Thursday, 26 May 2011

Me and my guitars: Telecaster, Taylor 314 and a Yamaki

I have a nephew in Cornwall who has erected a prefabricated American schoolhouse in his garden and filled it with musical equipment, including a shedload of recording equipment, two drum-kits, at least a dozen guitars, including several acoustics, a trio of Telecaster-style models, a Danelectro, a Gretsch semi-hollow electric and a bass guitar. If you feel your palms sweating with excitement at this description, you are undoubtedly a guitar player.

The first guitar I was ever allowed to touch was a genuine American sunburst Fender Stratocaster – perhaps, to use an adjective that always makes me feel slightly ill, the most iconic electric guitar in the known universe: it was the shape we all drew when defacing school text-books.  It belonged to an Armenian friend who lived on Downside in Wimbledon. His father, a businessman pal of the Shah of Iran, who used to leave his bullet-proof vest lying around the house between trips, would drag him in to play “Summertime” whenever relatives or business acquaintances were over. (His older brother was a replacement bass player for the Yardbirds and one of his friends would stand in for lead singer Keith Relf whenever he was ill - a frequent occurrence, apparently).

My pal also owned an impressive collection of DC comics and the Eddie Cochran Memorial Album. But it was the guitar that truly fascinated me.  I wasn’t allowed to play the hallowed object – I wouldn’t have known what to do in any case – but I was allowed to fondle it occasionally (all guitar writing ends up drenched in sexual innuendo). I remember being surprised by how heavy it was, and by how “right” it felt when held in the traditional position (oh God, it’s getting worse!). One day, I thought, one day…

Having had a go on the worst electric guitar I have ever encountered, belonging to an acquaintance at school, my next guitar epiphany came via a gold-sprinkled Gretsch White Falcon hanging in the window of Sound City on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1968 or thereabouts. This still strikes me as one of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen, and I still intend to own one before I die. Of course, I was far too scared to actually enter the shop and ask if I could handle it – gazing at it on numerous occasions through the window was reward enough.

I eventually got round to buying a guitar in 1969 – a truly abysmal Spanish acoustic costing £10 from a shop in Putney. The “action” (the space between the strings and the fretboard) was about an inch. It sounded – in my hands at least – truly awful. I learned the standard Chuck Berry twelve-bar double-stop rhythm method… and that was about it. When I got to college and attended a few sessions of the weekly “Folk Club” I was awed by how many of my fellow undergraduates were able to coax such great sounds from an instrument which had utterly defeated me. Not for the first time – and certainly not the last – I felt inadequate.

Fast forward sixteen years, and I’ve been told I’ll never be able to drink alcohol again. Giving up turns out to be surprisingly easy, except for the period between arriving home and eating dinner, which would normally have involved downing a couple of hefty Scotches, with ice and an equal measure of water. The lack of this time-honoured evening ritual leaves me edgy, but, faced with the prospect of having to prepare dinner instead, I find myself fingering guitars in a Chiswick guitar shop across the road from Sainsbury’s. It’s run by a horribly grumpy Frenchman with a pudding-bowl hair-do and a Raymond Blanc accent but none of the restaurateur’s charm. I try out a few acoustics, and like the feel of a second-hand Yamaki: it sounds pleasant, the action is very low, the fretboard is  narrow, and it feels good in my hands. At this point the Gallic git – evidently suspecting that the large bearded man in his shop is actually an impecunious schoolboy wasting his precious time (there’s no one else in the place – there never is) - asks me if I intend to buy anything. Quelling the natural impulse to see whether the guitar I’m inexpertly strumming will separate an obnoxious French wanker’s head from his shoulders I reply “This one, actually!”. I hand over £160 and cart it home. 

Yamaki was a Japanese guitar marque which ceased exporting to the West in 1978, and folded soon afterwards. Their guitars were pretty well regarded and I’ve always been very fond of mine. 

I send off for some Hal Leonard guitar books – note-for-note  transcriptions of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry recordings – and I’m away. Now I have something to do before dinner. And after. And in the early hours, if I can’t sleep (until the woman who lives downstairs complains). How my wife stands my endless, ham-fisted attempts to recreate Scotty Moore’s guitar part from “Mystery Train” and the solo from “Johnny B. Goode” is beyond me. She is a saint. 

