The Guitar Story … a true story
Doctor Salter gently picked up my left hand, looked at the wrist, and said “I think it’s time we straighten your left wrist.” You see, my left wrist has quite a pronounced 90° angle, and it doesn’t go straight. It doesn’t matter how hard you push; it doesn’t go straight. It is just bent. It had a bunch of operations on it already, and those operations gave me quite a bit of flexibility and some use of my fingers. My thumb doesn’t stick out; it is pretty much hidden behind my fingers.
So, everybody thought that was going to be pretty much the direction for my next operation. However, out of nowhere, I said something like this: “I think I want to learn how to play the guitar, and I think I might need my wrist like that to play the guitar. So can we just leave it the way it is, and do something else?” Naturally, those are not my exact words; because when I was eleven years old I never thought that I would be writing this story and putting it on an internet site.
It is pretty easy to imagine the look on the face of my parents when their eleven year old kid, who has already had a ton of operations, makes this declaration about a desire to play the guitar! Basically, I guess they said are you crazy, or something like that, and essentially agreed with me having the operation. However, Doctor Salter looked at me straight on and said, “OK, we can do something else.” He proceeded to suggest doing something else but I don’t remember what. That is not part of the story, so it doesn’t matter what else he did. But he did something.
This is an interesting part of the story that I only learned much later and I really don’t know if it’s “relevant” but it certainly adds an interesting bit to the story. This entire paragraph is based on a story I got from my sister Elyse. Unfortunately, she died several years ago in a motorcycle accident, so I’m not able to go back and confirm any of the details with her, but this is the story, as best as I can remember. My brother Dick had a friend, Denny White, who was killed in a car accident. He was the guitar player in a nineteen fifties “rock and roll” band in Stratford Ontario. He was a good friend of my brother, and whenever they would come over to the house and practice, I was always hanging around watching them practice. Apparently all I was interested in was this guy’s guitar. Who knows?
In any case, sometime after the operation, which did not occur on my left wrist, and before we moved from Stratford to Charlottetown, which occurred in 1966, I found an old beat up guitar in the attic. I took it down, cleaned it off, and remember quite clearly sitting on the steps in front of 250 Williams Street trying to figure out how to hold the darn thing without dropping it. It turns out that the way I was able to hold it most comfortably and guarantee that I would not drop it, was with my left arm and wrist over the body of the guitar and my right hand on the neck. This is what most people referred to as “a left handed guitar player”. If you want a point of reference, think about Jimi Hendrix, or Paul McCartney. Pretty good company I guess!
The next thing I remember with that guitar is going into a music store in Charlottetown and asking them to put strings on it and tune it up for me. That would have been in 1966, and it would have been Toombs music store. It is quite difficult for me to imagine what he must’ve been thinking. In any case I walked out of the store with this old guitar with new strings. There is absolutely nothing like an old guitar with new strings!
However, don’t get excited. Not all old guitars are “good” old guitars. Some old guitars are just simply old. Some of them are really difficult to play. Some of them never should have left the factory. Some of them never should have been built. Typically, those types of guitars are “learner guitars”. If you can play one of those, you can play anything!
It turns out I had a learner guitar. Your basic guitar has several parts which are important to know about:
the body, which is the sound box, the neck, which contains the frets, if you are using a fretted instrument, the bridge, which is the part that the strings go over on the body, the nut, which is the part that the strings go over on the neck up near where you turn the strings, the machine heads, which are the things you turn to tune the guitar. The interesting thing about learner guitars is that for some unknown reason, the nut tends to be higher off the neck than it needs to be. So basically, it is much harder to push down on the strings. The thing that makes a guitar sound good is that the string needs to vibrate cleanly between each of the frets, and the bridge. If you hear a buzzing sound when someone plays the guitar, it is typically because they’re not pushing down hard enough on the string against the fret, and that will produce the buzzing sound. The other time you’ll hear buzzing is when a fingernail is pushing up against a string. It doesn’t matter if you are playing a $5,000.00 guitar, or the learner guitar you pick up in the attic. You do not want to hear buzzing!
So, this learner guitar was quite difficult to play. Trust me!
However, I was dedicated to the idea of playing the guitar. I was obsessed with the idea of playing the guitar. There was not much else that interested me at that time other than playing the guitar.
So for several years, all I was trying to do was to develop the muscles in my right hand and forearm so I could push those strings down and not have buzzing. Buzzing was bad. It took a long time to achieve this. It took about two years before I was actually able to do anything that remotely sounded like anything other than buzzing. I’m sure my parents would have rather that I chose to learn how to play just about anything else. But I think they knew better than to try to convince me otherwise. I think the stubbornness that allowed me to learn to walk four times was the same stubbornness that was allowing me to learn how to play the guitar, or at least I hoped so!
