Guitar Teacher Stories: Playing Live.
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By Len Collins
Guitar Breakthrough the Guitar Tuition Program that gives your playing a future
Since I began writing
these articles people have asked me about the playing days. Most, if not
all, were challenging, hard work and fun. So here is the story of the
first, the last and the biggest gig. All have an element of surprise about
them, if only to me.
The first gig took
place at the Hackney Empire, a large theater in East London. My school
band rehearsed there on a Saturday morning. This was a step up from the
freezing cold church hall where we had started. I can remember, quite
vividly, once walking home from the church hall, knee-deep in snow. I
had my amp in one hand and my guitar in the other. The roads were impassable
to traffic; we all got there and back as best we could.
One particular Saturday
the Hackney Empire manager asked if we would like to come back at seven
that same evening. I thought that the chance of an extra rehearsal was
great. What I didn't know was tonight was to be our first performance.
We were getting to be quite a good band; I was playing really well and
so were the others. Our set was a good 45 minutes and we were looking
for gigs. We left our equipment in the theater and went home.
6:30 I arrived back
at the Empire. The stage was bare except for some platforms, the sort
used by elephants to stand on in circuses. The drums were set on one combination.
The bass player shared with the rhythm guitarist/singer and on top of
one particular, three-story pile was my guitar and a microphone stand.
The curtains were closed which was unusual for one of our rehearsals.
From the other side of the curtains I could hear people chattering and
settling down. Sometimes there were technicians getting ready for whatever
was planned for the next day or two so I concentrated on what I was doing
and ignored the whispering and shuffling.
I had entered the
theater through the stage door so I never saw the posters about "Local
Talent Night." Tonight it was our turn because the named band couldn't
rest of the band took up their positions. Everybody was ready to do some
6:50 I climbed
to the pinnacle of Mount Everest.
6:51 I looked
down. This was proving to be a really big mistake. I never knew I had
a fear for heights until that very moment.
The floor seemed
to hurtle towards me! My eyes sprang from my head to meet the onrushing
stage. My legs began to make plans to either find the nearest exit or
simply fold beneath me. Somewhere deep inside my brain a voice whispered
"Don't look down!"
Not looking down
was a good plan. "Look up. Yes! That's it, look up."
Up proved to be
just as bad a choice as down. I don't know the name for the fear of looking
up, but I had it. My eyes had only just painfully recoiled back into their
sockets from the looking down experience when they saw a ton of imaginary
masonry falling towards me, mixing with what I thought was a descending
My heart beat like
a bat escaping a sunshine holiday.
screamed the voice inside my head. "Look forward! Do it! What could
be wrong with looking straight ahead?"
I looked straight
ahead and there they were: hundreds of eyes all looking at me. A strange,
eerie silence entered my thoughts as I stared out.
whispered the voice between my ears.
After a brief, but
very intense moment, I discovered that I could breathe again. There was
only one thing that I could do.
I grabbed the microphone
stand and shouted "One! Two! Three!" into the microphone. My
fingers broke into the opening riff of "Twist and Shout." I
became a super hero. A cartoon cape sprang from my shoulders. My underwear
materialized outside my trousers, the color of which I couldn't begin
to imagine. A large letter G burned out from my chest.
The audience cheered
and stamped their feet to every song. It was a wonderful feeling, like
being possessed by a professional guitarist. The part of my brain that
played guitar for me knew exactly what to do. The hours of practice and
rehearsal had finally paid off.
We made a lot of
friends that night. I calmed down, went home and played guitar for a couple
of hours. One small step for mankind, one giant leap for me.
The last gig:
The sixties were
a thing of the past and the mid-seventies were approaching. I had slowed
down and was playing small gigs with a girl singer. I was looking to finish.
A large hotel in the South of London booked us. What I didn't know was
that the orchestra who were there for the dancing also had me down as
their guitarist. A ghastly red shirt flew towards me and for the first
time I was one of many.
The conductor glared
at me a few times whenever I felt the urge to improvise but for most part
I behaved myself and went by the dots.
Show time! The band
sat patiently while I set up my equipment at the front of the stage. The
important point here is that these musicians had seen it all (though they
hadn't seen me) and the best response I felt I could hope for was bored
I don't know if
you have ever noticed, but whenever a top comedian performs with an orchestra
behind them the musicians always laugh. Not so for the amateur or the
less funny act. Neither do they show appreciation for a lesser musician.
One number was a
special track. It contained one verse to be sung while the rest was a
guitar solo. I had worked on this song for weeks but never performed it
until this night. The girl sang her verse beautifully then left the stage.
I sat there on my own, playing my heart out. Then it was done. The applause
was deafening and the orchestra cheered. I knew this was to be my last
gig, although after the show all the members of the band wanted my telephone
One last twist in
the tail of this part of the story is that, after I took my place among
the red-shirted musicians, I played bass instead of lead guitar. This
was a perfect ending to a long and successful career.
The biggest gig also took place in the capital.
The telephone rang
early one Sunday morning. The weather in London was bright and clear and
I had nothing planned for the day except playing guitar.
like to do a gig in Trafalgar Square?" asked a voice I didn't recognize.
I said. This is my standard reply whenever I'm asked to play.
"Can you put
a band together?" I was asked.
"Yes, I think
so. I'll see who's about." This is also a standard reply. The way
my brain reacts is speak first, think later.
I was given the
details and set about forming a band. Half an hour later three musicians
and I were travelling to the center of London, keen to play. I had on
yellow flared trousers, a brightly colored shirt and my favorite green
hat with a wide brim, which my drummer borrowed when he heard that the
concert was being covered on the news that night!
The crowd was already
immense when we arrived, I was happy. The stage was to be beneath Nelson's
column, an historic national monument. We plugged in behind the lions!
The quartet that
I put together had played together several times in recent months, so
the choice of songs for the set was well established in our minds if not
on paper. When we played the sun shone, thousands danced, and I missed
my hat. To this day I'm still waiting for it back.
As the singer announced
each song we rocked and we rolled. Strangely enough, I had no stage fright
for this gig. Maybe it was the sunshine or just the good feeling of playing
I said at the beginning
of this chapter that all three gigs had an element of surprise about them.
This element came into play when "Mr. Tambourine Man" was to
be our next track. Three out of four of us were away, except yours truly.
That was the first time that I had ever heard the Bob Dylan piece.
I asked the bass player as loud as I could.
"It's in D
but start from G!" came the reply shouted above the noise.
In a small club
or a theater where everything is audible this might have been fine but
out there, what with the wind and the clapping crowd I did the best I
could. I knew which chords to expect in the key of D so that was easy.
The tricky thing was that the song never seemed to end and that each verse
was of a different length. As always, I survived without anybody noticing
each time I lost the thread. I have a plan for this; whenever I don't
know where I am in a song I simply switch to lead guitar. I use a lot
of harmony for my solos so I work on the basis that I should be right
most of the time.
I have to admit
that I prefer being the only guitar player in a band. Playing rhythm and
lead keeps me on my toes for the whole set. To be a great lead guitarist
you first have to be an even better rhythm player. To do both at the same
time is exhilarating!
Once "Mr. T"
was over I asked the singer if she had any more numbers to sing that I
didn't know. She smiled sweetly, said sorry and always checked before
announcing another song. We played well and had a lovely day in the sunshine.
I do miss my big, green, wide-brimmed hat. I wonder where it is?
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