It was Christmas and we were young. The presents around the tree were steadily growing in number and both my sister and I were trying to guess by the shapes what each one contained. Square boxes, long soft wrappings, bright and glittery, mysterious, oblong and enticing. Then something appeared that couldn’t be disguised. My father knew this and either didn’t have enough seasonal paper or knew he couldn’t wrap it well enough. So, he propped it in a corner behind the tree, which, along with the beige leatherette bag, would be enough of a disguise for us not to guess what was inside. It was the overall shape that gave it away. It had the tell tail signs of a small guitar. Things were definitely looking up this year.
Christmas day arrived and we were each given our pile of presents in adjacent corners of the room like a festive boxing ring. A large black plastic bag strategically placed in the centre into which we threw the used wrappings carefully double checking for any random bank notes that may have got mixed up in the wild and frantic paper tearing.
Then my father reached across and picked up the guitar case with an excited look across to my mother, and………. gave it to my sister!! What? I know I’d received some very nice gifts, but I thought…… well, this was a ‘Boy’s present, wasn’t it?
I managed to hide my disappointment and busied myself with the gifts I’d already been given showing no noticeable remorse or feeling I had been short changed.
A few days went by and saw that the guitar hadn’t moved from its initial resting place or been taken out of its case. It was propped up where it had been left by the tree, my sister clearly more interested in her ‘Girly’ presents,
I quietly locked the door and took the guitar out of its case. It was small and sunburst in colour. It had six metal strings that were loud. The strings appeared to be quite a distance from the neck and frets.
Tipping the bag further a book fell out. It was a guitar book. It was ‘The Billy Bell self-instructor series ‘The Guitar’ costing a whopping two shillings.
Alongside this was a picture of two guitars, The regular model and the cello model. This was a ‘regular’ so I assumed that one day I may progress upwards to the ‘cello’ variety. For now, that didn’t matter.
I started on page one of the self-instructive book to find a couple of chords, how to tune the guitar, a merry single line ditty resembling an old country folk song and the correct way to sit and hold the guitar wonderfully illustrated by Billy himself. The mixture of excitement and pain was tangible and I managed to work through the agony of trying to press the strings onto the fretboard without a ladder, vice or plyers, finally achieving something that sounded like a tune. I played the stealth game for a few weeks but finally managed to get the guitar into my bedroom where I officially adopted it as my own.
Moving through the years of self-taught guitar, proper piano, classical double bass and jazz drums, I found myself at BBC Broadcasting House arranging a session for a series of radio sketches. It involved some jazz tunes, country vamps, folky frolics and a little extra banjo on the side. I was also asked to fix the session as in, find the musicians. I thought I’d carry the guitar chair so I looked into finding a banjo player. As if by magic Billy Bell’s name appeared. My hero and the man that started it all for me; my inspiration and the very person who got me hooked.
I met him in the reception area before the session. Tall, slightly older than the picture on the book cover, but very jolly and extremely friendly. As we were walking to the studio, I told him my story and thanked him for his encouragement all those years back. He stopped and smiled. “I remember that book”, he said, “I was given a guitar amplifier to have my picture on the front cover. I didn’t write a note!”.
On the session, I sat next to him while he played his virtuoso banjo and I played my acoustic guitar, both side by side as musicians, both enjoying the moment and me, happy to have met and joined in with my guitar idol and hero even though he didn’t actually write the book.
Just an additional note; I know some great girl-guitarists and my sister has subsequently forgiven me.