Guitar Weekends - Rock Weekend group 26-28 September 2008. L-R: Iain, Gary Dunn, Tony, Yours Truly, Rachel, Mark, Gordon and Graham
On Friday morning, I took the train up north and by mid-afternoon found myself at Beckfoot House near Penrith in Cumbria. I was there for one of the Guitar Weekends that Malcolm and Lesley White at Beckfoot House run throughout the year. Now I'd been on one of these before back in early 2007. That time it was an "Improvers" weekend, albeit with a rock flavour. I had a great time on that occasion but wanted to return so as to brush up on some of the theory. The weekend I chose this time also had a "rock" theme, but it turned out that it was actually a much more advanced course.
By mid to late afternoon a group of seven of us had assembled with our guitars and other paraphenalia and after introductions, Malcolm led us through a few exercises where we looked at scales and some alternative chord shapes. As a group we played through a few songs several times with Malcolm explaining how we could improve things by sharpening up our timing and by paying attention to the rhythm patterns.
After an excellent dinner, we took it turns to play solos using the various scales relevant to the key the song was in. Everyone was put on the spot for a few moments when we were each asked to play something for the rest of the group. That was quite nerve-wracking but a good way to break the ice - a few of us fudged our playing, but no matter, we were all in the same boat. We went on playing until 1AM. Despite not starting until late afternoon, it had been a very busy day.
But Malcolm was only the warm-up man. From Saturday morning Gary Dunn took over as our teacher. A softly-spoken Geordie with a great sense of humour and a helluva lot of patience, Gary is an excellent musician and a fantastic teacher, explaining and demonstrating everything clearly. We studied some theory, such as how chords are constructed, what notes appear in different keys and why. As on the previous day, we played through a number of songs and took turns to play solos. We spent some time looking at AC/DC's "Back In Black", breaking it down into its component riffs, and then combining them into a whole. I have to confess that I was finding some of this very tricky. The theory I could follow, but the putting it into practice was something else! However, I made plenty of notes for practicing later at home.
Late Saturday afternoon we had a break before dinner, so a group of us took a walk out into the beautiful surrounding countryside (and nearly getting ourselves lost, which is what happens when you start climbing walls and fences and marching over fields). This was a great opportunity to socialise and get to know each other better.
After another one of Lesley's excellent dinners, we began our project for the night. We split into two groups, each being given a song to work on, arrange, practice and finally perform. My group had "Riders on the Storm" which we had to arrange for four guitars. Luckily it's a song with several intertwining guitar parts, so there was something for each of us to do. My main job was the rhythm guitar, but they weren't letting me off that easily and it was decided that each of us would take a solo, so whilst I soloed someone else had to take over the rhythm. One of our group, Iain, was persuaded to sing, which was a nice touch.
After about three hours of arranging and practicing our parts, both groups came back together and performed our respective songs for one another and these were recorded so we could listen back to our triumphs and mistakes! We were quite pleased with our "Riders" although unfortunately Tony's Les Paul chose to develop a jack-socket fault just as he was about to start his solo so that we had a crackle-crackle-crackle solo for a few moments before he was to get stuck in properly.
Rachel came out with a fantastic lead sound on her solo which caused a few heads to turn. I'm afraid I fluffed mine a little bit (although it wasn't that bad) but my main problem was that I hadn't set my relative rhythm versus lead volumes quite right and I was just too damn quiet. Iain having finished the vocals brought the song to a close with a nice solo on his Tele.
Then it was Mark, Graham and Gordon's turn, and they got up and performed Santana's "Samba Pa Ti" ("This isn't just any food. This is Marks and Spencers' food"), which allowed Mark on his PRS and Graham with his Brian May Red Special to indulge in a little lead guitar duelling whilst Gordon played the rhythm on his Gibson Hummingbird acoustic. Very nice it sounded too!
It had been another very busy - and long - day, so at 11:30 I decided to go hit the sack.
Sunday morning began with each of us independently working through the TAB for "Star Spangled Banner" whilst we waited to begin and trying to resist the tempation to add divebombing, explosions and rockets a la Hendrix.
Gary then came in and taught us about 9th chords and arpeggios - all of which we worked through, and together we played "Hotel California" which has an E9 chord and a solo which you can play using the B harmonic minor scale. He also used "House of the Rising Sun" as an example of how to arpeggiate. I'm glad to report that none of us had to refer to the chord sheet for that one! (As if!)
After lunch it was time to bid our farewells and make our respective ways back home. All in all, it was an intense course. It was very enjoyable but it was certainly no picnic. (If you go on one of these courses you must be prepared to work!) As I said earlier, the course was much harder than I was expecting and if I'm honest I was slightly outside of my own comfort zone, but then surely it's better to be challenged rather than to cruise through things that come easily.
Guitar Weekends offer a whole host of these intensive weekends for guitarists of all abilities - Strugglers, Improvers, Rock, Blues, Country, Django and Maintenance. Next year they are possibly going to introduce a Recording weekend. I've been on two weekends now (which is nothing compared to some people who keep on coming back for more), and can wholeheartedly comment on their excellence: venue, staff, food, accommodation, material covered - all are top notch. My thanks to Lesley and Malcolm at Beckfoot House and also to our tutor Gary Dunn.