First Memories of Learning to Play the Guitar

My First Memories of learning to play the guitar by Dom Winter

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I can’t remember ever not wanting to play the guitar, even when I couldn’t it was always something I wanted to do and dreamed about. I remember being probably aged five or six and spending my pocket money on a toy guitar – a four stringed ukulele sort of thing from a toy shop in Warwick. Of course I could only make horrible noises on it and none of it sounded like music but I loved the shape of it, the sound it made and the feeling of being able to change the sounds by putting my fingers in different places. Over the following forty or so years I have developed an obsessive relationship with all things guitar orientated; it has shaped my personality and is my defining skill. Even if I lose the use of my hands and can no longer play I will still have guitars around me. I see them as practical works of art and have them hanging on the wall. I love the smell of them, the areas where the finish has worn away from being played so much, the vibration of the wood when you strum them and the way they feel and interact with you when they are brought to life. It is an organic instrument, at its heart, six lengths of wire attached to a piece of wood. The variety of sounds and styles you can get from a guitar is more varied than any other non synthesised instrument.   Good guitars have a personality, or at least a character. Each instrument imparts an aspect of itself on to the player. I sound distinctly different playing my Martin Dreadnought acoustic than I do playing my Gibson Les Paul Custom and different again when I pick up my Fender Stratocaster. I still sound like me, but it’s me on my Martin, Les Paul or Strat. Your playing is filtered through the instrument and it adds its own characteristic to the music you are making.

When you look at adverts on Ebay for  old guitars they often use the word “mojo” The dictionary describes this as “a magnetic quality, a quality that attracts or charms others”. This seems to describe what I am talking about pretty well however, it gets this quality from the player. The more it is played the more it can absorb and give back to you, charm you if you like. A medium quality guitar that has been played really well for 30 years will always be better than a high quality guitar that has been played badly or not at all. Some guitars are as famous as the players for this reason, Eric Clapton’s Blackie, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Number 1, Michael Hedges Martin D28, Brian May’s home-made Red Special, Rory Gallagher’s battered Strat and so on.  These are not necessarily better guitars in terms of playability or sound than a finely crafted custom instrument, in fact very often these instruments will be more difficult to play however. They have developed a unique character and personality of their own and in some cases have fetched incredibly high prices at auction. This is why I generally dislike brand new guitars and prefer something older with some life and history to it, the exception being the top end handmade instruments that have inherited their mojo from the maker but, like many, I can’t afford them! All Guitars get better when they are played well, and well played guitars tend to make you a better player so my advice for anyone starting out looking to upgrade to a better guitar is to always go for a well played used instrument rather than a new guitar. I struggle to feel an emotional bond to something pristine and new even if it is a top flight instrument worth thousands. Let me play it after 20 years hard life and I’ll probably fall in love with it.

My primary memory of hearing an electric guitar and really realising that I wanted to be learning to play the guitar for myself was hearing ‘Revolution’ by the Beatles for the first time. I was probably about eight or so and had purchased second-hand, the blue compilation album from a friend of my brothers. I liked all the tracks however, this one jumped out at me, distortion, power, volume and the track starts with a scream, how could anyone not like it? My parents told me repeatedly to turn it down, which made me like it even more!   Music had always been in the house. My dad, a French Teacher, is very musical and had a comprehensive classical collection attending the famous Bristol Cathedral School. He inherited a piano from someone he used to play too when he was a schoolboy. One of my earliest memories at the age of 2 or 3 is this piano being delivered and taken up stairs by two delivery men, damaging the wallpaper my mum had just put up. Being about three years old I found ripping the tears they had made down to the floor quite therapeutic but my mum was livid, then really upset as I had created so much extra work.

