I got to play guitar through my schoolfriend Maarten at my twelfth year. We had been co-operating musicians with me on harmonica and him on drums in the preceding years. His drumkit was self-built, out of a selection of toy drums mounted on a little black cabinet with two toy cymbals.
I, on the other hand, had recently got this fully professional Hohner Larry Adler 16 chromatic harmonica from my parents, around my tenth birthday. I had started playing harmonica after I had become fascinated by that instrument when my father played Oh Susanna on a yellow plastic toy harmonica we had lying around. I got a slightly more serious diatonic harmonica at the age of seven, then a Hohner Chromatic 10, that at some point got its E missing, and then the Larry Adler Professional 16. It cost 50 guilders then, which was a substantial amount of money in the early 1970’s, and to my astonishment these things cost somewhere between 200 and 400 euros nowadays.
Soon after, Maarten started playing guitar on this ancient maroon sunburst Spanish guitar that was somehow in his family, and within only a few months, only MONTHS, played Mauro Giuliani’s Arpeggio at a speed that most guitar students at that age never reach.
I recorded it myself several years ago, as a reminder to the guitar piece that got me to play guitar:
I was so impressed, I never knew such a thing was possible on guitar at all. Until then I had thought of guitars as instruments to accompany boring, whiny love songs, sung by long-haired geeks, trying to attract girls with it (which they infuriatingly – unlike me – did).
I can’t play this piece anymore nowadays, due to my focal dystonia in my right hand. Fortunately, there is something called flatpicking though, and when listening to people like Stochelo Rosenberg, expression with ‘just’ a pick is possible on acoustic guitar as well. I won’t be deterred, I’ll make my musical point nevertheless, even though I’d still like my fingers to work again as they used to. Sometimes I have dreams of playing guitar with my right-hand fingers again.
In the early nineties I was looking to make a musical step ahead, I felt I had hit a wall that I couldn’t get around or over by myself. I called Maarten, if he knew a teacher in the vicinity who could help me. He would know, having been a teacher of modern guitar at the prestigious Amsterdam Music College for several years by now. And he did. He got me in contact with Johan Smeets, a student of his who had just graduated at that same college, and was into exactly the kind of music I was into as well then. He had a symphonic rock background and was now into fusion, as I was back then. So now I was going to be taught by someone who himself had been taught by my friend of old.
He caused me to make a major step forward. I had never watched a guitarist of that level close up, and I remember leaving every session thoroughly motivated and inspired. Even if I didn’t do the exercises as dilligently as I should have, the amount I did do still made a big difference. I learned to hear and play more things than before.
I mostly practice by having to record something perfectly, I always had problems just practicing in a vacuum. But still, his lessons moved me ahead in a big way. A very important lesson he taught me is that practicing isn’t fun. You just have to decide “Do I want to be able to to this? If so, put in the necessary amount of unpleasant hours”
Before that, I thought that me not liking practicing was a sign of not really being motivated. I still have problems with practicing, but with recording I will go on forever, because there is that instant gratification for the perfect take. It’s mostly the four-track cassette recorder and hard disk recording that made me the musician I am today. There’s nothing as merciless as a recording of yourself, and you will either stop playing or improve it.
I’ll keep on recording for now.