Why I Play The Guitar

Written April 1997, Howard Roberts.

Note: Update, July 2008. Since I wrote this, I discovered the web site for Simon Campbell, lead singer and guitarist with The Disciples. I am also linking to MP3 files of all the stuff I have recorded with JTM, the band I played with from 1995 to 2000.

For all guitarists, there is usually an epiphany at some point in their youth when they realise that they don't just want to  listen to music, they want to play it. I'd always heard guitar playing around the house - my dad had collected blues records since the 1960s and he's of the same generation as Clapton, Beck, Page and Keith Richards. My Dad also played a little himself, although he'd be the first to admit that he didn't really have a musical ear, he learned to play it all from books because he loved listening to the music so much.

However, all that absorption of guitar playing must have been subconscious because my "see the light" moment was in 1985. I was sitting in the sixth form common room of my school, avoiding lessons when I heard a sort of bubbly synthesizer pattern on the stereo. It wasn't particularly interesting but the pattern kept building and building until it hit a crescendo and stopped. Then the most amazing guitar riff I had ever heard came bursting out of the speakers. It was a driving, chunky sound - quite nasal yet thick and creamy. I just sat straight up, astonished that other people weren't taking any interest in this astounding noise. Could it just be me? I still didn't know what it was, and no-one in the room had heard the DJ's introduction of the record and he didn't say it again after the record had finished. For the next few days I was glued to the radio, listening to every song in case they played it again, almost in agony in case that had been the only time I would ever hear this magical sound in my life.

Of course, I did hear it again. It was "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits, from the "Brothers in Arms" album. At that time Dire Straits were deeply unfashionable for 17-year olds to listen to so I kept my guilty secret to myself and didn't tell any of my friends that I bought the single. I experienced the same feeling when I played the single for the first time at home, although this time something else happened. A thought popped into my head, "I have GOT to learn to play this..."

I got out my Dad's old acoustic guitar, which he hadn't played for nearly ten years. It was a mess, but at the time I didn't realise it. I got him to show me how to string it properly (he's left handed), how to tune it to itself and then to a set of pitch pipes and some basic chords. It really was a horrible instrument, the action was so high that it was agony to press the strings down, the tuning was out all over the fretboard. However, I couldn't stop. I played whenever I could stand the pain. The meaning of the first line of Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69" really hit home. "I got my first real six string, bought it at the five and dime. Played it till my fingers bled, was the summer of 69". I knew how he felt.

After a few weeks, it was obvious to my parents that I was serious about playing, so they relented and bought me my first electric guitar for my eighteenth birthday. It was a Hohner Arbor Telecaster copy. Not a bad instrument (in fact, I still use bits of it for my slide guitar playing) and a million times better than my Dad's old acoustic. After a few months I had saved enough to buy an amplifier from a friend who'd stopped playing his guitar. At was a crappy old transistor amp, maybe 10 watts output. However, I soon discovered that if you turned the volume up so high that the speaker flapped and distorted the sound, put my guitar onto the bridge pickup and turned the tone right down, I could get a rough equivalent to Mark Knopfler's "Money for Nothing" sound. After another week, I had taught myself THAT riff.

Of course, that was just the beginning. I moved onto other guitar heroes. I got into Queen. I saw Queen on the "Magic" tour and they were supported by Status Quo. I worked my way through their back catalogue and realised that the played almost nothing except twelve bar blues. I read magazines which talked about modern guitar heroes and bought an album which was recommended called "Couldn't Stand The Weather" by an exciting young player, Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I dropped the needle onto the first track and the astonishing blur of notes that was "Scuttle Buttin'" came blasting out of the speakers, I had my second dawning of the light. That album contained blues, boogie, funk and a Hendrix cover. I just had to hear more of this stuff, I was hooked on blues rock.

Around 1988, I was invited by a friend to go and see a band at a local pub, known for the excellence of the live music that they put on. The band was called "The Method". We arrived at the pub called "The Witchwood" early as we had been told the place filled up early. The band had already soundchecked and when 9pm rolled around they kicked off into Freddie King's "Hideaway". They were a four piece - bass, drums and two guitars and one of the guitarists sang. These guys were in each others pockets - they knew exactly where everyone else was. The guitarists sparked off each other and drove each other to new heights. The sheer volume and raw energy of the music these guys played was nothing like I had every experienced before. I realised that my fumbling playing along to records would get me nowhere. I wanted to do this.

I followed The Method wherever they went around the north-west of England. The four guys, Simon Campbell (guitar and vocals), Mike Hehir (guitar), Dave Gilmour (drums) and the bass player, known only as John, inspired me. They took chances, they played songs they'd never played together before and did it right. One night, Mike Hehir spontaneously played the riff which I had previously only known as the Theme from "Top Of The Pops" and the band jumped on it and played the "Whole Lotta Love" all the way through. This was my introduction to Led Zeppelin.

I followed another band fronted by Simon Campbell. A band which gave him a chance to play with other musicians and play original songs. I was there when they first announced their name to The Witchwood audience, "The Disciples". They were great - they played original songs and mixed them in with lesser known blues songs. The rapport with the audience was brilliant, Simon jumped around like a madman. One night he jumped to much and fell over. He carried on playing while lying on his back and was teased as "Skippy" for the next six months by the audiences he played to.

I talked to the guys from both these bands. I watched how they played their guitars, learned how they soundchecked, how they set their amps up, what effects they used and how they worked their audience. These guys, though they didn't know it, became my teachers. I learned more from watching great musicians play than I could ever have learned from instruction videos, reading books or listening to records. Eventually, probably due to the infamous "Musical differences" The Disciples stopped playing. The Method turned up instead. After a few more gigs there was a different drummer in The Method. They weren't the same. That was the last time I ever saw them.

However, the story doesn't stop there. I bullied a couple of mates into forming a blues band, "Rude Mood", named after a track by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Our set list was full of songs I had seen The Method play and I even threw a couple of Disciples covers in as well, which I learned from a mini-LP they had released. I continued to grow as a musician and started writing my own songs and moved outside the confines of a blues band into JTM. I still love the blues, I still remember those extraordinary nights watching The Method and The Disciples flying by the seat of their pants, taking risks and mostly succeeding, and, all the while, teaching me...

And that's why I play the guitar.

Links:
    Simon Campbell
    JTM - my band from 1995 to 2000


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