In 1970 we moved to a new house in Harbury, our village in the heart of Warwickshire where my parents still live. There wasn’t room for the piano here initially and Dad had arranged with one of his colleagues, Kipps Horn a music teacher to keep it until we had room for it at home.  Eventually it ended up back in our garage when I was probably about seven. I remember, quite justifiably getting into a huge amount of trouble being caught stuffing snow into the top of it, it must have caused considerable damage and if that had been mine I’d have been much more angry than my dad was, which was about as angry as I ever saw him. Eventually after we’d had an extension built on to the house it ended up in the newly created dining room. Dad played quite a lot and mum a bit here and there and I loved hearing music being made but the piano wasn’t my instrument. Apart from occasionally picking out a few tunes, the piano didn’t do it for me. It did make me want to play a musical instrument though

My older brother was learning to play the guitar  and had  a cheap and nasty Woolworths one with nylon strings. I had bought a toy guitar a couple of years before, a 4 string ukulele, which I had loved playing and picking out the odd tune on 1 of the strings but couldn’t tune or play any chords, most definitely a Toy.  He was 2 years older than me and having lessons in the nearby town of Southam from a nun at the convent school there. He used to go and have a lesson then practise a bit then I would have a go. He showed me a couple of things and I tried to copy them but could not make my fingers push hard enough on the strings to make the right sound and it was painful. He must have had lessons for a year or so and then decided he didn’t want to carry on with them. Not realising the full impact of what I was getting myself into, I thought I would like to play guitar so asked if I could go instead which was agreed to.

I went for my first lesson with Sister Mary Lawrence at the nunnery (a word I always preferred to ‘convent’) probably the winter of 1977. I remember being dropped off by my Dad, going through a dark corridor with all the lights off into a quite a large and cold room half way up on the right. I paid my 50p for half an hour she showed me how to tune it and taught me to play a ‘G’ chord pressing the top string at the 3rd fret with my little finger of my left hand. She wrote down in a book the names of the strings and a guide to how to keep it in tune. After a few weeks she had shown me a few chords, C major, A major and minor, E major and minor, D major and F major. This one I just couldn’t do as it involved fretting two of the top strings with my first finger and I couldn’t get them to sound properly. Even the ones that I could get to sound I struggled then to change from one to another and I had to really concentrate on making sure my fingers went in the right place. I kept having to move my fingers round to stop deadening the sound of the other strings. It was really hard and it made my fingers hurt.  She showed me how these chords were written in chord boxes, like a matrix with lines going down representing the strings, line going across which are the frets and dots which are your fingers. We also did a bit of work playing chords with the fingers of my right hand playing different strings instead of just strumming. It sounds pretty bad, embarrassing and really not very rock’n’roll being taught guitar by a nun, but in all honesty the reality was much, much worse.

You expect to play lame stuff when you’re learning, does anyone actually like “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain” or any of the myriad of tune-a-day drivel that failed to inspire new starters in the 1970’s? But Sister Mary Laurence, although a lovely lady, had an uncanny ability to make everything, no matter how lame, sound even worse. Not interested in teaching me songs I wanted to play like the Beatles she had her own agenda.  Her best trick was to change the lyrics to get God and Jesus into every single line, singing like she wanted the whole town to hear her and then expect you to do the same, I always refused, probably one of the reasons I don’t sing and play now. Imagine an overweight sixty year old nun singing ‘she’ll be coming around the mountain to see Je-sus’ at the top her voice while banging out chords that to me didn’t sound like they fitted the song. Really not my scene at all. If God does exist and was listening I do hope he had access to a set of earplugs, unfortunately I didn’t.

