A Musical Instrument is for Life
If Music be the Food of Love, play on...
Musical Instruments - my personal collection
There was always music in our family house. My mum played the piano, accompanied by the clicking of her long red nails on the keys. My older brothers also took piano lessons. I had a blue plastic ukulele which I liked to scrape with a cane, having enjoyed hearing violins in a local variety orchestra. And there was the gramophone and a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan, Will Fyffe and Harry Lauder. To this day, I don't think it matters too much what music a youngster is exposed to, as long as there is music and people appreciating it.
When my turn came, I was sent to piano lessons, probably a year too soon, and didn't make a lot of progress, especially in the summers when the daylight hours were for cricket, and cricket alone. The piano taught me sightreading and basic keyboard harmony, so it wasn't a wasted experience, but I still don't get along with keyboards.
Then one day the school music teacher announced that some orchestral instruments were available if anyone was interested. It turned out she had a cello, a bassoon and a flute, returned by recent school leavers. I asked for the cello but she said it needed repair. So I asked for the bassoon but she said my hands were too small (not true - I was always spider-fingered). So, mildly disappointed, I settled for the flute.
I took to the flute pretty well. I had a great teacher, Adam Bennett, who concentrated on tone production above all else. No gas pipes effects allowed! But he also told me after a year or so that the school instrument I'd been given was really holding me back, as it was of poor quality and in need of a major overhaul or better still, to be recycled as a fire poker. What I didn't know was that he'd had the same conversation with my father who, on an impulse, went to Biggars Music Shop in Glasgow and came home to surprise me with an Artley Concert Flute, second hand, but in perfect order.
Going to Biggars was a good move. For a non-player to buy a musical instrument for a musician is a very high risk and not to be recommended. But the staff in Biggars were/are knowledgeable and experienced and sold him a good quality instrument at a fair price. The Artley is not a sterling silver instrument. It is electroplated nickel silver, and over the 43 years I've owned and played it, my finger acids have taken their toll on the key plating (see picture above). But the tone and intonation over the full range are as good as ever (when I'm in practice!) and the playability is far better than many more expensive instruments I've tried. It has been re-padded once only, and three or four times I've stripped down the entire mechanism for cleaning and lubrication. I was so nervous the first time I did that, in case I couldn't put it back together again, that I forgot all about the lubrication and had to repeat the entire process.
I must have been 14 when I stuck Jerry onto the case. It seemed a good idea at the time, as did the dymo-tape label saying 'MORE POWER TO YOUR THUMBS'...
Guitars, guitars, guitars
The Beatles have a lot to answer for. How could you be a teenage musician in those years and not want to play guitar? But the school didn't entertain guitars and having recently been given a flute, I wasn't going to ask for a guitar too. The only option, then, was to start saving. I was 15 or 16 when I lashed out £9 while on holiday in Spain for a very basic classic guitar. When I got it home, I set about learning from a TV series, Hold Down a Chord with John Pearse. I also bought a book of flamenco guitar and started learning some of the forms, aided by records (also brought back from Spain). And of course I learned that my guitar was a heap of junk!
But it was still better than what you could get for the same money in Britain, so I sold it for £10, put another £5 to it and, on holiday again, bought a much nicer Spanish classic guitar which has been my constant travelling companion for 40 years, wherever I've lived and worked. It's not my best instrument, but it will always be my favourite. We've been in more bars and bedrooms together than I care to remember.
The guitar on the right is neither of the above. By 1970, I was playing classic guitar seriously and wanted a quality instrument. This one is made by Taurus (which people often mishear as Torres - no such luck!) and is as good a classic as I will ever need. It is beautifully constructed, with a rosewood fingerboard, and an unusual jet black finish to the sides and back.
It has no strings in the picture because it was while changing the strings I had the sudden notion to photograph and write about my best instruments. Normally, I fit it with Augustine Blue strings or sometimes Aranjuez Gold.
