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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Eric Kershaw's Guitar Class

Memories of a guitar class run by one of Britain's top swing-era guitarists.

Once upon a time, there were so many local authority evening classes it was hard to know which to take. There was an enormous choice of crafts, arts, sports, languages and examination subjects, but you had to make up your mind and enrol promptly or you would find your preferences full to capacity. From the nineteen-seventies to the nineteen-nineties, I brushed up my French, learned to recognise wild plants, studied the history of the cinema, explored my family history, played clarinet badly in an orchestra, tried to improve my writing skills (I know, it doesn’t show), and grazed my knees on a climbing wall in preparation for a scary weekend up rock faces in Borrowdale. I even retook my ‘A’ levels.

But if you look now, the informal classes once enjoyed by so many have closed. There are hardly any on offer at all. They began to disappear around ten years ago after a government “consultation” concluded (ignoring their popularity) that publicly subsidised evening classes were no longer needed because of alternatives such as television, libraries, the National Trust, English Heritage, museums, art galleries, the internet and the University of the Third Age. Funding was diverted into basic skills training for the unemployed: numeracy, literacy, information technology and work-based courses. The only publicly funded classes were to be those that led to approved qualifications. By 2008 over a million places had been axed.

Sue Blackmore summed it up in the Guardian in 2009 after a disappointing experience at a sculpture class. All that she and the other participants wanted was, unsurprisingly, “to do some sculpture.” The friendly young teacher would have been delighted to oblige, but no, to be funded the course had to lead towards a BTEC (Business and Technology Education Council) ONC (Ordinary National Certificate) qualification. It was bogged down in the blinkered bureaucracy of today’s educational ideology: aims, objectives and personal learning goals. The whole of the first term was taken up in putting together a portfolio of design investigations to achieve twelve learning outcomes, such as being able to “discuss and develop ideas with the advice of your tutor”,  and “identify potential hazards in the craft room”.  And all they had wanted was to do some sculpture!

Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane 1990s
Leeds College of Music, Woodhouse Lane, around 1990

Thank goodness none of this claptrap was around in the autumn of 1974 when all I wanted to do was to learn to play guitar a bit better. I went along to Leeds College of Music on Woodhouse Lane and, unsure of which course to do, was steered by the enrolment clerk towards “the one with Eric Kershaw, the guitar book author.” I’d never heard of him, but she said his name with such reverence I signed up there and then.

Eric Kershaw (1916-1983), I soon discovered, was one of the top guitarists in Britain during the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties ‘swing’ era. Before the war, “Eric Kershaw and his Rhythmic Guitars” appeared regularly on the B.B.C. National and Northern radio stations, and later he played in the leading bands of Jack Parnell and Cyril Stapleton, and in countless West End shows. However, he was best known for his internationally best selling book ‘Dance Band Chords for the Guitar’ first published in 1946, which had sold an amazing seven and a half million copies. He had been appointed lecturer in plectrum and jazz guitar at Leeds College of Music in 1970, a post he held until his retirement in 1981.

Eric Kershaw: Dance Band Chords

The evening class was superb. For much of the time we played through his arrangement of around a hundred popular songs from the thirties, forties and fifties which he had put together as a medley. It began with ‘Just You, Just Me’ and ended aptly with ‘The Song Is Ended’. There were separate bass, rhythm and “stave solo” parts for which he had written out the music by hand. He had then made cyclostyled (‘Gestetnered’) copies collated into books concertinaed together with sellotape.

“Look after these and don’t walk off with ‘em,” he warned as he handed them out, “you’ve got no idea how long it takes to stick ‘em all together.” We were allowed to take them home, but he wanted them back at the end of the course.

