Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A boy and his guitar

Beatles helped launch a lifetime of music

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Chad Allan wrote and recorded a song called I Wouldn't Trade My Guitar for a Woman for Brave Belt's 1971 debut album.

Thankfully, I've never faced such a dilemma, but I can certainly relate to the sentiment. The guitar has played a central role in my life and defined who I am.

Like millions of pimply faced teenagers witnessing the Beatles' North American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, I was instantly smitten with the Fab Four and their instruments. At that point, music wasn't a factor in my life. My older brother, Ron, had a penchant for Jan & Dean surf/car songs I listened to by default but never felt inspired enough to want to play along with.

Then I saw George Harrison on that fateful February evening. I began hounding my parents to buy me a guitar. Hesitant at first, Ron borrowed a cheap Zenon electric guitar from one of his buddies for me to test drive. With no pick (a visionary, I used a dime coin years before Queen guitarist Brian May's sixpence pick), no instruction book and no amplifier, I nonetheless managed to plunk out a few melodies, one of which, after much painstaking effort, was the opening riff to The Jury's Until You Do.

Suitably impressed, Dad purchased a twin-pickup Harmony Silhouette solid-body electric guitar for me, I think from Simpsons-Sears, and I was off to the races. The cost was $129, no chump change back then. I recently saw the exact same model in a vintage guitar shop in Toronto selling for $750.

Our neighbour, Mr. Ings, worked at Eaton's and told us about a Harmony amplifier someone had returned. For $50, it was hastily acquired. Unfortunately, while the amp boasted 25 watts of volume, it was a bass amp, and the high end or treble was virtually non-existent. For a budding George Harrison, that was discouraging, but I managed to muddle through.

My friend, Paul Birston, was neighbour to Grant Park High School guitar god Duncan Wilson, and on Duncan's father's recommendation, it was arranged for Paul and me to take lessons from Duncan's guitar instructor, a woman named Rose who lived in a rooming house on Palmerston Avenue in the West End (it wasn't fashionable Wolseley quite yet). I was learning guitar, Paul the bass guitar. I lasted no more than three lessons, although Paul hung on longer. Why waste time learning to read and play Red River Valley when I could play Day Tripper by ear?

For the next year and a half, I laboured over my guitar night and day, prompting Ron to declare I lived, breathed, slept and ate guitar. Finally convincing Dad I needed a decent amplifier, in 1966 he took me to a man I had known since I was a kid, the genial fellow who sold us all our household appliances. Somehow Dad knew Gar Gillies was making amplifiers on the side and arranged for me to acquire my first Garnet amp. It was a prototype featuring a 15-inch speaker and a driver horn for ear-piercing treble. But the icing on the cake was the inclusion of a built-in fuzz tone called a Stinger. I was in heaven.

Later that same year, having wrung about as much as I could out of the Harmony, I began whining for a blond Fender Telecaster. The Tele was a real professional model. I had seen many guitarists, including the Yardbirds' Jeff Beck, on Shindig! playing them. Dad took me to Lowe's Music on Kennedy Street one block north of Portage Avenue to order a brand-new Tele. The older gentleman in the shop pointed me to a reddish solid-body Rickenbacker guitar hanging on the wall, suggesting I might be interested in purchasing it instead. The guitar had recently belonged to Chad Allan, he told us, who had traded it in after leaving the Guess Who. But my heart was set on the Fender (one wonders what the historical value of Chad's Rickenbacker is now). Trading in the Harmony and a chord organ we had, Dad plunked down $400, and my Telecaster arrived a few weeks later. That guitar became my baby for the next five years.

Playing community clubs in a River Heights band called Off Times As Such, I would strum my Tele so vigorously the cuticles on my right hand would scratch on the strings and bleed on the white pickguard. What began as an accident quickly evolved into my shtick and within weeks we had young fans coming to our gigs to see the guitar player bleed on his instrument (to this day, I still meet people who recall that). The blood began to stain the blond finish so our manager, Dennis "The Gear" Lind, decided to sand off the thick coats of paint to a natural wood grain. I went on to play that sanded Telecaster in several bands including the Pawnbrokers, the SRO, Pig Iron, Euphoria (I played my Tele at the legendary ManPop 70) and Fabulous George & the Zodiacs. I broke a string on it while performing at the 1971 Lake Riviera Pop Festival, and when Wilson loaned me his Gibson Les Paul model, I fell in love with it. I traded in my once-beloved Telecaster for a gold top Gibson Les Paul Standard at Cam's Musical Supply, Gar's new shop on Ferry Road. I've often wondered where that Tele ended up. I later traded in the gold top at Winnipeg Piano for an earlier Les Paul Custom model and, 43 years later, still have it.

In the intervening decades, I've added and subtracted guitars in my arsenal of instruments. I put myself through university playing in bands. In my 30-year teaching career, I organized extracurricular guitar or rock-music programs each year and continue to do so six years into retirement. I play guitar most days, running a rock-music program -- now entering its 25th year -- at St. John's-Ravenscourt School. I play the occasional gig, too. I think of myself first and foremost as a guitar player. I can't read music but thankfully still have a good ear.

Like many males of my vintage, the guitar gave my life a direction and a purpose. But don't let anyone fool you; we all took up the guitar to meet girls. And it worked. Playing in Joey Gregorash's band at Toronto's Friars Club in 1975, I met my lovely wife of 38 years.

Coming full circle, I recently purchased a mahogany Gretsch Country Gentleman exact replica 1962 model, just like the one George Harrison played on The Ed Sullivan Show. It cost me $3,000, but after 50 years of playing I figure I deserve it.

 

Sign up for John Einarson's Summer In The City music history courses at mcnallyrobinson.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2014 A1

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