Mr Bolam was a soft-spoken and gentle man who wore a cheap suit and little round glasses. He would sit in a tiny room and teach guitar lessons to the students taking Standard Grade and Higher Music. Twenty minutes was usually the most time he’d get with each, and some had to come in twos. He smoked cigarettes outside the front door, had a sailor’s tattoo, and played the guitar like an angel.
I liked him much better than the other guitar teacher, Mr —-, who had a gruff voice, aggressive demeanour, and once charmingly told me that my little finger was a poof and needed to be strengthened. He dismissed guitar tablature, referring to it as ‘paint-by-numbers’, even though none of us could read music. He made us play shit like Focus. I never once saw him actually play the instrument.
Mr Bolam, on the other hand, was kind and patient, and believed we were capable. He showed me a piece he’d tabbed by hand called ‘November’. It was a Spanish right-hand exercise, and it was pretty easy to pick up. I felt like I had a knack for this kind of thing, and he continued to give me classical pieces, like Ejercicio in Em and some of Fernando Sor. It was fun. I was actually having fun playing the guitar. Couldn’t strum worth a damn, and I was completely incapable of playing the kind of music all the other guys were into, but I had my thing and I liked it.
Then, of course, I took it too far. On the way back from Dalry one day, we had a Simpsons tape playing in the car. It was a song from Last Exit to Springfield (often considered the single greatest episode), the one where Lisa’s playing the guitar at the union strike. “So we’ll march day and night by the big cooling tower, they have the plant but we have the power.” Tierce de picardie. Lenny’s voice came over the speakers. “Now do Classical Gas!” And Lisa starts doing some classical picking. Hey, I thought. I’m doing stuff like that in school right now. What’s Classical Gas?
A not-so-quick Morpheus download on dial-up followed, I found this very tab, away I went. It took me a couple of months, but I got most of it down, and arranged to play it at the school show. On rehearsal day, I watched a sixth year named Alex play classical guitar before me. He was brilliant, and I was incredibly jealous. He played mostly the same stuff I did, but was allowed to play some of the more complex pieces Mr Bolam had withheld from me so far. He took a seat down the front after his flawless performance, and it was my turn. This was my chance. This was my chance to prove to everyone that I could beat him, that I was a better classical player than he was. I sat down on the stage, heart thumping, and zoned out.
Two and a half minutes later, I finished playing, and Alex burst into genuine applause. “Well done, wee man!” he shouted. “That was unbelievable!” I flushed with embarrassment, feeling very small and guilty, like I’d gotten away with a lie I’d really hoped someone would call me out on. Everybody seemed impressed by the technical demands of the piece, but I knew I was a charlatan. Alex was a real classical guitarist: he put feeling into his performance, and never seemed to falter. I staggered through, barely aware of what I was doing, relying on muscle memory and sheer luck.
I wasn’t a real musician, and I couldn’t actually play. I could only copy what other people had done.
This is a feeling that haunts me to this very day.