Most of us played from the solo part because Eric persuaded us we needed to learn to read music. He played the rhythm accompaniment himself, and also the ‘turnaround’ chord sequences which linked the songs together. Strangely, his own guitar was fairly ordinary. “The kids* have pinched all the best ones,” he explained. He didn’t seem to have a proper plectrum either. It looked to me like he used an old tiddlywink.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
Extract from Eric Kershaw's teaching book: stave solo and rhythm parts for 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails'

“O.K. guys,” he would announce (we all being guys), “number thirteen, ‘Buddy Can You Spare A Dime’,” and off we would go, some coping better than others. I was not a proficient sight reader at all, but my main problem was Eric’s accompaniment which he played from memory. He didn’t just play the rhythm part and turnarounds as written, he slipped in all kinds of modified chords, riffs and decorations with absolute mastery. I just wanted to listen to what he was doing. Some of his phrases might easily have sounded corny, but from him they were perfect.

I demoted myself to playing accompaniment. That introduced me to dance band rhythms of which I had been only vaguely aware, such as quickstep, waltz, fiesta, rumba, tango, bossa nova and beguine.

There were also the solo pieces he showed us. One of them, ‘It’s the Talk of the Town’ (the 1933 pop standard), I practised for hours and became pretty good at it, although I would struggle to play it now.

Talk of the Town for guitar by Eric Kershaw
Eric Kershaw's arrangement of 'Talk of the Town' for guitar

Some of us met several times outside the class to play guitar, although for me this lasted no longer than a few months. I remember one chap whose distinctive double-barrelled surname I saw again on an office door a quarter of a century later when I attended a conference in the Education Department at Exeter University, but it was the summer vacation and he wasn’t around. Another student gave the impression of being seriously dim-witted, until he began to play his guitar, at which he was outstanding.

Three weeks before Christmas, Eric revealed he would not be taking the class any more. “It’s knocking me out,” he complained. The following week another lecturer appeared. Despite a display of unshakeable self-assuredness he did not know much about guitars. No doubt he was knowledgeable in his own field, but his attempt to teach us song structures was not well received. We wanted to play our guitars.

“Name any song,” he said, standing at the piano confidently. “Just name any song and I’ll show you how easy it is to work out the chord structure.”

After an awkward silence which seemed to go on for ever, the dim-witted student had a rare flash of inspiration.

“Er, Albatross,” he mumbled in a dopey voice, referring to the slow guitar instrumental by Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac.

The lecturer’s eyes drifted slowly to the far top corner of the room and then back again, his expression as vacant as the student’s.

“Er, I don’t know it,” he said. “What about ‘On the Street Where You Live’?”

This lecturer’s other bright idea was to enter us for a general musicianship exam. Without any preparation or idea of what to expect, I found myself in a practice room with an examiner who asked me to clap rhythms back to him, sing sequences of notes he played on a piano, and answer questions about musical notation and harmony. He said I had a good ear but should try to sing an octave lower. I think I managed as good a mark as anyone else, but it was far short of the pass standard.


Leeds College of Music Letter 1975

The one benefit of being abandoned by Eric was that he never asked for his cyclostyled books back. I still have both the rhythm and solo parts, and many hours of pleasure they have given me too. It might be of interest to scan and post them whole, but they are probably copyright (the original music publishers’ rather than Eric’s), and I may already have pushed my luck too far with the extracts above. I can, however, safely show you the contents list I wrote out on the front.

Eric Kershaw's teaching medley

Surprisingly and encouragingly, Leeds College of Music, which now describes itself as “a specialist music conservatoire based in the Quarry Hill cultural quarter of Leeds,” still offers short courses in acoustic guitar. The second level course, which costs £200 for fifteen evening sessions of ninety minutes, aims to enhance your key guitar skills with open chords, barre chords, basic improvisation, song styles, broken chords, riffs, strumming patterns and theory. I’d go for it if I lived near enough.

The words “key” and “skills” only hint at what must lie underneath in the course specification. I’m not sure whether Eric would have bought into all the paperwork involved, I suspect not. The lecturer who took over for the last couple of weeks had to spend his first twenty minutes sorting out Eric’s muddle of a register. You certainly would not get away these days with making it up as you went along, nor with “on completion of this course you will have played guitar with a tiddlywink.” The old College of Music building in Woodhouse Lane is now a Wetherspoons pub. I think Eric might have liked that.

