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Have guitar, will (continue to) play

A guitarman tells us about his experiments with his favourite instrument and the fine art of noodling, writes Sujoy Chakravarty.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2007 23:38 IST

I have played guitar for a long time now, long enough that it has become an evolved habit to noodle. ‘Noodling’, for the uninitiated, is when guitar junkies sit with their instrument (which is most of the time) just churning out melody lines. Most of these of-the-moment lines are not exactly big time material. But occasionally, just occasionally, a germ of an idea emerges that may give you your next big hit and make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. It’s never happened to me, I think Jerry Garcia said that. Mostly though, you noodle for the same reasons you doodle, an almost inadvertent process of production; because an instrument happens to be handy.

My first memories of playing are with my Hobner Carlton Model archtop guitar in the mellow confines of the Calcutta School of Music, being taught Tammy and Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by the late Salil Roy, a kindly whiskered old man with a gentle manner. Mr Roy loved Chet Atkins and alluded many times to an album called Chester and Les, which he called Chester and Lester. Many years later I heard the album and loved it. I think Mr Roy in his gentle way instilled in me the love of Appalachian folk, fingerstyle syncopations and acoustic blues, though what he mostly taught me were sappy single note arrangements of tin pan alley pop music from America. Just occasionally he would demonstrate a Gershwin or an Irving Berlin composition (though I had no idea who these dead old men were then) and all I thought was, man I will never be able to play this stuff.

My musical education continued with the Great Elastic Rubber Band. A bunch of spirited inepts like myself. However, we were all respectable middle class studious types and the band wound up after college. We did have a minor fan following among other such middle class geeky but cool kids who listened to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Skip James and went on lengthy excursions in the 40 degree heat to Free School Street to get these obscure artists recorded on C90 cassettes from scratchy old LPs that they didn’t have the money to buy.

My brush with jazz, which I struggle with on a daily basis came out of a musical stagnation in my 20s. For years I would just strum major and minor chords and sing Dylan songs. I love Dylan but I thought there has to be more to playing the guitar than this. So I went to Carlton Kitto, the grand old chord melodist and an ageing hipster who would have made a wonderful living playing in New York but the vicissitudes of fortune had caused him to teach guitar and play music in Calcutta. To add insult to injury, the bulk of his students demanded that he teach them Ek Do Teen, Oh Krishna and other Hindi movie hits of the day.

I guess economic considerations forced him to bite the bullet and not clonk them on their heads with a Gibson Super 400. Carlton was not a student-friendly teacher. He would scrawl staff notation to How High the Moon or Straight No Chaser and expect me to play the head as he comped the chords, sometimes changing four to a bar. As an occasional treat he would play a beautiful Stanley Turrentine solo that he had transcribed from a scratchy old LP. Carlton, in a fair world, you would have your own jazz education studio in Calcutta and play headline gigs in major cities in the subcontinent.

It was a few years later when I was in the US of A that I thought I have to do it now, i.e. learn how to play like Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Lenny Breau, Jim Hall, all my guitar heroes whose music I constantly listened to. So I bought myself a nice guitar and much to the chagrin of my flatmates started playing bad jazz music. My French friend from graduate school, a death metal freak-turned-jazzer was one half of the guitar and bass duo who performed ‘music’ at 440 South Chauncey Street, with the Real Book open, stopping every couple of minutes because one of us messed up the turnaround.

Remember, the most important ingredient in learning to play music is the hunger to want to play a certain tune, style or solo. If while listening to a Joe Pass fingerstyle arrangement you go, ‘Man, that’s so awesome! That’s what I want to sound like!’, you are on the right track. Everything else and I mean everything else will take care of itself with application and time. So I keep on keeping on with the help of a special someone who tolerates my endless melodic meanderings, a guitar coach who plays jaw droppingly tasty morsels, a rag tag bunch of working stiffs who keep my musical mojo working.