Picture the scene; leather sofas, a massive wide screen TV on the wall, the strong aroma of coffee and two lawyers running a drop in session for free legal advice. That’s right, we’re in a coffee lounge. But not just any one, an exclusive one not open to the public. Let’s begin.
It was the summer. I’d finished college and was waiting to go to university. My dad had set me up with my first job. Someone he knew ran a coffee lounge. They were going on holiday and wanted someone to cover for them. It was kind of important, as they were the only person who worked there, so it wasn’t just about making the drinks, it was about buying stock, keeping the accounts up to date and doing all the cleaning too. So like everyone, I wanted money, so I met with the lady my dad knew and woohoo, I had my first job.
It was around this time that I was beginning to really get stuck into learning to play guitar too. I had started on a £5.00 charity shop acoustic (still own it), graduated to my first ever £50 electric guitar (a double cutaway from an unknown brand I got from a department store, came with a 5 Watt practice amp, still own both the axe and the amp) and I was using an Encore Les Paul guitar with a Korg multi effects pedal into the 5 Watt amp (Yep, still own the Encore and the FX pedal). I knew one song, “Sylvia’s Mother” by Dr Hook, all the basic major and minor open chords, I knew all about power chords and I could play the pentatonic scale using shape 1 and shape 4. I had learnt about “The 3 Chord Trick” and I could write simple chord progressions and improvise over them. I also believed that, when using just power chords in a song I was writing, having all the gain possible from the amp and the FX pedal was all important. I felt unstoppable.
When I was working at the shop, I had one person there who could help me out if I didn’t know what to do. His name is Al. Now, he didn’t work in the coffee lounge but he did have an office down the hall, because this coffee lounge was inside an office building that was surrounded by other office buildings and only people in those offices could use the lounge. I know, pretty high class gig for a first job.
One day, I don’t know how we got talking about it, but he found out I was learning to play the guitar. Turned out that Al could play the guitar and we were talking about different guitars and different guitarists. At this point in time, I didn’t really know any guitarists, I just liked music and wanted to make my own. Al did something very cool. He went to his office and came back with a pen. He took a napkin and he drew a D Major open chord on it. He then showed me on the napkin how, by moving just one or two notes around by a fret or two, that I could come up with tons of other chords like 7ths, Dominants, how I could imply 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and so on. Needless to say, I was very impressed. I went home at the end of that day, with the napkin, and practice what he’d shown me. My mind was blown.
So when does Eric Clapton come into this? How about right now.
I went into work the next day and as soon as I’d set up shop for the day ahead, Al came in. He was carrying a small pile of CDs with him. One of the CDs was John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton. That’s right, the Beano album. He told me to take them home, listen to every CD in the pile, then bring them back to him when I had. I finished that day and I went home. The first CD I put on was the Beano album. Up until this point, I’d never really listened to the blues at all.
The opening notes of track one hit me like a ton of bricks. The emotion, the soul, the feeling coming from the electric guitar. The fact that it wasn’t playing chords but was soloing between the vocals or matching the vocal melody, I’d never heard this done before. Ever. The guitar was sort of distorted but it wasn’t anything like the high gain I was using at all. There was such clarity within the bite of each note. I could hear points where the 3 chord trick was being used but there was this new, different groove to it, it wasn’t just straight ahead strumming or down picking but rather, a sort of boogie, to it all.
Track blurred into track and I never wanted the CD to end. I was absolutely captivated by it, I didn’t even notice the other instruments or even the singing. I was just fixated on the guitar playing. The CD ends and I look at the album notes to see who was playing guitar. One name. Eric Clapton. I didn’t know who he was, if he was still in this band, what else he’d done, I didn’t know what guitar he used, or what amp. I was sat on my bed with my portable CD player next to me, with the headphones still in my ears even though nothing was playing and all I knew was that one day I wanted to be as good as whoever this Eric Clapton was. This CD, along with the other CDs in the pile Al had given me (which will be the topics of the next few posts to come), were my first steps into the arena of the guitar world. I listened to the other CDs that same evening but I couldn’t tell you how many times I played that Beano album over and over that night.
I took the CDs into work and gave them back to Al. Every day for the rest of the time I worked there we spoke about the guitarists on those CDs and about what they were doing in their playing that made it sound the way it sounded. I learnt a ton about tone, technique, song writing and becoming a better guitarist from Al. He was such a great teacher that he taught it all to me without a guitar in his hand, just with a pen and the spare napkins by the coffee machine. I’d go in each day and be longing to hear what he had to tell me that day about playing the guitar. He also has a friend, Jasper, another amazing guitarist who I learnt a ton of stuff from (I’ll talk about him in another upcoming post as well).
My time at the coffee shop ended and my dad took me to a semi-local music shop a few villages over. I went in and asked to look at the Stratocasters because that’s what Eric Clapton was playing (I’d done my homework on him at this point). If I remember rightly I was between £50 and £70 short on the Squier by Fender Standard Series Stratocasters. I knew there was no way at this point in my life I’d be able to afford an actual Fender. I tried out the squier in the store and it played so beautifully. It has two single coils and a humbucker in the bridge so I had so much more options sonically that just the two humbuckers I was used to on my Encore Les Paul. My dad took the guitar to the counter and paid for it. Then we went across the road to a cash point and I withdrew all the money I’d made from the job and gave it him. He wasn’t concerned with the shortfall I had that he covered. We put the guitar in the car and had a coffee before driving home.
I sat in the back of the car in the middle seat with my Stratocaster (Yep, still own it) on my lap the whole ride home. All I could think of was the thought that one day I was going to be as good as Eric Clapton and one day my guitar playing would be filled with just as much emotion as his. I changed my tone from being super heavy on the gain to one that was more subtle and suitable for blues rock and asked my Dad if he could buy me an Eric Clapton CD. We went to the city and I picked out a compilation CD of all his well known hits at the time. It was the first time I’d heard him play something that wasn’t on the Beano album. I heard “Sunshine Of Your Love” and learnt it from the CD, I heard “Layla” and learnt it from the CD and on and on I went hearing Eric play something on my CD and then spending a whole day or week until I’d figured out what he was doing and taught myself how to do it, too.
Eric, if you ever read this, all I can say is thank you. I could never put into words what your music meant to me when I first heard it as a young boy learning guitar, or what it still means to me today. It makes me smile, it makes me want to dance, it makes me fight back the tears and it made me truly fall in love with the guitar. You inspire me to want to be a better guitarist each and every day. Thank you.
I’m going to spend the next few blog posts talking about the other CDs Al showed me and how those other players impacted my guitar playing in ways I never thought possible.
Until next time.