On the plus side she did explain how to tune it, showed me some basic chords and how to read chord boxes. She seemed to teach a lot of people as the annual concert showed. There were probably thirty or more students, some really good so she must have connected with some of them. One lad who was probably 13 or 14 had a solo spot and he was brilliant. A girl who was sitting behind me at the concert had an electric guitar which obviously impressed me hugely. My performance in the annual concert was such that I never went back and had anymore lessons, the sound was not what I wanted to hear, the songs were definitely not what I wanted to play and I was struggling to keep up with the chord changes and wasn’t really interested in reading music. Pretty much that was that. Sister Mary Lawrence died a few years later after I had started playing seriously and I appreciated she showed me enough to start to teach myself so I was a little upset,  … but not as much as the people in afterlife will be if she is singing to them…

My brother had been given a song book for christmas, The Beatles Complete, which had every Beatles song in it and chord boxes to show you what to play. I consider myself to be self taught, Sister Mary Lawrence taught me what I needed to know to teach myself rather than actually how to play. I fundamentally learned the basics and my basic chord vocabulary from this book. I could learn to play the chords and make them sound but couldn’t change from one to another very easily. There was one song, the Indian inspired “within you without you” which only had one chord, Dm7. I didn’t like the song particularly but could play along with the record and get the timing of the strumming right. I probably spent the next 3 years like this, on and off, learning a few chords from Beatles songs and playing along with them. I got really into the Beatles and the first album I ever bought brand new was the Red album, on red vinyl, to go with the blue album I already had. Playing on this nylon strung guitar that didn’t sound right but the chance of getting an electric guitar seemed pretty remote with my parents’ comments “we’re not having one of those things in the house” “they’re far too loud” “what about the neighbours” and “people get electrocuted by those things”. Once I finally did get one of those things the noise levels in the house did increase measurably, the neighbours commented occasionally, and I did once get a hell of a shock off a transformer terminal  in an old Marshall combo I used to own so hard to argue that they were entirely wrong.

Music wise after going to secondary school, Trinity in Warwick where my dad by now was also the head, I was exposed to all kinds. There were so many different music styles prevalent at the time. I started still being a massive Beatles fan but peer pressure came into force and I got into some of the new wave  and punk bands especially the Boomtown Rats The Clash and The Stranglers. Those were my bands. I was also really into the Police and still think their music is fantastic. Christmas of 1979 and one of the most unusual Christmas number ones had a profound impact on me. Pink Floyd had released ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ and I absolutely loved the guitar sound in the verse and choruses and it ended with the most fantastic guitar solo. Irritatingly every time it was played on the radio or TV it was faded out or talked over by the DJ. I had also heard Anne Nightingale play a track ‘Run Like Hell’ in a short radio piece on the release just before Christmas 1979 of their new album ‘The Wall’ so I had to buy it. It was a complete departure from the other music I was listening to and coincided with my grand-dad buying a new stereo and giving me his old one. This then meant me and my older brother who shared a room had our own stereo so I could play it over and over without annoying my parents as much.

I don’t recall my brother buying too many albums but I had a few by then. The Wall was my most recent purchase and although I didn’t instantly like all of it I could finally hear all of the solo at the end of ‘Another Brick In The Wall – part 2’ As I got through to side three, the last track started slowly and moved through some lovely changes and in between the verses was a gorgeous guitar solo which I thought was fantastic. It was the best guitar solo I had ever heard to that point and retained that title for about a minute and a half when the solo for real starts. The opening notes to the closing solo at the end of ‘Comfortably Numb’ are sublime. It is my all time favourite guitar solo, simple, slow, melodic and effective. A more appropriate word would be ‘perfect’. (In fact as I am writing this in my studio having resurrected my vinyl collection I am listening to it right now) In school music lessons my teachers Kipps, who had housed dad’s piano a few years earlier, ran a music appreciation lesson every week. We called all our teachers by their first names, sir and madam was banned, and we had no school uniform, a much better state of affairs in my opinion. It was a very forward thinking school and I am extremely grateful for my education there and it’s a shame more schools didn’t have the foresight or sheer guts to adopt a similar approach as it is far more effective than the conventional way things are done. Kipps would let any of us bring something to play to the class then explain why we liked it, explain what the instruments were and how they were being used and get comments from the rest of the class. I wanted to play Comfortably Numb as it was my favourite song, although too long he played all of it and made sure the class listened to all of it. Most people didn’t like it, too slow, boring and so on. I think Kipps liked it. Next week he made us listen to a piece of music. It started with a long keyboard chord fading in, then a lovely guitar sound playing big sounding notes, no drums just guitar and keyboard. The chord didn’t even change for a couple of minutes, eventually when it did, the guitar followed it beautifully, eventually the singing started and the whole track probably lasted almost 10 minutes. Kipps made us listen to all of it and that was the first time I heard ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ also by Pink Floyd. He showed me the album at the end of the class, it’s still one of the best album covers, two men shaking hands with one of them on fire. I had never seen anything like that. I wanted to play guitar like whoever it was in Pink Floyd, someone called David Gilmour. He was my first guitar hero before I really started playing. I wanted an electric guitar but the chance of getting one was zero. Kipps like many of my teachers at Trinity was incredibly inspirational.

