Thursday, September 29, 2016

50 Years of Guitar-Playing

At some point in recent weeks was the 50th anniversary of when I took up the guitar. I'm not sure exactly when because it was so long ago I can't remember! But I have been playing guitar, in one form or another, for fifty years. My current guitar, built in Vancouver by Robert Holroyd, I have been playing for thirty-three years. My first guitar was a rented electric bass, but I soon added a six-string acoustic steel-string guitar and my very own electric bass. Added to that was a Yamaha amplifier, then a Shure microphone and stand and on and on. After a few years, I discovered classical music and switched to classical guitar. My first classical was a student Yamaha guitar:

The next year, 1974, I went to Spain to study and bought my first serious guitar, a Jose Ramirez 1ª Concierto. I don't have a good photo of me with that one, but here is what the shop looks like today:

After a few years I felt that the Ramirez was not entirely suitable for contemporary and early music so I bought a hand-made Japanese guitar by Masaru Kohno, built around '75 or '76:

I think that is what I am holding in this photo:

One day a friend of mine called me up and told me that a builder in Vancouver had just finished a guitar and I could try it out in the couple of days before the buyer picked it up. So I did. After fifteen minutes I said "Bob, I have to have your next guitar!" I actually got a bank loan to buy it. This was in 1983 and I'm still playing that same guitar!

It has a very unusual bridge, made from ebony, but without a loop in the strings:

Instead of the usual bridge of plastic or ivory, each string goes over its own tool steel post. The guitar has an immediacy of response, a clarity, a precision of tuning and a comfortable neck such as I have not encountered in any other guitar. Mind you, if I were still giving concerts, I would be on a plane to Australia right now, looking to buy a guitar by Greg Smallman.

But what I actually want to do in this post is talk about some of the things, large and small, I have learned from playing the guitar:

  • Change your strings when they wear out!
  • Practice slowly--very slowly
  • Practice what you want the result to be and never practice mistakes
  • Once you have decided you want to be a guitar player, buy the best guitar you can find
  • Everything, the sound, the precision, the expression, everything comes from the mind first of all and the fingers only discover how to do it later on
  • It all seems to come down to passion and discipline. These two things seem to be opposed, but really they are not. You only have the will and the patience to do the disciplined practice if you have the passion. And you can only express the passion if you have the will and patience to do the disciplined practice. I suspect this is true of every path in life.
  • First you get the chops, then you get the money, then you get the chicks? Wasn't that the line in Scarface?
  • Playing music is probably an end in itself: in other words it is not about the sales, the concert fees, the adulation or even the many wonderful friends you make. It is about playing well, the creation of beauty, even if ephemeral. The Good, the True, the Beautiful, these are the transcendentals. Everything else is, or should be, instrumental to these ends.
So let me end with a tiny fragment of beauty that I caused to happen. This is a little piece by Isaias Savio called Serões that I recorded quite a few years ago:


Anonymous said...

A lovely little piece that is, enviably well played. I've just recently taken up classical guitar, having spent much of the last decade, my teenage years basically, playing lead guitar in bands. I will most likely seek lessons when I have time over Christmas, but in the mean time advise like that you've listed is extremely useful. If I may ask for a point of clarification, what do you mean exactly by 'never practise mistakes'? I presume you mean to focus on and correct them, as opposed to playing through a work and not stopping even if you make a mistake, which I was always taught as an electric guitarist?

Sorry to bother you with such a boring question! I'm obsessively trying to avoid bad habits, considering that I have enough lingering ones from electric guitar (the left hand thumb, for example).

Oh, one other thing. I meant to comment on post a few days ago, but alas forgot. It was on crossovers. I hope you don't mind me quickly commenting on it here.

I tend to agree with you -- crossovers are like gin and tonic in which only 1/20th is gin. You'll never hook anyone on that. But I've been listening to John Dowland a lot lately, and trying to learn some of the pieces, and stumbled across Sting's album of Downland's songs. Now, I find Sting awfully irritating, but the album was actually quite good for what it is. The lutenist especially. Sting's voice, though irritating to me, was not unmusical. The album seems to be a successful crossover, and I can imagine (though I have no evidence) that it may have at least made some people curious about classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Slugging!

"Never practice mistakes" is a tricky thing to accomplish. It has to do with concentration, I think. If you make a mistake, figure out what happened and make sure it doesn't happen again. Go over the passage, correctly, very slowly. A remarkable number of students make the same mistake over and over, which just means they are ingraining it. After a lot of "woodshedding" you should start playing the piece through and yes, then you do not stop to correct anything.

I have the Sting Dowland album and yes, it is the exception! For one thing he is going from popular to classical which hardly anyone even attempts and second, it is pretty successful, I agree. Sting also plays a little classical guitar.

David said...

Happy Anniversary Bryan. Half a century is a true landmark in a life devoted to the creative arts. Best wishes for many more years of music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, so much David!