I was 14 years old when my parents bought me a nylon string classical guitar to replace the piano lessons I had refused to continue with because I was so nervous during the grade exams. For some inexplicable reason my school wouldn't allow music lessons if you didn't take the exams. The guitar was 2nd hand, cheap, and actually really nice, lovely sound. But I wasn't to discover that for three more years because the sight of all those frets and strings, no fret markers, left me totally confused. The Internet may have officially been born the year before, but it would be fifteen years or so before it caught on in any meaningful way to the public, and with no friends who played it sadly ended up in the attic gathering dust.
Three years later a friend complained to me that the guitar his parents had bought him was too awful to play on. I told I had one in the attic I thought would be better and to come over to check it out. He tuned it, which was a marvel to me in itself, and strummed an open E chord, I was impressed. Asking him to show me how he did that I managed to reproduce the same results. I didn't lend him the guitar, the journey had begun. Luckily my friend seemed to understand, so no bad feelings.
With a year left until I finished Secondary school (equivalent of High School in America) I took classical guitar lessons, which I really enjoyed. At the same time the usual teenage obsession with music was as strong as ever, but now morphing away from the Ska and Mod culture I'd started out with into Classic Rock. It was soon obvious after delving into the likes of The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Queen, ACDC, The Doors, Hendrix and Pink Floyd, I was going to need an electric guitar. And so the obsession deepened, and not just with classic rock, but the history of the guitar. I bought best of compilations from all the greats, Robert Johnson, Django Reindhart, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, Wes Montgomery, Segovia.
Seeing my interest undiminished my parents thankfully didn't put up any resistance into getting my first electric guitar. They had almost no interest in music themselves, something I found odd, but they were happy that I had an interest in something. We were living in Germany at the time, so with the aid of a very helpful sales assistant that lead to the purchase of an inexpensive, but surprisingly good Strat style guitar made by Marathon, a German company.
I have to admit that my self taught electric guitar progress wasn't as good as I'd hoped given I thought I was making reasonable progress with the classical guitar. I put this down to being a lefty playing right handed, holding and using a pick was frustratingly fiddly and clumsy for me, and I couldn't see the additional tension that encouraged in me.
After leaving school and going to college to study electronic engineering and music technology, the opportunity to play in bands finally arrived, but with guitar players being two a penny, and an invitation to start a band on bass, I switched to playing bass. Much better to play bass in a band than guitar in the bedroom, and I had John Paul Jones and Geddy Lee to look up to as musical heroes, and I enjoyed ditching the pick in favour of fingerstlye. In true punk style I joined the band first then went shopping for a bass and got lucky with a fantastic Japanese Fender Jazz Bass for the price you'd spend on a Squire these days.
It was at this point I started to really struggle with the physicality of playing. At the time I put it down solely to the dimensions of the bass guitar, but truth be known, in hindsight, I was a very tense young man, physically and emotionally, and bringing that to the bass guitar would leave my hands and arms aching and in need of rest after rehearsals and gigs. Maybe it was the resilience of youth, but luckily this never lead to long term injury from playing bass. Along the way I also upgraded my Marathon (well, I had to, a friend dropped it and put a crack down the length of the neck) to a Fender Strat Plus Deluxe with financial help from my mother and bar work evenings and weekends. It was a modern guitar to me, and well, Jeff Beck!
During a summer break from college I spent nearly two months obsessively learning and practicing classical guitar, progress was good but something snapped in me, what can I say, rock and blues held a bigger piece of my heart. I put the classical guitar away and never played it again. Years later I sold it to a teenage Alexander Technique student of mine for next to nothing, I knew it was going to a good home.
No interest in blues goes by without an obsession with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and with the bass playing strengthening my hands, and Stevie's use of 13 gauge strings (more on that in a later chapter), 11s in standard tuning became my default gauge. Again, in hindsight I feel this was in part a way to disguise the excess tension I played with.
Just as I was about to graduate from college I had my first long-term playing related injury. I was in the middle of an Albert King two tone style bend when I felt a ping in my fretting hand elbow, and pain! After weeks of rest the problem hadn't resolved. I could play a little but absolutely could not perform any string bends without severe pain in my elbow. The doctor and physio I went to see could find no issue with my elbow, I was at a loss with what to do.
For pragmatic purposes I sold my bass and bought an Epiphone Emperor Regent and started learning some jazz chord melody as that would avoid string bending, but I was limited with only being able to play for up to half an hour before the pain became too much. Added to that, a new career in IT for investment banks and stock brokers kept me busy, and so for the next 4 years my guitar playing slid into the background, sometimes going months without playing at all.
But the career in IT lead to it's own problems, that underlying tension I was still oblivious too was contributing to repetitive strain injury in my right wrist and pain in my upper back. Ironically this lead to my first breakthrough in getting back to the guitar. I'd frequent physios and osteopaths (similar to chiropractors) regularly, and in an early session my neck was manipulated in a way that released pressure on the nerve that was causing my elbow problem. In others words, I never had an elbow problem! This was also my first sense of how inter-related the body is. Obviously I was delighted and wanted to get back to playing guitar. I don't know about anyone else but the guitar isn't just about the music, it's also a kind of security blanket and stress relief, a way to lose yourself away from the stress of daily living.
Unfortunately I soon discovered that any attempt to string bend would bring the symptoms back. I had a piece of the puzzle, that I was consistently doing something to myself when I performed a string bend, but to be honest, I had no idea what that might be. It hadn't even occurred to me to watch myself in the mirror in a way I would later discover FM Alexander did to observe what he was doing that was unhelpful to good coordination.
