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Guitar Teacher Stories:
Playing live as a freelance guitarist.

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By Len Collins
Guitar Breakthrough the Guitar Tuition Program that gives your playing a future

At school I totally failed the education system. My entire day was spent looking out of the window watching the grass grow. I knew each blade of grass as a close and personal friend.

The summer months were particularly difficult as I waited for the coming of the lawnmower! This would leave many of my outdoor friends broken, their young lives seemingly shortened forever. I knew, in my heart, that it was only a temporary affair and that all was not lost. But at the time it was hard to take.

Still, I convinced myself that something good had to come from being at school, so every day I returned. Years passed but nothing good happened. Then one day the boy sitting next to me said, "Let's form a band!" I said, "OK. I'll play bass."

My father, who never pulled back from making life-changing statements, at least when it concerned me, spoke thus: "Who ever became famous being a bass player?" He went out and borrowed a guitar with six strings. Less about my father later.

The band from school did actually form, with me playing lead guitar. I couldn't play chords but I did teach myself to read music. This was the easy bit. Reading music told me which note to hit, where to play it on the guitar and how long I had to wait before hitting the next note. No natural skill needed. At the time I had no idea that I had stumbled onto the greatest, most useful tool a lead guitarist can have.

Our band didn't have a singer so I was doing fine, playing the melodies from the hits of the day, the odd riff and never once making anything up. Then, to my horror, the spectre of the lawnmower returned! Our rhythm player discovered that he could sing. I was an outcast. I couldn't play chords; I couldn't improvise.

During this adversity I had developed a strange idea: It wasn't fame that I sought; I simply wanted to be the best guitar player that I had ever heard. Odd for someone who was proving to be more useless as a guitarist every day. Morning, noon and night I worked at my playing. Chord shapes appeared on my fretboard and some had a nice sound to them. I was slowly regaining my place in the band.

Many months later real progress still avoided me. Although I could play reasonably well, I didn't understand what I was playing. I could hear how chords went together but nobody would explain to me why. This was becoming more and more important; the lack of knowledge was frustrating me. I had so many questions and was at a loss to find someone to answer them.

"Just play it. If it sounds OK, go with it," was the best advice given. The playing improved but my progress had stopped dead in its tracks.

At this point I made a decision that changed everything. If nobody knew the answers to my endless questions then I would have to work them out myself. I got on a bus and went to the local library. Upstairs in the music section I discovered books completely without pictures, displaying just endless words. I took some home.

There I was in my bedroom surrounded by theory books and my collection of Beatle and Elvis songs. I thought the answer to the puzzle lay somewhere in-between; strangely enough, it did. I read about scales and modes. The theory was heavy and the knowledge was useful. I discovered where chords came from and could relate them to the key that the song was in. Scales made my fingers fast and accurate. Modes were the hub of the universe, building bridges between my music reading and improvisation. Chords belonged together; when they didn't I knew why the composer had used them to enhance the song.

As the knowledge filtered down from my brain to my fingers I began to overtake many of my guitar-playing friends. I felt comfortable exploring the fretboard whereas they were content playing around the same well-trodden path that had been their playground for years.

It was time to challenge the lawnmower. I put an advert in the best music magazine and waited.

Lead Guitarist Seeks Band

A band answered the ad. An audition was arranged. The audition was to be a complete disaster.

I felt confident as I approached the hall where the band was waiting for me. I was in for a huge shock!

I set up my guitar and amp and prepared to play.

"1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - BOOM!"

I had never heard such powerful sounds nor seen such dedication to music. Chords, rhythms, bass, drums and singing suddenly erupted in the rehearsal room. Everything was so loud and fast. I couldn't keep up with the pace at all. After a few moments I simply sat in the corner and watched, amazed. Here it was, the life I had always wanted.

I slunk home. I was a better guitarist than all of them but I had been cut down to size. Speed and power were the new things to learn.

Back to working on my scales and modes and the music reading. I advertised again and again. Each of the following four auditions lasted longer than the last, each with growing success. Each ended with another win for the lawnmower. Result so far: Me, 0. Lawnmower, 5.

Then one day the lawnmower was vanquished forever!

I received a phone call from a friend of a musician in the last band that I tried for. (They wanted me, but I didn't fancy playing for them!) He had been told that I could play anything and everything, that I could read music and improvise. He asked if I was able to play that very night.

I said yes. He said good. So I did.

Much to my surprise, he paid me for enjoying myself. I never looked back. Every day there was another gig to play. I would sleep wherever the after-gig party was, then moved on from there.

Years passed. I could sit in with any band, play any style. I knew every key and the structure of everything. Above all, armed with this information I had no predators. All my guitar solos were created live on stage. I never once copied a solo. People wanted me around.

When my natural instinct failed (which happens when you're playing guitar every second of every day) the mechanical side to my playing rescued me. Other times, when the natural response was overwhelming, the mechanical side rescued me again, by making sure that I didn't get too excited and lose the plot.

What pleases me the most about the whole adventure is that I worked it all out myself and used the knowledge well. Playing live as a freelance guitarist was a frightening, exciting and rewarding time. Something never to be missed.

Eventually, over many, many years, I achieved all my goals and targets. It was time to pass the knowledge on.

Len Collins
Guitar Breakthrough the Guitar Tuition Program that gives your playing a future

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Guitar Teacher Stories, part one Playing live as a freelance guitarist was a frightening, exciting and rewarding time.