Honky Tonk Blues
I was playing flute in a folk-rock band for a while. But the band gradually morphed into something louder and heavier where the flute wasn't really needed. The choices were, leave the band or make more noise. I also had an electric guitar (a bright red Hagstrom) by this time, but we had enough guitarists. So, as I was now working for a living and had bit more spare cash, I decided to take up the sax, and bought the one on the right, a pretty basic alto. I don't consider myself a saxophonist. I can bash out riffs in a rock band, but my attempts to sit in with the sax section in a Glenn Miller style big band were fun but a failure. These guys were all in their fifties and sixties and had been doing it all their lives. I'm glad to have tried it nonetheless. It's a great sound to be in the midst of. But String of Pearls was my downfall. The solo goes to second alto because the first is on clarinet. And I couldn't hack it!
Asi se Toca!
Flamenco - I love it. In Britain and even more in America, people often think of Flamenco as a guitar based music. But it's not. The Flamencos sing and dance. And if there are no guitars, there are feet to stamp, hands to clap, fingers to snap, tabletops to beat. Flamenco is the compas, the structure and rhythm. Cante Jondo (deep song). Cante Chico (light song).
Possibly the best living Flamenco guitarist, Juan Martin, travels with his troupe of singers dancers and guitarists and is content to spend most of a recital in the role of accompanist to the song and dance. His occasional guitar solos are just to please his fans, not himself.
I have spent many nights playing Flamenco into the darkness (it's an improvised music; unlike classical guitar, you don't read it. You play by ear). And for years, I played it on my aging 'travelling' classic guitar. But there are two reasons why you shouldn't really play Flamenco on a classic. One, the tone quality is never right, and two, Flamenco rhythm techniques can do physical damage to the soundboard of a classic.
So, one day in London, walking by the Ivor Mairantz Music Centre, on a whim I went inside and asked to try some Flamenco Guitars. I tried three, dragged myself out of the shop empty handed and returned the next day to buy no.2 (pictured right), a Spanish built Cayuela Flamenco instrument. Flamenco guitars have thin scratch plates to protect the soundboard and are shallower bodied than classics. They are also of lighter construction throughout. All of which combines to give a distinctive bright, sharp tone and crisp articulation. Very traditional instruments still have wooden tuning pegs instead of machine heads, but as this doesn't alter the tone and merely makes tuning difficult, it is beginning to die out.
Semper Dowland semper dolens
A love of classic guitar inevitably introduced me to early music from the lutenists and vihuelists of France, England and Spain. And there is no doubt that this music (like most music) sounds best on authentic instruments. Perhaps the high point musically from the Renaissance was the lute of John Dowland, court musician to Queen Elizabeth. My lute is a modern reproduction of Dowland's style of instrument. It has 13 strings in seven 'courses' or pairs, with the top string only being single. It is tuned a minor third above the classic guitar (though this doesn't take account of the changes in pitch down the centuries).
The lute is quite tricky to play. Because the string tension is much lower and the construction much lighter, I've had to learn to use a far less 'muscular' technique than suits the guitar. Then there is the difficulty of keeping the instrument on my lap when playing. The rounded back is naturally unstable and it has a tendency to slip forwards at the worst possible moment. I haven't dropped it yet, but it's been close.
A few more technical details about the lute, mostly for guitarists: the strings are tied directly to the bridge but do not pass over any 'bone'. The frets are not metal but are actually of gut (or nylon) tied around the neck. Renaissance lutenists used to fine tune their instruments by sliding the frets up or down to suit different keys.
My lute is strung with nylon, not the traditional gut which offers no advantages beyond the feeling of authenticity. In the old days, quality gut strings were so rare that people used to joke that lutenists spend half their lives tuning their lute and the other half playing out of tune. That's why I stick with nylon.
My lute was a 25th anniversary present from my wife. It is far too precious and fragile to carry around the Middle East, so it only gets played on my visits home. But becoming an accomplished or at least a halfway competent renaissance lutenist is my number one retirement project (and maybe not so far away).
Like many musicians, I have accumulated instruments over the years. The ones I've featured here are all special to me in one way or another. But the full list would also include: a new Yamaha electro-acoustic, a djemby, bongos, harmonicas, a piano, a piccolo, a jaw-harp, a ukulele-banjo and a motley collection of whistles, fifes, schaums, etc.
Thank you for reading!
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