Guitar Man by Will Hodgkinson

Get the rhythm, feel the music and make sure you're out of tune
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The Independent Culture

One in three British households has a guitar, and young British Blairs harbour dreams of strutting on stage with one. After two decades of thinking about it but never touching an instrument, Will Hodgkinson decided to force the issue by booking a public date for himself. What could he achieve, from a standing start, in the intervening six months?

His aims were modest. Observing that the entire output of Velvet Underground could be achieved on the basis of a few simple chords, he didn't aspire to Segovia-style dexterity. Four chords would suffice to deliver Davey Graham's "Anji", the song that obsessed him, provided he could tweak them with a few simple tricks. As one of the "tone deaf" brigade at school - how many lives have been blighted by that put-down - he doesn't even aspire to read music. Reading tablature will be his limit.

Armed with a £160 job from Denmark Street, and seeking advice from guitarists, he quickly learns he is not tone deaf - but given that his heroes include those refined Sixties luminaries Davey Graham and Bert Jansch, he should have realised that. The advice he is given is refreshingly basic: get the rhythm, feel what you are playing, don't be hexed by your lack of technique. He discovers the interesting harmonic effects when you shift your fingers in a routine chord-position up a couple of frets; he also learns right-hand ruses.

As a natural writer of clean, evocative prose, he manages to bring his family into the narrative without trying our patience. And when he sets off to drink at founts of wisdom in the rock guitar's natural home, it's a pleasure to go with him. Nashville disappoints; Memphis has charm; the Gibson factory, where he buys a Seagull, is overwhelming. Roger McGuinn shows him how The Byrds made their jingle-jangle sound; an ancient finger-picker named Model T Ford offers a close-up whiff of the blues.

But his key encounters are in London. Vinicius Cantuaria pinpoints the quality of bossa nova. Billy Childish offers a flash of illumination: "Guitars sound better when they're slightly out of tune." From Bert Jansch, whose hero is Julian Bream, Hodgkinson learns why that remark should be so true. He should look eastward to the oud, on which one string plays the melody while the others act as drones. And he finally tracks down that elusive genius Davey Graham, who in the course of a marijuana-fuelled evening gives him the tutorial of his dreams.

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