A Bad Workman Blames His Tools

Once I started playing guitar again, I experienced some of the same problems I had back in the late seventies, when I was learning to play. Some of the teething problems were:

  • barre cramp
  • sore fingertips and fingernail maintenance
  • muffled and buzzing notes
  • speed and dexterity
Playing the Pink Strat

And, although I played regularly throughout the 80s, the last 30 years’ inactivity had set me back, for two reasons:

  1. lack of practice (obviously)
  2. long-forgotten repertoire

Visitors would occasionally point at my guitar, slumbering in the corner of the room and suggest, “can you give us a tune?”
I would change the subject, because I knew that I’d struggle to find something to play, and tie my fingers in knots in the process. Forgetting your repertoire over time creates a vicious circle: the less you can play, the less you will play.

Blame the Guitar

As a way of avoiding feeling bad about my playing, I decided to blame the guitar instead. This was a valuable lesson, because I realised that the way the guitar is set up has a bigger effect on what it’s like to play (and how it sounds) than I thought. And there’s no point in making (re-)learning harder than absolutely necessary.

I won’t go into details on my personal guitar set-up odyssey, because there are already many online tutorials and videos on the subject. I’m not one to reinvent the wheel. What I will say is that it is important that you do it. If you’re not particularly tooled-up or a handy sort of person, I highly recommend paying a luthier or guitar tech to do it for you. Expect to pay £50, give or take a couple of tenners, depending on the thoroughness of the job, which should include:

  • secure and lubricate machine heads (tuners)
  • secure and lubricate tailpiece/bridge
  • secure a bolt-on neck (but don’t overtighten)
  • adjust neck relief
  • adjust nut height* and lubricate
  • adjust bridge/saddle height(s)
  • adjust pickup heights
  • polish frets
  • clean guitar and fretboard
  • change strings
  • adjust intonation
Measuring string action

These are all things you can do yourself with the right tools. Most people already have various Philips and slotted screwdrivers, and Vaseline makes a good general purpose lubricant. A steel rule marked in 64ths of an inch and half-millimetres comes in useful. You may need an inexpensive truss rod wrench (and a bit of care) to adjust neck relief. Special paper and a fretboard mask for fret polishing can be bought cheaply.

[* The only job I’d advise extreme caution with is nut adjustment. Nuts are deceptively tricky creatures, and can cause chaos if set up badly. Though, if you mess one up, a new nut is cheap, and might actually be a good upgrade. I bought a set of luthier’s nut files from the excellent Tonetech in Stockport, which was expensive, and, on reflection, I probably wouldn’t use now — I’d adjust nut height from the base instead.]

A Good Set-up is Like Buying a New Guitar

Depending on what it was like before, once your old guitar has had a thorough set-up, it could be transformed dramatically. Not only could your guitar be easier to play, it might well sound better, and you will want to play it more.


Back on the Horse

The last time I played with a band was in 1989, when I lived in Leeds. I went to a studio to audition for an unsigned band called Greenhouse. I’d already met a couple of the guys, and had been given a tape to familiarise myself. To be honest, it wasn’t really my thing. It was a bit too jingly-jangly-Johnny-Marr for me. Still, I thought they might like my sonic-terror-Thurston-Moore interpretation of it. Of course, I was completely wrong (though I think the bass player enjoyed it). I probably still have the tape somewhere — I’m sure it’s worth at least £3.80 now.

I’d tried to form a band in Leeds for a couple of years, but I just wasn’t making the contacts. To be frank, my heart wasn’t really in it. This failed audition helped me realise that my musical ambitions just weren’t compatible with the other stuff in my life, and the guitars began to collect dust.

MIDI keyboard/controller, bought for live use

In the 2000s, I tried my hand at electronic music. Once I’d completed a CD of tunes under the name Yammer, I decided that progress had been far too slow, and it was all too much like hard work. I’d geared up for live performance, but, again, I found it impossible to find anyone foolish enough to join me. So I sold the gear, and went back to ignoring the guitars.

Richmond Telecaster Thinline, never really saw much action

Over the years, I tried to jump start the guitar playing by buying another cheap second-hand electric guitar and an effects box (to replace the long-since-deceased Noisewarp). But the initial enthusiasm always died away after a few weeks.

Tuned In - short-lived Stockport-based musical club

In the long hot summer of 2018, I heard about a group called Tuned In starting up locally, in Stockport. I’d already come across Men in Sheds — an organisation which aims to unite socially-isolated men in a common purpose — and this musical group was a collaboration with Jah Wobble (of Public Image Ltd and Invaders of the Heart fame). Intrigued, I popped along to the first session.

Arriving late, the door was opened by the man himself, who thrust out his hand, introduced himself, and asked what instrument I played. Somewhat taken aback, I said I was just going to listen for a bit, and made small talk while I sussed out what the hell was happening. It turns out that Mr Wobble had been a Stockport resident for 20 years. Who knew!

After chats with the organisers, I’d plucked up enough courage to take the stage. Someone dropped a Gibson SG around my neck, and I joined in the jam. There was a pro musician running the jam, which was a little bit Rock School, but, considering I hadn’t really played much in 30 years, was just about my level. Playing in front of Jah Wobble wasn’t exactly how I predicted my first session in decades would pan out.

Tuned In first session
Tuned In first session, Jah Wobble in the centre, Will (Sheds main man) in the sandals, and me clutching the SG tightly on the right.

30 minutes later, I was getting cocky, and improvised a riff which had a bit more balls. I was starting to get the hang of it. My ego was gently massaged when Jah Wobble complimented my unconsciously-Levene-flavoured contribution. We posed for a group photograph before he left, and continued to play until chucking-out time.

I couldn’t attend the next few sessions, and the project ran out of money a few weeks later. I was gutted — that was the most fun I’d had in ages. So I was pleased to learn a few months later that Men in Sheds was going to give it another shot, alone, with the new name Music in Sheds, based down the road in Heaton Moor, Stockport.

I missed the planning meeting, but I was there for the first session in January 2019. There were four of us, if I remember correctly: two bass players and two guitarists. It must have been a success, because we’re still meeting every week, almost a year later.

It turns out that all you need to get you picking up the guitar again is an excuse to do it. If you know you’re going to be playing with a group every week, you have to learn and practice. And that is what it takes to rekindle the interest and enthusiasm to play and improve.


Hello again!

Hello again, music-making! It’s been a long time since I was musically active — almost 15 years! The last time I stopped making music was between 1989 and 2001. There then followed a 3 year flurry of Electronica, resulting in an album, appropriately titled Long Division.

2019 saw a return to my first instrument: the guitar — after a 30 year hiatus. I joined a group of local amateur musicians, going by the name of Music in Sheds. And I have decided to start a new blog to commemorate this fresh activity, and to kill a few birds with one stone:

  • I can share my thoughts as I stumble back into playing
  • I can showcase the activities of Music in Sheds
  • I can share any musical creations which may appear

I will also integrate all the old material from my tired old Yammer Music website for completeness.

Wish me luck in my travels. I think I’ll need it!