Another public provision that has suffered massive cutbacks is the library service. Shortly after the guitar class ended, I came across Eric’s LP ‘Time To Swing’ in the wonderful Leeds Record Library. Of course I taped it for my own use, as we all did then, and I still have it. With Johnny van Derrick on violin, it falls into the same genre as Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, but shines with its own distinctive style. There are those who say Eric and Johnny were just as good, if not better than their older and more famous counterparts.

Time to Swing: Eric Kershaw

Of course, I can’t upload it here – you get copyright strikes for that kind of thing – but the recording has now re-emerged in MP3 format as part of ‘The Eric Kershaw Quintet – Hot Club’ which you can sample by following the link.

Track 7, ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’, begins with Eric playing in the same legato chordal melodic style as employed in the ‘Talk of the Town’ music above. In track 9, ‘Maybe You’ll Be There’, the violin takes the melody at first, but Eric’s exquisite accompanying chords and phrases are exactly the kind of thing he did in the evening class. My favourite, though, and it’s a difficult choice, is probably track 5, ‘Broken Date’, which begins with Johnny van Derrick’s haunting gypsy violin before Eric just as movingly comes in. That would definitely be one of my eight records for ‘Desert Island Discs’.

The MP3 recording is so much clearer than my (now digitised) old tape from a crackly library record. After all these years I’m going to pay for the download. 


* Eric’s son, Martin Kershaw, also became a top session guitarist. He has played with just about everyone you can think of.

12 comments:

  1. A violin, despite if it's fresh or a collectible vintage model, is often associate degree investment. Let's face it, they're not associate degree instrument that's thought of to ever be low-cost. several new models will price several thousands of bucks.

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    1. Thanks Andrew. It's always good to receive comments even if they do seem off topic! I like your web site and might find the tips on fixing electric guitars useful when I get round to sorting out the instrument mentioned in my post 'Recording Artiste'.

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  2. Thanks for the lesson. Please post more as I will check back.

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    1. If you're anything like me, Talk of the Town will keep you going for quite some time.

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  3. I googled Eric on a whim and found this. Amazing. I was taught by Eric at The Leeds Music Centre, in 69/70 and will never forget the man. In fact I wrote quite a lengthy piece about my memories of him, which went on-line somewhere. Maybe I could dig it out or even rewrite it if you're interested, as I think that I had a few good stories to tell.
    Nick

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    1. Thanks for reading. He certainly was a character. I think there used to be a web site run by Martin Kershaw where there were quite a lot of memories, but it seems to have gone now. Probably that's where you posted your piece. I bought the download and just listening makes you feel like he's in the room.

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  4. He was a real one-off even by the standards of the time. Whatever happened to eccentricity? I'll try to find what I wrote, update it and post it on here. I still play, so like to think that something of the spirit of Eric lives on in me, and probably a few others as well.
    Nick

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    1. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  5. Great blog. Your blog is interesting and so informative. Wait for your next blog post. Thanks for sharing with us.guitar solos for beginners

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    1. Thanks. I'm not sure whether I really should be copying and passing on Eric Kershaw's teaching materials in this way but no one has complained. I may have to remove it if someone does.

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  6. I haven't been able to find the piece I wrote a few years ago. Thinking about rewriting it- maybe. However a few years ago a shop opened up in the small town in Dorset where I was living selling vintage albums. And guess what- there it was Time To Swing. I bought it of course. The young bloke in the shop wasn't over impressed when I told him my connection to The Man, but there you go. The other thing Eric taught me that still stands me in good stead is that a gigging player should have good repertoire and not depend on having wads of sheet music. Nick

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    1. That's one of the reasons I put these things on Blogger. They then have at least some chance of perpetuity.

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