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Guitar Teacher Stories: Playing Live.

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

Since I began writing these articles people have asked me about the playing days. Most, if not all, were challenging, hard work and fun. So here is the story of the first, the last and the biggest gig. All have an element of surprise about them, if only to me.

The first gig took place at the Hackney Empire, a large theater in East London. My school band rehearsed there on a Saturday morning. This was a step up from the freezing cold church hall where we had started. I can remember, quite vividly, once walking home from the church hall, knee-deep in snow. I had my amp in one hand and my guitar in the other. The roads were impassable to traffic; we all got there and back as best we could.

One particular Saturday the Hackney Empire manager asked if we would like to come back at seven that same evening. I thought that the chance of an extra rehearsal was great. What I didn't know was tonight was to be our first performance. We were getting to be quite a good band; I was playing really well and so were the others. Our set was a good 45 minutes and we were looking for gigs. We left our equipment in the theater and went home.

6:30 I arrived back at the Empire. The stage was bare except for some platforms, the sort used by elephants to stand on in circuses. The drums were set on one combination. The bass player shared with the rhythm guitarist/singer and on top of one particular, three-story pile was my guitar and a microphone stand. The curtains were closed which was unusual for one of our rehearsals. From the other side of the curtains I could hear people chattering and settling down. Sometimes there were technicians getting ready for whatever was planned for the next day or two so I concentrated on what I was doing and ignored the whispering and shuffling.

I had entered the theater through the stage door so I never saw the posters about "Local Talent Night." Tonight it was our turn because the named band couldn't make it.

6:45 The rest of the band took up their positions. Everybody was ready to do some work.

6:50 I climbed to the pinnacle of Mount Everest.

6:51 I looked down. This was proving to be a really big mistake. I never knew I had a fear for heights until that very moment.

The floor seemed to hurtle towards me! My eyes sprang from my head to meet the onrushing stage. My legs began to make plans to either find the nearest exit or simply fold beneath me. Somewhere deep inside my brain a voice whispered "Don't look down!"

Not looking down was a good plan. "Look up. Yes! That's it, look up."

Up proved to be just as bad a choice as down. I don't know the name for the fear of looking up, but I had it. My eyes had only just painfully recoiled back into their sockets from the looking down experience when they saw a ton of imaginary masonry falling towards me, mixing with what I thought was a descending lighting rig.

My heart beat like a bat escaping a sunshine holiday.

"Forget up!" screamed the voice inside my head. "Look forward! Do it! What could be wrong with looking straight ahead?"

I looked straight ahead and there they were: hundreds of eyes all looking at me. A strange, eerie silence entered my thoughts as I stared out.

"Think," whispered the voice between my ears.

After a brief, but very intense moment, I discovered that I could breathe again. There was only one thing that I could do.

I grabbed the microphone stand and shouted "One! Two! Three!" into the microphone. My fingers broke into the opening riff of "Twist and Shout." I became a super hero. A cartoon cape sprang from my shoulders. My underwear materialized outside my trousers, the color of which I couldn't begin to imagine. A large letter G burned out from my chest.

The audience cheered and stamped their feet to every song. It was a wonderful feeling, like being possessed by a professional guitarist. The part of my brain that played guitar for me knew exactly what to do. The hours of practice and rehearsal had finally paid off.

We made a lot of friends that night. I calmed down, went home and played guitar for a couple of hours. One small step for mankind, one giant leap for me.

The last gig:

The sixties were a thing of the past and the mid-seventies were approaching. I had slowed down and was playing small gigs with a girl singer. I was looking to finish. A large hotel in the South of London booked us. What I didn't know was that the orchestra who were there for the dancing also had me down as their guitarist. A ghastly red shirt flew towards me and for the first time I was one of many.

The conductor glared at me a few times whenever I felt the urge to improvise but for most part I behaved myself and went by the dots.

Show time! The band sat patiently while I set up my equipment at the front of the stage. The important point here is that these musicians had seen it all (though they hadn't seen me) and the best response I felt I could hope for was bored silence.

I don't know if you have ever noticed, but whenever a top comedian performs with an orchestra behind them the musicians always laugh. Not so for the amateur or the less funny act. Neither do they show appreciation for a lesser musician.

One number was a special track. It contained one verse to be sung while the rest was a guitar solo. I had worked on this song for weeks but never performed it until this night. The girl sang her verse beautifully then left the stage. I sat there on my own, playing my heart out. Then it was done. The applause was deafening and the orchestra cheered. I knew this was to be my last gig, although after the show all the members of the band wanted my telephone number.

One last twist in the tail of this part of the story is that, after I took my place among the red-shirted musicians, I played bass instead of lead guitar. This was a perfect ending to a long and successful career.

The biggest gig also took place in the capital.

The telephone rang early one Sunday morning. The weather in London was bright and clear and I had nothing planned for the day except playing guitar.

"Would you like to do a gig in Trafalgar Square?" asked a voice I didn't recognize.

"Sure," I said. This is my standard reply whenever I'm asked to play.

"Can you put a band together?" I was asked.

"Yes, I think so. I'll see who's about." This is also a standard reply. The way my brain reacts is speak first, think later.

I was given the details and set about forming a band. Half an hour later three musicians and I were travelling to the center of London, keen to play. I had on yellow flared trousers, a brightly colored shirt and my favorite green hat with a wide brim, which my drummer borrowed when he heard that the concert was being covered on the news that night!

The crowd was already immense when we arrived, I was happy. The stage was to be beneath Nelson's column, an historic national monument. We plugged in behind the lions!

The quartet that I put together had played together several times in recent months, so the choice of songs for the set was well established in our minds if not on paper. When we played the sun shone, thousands danced, and I missed my hat. To this day I'm still waiting for it back.

As the singer announced each song we rocked and we rolled. Strangely enough, I had no stage fright for this gig. Maybe it was the sunshine or just the good feeling of playing outside.

I said at the beginning of this chapter that all three gigs had an element of surprise about them. This element came into play when "Mr. Tambourine Man" was to be our next track. Three out of four of us were away, except yours truly. That was the first time that I had ever heard the Bob Dylan piece.

"What key?" I asked the bass player as loud as I could.

"It's in D but start from G!" came the reply shouted above the noise.

In a small club or a theater where everything is audible this might have been fine but out there, what with the wind and the clapping crowd I did the best I could. I knew which chords to expect in the key of D so that was easy. The tricky thing was that the song never seemed to end and that each verse was of a different length. As always, I survived without anybody noticing each time I lost the thread. I have a plan for this; whenever I don't know where I am in a song I simply switch to lead guitar. I use a lot of harmony for my solos so I work on the basis that I should be right most of the time.

I have to admit that I prefer being the only guitar player in a band. Playing rhythm and lead keeps me on my toes for the whole set. To be a great lead guitarist you first have to be an even better rhythm player. To do both at the same time is exhilarating!

Once "Mr. T" was over I asked the singer if she had any more numbers to sing that I didn't know. She smiled sweetly, said sorry and always checked before announcing another song. We played well and had a lovely day in the sunshine. I do miss my big, green, wide-brimmed hat. I wonder where it is?

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

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Guitar Teacher Stories, Playing Live