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When I was a young boy…

…my first experiences of music were by way of the classical music records that my father played and the ’50s records that my brother played. Those, and the background of the BBC “Light Programme” as it was known back then, were the musical wallpaper of my childhood. There was also a little Puccini that my mother enjoyed and also some jabbering Gilbert and Sullivan. I have an retained an active distaste for the latter, although my heart now melts when I hear Puccini. My mother also had a penchant for listening to some of the more turgid and schmalzy records that oozed and dribbled through the “hit parade” (Mantovani, anyone?) so my brother’s Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash came as welcome relief. My father’s interest lay in the grand symphonies of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, and it was this music that would ultimately have the deepest impact on me.

But first was a rather rude awakening by a song that most would consider tepid, but at the time knocked my juvenile socks off. This piece of epiphany was The Rhythm Of The Rain by The Cascades, although at the time I new neither the title of the song nor the name of the group performing. Consequently, my attempt to identify it in order to buy it in the local record shop, by humming snatches of the melody, failed. I think I bought Sun Arise by Rolf Harris instead because I could make a convincing “boing, boing” sound.

That was all before I heard The Beatles She Love You. And that was the moment I ceased being a young boy.

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My first fingerpicking lesson

Sometimes I look back wistfully and muse upon odd events that have defined the directions I would take in life. Apropos my music, one of the events that had a profound impact was a casual ten minutes with a friend back in 1971 when he showed me my first fingerpicking pattern. Here it is:

Fingerpicking pattern

It’s such a felicitous pattern that it can be applied to every chord in the book requiring only the strings corresponding to the lower of the two bass notes being changed from the 5th to the 6th, or vice-versa, depending on which the root of the chord falls. It’s a pattern that I’ve shown many guitar players who have wanted to learn fingerstyle. It’s great to see that moment of epiphany light up in their eyes as they realize the latent possibilities of this pattern.

I have normally asked that the student start very slowly – slow enough that the pattern itself is hardly discernible – but firmly, not shyly as if you were trying to hide it away. In this way the student will ingrain the muscle memory (but see below) so that when played at tempo mistakes are less likely. Then – and only then – I suggest that the student increase the tempo by increments; getting faster and faster in the manner of a train picking up speed. Hey, presto! The player is a fingerpicker!

Caveat: the student should then make every effort to unlearn this pattern less, like me, it should get so deeply ingrained it becomes monotonous and the possibility of playing any other way becomes an impossibility!

Postscript: I’ve read people on internet forums call this, and alternate bass fingerpicking in general, “Travis picking”. I beg to suggest that alternate bass picking predated Merle by some years. Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake…

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The act of songwriting…

…has never been a challenge for me. I think it’s because I’ve been doing it so long – since I was so uninhibited as a kid – that it’s a habit that’s simply been ingrained. I’ve never thought about how to go about the task. I did it before I thought about it. Like a very young child “learning” to swim.

Yes, as an adult I have thought about form and content and have tried to be dispassionate and self-critical about the output – and it’s true that some stuff I thought was fine at the time (of writing) I’ve considered juvenile in retrospect. In truth – although I’ve never counted – I must have written about two hundred “songs” before I made up one that in my estimation was worthwhile. And by that I mean fit for playing in public and recording for release on a record. Yes, there were pages upon pages of songs I wrote between the ages of fourteen and seventeen I distinctly remember painstakingly annotating lyrics with chord symbols, as neatly as my left-handed writing could achieve. They’re all gone now apart from a few fragments that I’ve retained since they may still be serviceable in some way.

So, as I recently lurked at a particular songwriting forum reading about the struggles people have with the act of songwriting, I’m at loss as to how I could contribute in any way because, in truth, I’ve either forgotten about how I overcame these issues or I never had them at all. I struggle to empathise. And I’m reluctant to explain so lest I appear arrogant or dismissive.

There are not so many things in life that I find so natural to do as to write a song. I may be limited in terms of the scope or breadth of my writing, but the act provides a constant rhythm to my days.

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I think I’m selling a Martin 000-28

Oh, well. I’m reluctant to do it because it’s a great guitar. I’ve written about it here.