We move house and I begin to lose interest in the guitar. But then our son is born and – perhaps panicking at the prospect of being a middle-aged father, I find myself back in the same guitar shop. I have read lots of magazines and suspect that what I want is a Fender Telecaster (same price as its younger brother, the Stratocaster, as well as tinnier and more piercing, it’s the default choice of Hot Country musicians, and I intend to be the Hot Country picker sans pareilwithin a few months). Froggie tells me he doesn’t stock Telecasters because there’s no call for them (some people are just natural born salesmen), so I end up in Ealing buying a black US Telecaster for about £450 (no traditional blondes in stock), a 15 Watt Fender practice amp – and I’m up and running again. There’s less pain involved for Mrs. G and the neighbours this time, because you can plug headphones into the amp and just get on your own nerves.

Realising that the “reverb” function on my amp won’t in fact provide the vast amounts of echo I crave, I buy a Boss Digital Delay effects pedal. I plug this in and play “Mystery Train” – and I am,  to my own ears, Scotty Moore himself. I start laughing with delight and can barely stop (this is either a peak experience or a sign of hysteria). 

Two years’ later, once more finding myself in a musical cul-de-sac, unable to improve my playing no matter how much practice I put in, I buy a Zoom GFX-8 effects processor, a fiendishly complicated machine which allows me to create practically every guitar sound known to man, turning my Telecaster into a Stratocaster or a Les Paul at will (I’ve tried a friend’s SG in the meantime, but it flummoxes me – huge sound, but it weighs a ton, the fretboard has the characteristics of a skid-pad, and, after years playing a Fender, it hangs all wrong – now, thanks to Zoom, I can recreate the sound of this classic stadium rock guitar without having to play one of the damn things).

Meanwhile, following advice in a guitar magazine, I ditch my Super Slinky strings (they’re less punishing on the fingers and they make bending easier, but the top strings sound weedy on a Tele, and you need to be a talented guitarist to get the bends right – and I’m not talented) and replace them with far heavier strings. The magazine’s right – I sound beefier and more accurate instantly.

Five years’ later and I’ve practically given up playing. I’m stuck in a rut, and actually getting worse. I can do some decent rockabilly stuff, I’ve learned how to Travis Pick (the thumb picks out the bass notes on alternatingstrings while your fingers play the melody on the higher strings, making it sound as if two guitars are involved), I can do the standard blues stuff – but I can’t get through a song without my fingers ending up in knots. I have several dozen guitar tablature books and endless transcriptions cut out of magazines – but I’ve reached a dead end.

My seven-year old son shows an interest in the guitar and we find a guitar teacher, a nice gangly young chap who lives nearby and who turns out to have studied music at Cambridge. From the next room, I listen to him teaching my son a few things on my old Yamaki – and I realise I also need this young man in my life.

After we’ve agreed terms for teaching my son, I ask if he’ll consider teaching me as well (separate lessons!). He asks me to play something: ridiculously, I start with Jerry Reed’s complex classic “The Claw” – and, humiliatingly, break down after 20 seconds. He asks me to play the opening to REM’s “Everybody Hurts”, and as I slowly pick out the simple, stately arpeggios, I realise what’s wrong with me - I’m getting worse because I have no technique whatsoever: I’ve never learned the basics, meaning that everything I do is a clumsy work-round. I need to be able to pluck each string cleanly, with equal force, and in time – and be able to place the right finger on the right string. I’ve been playing for years and I’m deeply ignorant and absolutely rubbish.

Two years later, my teacher wins his campaign to force me to buy what he calls a “proper” guitar. He has turned up with a variety of acoustics over the preceding 24 months – but it’s his own Taylor that really impresses me. It has a built-in pick-up so it can be amplified, but he recommends going the traditional acoustic route (on the basis, I suspect, that I’m unlikely to be giving concerts anytime soon). I head for Denmark Street, London’s guitar mecca, and try out about 30 different models – Gretsches, Gibsons, Martins, the lot – but there’s a particular Taylor 314 which sounds and feels better than any of them. I hand the gentleman behind the counter at Rose-Morris a cheque for £1350 and carry my purchase home as if it’s a new-born baby.

