You are never alone with a guitar to strum

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"The simple things are invariably the best," the former Dire Strait Mark Knopfler said this week, while promoting his new album, Sailing to Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, the simple thing about which he felt most passionate was the guitar. As a child, he had longed for a plastic toy instrument with the face of Elvis on the back; now, a rock star with £70m in the bank, he still likes nothing better than to try out new chord shapes and riffs late into the night.

"The simple things are invariably the best," the former Dire Strait Mark Knopfler said this week, while promoting his new album, Sailing to Philadelphia. Unsurprisingly, the simple thing about which he felt most passionate was the guitar. As a child, he had longed for a plastic toy instrument with the face of Elvis on the back; now, a rock star with £70m in the bank, he still likes nothing better than to try out new chord shapes and riffs late into the night.

Today, as the great fuel crisis has forced us back on to our own devices, those of us fortunate enough to be able to turn to the same good, simple thing - a Guild, perhaps or a Takamine - will be similarly thankful. You are never entirely alone when a guitar is nearby.

Versions of the Knopfler story, from plastic Elvis guitar to a career as virtuoso, are familiar. Less frequently recounted is the tale of millions of amateur strummers and pickers whose lives have been enriched and transformed from the moment when they first picked out the chords to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?".

Surely no instrument in the history of man has provided such varied pleasure. In my view, any caring parent of a teenager should invest in a cheap acoustic and hope that, after those first tricky months of musical exploration, it will become a friend for life.

My first guitar, which I was given at the age of 14, provided an escape from the crushing tedium of boarding-school; indeed, it was probably the dreariness of daily public-school existence that helped me to persevere from those early days, playing along to the tune of "Diamonds" by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan. Since then, almost wherever I have been, there has been a guitar nearby.

Musically, the journey has been an embarrassingly short one. By the age of 17, I was harmonising to the Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back" and "Cathy's Clown"; now, 35 years later, I rejoice when I can find someone to be Don to my Phil with the same songs.

Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" and Davey Graham's "Ain't Nobody's Business", melancholy songs that provided the soundtrack to my university days, are still part of my repertoire. In a sense, that is part of the pleasure of playing - to be able, with a few bars of an old tune, to connect to one's own past.

It also connects to the past of others, turning a minimal skill into something of a social attribute. A guitar opens doors. It can be taken anywhere. It leads you into unlikely adventures. At one point in my twenties, I found myself playing at a party where, without warning or planning, everyone took their clothes off and paired off - it was Paris; it was the Seventies. Never have I been happier to have a Martin (that's a guitar) to clutch to my person.

Ten years later, the orgies were of a more public and alcoholic nature. I was playing in late-night bars and restaurants where different forms of excess - it was London; it was the Eighties - were explored every night.

Musicians tended to be in the firing-line, banging out the Stones or Dylan as couples groped on the dance-floor and food flew through the air. One of my friends, who had borrowed my guitar for a gig, confessed later that it was returned slightly soiled: a drunken punter, enraged by his refusal to play "Feelings", had retaliated by unzipping and peeing all over my lovely Ovation.

Perhaps these musical memories will not encourage the parents of would-be guitarists. They may recall Willie Nelson's warning, "Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys/ Don't let 'em play guitars and drive them old trucks/ Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such." Right about virtually everything else, Willie was wrong about the guitars.

terblacker@aol.com

Comments