It's important, as a person who plays and teaches music for a living, to take time away to follow other interests and passions too. Making your hobby your job has many wonderful benefits but, for me at least, it has made the hobby feel much less like a hobby and it's sometimes good to take some time away from playing, when I'm not working, to keep things fresh.
So, a solo jaunt to London was on the cards this weekend for, not one but, two comedy shows. Plus a whole 2 days in the big smoke to amuse myself, catching up with some friends and family and generally hanging out in a city I find endlessly fascinating and entertaining.
By Sunday afternoon though, my fingers were getting itchy and only a trip to Denmark Street would relieve them. Obviously every moment spent on this historic musical thoroughfare is magical but I occasionally find myself overwhelmed by the variety of the instruments on display. Best always, I think, to have a mission, even if it's theoretical rather than a search for an instrument I'm actually looking to buy.
Sunday's mission was to find "The Strat". A Fender Statocaster that feels like it belongs to me or, perhaps more accurately, that I belong to it. I owned such a guitar once. A purple sparkle 1998 US Strat I bought at the cheekily named Hooters music shop in Watford. It was just a bog standard, stock, US made guitar, pulled from the stock room cos I wanted a purple one rather than the blue display model I'd tried. It had magic though. I don't know why. Probably just a nice piece of wood. It felt right in my hands and sounded terrific. Glassy and bright in positions 2 and 4 and snappy at the bridge without the brittle highs you sometimes get. The neck pickup was the real star though. Woody, warm and almost throaty at times. I will always judge a strat on it's neck pickup as a result. Sadly, in 2012, it was stolen from my car and never found. It is still a vague hope to find it again, somewhere at the back of some dusty old guitar shop in the middle of nowhere.
I never replaced it properly. I had a backup Mexican Strat I still own that has always served me well but, cool guitar though it is (purchased from the legendary Manny's on 48th St in NY), it lacks the mystic voodoo of the purple one. My playing has evolved since to be less Stratty so I rarely have cause to play one but maybe, one day, I'll go back to them again and, if so, having played a few I search of "The One" is probably no bad thing.1
Denmark St is definitely not quite what it was when I first started going in the late 90s. The combination of the decay of in person retail and the architectural butchery of Crossrail have reduced the number of shops but, even on a Sunday, there were still 5 or 6 to get my teeth into.
My basic entry requirements for "The Strat" are minimal: rosewood fretboard a must, 5 way switching and a cool colour (piss off with your purist sunburst nonsense. They're ugly). Sadly nothing really was even making it over these basic hurdles for a realistic price. I suspect I would've fallen madly in love with the Rory Gallagher Strat I saw in Wunjo Guitars had I played it but £12k is not within my price range, particularly if you add the cost of the inevitable divorce that would follow.
In the last shop, The Music Rooms, I did find a candidate. A John Mayer PRS Silver Sky. OK, strictly speaking, it's not a Strat but it is very closely modelled on one and bears the name of one of the great Strat players of the last 25 years. Plus the colour options were cool, a kind of pastelly bluey green and a slightly darker pink. Both of these would match the colours of our kitchen at home and would, therefore, more likely receive endorsement from Mrs S and reduce the probability of aforementioned divorce.
So I ask to play the green one. The assistant corrects me, saying it's blue and I decide not to press the issue. I plug into a Fender amp and start to play. Neck pickup first, obvs. It's nice, if a bit bright but makes me feel funky so I loosen my wrist and bust out my best Cory Wong chops on some Bm blues thing.
There's another guy who's also started trying a guitar out. He's behind me and on the other side of a bookshelf. Always a difficult balance to strike when there's someone else playing too but we both are following proper guitar shop etiquette and keeping the volume sensible (one day I'll write about the time I was in a guitar shop at the same time as a 90s shred monster who certainly did not follow etiquette).
I've been happily funking away for a couple of minutes when I notice the other guy's playing. He's jamming to my Bm backing, bringing forth some tasty, jazzy licks. This is certainly not guitar shop etiquette but it's a lovely thing to hear so buoyed on I start to embellish the chord sequence a bit to give him more to work with and he takes note and plays accordingly. We spend about 5 mins like this with me messing with the dynamics of the rhythm part whilst he matches me. It's a really magical moment. We've not met or spoken or can even see each other and yet we're playing together, communicating purely through the music.
Eventually I bring the piece to a close and I turn to try to see my new friend. He pokes his head out from behind the bookshelf and we exchange pleasantries about each other's playing. "Let's do another", he says, "do you know Just The Two of Us". "Nope", I say, "but I can probably figure it out. What key?". "Dunno", he responds. "No worries, I'll find it", I respond, with ill-judged confidence and we’re off.
He busts out some beautifully voiced jazz chords and I start to noodle, quickly dialling in a bit of overdrive and delay to sweeten and sustain my uncertain single note musings. I managed to find the melody quite quickly as I’m quite aware of the song, although less so from the classic Bill Withers/Grover Washington version and more from the Dr Evil/Mini Me version from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. I find the key (Abm, in case you’re interested) and fumble my way through the melody adding embellishments as I go. It’s a fun piece of musical creativity between two people who’d never met and couldn’t even see each other. We had a quick chat afterwards. His name’s Aaron and has only been playing a couple of years. Lovely guy too. Turns out, his mate had recorded it. I’ll post the results here somewhere.
Oh, and I didn’t really get on with the PRS Silver Sky. I continue to fly in the face of popular opinion about PRS guitars in that I’ve played loads and never got on with any of them. I think the necks are too narrow and I ever feel I can really dig in.