershed and a couple of things had brought this home to me. Firstly Chris, my old Cuckoo’s Nest friend, had taken up the double bass with the school orchestra and then purchased a bass guitar. This suddenly opened doors for him and within a couple of weeks he was in a band, a proper band with electric guitars and a real drummer. I went along with him to a gig he was playing out of hours at our school, this was the closest to Beatlemania I have ever experienced, the kids (most of them about 12 years old) went wild. The two guitarists in the band were also at my school but they were cooler and had electric guitars which they seemed to be able to play. That meant I would have to be a lot better than them if I was going to get into a band.
My sense of frustration was compounded by my attempts at forming my own band. In an attempt to keep our overheads down Phil and me had bought a music book between us. It was the ‘Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy’ by the Who, effectively their greatest hits. At this point I loved the Who and would be very happy playing their songs. For my band I was able to enlist Chris on bass. Phil was on rhythm which meant he got to play my Eko with a contact mike going into my record player. On vocals we had the ever reliable Dunk who was reliable in the sense that he would turn up on time rather than his singing ability. I was the lead guitarist by virtue of the fact I had borrowed an electric guitar with a 10 watt amp. We had no drummer, only Chris had even met a drummer before.
We recorded two songs that night ‘The Kids are Alright’ and ‘I can see for Miles’. The former was OK as its almost a beat group song although it was marred by the fact that Dunk couldn’t get to grips with the vocals unless I sang along with him, half arsed wasn’t the word for it. By ‘Miles’ I was out of my depth. My idea of lead guitar was just to play a bit louder which as I had the amp was achievable. To be fair even the Who would have struggled without Keith Moon but I was left with the distinct feeling that I would never work out what lead guitar was about. This was the period of prog remember, to be a lead player you had to be like Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, already I felt time was running out, I would never be that good and there were more guitarists crawling out of the woodwork all the time. If I was ever going to get in a band I would have to become the best guitarist with the best gear or………
I had a plan B!