It’s a perfect country guitar, brilliant for finger-picking (my favourite style): it’s simultaneously loud and bright and warm. If I pick it up after a few weeks’ absence, I’m always surprised by just how tasty it sounds and how pleasing it is to the touch – it’s like driving a car with a leather steering wheel after years of clutching plastic, or getting an iMac after years of tussling with PCs. It just feels right.

One day I’ll get that White Falcon – but, to be honest, guitar-wise, I already have exactly what I want. And now I have to go off for a quick noodle.


  1. Well worth the wait and at the moment your post appeared I was playing my own black Telecaster, finger pickin' country style. No guitarist starting off today will have to go through what we did. The quality of even the cheapest starter guitars is beyond anything I could have dreamed of as a 15 year old buying my first Framus. What a clunker. I returned to guitar playing only in my 30s. I broke my left hand in an accident and it affected grip, fingering and seed.

    Then in the 1980s, having turned up early for a meeting, I wandered into a guitar shop and ended up walking out with a Japanese made Stratocaster. I've tried loads of Strats since then but never felt the need to trade up.
    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 11:46 AM

  2. It took me a while to learn, expensively, that despite the attractions of Gibsons they did not really suit me. The 1977 Les Paul Artisan III (mint condish), the SG and the ES 335 all sit on stands looking gorgeous but rarely get played. When the price gets totally ridiculous, I'll probably sell..

    But then the question is what to buy. Like you, I have what I need and a total of 12 is probably too many anyway. But I thought this once before and then discovered Paul Reed Smith. Expensive, pretty and the most playable guitars I've ever tried. Whatever the guage of strings, the intonation is perfect. They are a total joy. I thought I would leave it at owning a Custom 22. I was encouraged by a girlfriend -"this is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen" - to buy a White Falcon in Manny's guitars in New York. I pleaded poverty.

    Then in Vancouver, I happened on a guitar shop with a sale on. There was a White Falcon, in a locked glass cabinet to deter grubby fingered oiks, at an affordable price. I spent a wonderful hour trying it out and walked out with....a PRS McCarthy Archtop.

    I'm still in the market for a White Falcon, which I have coveted ever since seeing Steve Stills dwarved by one on TV yet wringing from it the most honeyed, pure tone. If you spot a 2 for the price of 1 deal, let me know Scott and I'm in!
    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 01:08 PM

  3. I've always beens an electric guitarist. This may have been a reaction to the pressure at school and home that if I had to have one at all, it should be the Spanish guitar, so much more respectable because, don't you see, classical pieces are written for it. Thanks Nobby Long. But it made a sound that stirred nothing inside me and still doesn't to this day. I decided eventually, that to amuse my children with my renditions of Jollity Farm, or to try to encourage them to play, I'd buy a decent acoustic.

    So, like you in Denmark Street, I tried out all the available makes for about an hour. I then found myself at the till with an Ibanez solid body electric. This time I stopped myself and ended up choosing a Takemine cutaway, a purchase I have never regretted. I think it might be time to upgrade to a Taylor, wonderful guitars.

    One final point, requiring my dredging up a 40 year old memory. Did the Armenian Strat owner have a name that was something like David Gluestienn?
    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 - 01:25 PM

  4. Actually, I think the first name was Richard (but it's a long time ago).
    Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 02:14 PM

  5. Spooky, Ex-KCS, that we’ve both ended up with black Teles and both coveting a White Falcon. I’m not sure I could handle a dozen guitars – I’d just dither, trying to decide which one to play. I tried out a few Takamines and, again, liked the feel of them. As for Fender copies (or Mexican or Far east versions) the Tele copies my nephew owns all pretty much felt as good as the real thing and certainly played like them.

    Did I get to play your Framus? I honestly can’t remember (I remember John Black on the piano, playing “The Dawn Patrol”,and the tape recorder).

