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Guitar Playing – On ageing “chops” and other surprises


I’ve always kind of had stiff little fingers and had to warm up extensively before a gig or recording session, but these days it seems to take longer and longer as each year passes to get my chops into gear.

My biggest dread is being taken by surprise in the office or at a party by an invitation to play something on a guitar that just happens to be gathering dust in the corner. As if declining is ever an option in these circumstances. Experience has told me that invariably this “guitar” is a thing whose banana-shaped neck is strung with gunge-impregnated and rust-infested bits of wire and whose fret ends could draw blood. And cold, cold fingers. A couple of bars and the look in the eyes of onlookers that says “This guy’s made a CD? Yeah, right.”

And this is not a dread without grounds. One fateful evening a long, long time ago, at party hosted by my brother and his wife of the time, and after host and guests had liberally availed themselves of refreshments, my brother had the flash of genius to announce to the revellers that his brother was a bit of a guitar player who had made records. This was met with coos of approval and why-won’t-you-please-play-somethings which in turn engaged my well practiced reaction which is to feign embarrassment and, with a motion with hands, modestly sweep aside my (truly) humble achievements. Had I had the foreknowledge that my brother had a “guitar” somewhere (he would go search for it – finally dredging it up from some dark and fetid corner of the house) and that the “guitar” itself – had it the means to do so – would hardly have had the audacity to claim any pedigree as a Musical Instrument – and had I not been in such an inebriated state – I might have been able to see the minefield ahead and skilfully negotiate my way past, through, or over it and been able to forestall the impending tragic scene.

I knew that in my state I would have to concentrate hard if my – and by association, my brother’s – reputation were to survive unblemished playing on an unfamiliar, and in all probability, an imperfectly setup guitar. But the true scale of the problem at hand only became apparent as the guitar was brought into the room. Even in my foggy state I could see from the other side of the room that this was no guitar worthy of its name. I admit that to the untrained eye it would have looked convincingly like a guitar – indistinguishable, in fact, from the real thing – but as my brother crossed the room dragging it along by its neck I could see that it was an impostor. Had my brother had had the novel idea to play a practical joke on me and the assembled company, and had prepared the guitar to be so exquisitely almost possible to play, it would have been a jape to end all japes. But no, this was on the level. And the glory of particular “guitar” lay in its own initial emphatic mediocrity which had evolved to spiteful uselessness through years of neglect.

As I placed it mournfully on my lap I quickly discovered to my astonishment that its centre of gravity was in entirely the wrong place – in fact I’m not sure it was even it the confines of the “guitar” at all. I tried shifting about in my seat and readjusting its attitude on my lap in an effort to achieve a degree of control and comfort but I realised that my hands would be compelled not only to play the damn’ thing, but also to hold it in place and to prevent it slipping onto the floor. My attention then moved to what I might euphemistically call its “action”. It was no real surprise that the strings were so unreasonably high above the fingerboard that attempting to play it would constitute an aerobic exercise drill. This string height also precluded any hope for reasonable intonation, and sure enough, I spent a whole two minutes trying to find a tuning that would provide some sort of “mean” out-of-tuneness that would sound equally imperfect over the fingerboard, but not catastrophically absurdly out of tune at any one location. This was futile and would have taken more of a mathematician than a musician to achieve.

Performers have four eyes: two to attend to the mechanics of tuning and playing the guitar and two more in the forehead for simultaneously gauging the mood of an audience. While the former pair at that moment had trouble fixing the topology of this chaos of wood and wire, the latter were keenly aware of the expectant and hushed expressions of the party goers. I could sense my brother was also taking the pulse of the party – which I was shortly so emphatically to poop – and was getting keen that I soon launch into a something musical and stop twanging apparently randomly and arbitrarily on the thing as if looking for which end was up.

Swimmers diving off the top board for the first time will know the feeling. Fairground riders reaching the crest before the first plunge of a big roller coaster will know the feeling. Fiscal incompetents (of whose number I am a proud member) opening tax demands will know the feeling. Second world war kamikaze pilots knew the feeling. This is the no-way-back certainty of impending calamity. This moment now just before the first chord. Actually, the term “chord” was bestowing to the noise which erupted a sonic quality which it didn’t remotely deserve. Nevertheless, the ice having been broken, so to speak, I determined that grit and determination coupled with sheer volume was the only way forward. If I couldn’t seduce the senses with a filigree of fingerstyle, then I would bludgeon the ears to insensitivity so it wouldn’t matter any more. Assault the senses with sound. “Shock and awe” military folks would call the strategy today. Perhaps I could appeal to a punk-folk phase I was going through.

Alas, this tactic was not enough to conceal the blindingly obvious. In truth, even with the best guitar in the world I doubt I would have saved my brother’s – and the whole room’s – blushes given the copious amount of beer and whisky that I’d consumed to that point. So as I desperately tried to maintain focus through the mist of alcoholic intoxication and terror of the piece of cacophony the next attempt at a chord change was going to belt out, I raced toward the finish line. The damning and embarrassed politeness of the cauterised-short applause which greeted the culmination of my Herculean effort only deepened my sense of mortification. Then some sadist asked for an encore which, after a moment of astonished silence, was backed up by a few insincere mutterings of approval. So off you go again. A certain resigned calm beginning to kick-in. An almost out-of-body feeling of detachment. Fixed expressions on the face of my victims as they look at the carpet, walls or their own footwear – anywhere but in the direction of this corruption of musical sound.

A trick I learned when a particular song is not going well during a performance is to arbitrarily discard bits of it. A verse here; a chorus there – it doesn’t matter. Just to get out of there is the imperative of the moment. So it was on this occasion. I think my facial expression must have forewarned anyone of the danger of asking for yet another musical treat because even before the dying of the last tortured note a couple of soft but persistent conversations spontaneously started up which were gratefully enjoined by the others. Mercifully, the possibility of an another encore receded and I was able to release the confusion of wood and wire to the force of gravity and let it rest on the floor and with the help of a soft kick with my heel place it out of harm’s way.

For my part, and after a suitable interlude and another whisky, I retired to the room where the guests coats were laid out on the bed and, without turning on the light, burst into tears of shame and frustration. Later I apologised to my brother for the “performance” but he was understanding and shrugged it off.

Now, I have played in rooms full of hundreds of people and I’ve played in Antwerp dockside cafes competing with the din of pinball machines. I get nervous before every gig, sure: but that’s part and parcel. A couple of songs in and I’m having a ball. But ask me to do an impromptu couple of songs on an untried guitar at any ad-hoc gathering and your unlikely to see my boot heels for dust.

The horror. The horror.

But back to the matter with which I started this little reminiscence. These days, I’ve discovered that if I miss but two consecutive days without playing a guitar, my fingers feel as if they hardly recognise the fingerboard and my other fingers want to scratch and pull instead of picking and plucking. “Cold” fingers when sober and serious is a tiresome irritation. You go through exercises and playing tunes for a couple of hours, or more, and by the time your “chops” are in tip-top shape, its time to put the guitar down and slope off to bed. And the next morning start all over again. “Cold” fingers, with an alcohol frazzled brain at the steering wheel, are a liability and can seriously undermine your credibility. There may be no way back.

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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.