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Bert Weedon: Musician whose 'Play in a Day' manuals inspired generations of guitarists

He persuaded his father to buy him his first guitar, for 15 shillings in London’s Petticoat Lane market
  • @cmaume

Bert Weedon could only claim one Top 10 hit in his career but his influence could be heard on countless No 1s, not least through his best-selling guitar manuals. Already an established star when rock'n'roll arrived in the UK, he was named as an inspiration by many of the biggest names in British rock and pop music.

He made regular appearances on television, and a string of solo singles made him the most famous guitarist in the country; he was perfectly placed to take advantage of the birth of rock'n'roll. He regularly played on hits by such luminaries of the time as Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Billy Fury, Alma Cogan, Dickie Valentine and Frankie Vaughan, as well as backing big names from the US, including Frank Sinatra,Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and Nat "King" Cole.

He published his first Play In A Day book in 1957; they went on to sell in their millions, with musicians of the calibre of Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Brian May among the guitarists who learned to play guitar from them. May once referred to Weedon as the "Guitar Wizard" and "a legend", while in a 1970s interview Clapton said: "I wouldn't have felt the urge to press on without the tips and encouragement that Bert's book Play in a Day gives you. I've never met a player of any consequence who doesn't say the same thing."

In an interview he gave the Independent in 1997, Weedon concurred. "Hardly a day goes by without someone telling me they've bought the book or had someone buy it for them," he said. "People come up to me after shows and at social functions – even in supermarkets and petrol stations."

The introduction to Play in a Day claims that "this book will enable the reader to play the guitar up to a standard suitable for playing in a jazz, skiffle, or dance combination". It ends with some advice to new performers about the perils of playing too loudly, and in 1997 Weedon said he had been horrified by the guitar-destroying antics of the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Who's Pete Townshend. "I can't understand why anyone should want to smash a cup and saucer, let alone a guitar," he told Russell Newmark.

Along with tips on proper care for your guitar, Play in a Day also carried a final warning about the importance of regular practice: "Nature did not fashion our fingers for guitar-playing specifically, but nature has given us a mind to think with, willpower, patience and determination."

Herbert Maurice William Weedon was born in East London in 1920, the son of a Tube driver, an amateur singer with a collection of hillbilly records. He picked up his first – battered – guitar at the age of 12, which he convinced his father to buy for him in London's Petticoat Lane market for 15 shillings (75p). Initially he learned classical guitar, a grounding he said had equipped him to adapt to a range of musical styles, from jazz to dance music.

He formed his first bands in the 1940s – the Blue Cumberland Rhythm Boys and Bert Weedon and His Harlem Hotshots – although, as he recalled, the guitar was hardly the ubiquitous instrument it is now: "The only time you saw a guitar was in the hands of a cowboy in a western film singing 'Home on the Range'." He graduated to a semi-professional Dixieland jazz group, Harry Gold's Pieces of Eight, and performed with the violinist Stephane Grappelli and pianist George Shearing in the early '40s, and went on to work with Ted Heath, Mantovani and The Squadronnaires, before becoming a featured soloist for four years with the BBC Show Band programme. He could be heard almost every day on the BBC Light Programme.

He became the first British guitarist to have a solo record in the Hit Parade with "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" in 1959. He charted the same year with "Nashville Boogie" and the following year with "Big Beat Boogie" and "Twelfth Street Rag", as well as the original UK version of "Apache". The instrumental was written by the British songwriter Jerry Lordan, and Weedon's version, recorded early in 1960, remained unreleased until the Shadows' version came out; theirs stayed at No 1 for five weeks, while Weedon's still did well, reaching No 24. The Shadows later immortalised Weedon in their song "Mr Guitar".

In 1976 Weedon became the first solo guitar player to go to No1 on the Official Top 40 album charts, with 22 Golden Guitar Greats. He continued to play live and release records and was a stalwart member of the showbusiness charity group the Grand Order of Water Rats.

While the Shadows paid tribute, Sir Paul McCartney also revealed that both he and George Harrison used Weedon's manuals to learn the chords D and A, while fellow-Beatle John Lennon also freely confessed to learning the guitar from Play in a Day. Even more contemporary artists are unashamed to admit their debt. The Cure wrote a short instrumental, The Weedy Burtons, which featured as a hidden track on their debut album Three Imaginary Boys in 1979.

In 1997 Weedon was still obsessed with the guitar. "[It] has been my life," he said, "to play it, to study it, to write books on it and to get other people to play it. I like to think that I've helped in some way to make the guitar the most popular instrument in the world."

Herbert Maurice William Weedon, guitarist and teacher: born London 10 May 1920; OBE 2001; married firstly, secondly Margaret (two sons); died Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire 20 April 2012.