Why would I sell it? Well it’s not getting played very much because my OM-18V is my go-to guitar for practicing and recording – particularly up-tempo stuff. Now, the OM is a long scale (25.4″) guitar and is 1.75″ at the nut. The 000 is shorter and narrower, respectively. This doesn’t make any difference for lots of people and they are happy swapping between guitars with different neck dimensions without giving it a second thought. I wonder what they’re playing, though – because I find the number of fluffs I make with the stuff I do unnacceptable when going from one to the other. Anyway, I’ll accept it’s a limitation of mine and move on.

So there it is: I’m selling the 000-28 and will use the funds to contribute towards an OM-28V which is a sibling to both aforesaid guitars and is a fantastic guitar in its own right.

Anyway, I’ve just gotta have some rosewood in the house.

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Golf – I’ve given up!

Because my left arm doesn’t want to participate enthusiastically in the backswing. I think I have impingement of the shoulder, or some such. It’s not severe and doesn’t bother me overmuch but it does reduce my range of movement inhibit my golf swing.

Now, there have always been a number of impediments to my golf swing although some sweet people in the past have complimented me on how good it looked. But looking good as your golf ball threatens to decapitate a passing rabbit is missing the point. Nevertheless, I persevered for a number of years in the knowledge that competent golf was just another half-hour away spent on the practice range, but like a rainbow the goal of good golf was always tantalisingly just out of reach. But again I persevered when my son took the game up and golf provided a way to spend some quality time strolling down the fairways of life. Anyway, I still enjoyed playing the game – irrespective of the cost of replacing lost balls.

But this latest with the shoulder damped my enthusiasm and I played more and more reluctantly and less and less often. Then one day I realised I hadn’t played for months and was persuaded not to renew my club membership on the grounds that it was becoming a total waste of a lot of money. So that was that.

As if I had the time with all the writing, gigging and promotion I’m committed to. I miss playing with my son, though, and I cast a nostalgic eye to the fairway of the short par 4 sixth a Inchmarlo, as I drive past it on a warm summer’s evening.

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Mahler v. Sibelius

The two composers are sometimes cited as being at the opposite ends of a spectrum of sorts: one being prone to employing vast forces in order to perform gargantuan works; the other having a penchant for compression and modesty of utterance ultimately to the point of silence. I had a passion for the music of both before I ever read of this dichotomy. Nevertheless there is truth in it and it is well illustrated by the often quoted conversation they had with each other to the effect that Sibelius admired the symphony for the severity of form and the interconnectedness of the materials, whereas Mahler opined that the symphony should contain the whole world. Or some such.

My father it was who introduced me to Sibelius and there is something about this composer that clicks with Scottish audiences. There is something distinctly “northern” and granite-like about it. It’s bleak and austere to those who find no empathy with it. Certainly the 4th Symphony has a grim, square-jawed aspect to it. But there is much that is warm and open-hearted and there’s plenty in his perhaps lesser known music that is downright populist and schmaltzy. He was a man who for a long time wrote popular trinkets just in order to make a living.

Me it was who introduced my father to Mahler. His responded immediately to the 2nd Symphony – even the 1st movement which I thought might have been a bit inscrutable on first hearing. He was profoundly moved on hearing the closing paragraphs of the work for the first time. It remains a fond memory of mine seeing this.

Mahler is unpopular with many for quite different reasons from Sibelius; often being dismissed as neurotic, self-referential and even self-pitying. There’s no doubt he wore his heart on his sleeve as a composer and he well knew how to manipulate the listener’s emotions with a tune. Others dislike his music for its very scale, citing it as long-winded and even self-indulgent. To me there is definite “bi-polarity” in the symphonies and the expression ranges from noble to vulgar, celebratory to despairing, naïve to sardonic, simplistically tuneful to unremittingly dissonant. He left no stone unturned or motif undeveloped.

So I have collected multiple cycles of the symphonies of both composers over the years. I’m not an expert on interpretations of classical music but I do enjoy discerning the different approaches taken to these works. I’ve also collected and read biographies of the composers and analysis of their music to the limits of my layman’s abilty. Some of the latter is intractable to me, not really being adept at reading musical scores.