One of the popular musicians of the time was Gordon Lightfoot. He had a lot of really nice songs, and what was interesting about his songs, if you played the guitar, was that his songs were not your basic G, C, and D compositions. Some of them were, but most were certainly not. I had a Gordon Lightfoot music book and was trying to learn a couple of the songs. The ones that interested me the most, turned out to be the hardest: Pussy Willows Cattails, and If You Could Read My Mind.
So, for two years, I tried and tried and tried to play the guitar without the buzzing sound. Then one day I woke up, and my right arm was “dead”. I was not able to eat, brush my teeth, or do anything. This kind of scared everybody. So, we went to see the doctor [family doctor in Charlottetown], and he had no idea what was going on. However, about a week later, when I again tried the guitar, the two years of hard work paid off, and my muscles seemed to have developed in the right forearm, and this resulted in me being able to actually push the strings without the buzzing sound. Before that, all the time I was playing, or trying to play, I was able to imagine what it would sound like without the buzzing, but naturally no one else could!
This reminds me of a story I like to tell people about my guitar playing and singing. People always tell me that I should be singing. Well, I don’t sing very well. Something about the voice being in the same key as the music! Consistently! So, when people ask me why I don’t sing I tell them the story of Beethoven. Beethoven would walk in the countryside with his friends and whistle all the time. His friends would say to him, “Please stop whistling, you are driving us crazy”. He would reply, “Your problem, my dear friend, is that all you can hear is the whistling!” I think that is the same case for me and the guitar. I’m quite able to hear full orchestration for everything I play: too bad for the rest of you!
Anyway, as I was mentioning earlier, there were two Gordon Lightfoot songs I was trying to play. And for two years I was regularly asking my mother “Mom, what song is this?” And for two years, she would look at me, smile, and say “I don’t know.” However, after the arm going dead incident, I tried again: “Mom, what song is this?” This time, however, she turned around almost before I asked the question! She replied with excitement, “Pussy Willows Cattails!”
That was the beginning! That was the moment when I knew it was possible, for sure, that not only could I play the guitar, I could play something that was recognizable.
That resulted in a few other changes as well. Clearly now, it was important that I have a guitar that was a little more appropriate for someone who could actually play. So, we went off to Toombs music store in Charlottetown, and looked at their guitars. After much experimentation with various guitars, we selected a $70.00 Harmony guitar. It was an OK guitar for $70.00, and in 1968, $70.00 got you a fairly good guitar. However, it didn’t take long before the limitations of the $70.00 guitar began to manifest themselves. One of the things it could not do very well was overtones. Overtones are sound you get on a guitar string by not depressing the string at all, but by just slightly touching it and then hitting it simultaneously. It produces a very high beautiful ringing sound. Not buzzing by any means! After a year or so of trying to play with the Harmony, it became clear that it wasn’t going to be good enough. By this time, I was learning to play lots of different pieces of music, different types of music, jazz, folk, jazz, and basically anything that I liked. I had a rather eclectic appreciation of music. This brings us back to Beethoven.
One of the pieces I particularly liked was “Song of Joy”. It took me quite a while to master some of the complexities of the early parts of that piece, but I got it fairly well. While learning that song, I branched out into Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”. Clearly two very different songs!
There is an interesting aside to all of this. When I was in grade eleven, I won first prize for a writing contest put on by the Canada Permanent Trust Company. It was a contest for high school students. I submitted my autobiography, and surprisingly, won first prize! I still remember exactly how I found out that I won. I was sitting in chemistry class when the principal, Wendell Horton, in his normal voice, began morning announcements: “Biology twelve has been moved to Doug McCain’s room, the gymnasium is off bounds for cleaning, and congratulations to Jim Flood for winning first prize in the Canada Permanent Trust Company writing contest.” That was the first I heard of it.
After winning the writing contest, I was on the lookout for a good guitar. At that time, there were really only two good guitar brands worth considering. Gibson and Martin. In the electric guitar world there was a Gibson and Fender. In my world, there was what they called a folk guitar; steel string acoustic. Since I won the writing contest, it meant that I had actual money of my own that I could spend on getting a guitar.
In 1968 or 69, the family went on a vacation to Newfoundland. Actually it was just my mother, father, and I. One day, we were walking along Water Street in St. John’s [please note this is the correct spelling]. We went into a music store. Basically, during that period in my life, I walked into every music store I went by. This was an old, dumpy, music store, but it had some really nice guitars. Way up on the rack was a 1966 Gibson b25n, which is the small body Gibson acoustic steel string guitar. Small neck, very easy to play.
How much for that Gibson?
What’s your best price?
$400.00. It’s been used, and has a few marks on it. It was stolen from the store several months ago, and the police were able to recover it.
Can you get it down so I can try it, please?
Are you crazy? Look at you, you’ll drop it and break it!
So, $400.00 is your best price? Why don’t you go ahead and name any piece of music or song, and if I can play it, you cut the price in half?
