A Short Story
I was 13 yrs of age growing up in Guayaquil, Ecuador when I started to play guitar. The nylon string guitar is a very popular instrument in Latin America, but for some reason, up to that moment in my life, the instrument had not caught so much of my attention.
The defining moment came when the guitar and I crossed paths and an everlasting relationship started. It happened by chance. I came home from school one day and I saw my mother taking lessons from a lady she had contacted for the classes. I asked if I could sit in and listen to the class. I attentively and silently paid attention to the explanation the lady was giving to my mother on how to hold the guitar and how to place the left-hand fingers on the strings over the fretboard. She was explaining to her how to play something that was called a chord. The lady did not know how to read music nor had a good classical guitar technique, but whatever she was explaining to my mother along with her playing sounded intriguing to my ears. I asked my mother if I could also take lessons and she said yes.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the lady, but I am grateful for the playing tips she taught me. I did admire my mother’s efforts at trying to learn to play guitar. I probably would not have learned it myself if it had not been for her initiative to take the lessons. Regretfully, a few months later after she stopped taking the lessons and stopped playing, she said she had forgotten everything she had learned.
It was somewhere around that time that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Rock Bands started to pop up everywhere. Women also got the bug for rock music and became leading performers on their own bands. They say that Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin laid out the path for Patty Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Jett, and all the female rockers that came after. In the early sixties, thousands of boys and girls all over the world decided to learn guitar so they could play the songs of their favorite bands and singers. Of course, everybody wanted to play electric guitar. The ultimate goal in the learning process was to put a rock band together.
I was a member in several of them: Pajaros de Fuego (Firebirds) (Robbie Garcia/Lead singer, Alberto Vallarino (RIP)/Keyboards, Roberto Vallarino (RIP))/Bass, Fernando Rodriguez/Drums, Francisco Burgos/Guitar The Corvettes (same members), The Chevelles (Kiko Andrade/Lead singer, Glen Rumbea (RIP)/Bass, Ricardo Rivera/Drums, Francisco Burgos/Guitar. For some strange reason that I can not quite understand we always choose car model names!!!
In the sixties, Rock music was getting a new twist in the way it was written and performed. More chords and harmonies were incorporated into the songs along with unusual melodies and lyrics. The dress code and hairstyles were also evolving along with many social changes. The Vietnam war was going on and the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum.
Although both, Beatles and Stones, played electric guitar, they also had many compositions where steel strings or nylon strings guitars were used. Songs such as “And I love her”, “’ Till There Was You (Written by Meredith Willson) “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, are just three of The Beatles earlier songs where nylon and acoustic steel string guitars were featured. We can not forget the contribution of Musician/Record producer George Martin to the Beatle's success as a band with his involvement as sound engineering on the recordings. A classically trained musician who contributed with his musical knowledge to shape the finished product of the recordings.
The Rolling Stones were (and still are) a fascinating band that I enjoyed listening to. I still enjoy their earlier songs: “As Tears Go By”, “Sittin' on a Fence” and “My Sweet Lady Jane”. These three songs also made use of the acoustic guitar. It was because of the Rolling Stones and the influence of Blues in their music that I also started listening to Blues guitarists such as B.B.King and Freddie King. Both Kings were my point of reference at that time when it came to that musical style.
Every other kid on the block who played guitar came to know the minor pentatonic scale. It is a scale that uses five notes 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the natural minor scale. We used to play the pentatonic scale to death in our improvisations! Just like every teenage guitarist did at that time and probably still does today. I will add though, for the sake of the musically minded reader, that eventually we did learn other scales and committed ourselves to listen to blues guitarists a little more closely and learned the nuances of the style a little bit better.
Latin bands such as Los Iracundos (soft rock from Uruguay) were very popular among teenagers at that time in Latin America. Two of their songs "Es la lluvia que cae" (It is the rain that falls) and "Se que no volveras" (Because I know you won’t come back) became hits all across the Spanish speaking world in the Americas, but Rock music in English was a strong force that could not be stopped. So we played and sang in English and Spanish. The music of Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar was also shaping the sounds of rock. The Beatles as well as the Stones experimented with that exotic and beautiful sounding instrument that became an important part of the “Summer of Love “ music era.
Folk-rock and folk music were also another strong force in those days. When I heard Paul Simon’s fingerpicking style on the songs, written by him and sung together with Art Garfunkel (Simon and Garfunkel), I felt as if a giant magnet had pulled me over towards that style. Paul Simon’s guitar playing was a revelation. Somehow a copy of the first album they made “Wednesday Morning, 3 am” landed on my record player while I was living in Ecuador. I have been listening to the songs that were in that LP ever since and I have never grown tired of them nor of any of the other recordings they made as a duo. I knew each song by memory.
