I found my first guitar under a bed. It was a Sears Silvertone, with six steel strings, a pick guard, and a sunburst finish. My older brother left it behind when he went off to join the Air Force. It was the summer of 1969 and I wasn’t quite thirteen. Awkward, bookish, a nerd before the term was invented—and so, of course, perfectly prepared for the high point of any adolescent life: junior high school (or, as most people know it, middle school). I didn’t know it at the time, but the guitar was one of the things that would help me get through the next three years.
In my earliest guitar memories I am sitting on the steps outside our apartment building on summer evenings and playing through pop song collections, using the little diagrams to learn how to strum the chords. Later I began to learn things by ear. It took several days to learn my first fingerpicking songs from a Peter, Paul, and Mary album called “In the Wind”: “Freight Train” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” No lessons…just trial and error mixed with persistence.
After about a year, while I was in eighth grade, Shirley Bertsch (introduced in the first of these Interludes) asked if I wanted to be in a little folk group: me on guitar, a guy named Dan Anderson on upright bass, and three singers, girls whose names I have forgotten. We learned some songs and played together after school and it was the first really social activity I participated in. It wasn’t about who was “in” or “out” or who was “cool”; it was just making music together.
By ninth grade I had become good enough on the guitar that Mrs. Bertsch suggested I teach a beginning guitar class under her supervision. I took myself down to a music store in downtown Sioux Falls, and picked out a textbook for the class— “Jerry Silverman’s Folk Guitar Guide.” And on a Friday afternoon in January I found myself standing in front of a classroom for the first time as a teacher. Occasionally I wonder if any of those kids are still playing the guitar.
Tenth grade was the start of high school, and sometime during that year my mother scraped together money to buy me an electric guitar– an Epiphone hollow-body like this one, modeled on the Gibson 335– and a small amplifier. I started learning rock songs and was soon playing rhythm guitar and singing backup in a cover band called Motion. Led by a really good lead guitarist—an older student named Nick Arntz—and with a decent singer, drummer, and bass player, Motion played school dances and one memorable outdoor concert in a Holiday Inn parking lot in 40-degree weather where I smoked pot for the first and only time. My brother was stationed in Thailand by this time, and he sent me a rock-star care package: dark purple leather pants and a bright orange silk shirt that he bought from a street corner tailor. I loved those clothes, but I am grateful that no photographic record survives. You should be too.
I continued to play guitar all through high school but it wasn’t my primary—or even major—focus. I was deeply involved in debate competitions on the weekends, acted in some plays, and sang in the concert choir, which really became the focus of my musical interest. Our choral director was Rolf Anderson, a graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota. He organized a bus trip to Aberdeen so we could hear The Concordia Choir perform while they were on tour and I was amazed by their sound…so much so that I added Concordia to the list of schools where I planned to apply. I thought I might go there, major in music, and perhaps become a choral conductor. It never occurred to me that I could major in guitar.
In the end I did go to Concordia, but instead of majoring in music I majored in something far more useful: French. And yet, in a way, that is what led me to the classical guitar. But that’s another story.