To my great surprise in 1981 my younger brother three years my junior who had just started at the same school, announced he had joined a band as the guitarist. He had probably followed a similar path to me and could string a few chords together. He had also managed to persuade someone to sell him an electric guitar and amp and I assume to get our parents to pay for it. In short he had successfully managed to get ‘one of those things’ into the house where I had failed. When I asked why he could have one when I hadn’t been able to the answer came “well he needs one he’s in a band”. He was obviously cleverer than me, being in a band was what I thought followed getting a guitar, and being good.  I just wanted to be a good player and play the songs I liked. Still hats off, he had much better skills of persuasion than I did. He ended up with a Black Les Paul Custom copy made by Satellite, essentially a low quality Japanese copy and a small 5 watt amp and to be fair he did join a band called Stormbringer, got some T-Shirts made with a band logo on and played at the school band night. They weren’t bad … for a group of 11 year olds. I was impressed by some of the bands that night though and it was the first time I had seen any bands playing. There was a kid who was ‘the guitarist’ at school. I watched him in his band and he did a short solo which I later realised was a rendition of something the Edge from U2 did when I taped a live concert of theirs broadcast on the radio. I wanted to be able to do that. I spent more time in my brothers room playing his guitar than in my own and got reasonably proficient albeit not as good as some of the muso’s at school who had guitars of their own. I had vowed at that point to save as much money as I could and get my own guitar. This proved to be quite a long wait.

In the meantime I managed to play my brothers guitar an hour or so a day and used to get the later bus home from school so I could go into the music shop in Leamington Spa on the way home. The shop was called Rentons, and was on High Street.  It was owned by Kevin Renton, a well known musical extrovert with mad curls of dark hair, bushy beard and John Lennon specs. He obviously knew that I had no money but almost on a daily basis he let me play the guitars in his shop and look at the more expensive ones. I must have spent 4 or 5 hours a week in there and was upset when he closed down a few years later. When that happened, he gave me the display guitar in the window, which was a knackered old f-hole arch top.  The body had been separated from the top, split open and had pictures pasted inside and he had kept it in the window for years. I just asked what he was going to do with when he closed and if he wanted anything for it and he gave it to me. Years later I glued it all back together, re-finished it, put some frets in and set it up. The neck is a bit warped but it plays and sounds as good as any other 1958 Hofner Congress I have come into contact with. I would never part with that one as even though it’s not a great guitar and it doesn’t get played very often it has been with me for so long, I love it and there is so much of me in it. Although I have never seen him since, I am incredibly grateful to Kevin Renton as he allowed me to play guitars in his shop he knew I wasn’t going to buy and didn’t have the money for, I literally used to go in there to practise and he seemed quite happy with that. I hope he is still around and I emailed him a while ago to say thankyou, i didnlt get a reply but I did find a website for him.

