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Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.

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2019 Favourites

I used to pride myself in keeping up to date with contemporary music, but in recent years, this has proven harder to manage. I guess I’m not in regular contact with as many fanatics as I used to be. So, in a way, it’s a special treat when I come across a really good album to obsess over for a few weeks. In 2019, I managed three:

The Silver Globe (2014), Jane Weaver

The Silver Globe (2014) by Jane Weaver

I’m kicking myself for not paying closer attention to Jane Weaver. I remember visiting Piccadilly Records in Manchester, reading their 2014 recommendations, and seeing a great write-up on this album. I mustn’t have followed it up properly. Fortunately, an old friend mentioned her early this year in the same breath as Broadcast and Stereolab, and I remembered to look.

This album shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a weird mix of psychedelic space rock, folk, motorik krautrock and pop. I even recognised a purloined Hawkwind sample in one song. The melodies are very catchy and the repetitive driving rhythms are hypnotic. Love it. The Amber Light quick follow-up is very good too. I saw her play in Manchester this year, too.

Heartbreak (2019), Unloved

Heartbreak (2019) by Unloved

I really enjoyed Unloved’s first album (Guilty of Love), so I was pleased to learn that the follow-up was out this year. I first discovered their music through the TV crime thriller Killing Eve. When I googled “Unloved” and discovered that DJ/soundtrack guru David Holmes was involved, I was in for the ride.

At first, I was disappointed in this album, as it’s not as brash, catchy and immediate as their first. But after a few plays, each track introduces itself to you, and you realise that there’s quite a lot going on under the surface. And, despite it having a real 60s Phil Spector vibe going on, it’s amazingly modern and sophisticated. I got to see Unloved live in Manchester this year, too. Highly recommended.

Three Friends (1972), Gentle Giant

Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant

As a big Progressive Rock fan in my teens, I listened to all sorts of weird and wonderful nonsense, from Amon Düül II to Zappa, via Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. At the time, I bought a Gentle Giant album (The Missing Piece), but it was awful, and I forgot all about them. Reading about them again recently, I decided to try some earlier albums of theirs.

I’m very glad I did. Their most popular album Octopus (1972) is great, but the preceding two albums are even better, to my ears, especially Three Friends (also 1972). The first track is a mind-blowing combination of virtuosic playing, time signature and key changes, poly-rhythms, with rock music colliding with choral music. And it does all this without sounding contrived or pretentious. The rest of the album jumps about from one experiment to the next, with plenty of soul and sweat thrown into the mix too. Why did I leave it so long?

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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, ending with 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!