The first time I arrived in New York City in 1969, I headed straight to the East Village. I needed to go to Bleecker Street (“…Fog’s rollin’ in off the East Riverbank….like a shroud it covers Bleecker Street…”) I needed to take a walk towards the East River and breath the holy air that I thought only that street had. I wanted to feel the magic that Paul Simon described in that song with the same name as the street. Needless to say, I was feeling groovy!
Among the many songs Paul Simon wrote during his early years “Kathy’s song” was one of my favorites. It was written while they were in London and it was dedicated to Kathy, his love at that time. I like this song a lot. The guitar playing is gentle, simple, and beautiful. The lyrics are poetic and the melody helps to enhance the poetry of the lyrics or is it the other way around? I had to learn to play that song the moment I heard it. It has not lost a bit of its poetic power over the years.
I always had a personal attraction to the sweet tone the nylon string guitar and acoustic guitars produce. To be fair, I also like the electric guitar, but my interest in the acoustic and classical nylon string guitar has always been strong. While I was living in New York a new change in my musical taste took place or I should say I added a complex musical style/dish to the menu. I heard Andres Segovia’s playing.
I remember buying one of his LP recordings. I vividly remember it was displayed in the window of a music store I walked by every day on the way to the subway station. I had heard he was one of the great classical guitarists (was there another one around as famous as him?) I was curious to listen to the recording and try to form a personal opinion myself. As soon as I had a few dollars in my pocket I bought the LP. That was a wise financial investment.
The musical content in the LP blew me away. I would spend hours with my ear close to the record player and my guitar in hand, trying to learn by ear some of the pieces he was playing in that LP. Soon I realized there was no way to learn these pieces by ear. Among the tracks in the LP, there were Pavanas by Milan, Mallorca by Albeniz, Variations, and Fugue on a Theme of Handel by Harris and many other beautiful musical works by composers I had never heard of.
The expressiveness of Segovia’s playing and his technical virtuosity brought to my ears a landscape of sounds that I could not believe they were coming out of a nylon string guitar. The way he phrased the music opened a door that showed me there was a way to communicate musical ideas while playing this “simple” instrument that turned out to be capable of enormous musical complexity. I could not figure out how one person could make one guitar sound like an entire orchestra. I fell in love with the music of Bach, Ponce, Villalobos, and many other composers who until then I did not know to exist. Perhaps Bach was the only name I recognized. I found out that there were many composers who had written music for the guitar at Segovia’s request. Some of them were guitarists and others such as Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco and Joaquin Rodrigo were pianists/composers. Rodrigo and Castelnuovo Tedesco wrote two of the most popular Concertos for guitar and orchestra ever. The Concierto de Aranjuez (Rodrigo) and the Concerto in D Major for Guitar and Orchestra (Castelnuovo-Tedesco).
Listening to Segovia’s playing gave me the motivation to take the study of the guitar seriously and start thinking of a professional career in music. There were too many musical and technical details that I could not figure out how to do on my own. So the next logical step was to look for a teacher with experience in classical guitar techniques. I needed a teacher right away!! If I am not mistaken I needed someone that same day. I went downstairs and picked up copies of the New York Times and The Village Voice to look for a teacher.
I found a teacher who had a studio in the Carnegie Hall building. Excellent!! A classical guitarist that had a studio in the same building where some of the greatest concerts take place! I was sold! I started private lessons with Elena Valdi right away.
She was a wonderful guitarist and teacher. I loved to go to her classes. I remember I used to walk up the stairs of the respectful building two steps at a time (in a rush not to be late to the class) and meet on the way up or down a parade of people carrying clarinets, violins, cellos, trumpets, and many other instruments. There was artistic energy you could feel inside that building. We were all bonded by music. On the way to Elena’s studio, I would pass by many other studios where different instruments and voice lessons were being taught.
The sound coming out of those rooms was inspirational. Central Park was just a few blocks away and the classes on Sunday morning during the winter months in New York added a magical touch to the experience. Joseph Patelson Music House was across the street. It was a mandatory stop after the class to go to that store and browse through the bins that contained music sheets to see what was new.
The Luthier Juan Orozco also had his shop across the street. Moondog had been standing on 6th avenue since the late 1940s, not too far from Carnegie Hall wearing his Viking outfit. Very few people knew he was a respected composer. Eventually, Philip Glass invited him to conduct his music (Moondog’s) with the Brooklyn Philarmonic Chamber Orchestra. Everything felt and was perfect! It never occurred to me then that years later I will be giving my debut concert at the Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City and received a wonderful review by The New York Times critic Peter G. Davies. After my 2 years stay in New York and taking lessons for several months with Elena I decided to pursue a music degree. I had the opportunity to go to Spain in 1971 to study with Demetrio Ballesteros at The Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid, Spain. I will write some other time about my Spanish experience. That was also an interesting journey but New York City will always have a special place in my life.