All right then, how about this, “Song of Joy” by Beethoven.
You’re on! Get it off the wall and tune it please.Buddy, as they say, took the guitar down from the wall, tuned it up nicely, and put it on the counter. He had no idea how to hand it to me. I looked around, and found a Trainor guitar amp to sit on, flipped it over so I could play it in my left handed style, bass string on the bottom, and proceeded to play “Song of Joy” by Beethoven.
Simultaneously, there were two very different expressions on two different faces in the room. The first was on my father’s. His eyes lit up, they started to tear over, and he was smiling ear to ear. Buddy, on the other hand, could hardly believe what he was hearing, or seeing!
As I am playing “Song of Joy” I’m discussing the virtues of the guitar with my father: This plays really nicely, the neck is very straight and plays true all the way up, the overtones are beautiful, and with a new set of strings, this would be an absolutely beautiful guitar.” After finishing most of Beethoven, I switch into “Blackbird”. At this point, Buddy is beside himself! Truly he is not sure what is going on, but, I say to my father something like, “Yes indeed, I think this is a wonderful deal for $200.00.” My father looks straight at me, winks, and says “Are you sure?” After a few more bars of “Blackbird” I say “Yep.”
My father walks over to the counter, takes out his wallet, and counts out: 20, 40, 60, 80, a hundred, 20, 40, 60, 80, 200. I stand up, say thank you to Buddy and start walking out the door. Buddy, raises his voice and says, “You cannot do that to me. Come back in here!” I turn around and look him straight in the face, and say something probably along the lines of, “We made a deal!” and walked out the door.
It wouldn’t surprise me if he still talks about the day this kid came into his store and bought that old guitar for $200.00.After the guitar was safely in hand, we continued our trip/vacation around the coast of Newfoundland. We were on the way to visit a friend now I have met somewhere in Prince Edward Island. I do not remember the details of meeting this girl, but I know that she was as seriously into “Christianity” as I was at that time. Both of us were what you would have called, “Jesus freaks”. She lived in a small out port by the name of Brigus. They had invited us for tea.
So, after picking up the guitar, we left downtown St. John’s and began the trip to the out port for tea. On the way, we decided it was appropriate to have some lunch, so we stopped at a roadside snack bar which was selling fresh fish and other delicacies from the ocean! A very delicious lunch. On the way from there, we picked up a few hitchhikers. We arrived at the appointed time for our tea, only to find that tea in Newfoundland is often a full course meal! Such is life! We ate and ate and ate.
We had a lovely visit, I chatted a lot with my friend, and discovered that the feelings we may have had in Charlottetown several months earlier had some conference or other, did not stand the test of time! That too, is life. So, no hard/heart feelings, and away we went.
Back in town, St. John’s, we visited the arts and culture center. [It turns out that Sheila actually work in the arts and culture center the summer that we were visiting Newfoundland, and that she worked there as a receptionist/greeter, and that we may in fact have actually met her at that time. That particular bit of information is very hard to confirm.]
What is the difference between a good automobile and a good guitar? A good car will get you from one place to another just as quickly. It’s true you may be more comfortable in the good car, but from the transportation point of view, both will get to where you want to go. However, a good guitar is definitely not the same as a not so good guitar, and the difference between a not so good guitar and a really good guitar is quite substantial. There has to be some reason why not so good for cost 50 to $70.00, and really good guitars can totally empty your bank account! However, you can be lucky! And lucky I was when we picked up my Gibson for $200.
So returning Charlottetown, I was now the proud owner of the really good guitar.
It’s interesting what happens when you end up having a good guitar! It’s not that people were not taking me seriously before, it’s just now that I have that “real guitar”, people suddenly thought that I was a much better player! Perhaps I wasn’t actually playing any better, but I just simply sounded better!
In any case, I was asked to play at the Kirk of Saint James Anglican church Sunday evening coffee shop. This Sunday evening coffee shop was not really put on by the church people, it’s just that the young people in the neighbourhood were using the facilities. I had been there several times as a spectator. It’s the type of environment which has those plastic woven checkered tablecloth and in the center of the table is a candle. The candle holder is either red or blue candle, with those white mesh plastic netting on the outside for visual effect! Since this is Prince Edward Island, there is a fish net hanging behind the one step high stage adding more visual effect! Everyone is smoking, although they’re not supposed to be, and it is very poorly lit. However, there is a really good sound system! It was all about the sound. Also, it was about the music, the poetry, and the general “scene ”!
So, I was asked to play. I had written several compositions, some of which were described as “a youthful Bruce Cockburn”, and I had lots of poetry. I decided to play a few tunes, and read some poetry. Seem like a pretty standard thing to do!
Glen was the “master of ceremonies”. He was also a musician. I think everyone in the audience was either a guitar player, a songwriter, a poet, or a boyfriend or girlfriend of a guitar player, songwriter, or poet.