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This is the only photograph of me as a child playing a guitar. Taken in Kevin Renton’s music shop in 1981

Another powerful experience around this time that contributed more to me learning to play the guitar was my involvement in the school French exchange with students from Saumur in the Loire valley. My exchange partner was Jean-Pascal Blouin, A couple of years older than me and seemed interested in guitars as well. He said he had one, was learning to play and was involved in a band. He could play an F chord which made him better than me. He introduced me to ZZ Top (he pronounced them “Zed Zed Tup” in his strong accent which is what I thought they were called for years) this was more of the sound I wanted to hear. The first ZZ Top songs I heard were “Blue Jeans Blues” and “La Grange” which really worked for me, great slow bluesy playing and an amazing tone. The guitar solo on the Frank Marino live album he bought on a trip to Oxford was the icing on the cake. He left me with a tape of his favourite songs to give him back when I went to stay with him, ZZTop, Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd amongst others. On that Oxford trip I bought a second hand copy of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ to expand my Pink Floyd collection. I started to practise even more. While I was in France a few weeks later I had to go and stay with his family in Doué la Fontaine in the Loire a few miles outside Saumur which is Warwick’s twin town.  I was elated that in the room I was staying in was his Hondo II guitar, it had two cutaways and the neck went through the body. After some research I have found it was called a Genesis model. He also had an ‘amplificateur’ and he said I could play it whenever I wanted to. There was one evening that he took me to an all night party, partly being only 14 and a bit intimidated but mainly knowing his mum and sister were staying somewhere else and the flat was empty, I pretended I was too tired and wanted to back to bed so he took me back. I insisted he didn’t miss out and went back, I’d be fine. I spent three or four hours till it started to get light with the flat to myself just playing guitar and going through his album collection that he had also given me the freedom to play whenever I wanted.

The best experience though, the moment the tracks shifted for me and I knew I had to be a guitarist was when he took me to a band rehearsal, the first one I had ever been to. He was in charge of lighting, the roadie and did most of the lugging and sound for the Band. The guitarist played a white Fender Stratocaster, the first time I had seen one for real and the rehearsal room was someone’s bedroom, in a house, miles from anywhere. They were absolutely fantastic. Even now I remember most of their set list, Tuesday’s Gone and Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd;  Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton; Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow; Tush and Blue Jeans Blues by ZZ Top; Shot Down In Flames and Highway to Hell by AC/DC. This was the first time I had heard any of these songs and I loved all of them. I remember being driven back from the rehearsal at breakneck speed in the back of Renault 18 with the new AC/DC album, Back In Black being played louder than hell. The opening track ‘Hells Bells’ starts with a giant bell tolling and a superb, simple, opening riff. It was bloody brilliant and I still love playing it when driving If I hadn’t had that experience, I doubt I would have been as fired up but I went and started buying Rock Albums, practising the guitar on a regular basis and taking it much more seriously. I was playing on my brother’s guitar and visiting Renton’s almost daily. I needed to hear the music and have a guitar so it was a balance to saving as much as I could, spending what I needed to on expanding my musical education and knowledge. One of the downsides to being into music that none of your friends like is you have to spend more money on it as there are less friends to tape it from. The public library in Leamington did rent out cassettes at about 40p a week and I figured out how to record from one cassette desk on my Dads stereo to a separate cassette deck he had bought. This worked OK but the speeds of the machines weren’t the same, meaning most of my albums were slightly higher pitched and faster than they should have been. I discovered Jethro Tull, more AC/DC, Rainbow, Deep Purple and a number of other classic rock bands. I taped some, bought the ones I really liked but at £5 an album and the fact I was saving hard for my guitar, that wasn’t very many.

