Along with being iconic, the guitar is also music’s most egalitarian instrument. Anyone with enough patience to learn three or four chords can, in theory, create a decent song. Armed with this premise, British writer Will Hodgkinson gave himself six months to acquire sufficieint skills to play for a live audience.
The result, “Guitar Man,” follows his search for guitar prowess. This rollicking, readable journey touches upon nearly every style of the twentieth century, from British folk masters Davey Graham and the tragic Jackson C. Frank, to garage punk madman Sky Saxon of the Seeds.
The writer enlists nearly everyone he knows in his quest to unlock the magic lurking inside his $300 guitar. The applicability of what he learns is best summed up by the vague guidance he gets from one of his friends:
“Sing the song in your head,” says Doyle. “You just have to feel it.”
“Has it ever occurred to you,” Will snaps back, “that you have to work out where your fingers go for a song before you can ‘feel’ it?”
Hodgkinson is a journalist who’s written for Mojo, Vogue and other publications, which allowed him access to several musical luminaries. Bert Jansch, who played the most well-known version of a song Will desperately wants to learn, Davey Graham’s “Angie,” teaches him hammer-on techniques. The Smiths’ Johnny Marr is also an encouraging tutor, but seems more interested in demonstrating his chops than in helping his student acquire some of his own.
An encounter with Chan Marshall is fruitless but comical. The Cat Power chanteuse has a lot to say about relationships – both with men and guitars – but offers nothing mechanical. Worse still is a brief meeting with guitar legend Les Paul, who plays a forgettable set at his New York nightclub, and then forces Hodgkinson to stand in a queue with fans for a chance to speak with him.
Seeing Les Paul, who built the popular solid body guitar that bears his name and is a touchstone for generations of players, was supposed to be the centerpiece of Will’s trip to the United States. All he gets is some terse advice (“Practice,” Paul tells him. “Learn from a good teacher.”), and an irritated admonition to keep the line moving.
He fares better on his American journey to the Deep South, where he learns 12-string techniques from Roger McGuinn. The ex-Byrd tells him the origins of “Eight Miles High” as Hurricane Jeanne bears down on his Orlando, Florida mansion.
Except for a brief stop at the Gibson guitar factory, he doesn’t find much in Nashville. It’s Sunday, and everyone’s in church. He tours the dowdy remnants of Sun Studios in Memphis with legendary sideman Roland James, and in Greenville, Mississippi receives a brief lesson from late-blooming blues man T Model Ford, who took up the guitar at age 58 and is still going strong at 83.
When he rings up James Williamson, the ex-Stooge hasn’t played in 20 years. His son calls his dusty instruments “the coffins in the corner.” Williamson, now a Silicon Valley executive, is reticent to even talk to Hodgkinson. “What makes you qualified to write about guitarists?” he asks in a letter.
Their conversations eventually led Williamson to revisit his guitar, but the wisdom he imparts to the aspiring guitarist isn’t much different from what Will’s friend Doyle has been telling him:
“Have fun with it,” says James. “In the end, that’s all there is.”
Ultimately that advice – and a few hours spent learning from a more patient (and less famous) teacher, is enough to ready Hodgkinson for his big debut with the quickly-assembled and barely-rehearsed Double Fantasy, a band consisting of Will and a friend on guitar, a singer borrowed from medieval folkies Circulus, and Doyle playing bass.
The gig goes well. His friends buy him drinks after, and the girls all flirt with him – especially his wife, who has over seven months watched Will go from mangling “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” to mastering “Angie.”
Though Double Fantasy broke up immediately after their one appearance, Hodgkinson was so intoxicated by the experience that he wrote a second book. “Song Man,” tracks Will’s attempts to get his original songs placed. That experience laid the groundwork for a third book in the trilogy – “Record Man.”
Because what else can a frustrated guitar hero do when the music business turns a deaf ear to his artistic vision? Of course – start an indie label.
If only the guitar were harder to play…