    I wonder, re Gibsons, whether you have to start on them early to warm to them. The SG I played was good on power chords and lead runs, but for fingerpicking or rockabilly – hopeless! Plus the tone was just too fruity for my kind of stuff. Interesting, after years of playing everything but, that John Fogerty and Dave Edmunds both ended up with Teles.

    My guitar teacher had a PRS, raved about it, and tried to get me to forsake the Tele for one, but I think I’d have to be a more dedicated electric guitar player to buy one. For me, the steel-string acoustic has always come first in terms of general playing enjoyment (as opposed to listening) and Travis-picking is my favourite style. I like the definiteness of it all, and the loudness you get with a Taylor. Doc Watson is another great favourite, but I don’t find flat-picking that easy. I think my fondness for acoustics came from listening to CSN, CSN&Y and Steve Stills albums. A certain chap introduced me to that style of music – can’t remember his name. Also, early James Taylor, early Van Morrison and a soupcon of Leo Kottke

    As for classical music on the guitar – I agree: it’s boring! (my classically-trained teacher admitted this before I did). But I do love the sound of nylon-strings Spanish classical guitars (Willie Nelson sounds good with one of those) and have been known to purloin my son’s very proper Alhambra for a quick work-out.

    I only didn’t get a cut-way because I could never imagine being able to make a decent sound that high up an acoustic fret-board, but I do occasionally wonder if I shouldn’t have got one. I’ve also grown very fond of the sound of an amplified acoustic – especially the late, great Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins. So an amplified cut-away acoustic is probably another one for my old age, when, with any luck, I’ll have some room for it – right now, we’ve completely run out of space.

    Nobby Long was the only teacher – in fact, the only adult – to ever hit me, for talking when he was boring on about something or other. Bastard!

    Richard Galustian! How in the name of God did you know that? He definitely didn’t attend King’s. I assume he’s a multi-billionaire businessman these days (he is – I just checked online: he’s the MD of Gemini Consultants in the UAE – wonder if he’s still got the Strat).

    If I see a two-for-one offer on a brace of White Falcons, you’ll be the first to know.

    By the way – what sort of music do you play on your many guitars (apart from “Jollity Farm”, and “Do the Congo Basso”)? And where do you keep them all??
    Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 03:02 PM

  6. Was the CSNY fan the same chap who recorded classics like "Vietnam" and "Everybody's Dying in Biafra" with help from his friends? I'm damned if I can recall the name either.

    I can remember the name Galustian out of a wholly unadmirable jealousy, born out of the misery of strapping on a ton weight 15 quid piece of finger-shredding crap to play while knowing that a kid with a rich dad up the road had one of the world's great guitars, polished on a stand.

    As to style, I have a bad technique which has improved since I gave up the plectrum. I try to disguise this through loud amplification, although sadly improvements in reproduction mean that I can no longer hide fluffed notes behind a fuzzy haze of sound. But very few things in life give the same degree of pleasure, a factor which unites not very good guitarists around the world.
    Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 05:20 PM

    1. It's me shithead Gronmark..Galustian...Richard ..hahaha email me

    2. Look forward read more of your blog too haha can't believe stumble on you on a machine!

  7. We were 11 or 12 when we last saw each other.

    1. Welcome, Wronged Party! I think we met once later on when you were about 15 and I was 14, I think. Or that might have been a mutual friend telling me he'd met you. Speaking of which, that mutual friend reads this blog, so you might be getting an email from two of us.

      Anyway, what's an International Man of Mystery doing googling himself on a Sunday afternoon? And, more importanty, do you still have the Strat? And I hope you held on to the DC comics - must be worth a fortune by now!

    2. I've got in touch with quite a few old friends since I started this blog, Richard, including two I hadn't seen since we were 18 - but if you're right about the age we were when we last met, we haven't been in touch for over 50 years. Bizarre!

      And whatever happened to the Eddie Cochran memorial Album - or was that your brother's?

      Anyway, I'll email you.


    4. Great stuff - I fire back with:

    5. Great stuff - I fire back with: