This wondrous instrument was a rare sight to the lad because there were not many guitars around in the early Fifties and it was his birthday soon. Even though he did not have a clue as to how to play a guitar, he instinctively knew that it was the thing for him. He ached for the dream of his young life, little
realizing that this urge that he had to make music could be the catalyst that would change his whole future. Maybe, someday, he would live out his dream in the world of popular music.
I often wonder what happened to that lad! Because that very same, uncased, Spanish guitar was bought for me and that is how it all began.
About a week after I’d laid my untutored hands on my guitar, I was taken to visit my Aunt Ada. Now our family’s formidable aunt was the housekeeper for an extremely erudite old gentleman who rejoiced in the name of John Henry Grafton Gratton. He was a Professor Emeritus of Liverpool University who had previously lectured at the universities of London and Heidelberg. His life long passion was the written and spoken word. He researched and translated ancient languages, the results of which he shared with interested scholars and etymologists throughout the world. Although he was gifted with a mammoth intellect, somehow my aunt kept him firmly in place when the need arose. I think her secret weapon was that she held the key to the drinks cabinet.
We’d had a working class upbringing but the indomitable Aunt Ada was our family’s equivalent to a Victorian matriarch and she received the respect that was due to her. The lady usually got her own way on most matters and she enjoyed summoning us to her inner sanctum below stairs on every available Sunday afternoon that was suitable to her.
This particular Sunday was a little different because, by her request, I had brought my new guitar with me. I had tried during the previous week to make some sense, never mind music, out of the totally bewildering mass of wood and metal but the strings reminded me of prison bars that I would remain behind for the rest of my life.
I was hopeless. I could not play a note. The fact that I was about as musically competent as a drunk on a tightrope meant nothing to my mother as she paraded the fruits of her maternal efforts before the stern gaze of the top hen in the family coop.
“Play your guitar for Aunt Ada, Billy,” was the order issuing from the proud face in front of my apprehensive little eyes.
“And give us a nice little song as well,” was added just for good measure.
I was well and truly backed into a corner and there was nowhere to run. I took a deep breath and gathered up as much courage and I could to try and cover up the fact that I knew as much about the infernal instrument as I did about the nesting habits of the lesser spotted hornbill.
Shaking like a leaf, I started to play. I did not dare put my trembling left hand on the fingerboard because I did not have a clue as to where it was supposed to go. I
realized that I had to try and justify the money they had spent on the guitar, so I attempted to show my very first audience something.
Fuelled by sheer desperation, I ran the fingers of my right hand across the strings and then drew them back again. Repeating this operation produced a rhythm rather like a pram with a broken wheel being pushed across a cattle grid. Above this unholy twanging my little boy’s voice screeched a tormented rendition of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’ that would have made the poor unfortunate girl wish she had never started out on the journey.
I finished to a silence that rivaled the vacuum of space.
“We’re just going to the next room for a moment. Have a piece of cake,” said our sacred aunt.
She and ‘me Mam’ got up solemnly from their chairs and left. I nurtured the hope that they had both been totally stunned by the raw talent to which they had just been treated. So, after waiting for a moment or two, I crept across the room and peeked around the door to see what they were doing. There they were, dancing up and down together with hands glued to their mouths trying to stifle the laughter with tears of merriment flooding into their hankies.
My tears were of a different kind and a disillusioned little boy crept back to his seat and awaited the consolatory lies being prepared in the room next door.
Things improved. At last I had enough pocket money to buy myself a ‘Teach Yourself Guitar’ book. This fount of six-stringed knowledge showed me how the dreaded instrument worked and how to make almost acceptable sounds come out of the beast. It had diagrams of chord shapes with little black dots indicating where my soft and inexperienced fingers were supposed to go.
“Put your little pinkies here, lad” said the book. “Do as I tell you, practice hard and they will not ridicule you any more. Trust me and I will give you the key to happiness, popularity and, best of all, the female heart.”
It took a lot of effort and even more time but the book was right. Incidentally, the first song I learned to perform was the infamous ‘She’ll Be coming Round The Mountain’ and this time the poor young lady had a much more pleasant trip!
The popularity came and went as it chose. But, in its fickle way it made the occasional return visit. The happiness of making music was enough in itself, but it was made even better by the parties that I was invited to, purely because of the guitar playing. The female hearts took a little longer but they were all well worth the wait.
I increased my musical ability by trying to imitate the guitarists that I heard both on records and by listening to the radio. Added to this were the inevitable hours of practice. Then, when I was about mid-way into my thirteenth year, another welcome bonus came along. On most Saturday nights my guitar and me used to be taken to our local pub called The Castle Inn and seated in the back room or ‘parlour.’ There I was delighted to accompany my friends and neighbours in their ‘Satdee Night Singalong.’
The songs that we sang together were usually a collection of old favourites, country and western, or current hits, but five or six chords would usually covered the ale inspired repertoire. It was here that I was introduced to the culture shock of wobbling home on the strength of several halves of shandy that were administered to me because, “They couldn’t do the lad any harm, could they?” But the best bit of all was the gift of loose change that was collected in a pint glass and poured into my thankful pocket at the end of the night. I was nearly fourteen years old and a well-off little kid!
As time went by, I used to be taken to different pubs for their sing-alongs. Doing those down to earth hostelries made me learn a lot of new stuff and I became a better player for it. I also gained a maturity beyond my years and a much sharper sense of humour.