A Letter to my Guitar Teacher
Man, it’s been a long time. I think the last time I saw you was back in the 80s. You were playing with a folk band in a pub in Kemptown, Brighton. It was a great night and I wish I’d had the chance to have a chat, but I was only popping in on our way to the Hungry Years rock club. Like so many things we don’t realise when we are young, I never thought that would be the last time I saw you.
So many things have changed even since that night I barely know where to begin. So maybe I’ll leave that for now and just thank you for the huge influence you had on my life. I was your very first guitar student. I was 8 years old and I think you were about 24. My hands were still so small I couldn’t form a proper G chord, and I never really appreciated the patience you must have had trying to teach me back then. I was into rock music even at that age blaring out songs by Sweet, Slade and T Rex, but you were always a proper folky. I remember how you would warm up by playing an astounding piece of fingerstyle guitar and, to my mind, you are up there with Bert Jansch (not that I knew who he was back then, but I do now…).
You couldn’t read music so taught me how to play by ear and hand-drawing out chord shapes in my book. I think the only times I saw you frustrated with me was when I forgot that book.
It had everything in it.
“David, have you got your book?” you’d ask in your broad Irish accent, and sometimes I didn’t. You would hand draw the chord charts, and when you taught me a song you would write out the lyrics in full and place the chord names where they would change above the words. I think the first song you taught me was Crazy Man Michael by Fairport Convention. I’d never heard it before and only properly heard their original version around 1992. It might amuse you to know that when I was about 12 I pretended I’d written that song to get the attention of a girl I liked at school. Can you imagine what a plonker I felt when her elder brother played her the song from one of the most famous folk-rock albums of all time? She still went out with me but it wasn’t a very good start…
So how did you influence me?
I always wanted to play the electric guitar, but I found my way back to the acoustic and folk music, many years later. I think because I’d been taught folk music I was never a very good electric guitar player, so during my teens and twenties, when I was in various rock and metal bands, it was the drums that drew my attention. I was pretty good for someone who’d never been taught, and there were far fewer drummers around so it was pretty easy to get into a band. However, it was picking up the acoustic guitar again in the 90s, after years of ignoring it, that utterly changed my life, and it wasn’t long before the muscle memory of playing those 6 steel stings began to show fruit in new and exciting ways – but more about that later.
You always had long hair. I remember asking my Mum and Dad if I could grow my hair ‘like Tim’s’. So I’ve had this long old mop since I was about 10 years old. Sure Brian Connely of the Sweet and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo might have influenced me too, but I think it was because of you that my parents said yes.
When I rediscovered folk music it was to Irish traditional music that I first turned my attention. I remembered Clannad from the theme tune of the old Robin of Sherwood TV show, and that interest led onto Altan, The Dubliners, Planxty and Christie Moore, The Pogues, The Fureys and Davy Arthur, so many. That interest led me to then explore English traditional folk music and another whole new world opened for me. And there, on Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention, I finally heard the original of Crazy Man Michael – about 20 years after you first taught it to me.
So why am I writing this letter when I doubt you’ll ever see it? To thank you, with all my heart. Ok, it was me who wanted to learn the guitar and made that decision back when I was 7 and it was my parents who bought me my first guitar for my 8th birthday. But it was your way of teaching me, by ear, with patience, and the style of music you taught me and played, that sowed the seeds that grew to where I am today. You see I re-discovered my love of acoustic music at exactly the same time I discovered the Pagan heart that had been beating within me for years. And as that love of the acoustic guitar grew, so I found the Celtic myths of Britain and Ireland, I heard about Bards who played and sung with harps and I remembered you building a dragon-headed harp by hand whilst you began to also learn to read music. I picked up that old 6 string and discovered a voice within me I always knew was there but had never truly found until those stars aligned.
I’m now one of the very lucky ones who make a living through what they love to do. My guitar has taken me all over the world. When I stood before Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, so many other iconic places, every time I have taken a moment to think about how making that decision to learn the guitar when I was 8 years old led me to that moment, and to be grateful that my parents supported me, and that somehow they found exactly the right person to take my hand and lead me on those first few uncharted roads.
I guess you’d be about 71 now and I bet you are still playing music. Who knows, maybe you will see this letter, I really hope so. I’d love to thank you in person and maybe play you a few of my songs. I think you’d like where that 8-year-old wannabe musician pointed their life. I think you’d absolutely understand the drive of music and mysticism that every day wakes me up looking forward to what the day may bring. But wherever you are Tim, man, did you make a difference.