I was born in Marylebone, London in 1944, right at the end of the War. My Mother played light-classical pieces on the piano, which also served as the family bomb-shelter during the air raids. I recall her playing with great fondness and still play an arrangement of Schumann’s “Im Wunderschonen Monat Mai” on the guitar.
Later on, at school, I took music lessons with a patient man named John Webber who introduced me to Early Music which had yet to become part of the curriculum. At the same time I sat my grade exams on classical guitar at the Guildhall, presided over by Adele Kramer.
An interest in Early Music has remained with me, not least in my approach to arrangement.
The classical guitar studies helped a lot in the transition to steel-string fingerpicking styles, “Faro’s Rag” owes more to Fernando Sor than Madame Kramer would probably care to acknowledge.
In Britain in the late fifties the musical craze was for ‘Skiffle’, an amalgam of American folk, blues, bluegrass and jugband styles.
The big hit was “Freight Train” which drew attention to Elizabeth Cotten’s original, as well as to the work of such musicians as Leadbelly, Jesse Fuller, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
These players all came over to England and their guitar styles left a strong impression on a generation of young skifflers.
As soon as I left school I went hitch-hiking,and met up with others trying to play like them. Mac McCloud, Gerry Lockran, Mick Softly and Wizz Jones were already well on the way,and we were all in awe of Davey Graham.
Around this time I got my first playable steel-string guitar, it cost me a fiver and was an object of wonder and beauty.
It was a Scarth and, like Abbott and Aristone, a British-made dance-band instrument having an arched top and tailpiece but with a round sound hole.
It had its little idiosyncrasies – the action went up and down according to the weather, which could be counteracted by wedging a lollypop stick under the neck – a feature that merely added to its mystique. You don’t see too many like it any more!
However, good steel-string guitars were few and far between with Harmony and Levin leading the field.
I was living on an old boat on the River Thames and stringing together tunes based on picking patterns, such as “Down On The Barge” and that old Scarth served me well – featuring on the cover of my first LP, in the traditional ‘folk-singer-on-the-rubbish-dump’ pose.
In the early sixties I attended Kingston College of Art fairly frequently.
The Art Schools seemed to be turning out more musicians than artists at that time.
The Yardbirds were at Kingston, as were Eric Clapton and Sandy Denny. The R’n’B craze had replaced skiffle and the best band was considered to be Alexis Korner’s “Blues Incorporated”.
I played in an Art School R’n’B band for a while, “Hog Snort Rupert’s Famous Porkestra”, using a borrowed electric guitar.
I found that some of the band’s riffs sounded interesting played fingerstyle on an acoustic guitar and pieces like “The Wildest Pig In Captivity” came out of that.
Johns thoughts on his strings of choice
In my search for the clearest set of bronze strings, I tried some old Rotosounds in black and red packets that I had somehow managed to hang on to for years. They sounded really good, bright and well balanced but with a rich tone. The company were amused to hear that anybody should still have strings going so far back but assured me that, several packet designs later, their new strings were still the same quality. Rotosound bass strings have a high profile world-wide which may have overshadowed their guitar strings. James How, who founded the company in the fifties, engineered a new type of string-winding machine that was a step ahead of the industry and all the strings are produced to the same degree of precision.
In addition to the phosphor bronze round wounds, Rotosound also make guitar strings in the piano string design. That is with the wrap wire stopping short of the ball end so that a section of the core wire is exposed and only the core wire comes into contact with the saddle. These strings are called ‘Country Gold’. It is actually an old idea and I have a feeling that the very first steel strings used on the guitar in the 1800’s were like that. The gauges for both types of string are 060 to 018 covered, and 026 to 008 plain.