Learning the craft


There’s a very interesting responses from Pete (USA) about ‘stagecraft’ (“Who played what?” below). He says about his playing in the early 1960s: “I really don’t think I became aware of just how to read an audience and how to construct sets as to get the crowd out on the floor until years later.”

I’m interested in how we learned those ‘craft’ skills – not musicianship, but performing ‘live’ to best effect. I think it took me a long time, because almost nobody ever contributed.

My ‘career’ as a largely semi-pro musician was odd. For 3/4 years I played mostly in a very occasional acoustic folk-blues duo until in October 1967 I joined my first ‘real’, properly organised band, Harlem Speakeasy which,  about nine months later was a fully pro, recording act, touring the country. I don’t think I had a clue about performing.

I had another interestingly ‘steep’ learning curve in Rosemary (1969) when we signed a contract with (Warner) Chappell publishers and started working with a guy called Phil Pickett on recordings (made but never issued). I sang some Rosemary stuff OK, but some I didn’t – I always thought the gentler stuff didn’t really suit my voice, but Phil Pickett was the first person ever to suggest that maybe it was the chosen keys that didn’t suit me. I’d never heard such an idea before – I had no idea you could pick a key to suit the singer and that was just 18 months after going ‘pro’!

Then in the early 1980s in Steel Mill, by which time I reckoned I knew what it was all about, I had a mate who was a very impressive, experienced drama teacher. He didn’t like our music much (Noel Coward was more his style) but after seeing us play, he ripped into me for bothering to dress up for the gig and then not engaging with the audience (you know, shoe-gazing, eyes shut all that stuff). I learned a trick from him about either picking someone in the audience to sing to or, in cases of self consciousness, picking a spot between someone’s eye and ear and doing the same!

Only once in my life have I not been the ‘front man’, making announcements etc and that was the tour backing Country Joe when I sat at the back mostly with my snare drum, harmonica and washboard. Boy I can’t tell you how much I loved the freedom of that, while Joe was the star, but I guess over the years those stagecraft skills have been handy.


Author: pompeypop

University lecturer, longtime local musician and recently historian of popular music - especially in and around Portsmouth. My blog is entirely about that topic

5 thoughts on “Learning the craft

  1. I might be getting myself in deep ..it here but if my memory, for what it’s worth these days, serves me right, us musos weren’t too “au fais” with many “keys”. Brought up on a guitar diet of C, D, A, G, E, eg The singer be it male or female, could sing in B flat, the guitarist or keyboard man was more comfortable with the closest key which in this case was a single semitone lower…A, thinking to themselves, he/she won’t know any different and besides, Bb had too many black notes (pianist talk) and a guitarist fingers didn’t fall nicely on the strings for Bb. As we progressed through the decades, we had to make a point of covering these strange keys Bb, Eb, Ab and so on. The beauty of those ‘orrible black notes was that it expanded our musical vocabulary and hopefully made us better musicians ?

    • Cheers Rod. As a ‘blues’ singer/harmonica man in the early days I was encouraged by the guitarists to play the songs in E, because of the tuning of strings that could be played ‘open’ – 1st & 6th were open E and there’s an A string too. After 50 years I’m now ‘allowed’ to play guitar in the skiffle orchestra, I’m far from accomplished and I guess I play a bit like a teenage skiffle player of 1956 in that I’m better in some keys than others (A, D, E, G) and a bit ropey on barre chords. In some cases, I use a capo to get me off the hook!

      • As it’s many years since I played “gitar”, you’ve jolted my grey matter about open tuning. Indeed, we loved that open E or A string, how else could I sound like Duane Eddy ??

  2. Well Dave I will shoot you an email with my thoughts on “Stagecraft” That is if I can hit the correct key(s) . And speaking of keys Rod is spot on withCDAGE. Those early days were easier in many ways because the originals were in those keys but as things progressed it became increasingly hard to play and sing when you copied the records. We would transpose a lot of songs into the basic chords but on many we then found we could not sing very well. I don’t think that too many of the locals were using multiple guitars with different tuning which of course is the answer in many cases and I for one have never enjoyed using a capo. I used to think that some of the big names that would have the roadie bring out a different guitar for various songs was a, Snobbery ..look how many guitars I can afford and b, an issue of getting the right tone. Mixed in with that I think was the tuning issue which is probably more common than we think. Recently I have downloaded a specific song then downloaded the chords. So you play along and the whole thing is in Db for example. And then you look at the video and play along and the buggers are playing in D yet it matches your Db sound. De-tuned Guitar?? We had no idea back then or at least I didn’t.

  3. In recent years I’ve played less blues stuff and sung songs by Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake (among others). Since we’re not a ‘tribute’ band these are open to interpretation, but the originals were often written and recorded in very interesting tunings – thank goodness for the digital tuners!.

    The other thing about keys is that from the outset I knew about playing blues harmonica in what used to be called ‘cross harp’ but after about 15 years of playing (by then quite well) a guy asked me at a gig if I always played in the sub dominant. I didn’t have a clue what that meant, but of course that’s exactly what I was doing (D harp in A; A harp in E etc)! Incidentally Paul Jones who is a very fine harmonica player credits Brian Jones with teaching him about cross harp.

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