23 May 2020

Splendid Isolation

So here we all are in government-imposed isolation at home.

Whether voluntary or thrust upon you, we’ve never had so much time at home and so little to do with it. Can’t go out except in strictly controlled circumstances, can’t catch up with friends.

What can a poor boy (or girl) do?


There are only so many TV series that you can stream before you get the screaming ab-dabs, as my nana used to say (MAFS viewers, I’m looking at you) and run around the house waving an axe.

So what should we do with this enforced spare time?

Well, even though we’re self-isolating, we can always turn the computer on and learn a new skill of some kind, thanks to the largest ever repository of knowledge at our fingertips – the Internet.

Maybe learn a language perhaps? Hmm; (drifts off, staring at the ceiling …).

When I was a very young Pom my parents sent me off to boarding school, while they wandered around Europe on the hippie/artist trail, ending up on the island of Ibiza.

The boarding school was a small, windswept penal colony on the north coast of Wales, where I promptly came down with a nasty bout of pneumonia, ending up in hospital wheezing my lungs out in an oxygen tent.

My mother screamed blue murder when she heard of this, and promptly yanked me out of the school and made sure I was on the next plane to Spain, to recuperate in the warm weather.

At the time Ibiza wasn’t the party island for the disco dregs of Europe, as it is now, but a sleepy little island. It had no airport, so my plane had to land in Mallorca, and I hopped on a fishing boat to get me from there to Ibiza.

Once there, my mother enrolled me in the local school and after a few weeks I learnt enough Spanish to communicate with the local kids quite well.

My QI book of 1227 pieces of Quite Interesting information tells me that in 1958 there were only 12 cars on Ibiza. I’m sure I was there around that time, and I don’t recall seeing any of them!

I rapidly recovered from the pneumonia in the warm Spanish summer, and after about 12 months went back to the UK, where I promptly forgot all the Spanish I’d learnt, because that’s the thing with languages – you either use it or lose it.

Adios Espana.

What about a different language? Probably not French for me – I already have Parisian taxi drivers beg me to speak English when I attempt to engage them in conversation, and not torture their language beyond all recognition.

But what else could we learn while we’re in this splendid isolation? Another instrument? Or perhaps learn to play the ones we already have a bit better?

I’ve always wanted to know how to play keyboards, but I suspect that it’s a bit late now. I wish my parents had forced me to learn the piano when I was ten or twelve, but of course they were too busy with their hedonistic lifestyle, wandering round the Mediterranean islands with the beautiful people.

And now the appropriate nerve pathways from my brain to my fingers just aren’t there. I can channel Chuck Berry but not Johnny Johnson (his piano player as ‘any fule kno’).

But if you want to learn something, then it’s a given that someone, somewhere, will have a video on YouTube showing you how to do it. Or more correctly, how they do it, which is not quite the same thing!

From stuffing a Turducken to rebuilding a Jaguar engine to making a croquembouche, there’s someone who wants to tell you how to do it.

Still, that’s the wonderful world of YouTube. Click your mouse in there and you’ll be sliding down the rabbit hole of video lessons, and you might not come back for several hours.

There are just so many good, bad, indifferent or just plain terrible people putting how-to-do-it videos up there that I have forced myself to make some rules for them to follow if they want me to watch them.

First – and this is the big one – get to the point within 10 seconds of starting. Any longer, and I’ll just click on to the next one. And there’s always a next one!

Next – know what you’re going to say before you say it. Don’t ramble on repeating yourself ad nauseam without actually saying anything worth listening to.

Don’t intro the video with a fret melting shred guitar solo for a minute or so while I’m waiting for you to start. I don’t want to see what a great player you think you are, unless that is the subject of the video.

Explain the level of viewer you’re aiming it at – I already know the string names, how to tune the guitar, and which fret is which.

Lastly – use a bloody tripod. They’re not expensive, and will go some way towards stopping me bringing up the day’s takings while I try to watch the jerky video. Leave the hand-held ‘WobbliCam’ for arthouse movies. Please.

Seriously though, something like YouTube is a goldmine of information just waiting there for you. Unfortunately, like a real goldmine there can be an awful lot of crap to dig through before you strike it lucky!

When I first started to learn guitar there was no Internet, no YouTube, no computers even! I sat down for a week during the Year 10 school holidays with my Canora semi acoustic (m-m-m-my Canora) and little Jansen amp, a basic chord chart, and listened to the Rolling Stones’ first album until I could play along with it all the way through.

The key that each song was in is still scribbled on the back cover to remind me. By the time the holidays had finished, I had found some like-minded school chums and put together a band to play at all the school parties.

These days I like to watch video reviews of guitars, amplifiers, effects pedals and similar, just to keep updated on what’s new, as well as lessons on how to play a particular riff.

At the moment I’m watching several people’s ideas on how to play the opening riff of Creedence’s ‘Fortunate Son’ in various keys. It’s a popular riff in many songs, from ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man to Patti Loveless’ Blame It on Your Lyin’ Cheatin’ Mean Mistreatin’ Cold Dead Beatin’ Two-Timin’ Double Dealin’ Lovin’ Heart. And all points in between.

As well as keyboards, I always wanted to learn to play the saxophone, but once again that ship has sailed! However, there are lots of songs that just need a little blast of sax now and then, and I thought that there must be
a way I could get that effect without having to go through the time-consuming effort of actually learning to play the sax.

A damaged alto sax at a rock bottom price was the answer to my quest. It had no mouthpiece, but it didn’t matter since I bought a ‘professional’ stainless steel kazoo and gaffer taped it into the hole where the mouthpiece should go.

It worked like a charm and plays in any key I want, without having to learn any of that messy fingering. No need for any YouTube lessons either!

CX Magazine – May 2020   

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