I’m like a pendulum in my listening habits: being drawn to each of these composers for a “season”. Then I will tire of one and desire the world of the other.

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Depression and the musician

I have heard and read short and long about the possible artistic and creative benefits of clinical depression (and other mental illnesses) may have for musicians. I have not heard or read of a musician celebrating his depression for those reasons, though!

So what does depression “do” for an artist? Does it have any artistic significance in and of itself? I’d hazard a guess that it does nothing more for an artist than it does for anybody else in the community. If there is a net benefit to the experience for anybody then it’s possibly about an increased “depth awareness” or “3D perspective” on some aspects of life and experience. In a way, it’s like any other meaningful experience insofar as it provides a another way of viewing or thinking: about oneself, other people and one’s relationship to them, and the world in general. Perhaps – just perhaps – a deeper and wider perspective. But other life experiences can do this.

And it still doesn’t answer the question: what, if anything, does a bout of clinical depression do for a musician? Well, given that creating and performing a piece of music is tied up with communicating and in light of the different perceptions and perspectives that the experience of depression might
provide, I propose that a wider, deeper and more articulate means of expression may be available in some cases and under some circumstances. That’s all. And still I may be wrong. How can an musician know how different his music would have been had he/she not suffered in this way?

But I will say this: during the times when depression strikes, these are the last considerations in the mind of a sufferer. No art at all is possible under these conditions. Music becomes a flat, expressionless and meaningless succession of tones. The sun is turned black and day is become night.

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Still humidifying my guitars

We’re in mid-April and there’s still not enough relative humidity in my studio where my guitars reside on their stands. So I keep filling the humidifier with water and it keeps belching out steam. It’s a labour of love.

I didn’t even know about the necessity for doing this before I started lurking around internet forums. 50% relative humidity was the factory controlled condition under which my Martin guitars were made. 45% is what a lot of experts recommend you keep ’em at. My room oscillates between 35% (occasionally) and 75% (when I forget to turn the humidifier off!) so my guitars experience a… varied climate!

In the Summer, where I live it can get to less than 30% in the Winter but never goes above 55% in the summer, so it’s all pretty moderate, anyway. I guess my Martins would survive without my attentions but I wouldn’t like to see any lacquer checks – as is unfortunately the case with my Eccleshall. Crazy paving is the phrase that springs to mind.

I just must try and remember to unplug it.

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GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome)

I had this affliction for a short spell. I actually only realised it’s existence, and that I was a sufferer, when I stumbled across the Unoffcial Martin Guitar Forum (UMGF) in 2003. This was shortly after I had “acquired” my Martin OOO-28 and became interested in its pedigree and in Martin guitars in general.

I won’t go into the grisly details of the many and varied symptoms of this dread condition (for the
knowledgeable: there is no pun intended here) but one such is the sudden realisation that you have sub-consciously decided what your next guitar purchase is going to be before you have actually sat down (and, hopefully discussed with your wife/husband/bank manager) whether to buy another guitar at all! Not to mention whether you might sell an existing guitar to fund the venture.

This condition can last years, and for some there seems to be no cure, or hope of one. Many, with a somewhat fatalistic and morbid sense of humour suggest that the only “cure” is to buy one. But, alas; this is no cure at all; in fact, it only reinforces the condition. The only working cure I’ve found is to make sure that you are so financially impoverished that there is no possibility of ever succumbing to any of the temptations that come your way. Fortunately, that’s been a more or less permanent state for me and I have been enjoying a remission that has so far lasted”¦ ooh”¦ just under two years now. Only once, prior to this and after I procured the OOO did I succumb and became the guilty owner of my OM-18V.

Of course, the twinges still come and go, and I have to be careful which internet forums I frequent – and I’m determined not to become a “lurker” (surely the GAS equivalent to an alcoholic drinking alone at home where he/she thinks nobody will know). So, by and large, I’m GAS-free. And an OM-28V holds no appeal to me whatsoever. No none. Not a bit. I wouldn’t dream of…