Around this time I bought a couple of singles that were in a sale in W.H. Smiths by a band called Rush. I had heard of them and recognised the album covers and knew a couple of the guitarists in school were into them. The first single had a live version of ‘Tom Sawyer’ on the B side and the second had a live version of ‘Red Barchetta’. The latter is still one of my all time favourite songs from the delicate harmonics that fade in on the intro, to the guitar solo that sounds like its being played in a tunnel through to the bass punches on the outro. I knew I needed to hear more of this band so dipping into my Guitar Savings pot I went straight out and bought the album “Hemispheres” partly because I liked the gatefold sleeve and partly because it was cheaper than the others. It contained a very long song for the entirety of side one which had sections I liked and some bits I didn’t. My older brothers comment was “it’s just rubbish” didn’t put me off, he’d only heard about thirty seconds of it . On side two there was a short song called “circumstances” followed by a song called “The Trees”. This was fantastic, a classical guitar intro, loud verse and chorus and a quiet, textural mid section. I loved this. These songs didn’t have the standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure. They were pieces of music and the only other band I had come across that played like this was Pink Floyd, but they were more laid back. It was complex, interesting and different. Then I heard the last track, an instrumental oddly called “La Villa Strangiato” It was an 8 or 9 minute ‘exercise in indulgence’ according to the sleeve notes and probably one of the most incredible pieces of music ever created. It started with a quiet classical guitar then and a high pitched chord played on a 12 string faded in and it went through loads of different changes. It then slowed down and the guitarist faded notes in like a violin then the playing got more and more frantic before dropping right down to a low repeating riff. It was stunning I listened to it over and over reading the gatefold sleeve and learning the names of the band. I loved the way they described what they do, Alex Lifeson the guitarist was described as playing ‘six and twelve string electric and acoustic guitars’ that covered everything then! This was what I wanted to be able to play and Rush were from that point onwards my favourite band.

By now I really needed to have a guitar of my own, I was getting sick of having to play my brothers. It wasn’t a good guitar, the strings were miles above the fretboard and my brother had knocked it over snapping the headstock off. Kevin Renton had fixed it up but it was a cheap repair, a proper job would have cost more than a new guitar of that standard It was 1982 and a new Jimi Hendrix album was released simply called “Concerts”. I had heard Alexis Corner play a song from it, Fire, on his Sunday night radio one show. I bought the album and his was my introduction to Jimi Hendrix, I still think it is the best album and the one I recommend to people unfamiliar with his music. It contains definitive live versions of many songs with ‘Little Wing’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Are You Experienced’ being highlights. The production gives the guitar a full fat sound.  Although now out of print if you want a good overall impression this is the album to get hold of if you can find one.

Shortly after discovering Jimi Hendrix  I found, second hand, in Rentons the Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits album, a compilation of studio tracks and he was also selling a book ‘Jimi Hendrix, The Forty Greatest’ with chord boxes his best known songs and some tablature to the vocal melodies of a few of them. I also found for 50p in a second hand bookshop a biography of Jimi Hendrix called ‘Jimi – an intimate portrait’ by Curtis Knight. He was obviously one of Jimi Hendrix’ friends and I read that cover to cover in a couple of days. I was not a great reader of books but I found this fascinating, how hard had he worked at it, he started on a broom handle with one string nailed to it about my age, at least I had a guitar in the house, how much suffering before he was noticed, the speed of his rise and the suddenness of his death 12 years earlier. I have read many biographies but this one written in 1975 has always set itself apart and it’s by someone who actually knew him and shared many of his experiences. It is an intimate biography based on memories rather than research so while not the best written book about him it is one of the most interesting. Later that there was a documentary about Jimi Hendrix on BBC. I realise now it was the famous 1973 documentary ‘a film about Jimi Hendrix’ showing some amazing performances from Monterey where he set fire to the guitar, Berkley, Fillmore , Woodstock and some great interviews with his contemporaries like Eric Clapton and Pete Townsend. This is still one of the best rock documentaries made but at the time as I had just discovered Hendrix and was increasingly aching to get a guitar the programme was revelatory. My memory is that I was on my own in the house, I doubt that was the case I imagine my focus and attention was so on this program to such an extent that I was oblivious of anyone else. After seeing what someone could do with a guitar I knew I wanted to have a life with guitars in it and I wanted the same sort of guitar Hendrix played. I still had a while to wait but it would happen eventually

1st May 2014

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