As chance would have it I heard that guitar teacher Shaun Baxter offered private lessons on guitar ergonomics. If you're not familiar with Shaun his monthly column in UKs Guitar Techniques magazine reached almost legendary status with many of us buying the magazine for his column alone. Shaun spotted the problem straight away, every time I bent a string I'd lift my left shoulder and pull my head down towards my left shoulder creating tension in my neck. This muscular tension was clearly what was impinging on the nerve that fed to my elbow, and I'd later realise the behaviour was in part due to an unconscious belief that playing guitar should be hard. My bending mechanics needed to be addressed too, I wasn't leveraging the muscles of the forearm to rotate the wrist effectively. Shaun probably doesn't remember this one-off lesson, but it was pivotal for me. And in an amusing moment Shaun gave me a withering look when I mentioned how Hendrix performed a certain technique (I forget now, but probably related to string bending or vibrato). In that one look it was made abundantly clear that our guitar heroes often perform well despite their technique, not because of it, and to be careful of what you imitate. Many years later a student of mine mentioned that Shaun, as their guitar teacher, had originally recommended the Alexander Technique to them, but for whatever reason he hadn't mentioned it to me on that day, so I was still none the wiser about it's existence.
I now felt I was back on track and could get back to practicing and playing. I looked around somewhat unsuccessfully to find others to form a band for a few pub gigs, and settled on attending local blues jams instead, perfect for juggling with a full-time IT career. I also started writing songs with a work mate with the view to performing at open mic nights, but unfortunately his work moved him to New York for a few years.
Although my guitar playing seemed to be back on track I was still struggling with repetitive strain issues and back pain from sitting at a computer all day at work. Luckily it didn't seem to effect guitar specific mechanics in terms of discomfort when playing, but I would eventually come to recognise that my technique and performance was being severely hampered by excess tension. The regular trips to various physios, osteopaths and chiropractors continued. And although I'd made the connection that the way I was string bending was the cause of my elbow pain, I still couldn't see what I was doing different to anyone else when sat at a keyboard. On one occasion I called out in an open plan office and asked how many people were suffering pain from computer work, and about 15 people put their hands up, so it seemed I wasn't alone.
Eventually a chance meeting with a ballerina at a friend's party brought the Alexander Technique onto my radar. Why I thought the poor girl needed to hear about my aches and pains I don't know, but she was surprisingly interested and asked if I'd heard of the Alexander Technique, which obviously I hadn't. She seemed quite taken with it and did her best to explain it (anyone who's experienced AT knows how tricky this can be). I was intrigued enough, even if there was an element of clutching at straws at the time, to look it up on whatever the dominant search engine was at the time. I wish I could remember who's website I stumbled across, but the penny finally dropped, there was a logical solution to my problems, I needed to learn to prevent the behaviours that was leading to them, and that also gave me a sense of agency and empowerment.
And so I started Alexander lessons with a local teacher, the advantage of living in London where AT teachers are more common. The results were remarkable, and in the space of about 3 months my work related issues were largely gone. Despite that I continued lessons anyway as I enjoyed them so much, especially with regards to stress management given the nature of my work.
Eventually I let the lessons go, but a seed had been sown. I didn't stop as such, but work demands, long hours, meant I had to keep cancelling lessons, but I continued to work on myself from what I'd learned, and I applied that to my guitar playing the best I could even though there were aspects of guitar technique I still didn't fully understand. I also maintained a sense of machismo that I wanted to fight with the guitar, I didn't want it to be easy. I continued with 11 gauge strings enjoying the extra physicality of my relationship with the guitar.
About this time I was in a road accident, a truck mounted the pavement and hit me in the head with the bar the wing mirror is mounted on. It was like being hit in the head by an elephant wielding a baseball bat. Not only was I knocked out cold, and received a classic boxers cut to my left eyebrow splitting it in two, but it caused some damage to nerves in my neck that fed to my right hand.
The truck didn't even stop! To this day I have to work around this injury with the help of the Alexander Technique, but in an analogy I picked up from guitarist Chris Brooks discussing his own playing injuries, like a singer singing above a cold, I can play and manage this injury. If it's really playing up and fine motor control is being adversely affected, it's usually just a sign I'm too tired so it wouldn't be a constructive practice session anyway.
And then another series of events changed my path. In 2008 the global financial credit crunch caused me to lose my job, and my father became terminally ill. I nursed my father the best I could until he passed 6 months later, only to find there was still no work available, especially as I had very niche IT skills related to finance. It was then that I decided to use my father's inheritance for a complete change in direction in my life, and still being completely enamoured by the Alexander Technique enrolled in the 3 year full-time training course.
Those 3 years were transformative in my own self development, but for the first 2 years I didn't really focus a huge amount on my guitar playing with regards to the Alexander Technique. I still played, and I know the Alexander Technique was helping, but it wasn't a big focus for me at the time. My final year of study coincided with the birth of my first daughter, and an overwhelming sense that the world most definitely didn't need, or want, another Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabe. I started to hate my playing, and so I stopped and focused on my new family, and the training course. This was also inspired by a fellow trainee who played cello, who in a desire to develop a whole new relationship with her instrument through the Alexander Technique decided to stop playing in her final year to lose the sense of familiarity and build back better later.
The guitar bug never really leaves you does it?
After a year or so I picked the guitar back up and was shocked at how much ability I'd lost. With no callouses, and weaker hands, I had to restring with 9 gauge strings. But I also realised something else, my sense of machismo was gone, I simply no longer wanted to fight with the guitar. This was a direct outcome of my Alexander experience, wanting to find more ease in all my activities. And so I've rebuilt my technique on that basis, using my experience of the Alexander Technique as a qualified teacher to observe these qualities in other great players, as well as recognising good technical advice from a range of great YouTubers.
In time I thought it would be fun to create a landing page on my professional website specifically for guitar players, and so I came to help other players, and learn more in the process of doing so, and here we are ...