Walking Backwards for Christmas: Magic & Steel Strings

Walking Backwards for Christmas, Chapter 6, Part 9 – Between the Walls: “Magic & Steel Strings: For the First Time in My Life”

MagicI opened the case. For the first time in my life, I really looked at the guitar. Its colors had faded over the decades until they’d become a strange mix of each other.

Today, I think the box might be beech, the neck rosewood, but, even now, I honestly don’t know. The head was black—painted most likely—with a capital “B” painted next to a small “o” near the top. I’ve been told over the years that it may be from the Boosey Company, before a merger where it became Boosey & Hawkes, or from Chas. Bolanger & Company. Both firms sold guitars in England in the middle of the nineteenth century. But I thought then, and I prefer to think today, that the letters are the remains of “Borland,” Gramfer’s last name. He himself painted on the name, or that it was done at his direction or on his behalf.

The strings were steel, and I instantly loved the sound and the way they responded when I played them. This generating a preference for steel strings over nylon that I continue to have to this day.

I probably spent no more than five minutes examining that guitar. I was surprised when Gramfer pulled his sleight of hand trick and produced my guitar picks out of thin air, followed a few seconds later by The Screen.

The Screen, as I was to learn but seconds later, doubled a kind of electric tuner. Gramfer taught me the pitch of each string and the use of the screen in helping to keep it tuned. I’d already had enough music theory in school to recognize fourths when I heard them. Thus realizing that all the intervals between the strings but one (which was a major third) were a fourth apart.

He helped me to calculate quickly how to move between strings to play the major and minor diatonic scales. Thus in the ensuing ten minutes, I learned about the strings of the guitar.  I learned how to tune them, the major scales for the keys of C, A, G, E, D and F#, and the minor scales for keys of A, F#, E, C#, B, and E♭/D#.

“Not bad,” I thought, “for an instrument I never held in my life until a quarter hour ago.”

The guitar did indeed seem to work its magic as it helped us both to play to the best of our abilities.

In the ensuing 90 minutes, I learned how to strum both regular and accented. In addition, I also learned to pick, holding my hand as if a butterfly had just landed on my wrist. I learned how trills and turns, which I already knew how to play on piano and recorder, were played on guitar.

Then I learned about barred chords, both full barre and half-barre, allowing me to play any major or minor chord in any key. I also learned the traditional root, fourth and fifth degree of the scale chords for each of the major and minor scales, augmented and diminished forms, as well, and where and how to add fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth tones.

I played until my fingers were ready to bleed. Gramfer made a bowl of cider vinegar and ice appear. He showed me how to use both to relieve and toughen my fingers.

Segovia I wasn’t, but there was no doubt in my mind that if there were any magic to be found in that guitar, I knew enough to be a conduit for letting it out.

© 2014, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.