Winnipeg’s Chad Allan once wrote and recorded a song entitled I Wouldn’t Trade My Guitar For A Woman for Brave Belt’s 1971 debut album. Thankfully, I’ve never faced such a dilemma. However 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 who witnessed The Beatles’ North American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, I was instantly smitten. To that point music wasn’t a factor in my life. Older brother Ron had a penchant for Jan & Dean surf/car songs but I never felt inspired enough to want to play along. Then I saw George Harrison on that fateful February evening. I began a campaign to hound my parents into buying me a guitar. Ron borrowed a cheap Zenon electric guitar from one of his buddies for me to test drive. With no pick (I used a dime coin years before Queen guitarist Brian May’s sixpence pick), no instruction book, and no amplifier, nonetheless, after much painstaking effort, I managed to plunk out the melody to The Third Man theme.
Suitably impressed, Dad purchased a twin pickup Harmony Silhouette solid body electric guitar for me, I think from Simpson-Sears, for $129 (no chump change back then) and I was off to the races (I recently saw that exact same model in a vintage guitar shop in Toronto selling for $750). A neighbour worked at Eaton’s and told us about a Harmony amplifier that 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 guitar god Duncan Wilson of The Mongrels. On Duncan’s recommendation, it was arranged for Paul and I to take lessons from Duncan’s former guitar instructor, a woman named Rose who lived in a rooming house on Palmerston in the West End. I was learning guitar, Paul the bass guitar. I lasted no more than three lessons (Paul hung on longer). Why waste time learning to read and play Red River Valley when I could play Daytripper by ear?
After learning at least 4 chords, I joined my first band. Trouble was the band only wanted me for my guitar because their guitar player didn’t own a decent model. Lesson learned: if you join a band, make sure you get to play in that band.
In 1966, having wrung about as much as I could out of that Harmony, I began a new campaign to acquire a blond Fender Telecaster. The Telecaster was a real professional model. I had seen many of my guitar heroes on Shindig playing them. Dad relented and took me to Lowe’s Music on Kennedy Street one block north of Portage to order a brand new Tele. The older gentleman in the shop pointed me to a reddish solid body Rickenbacker guitar that was hanging on the wall. 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 (Ron Risko of The Pink Plumm later bought Chad’s Rickenbacker). Trading in the Harmony and a chord organ we had, Dad plunked down $400 and my Telecaster arrived a few weeks later from the factory. That guitar became my baby for the next five years.
In the intervening decades I’ve added and subtracted guitars to my arsenal of instruments. The current roster is 5 guitars. I put myself through university playing in bands. In my 30-plus-year teaching career, I organized extracurricular guitar or rock music programs each year and continued to do so seven years into retirement running a rock music program at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. I’ve played 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.
Coming full circle, I recently purchased a mahogany coloured Gretsch Country Gentleman exact replica 1962 model guitar just like the one George Harrison played on The Ed Sullivan Show. Cost me $3,500 but after 50 years of playing I figured I deserved it.