Private Lessons is an excerpt from Coyote Jack and the Bluebirds by Paul Bisson.
The full e-book is available on Amazon.
Private lessons; Rupert hates them. A necessary evil, however, and having glimpsed with horror the wood bottom of his inheritance fund earlier in the year he’s expanded the range of his peripatetic guitar tutelage to include school children. Of all Rupert’s new students Jeremy is the one whose company he dreads the most.
Because Jeremy is Jeremy.
Taking advantage of a sudden hiatus in the musical atrocities being committed behind the teenager’s bedroom door Rupert strikes the wood three times with his knuckles.
“Hang on!” A rustle, a bang, the handle turns and there stands Jeremy in a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and a pair of green khaki shorts. His long black hair is loose and frames his pale, acne-spotted face.
“Rupe!” Jeremy extends a clenched fist by way of greeting. “How you doing?”
Rupert grunts. Leaving the proffered fist hanging he moves past into the musty gloom of bedroom, making no effort to avoid the clothes and magazines that snag and crumple beneath the muddy tread of his boots.
“What’s going on, man? Done any more gigs recently?”
“A few. You’ve been practicing those riffs?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“Kind of.” Rupert swipes a pile of clothes from chair to floor, takes a seat beneath a wall splattered with guitarists mid gurn, smoke and pose. Slash, Billy Joe from Green Day, Hendrix, Page, a young Clapton, some Slipknot freak in a clown mask. Sickening.
“What do you mean…‘kind of’? And tune your guitar for Christ’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Grinning with delight at Rupert’s invective Jeremy retrieves his guitar from the bottom of his bed and slings it over his shoulder. A lead runs from the instrument’s body to a small buzzy amplifier in the corner of the room. Below them the doorbell can be heard chiming again.
“I like that Stevie Ray Vaughn stuff,” says Jeremy, ear bent in to a wildly off E-string whilst inadvertently winding up his B. “But that other stuff is a bit dull.”
“T-Bone Walker. Dull.” Rupert’s expression cracks like struck porcelain. “Dull,” he repeats, incredulous.
“Well not dull, just…just a bit, like, boring?” The end of Jeremy’s sentence rises, as though the point has been previously proved elsewhere, and must now simply be accepted. “I like it fast and loud, you know? And that old recording is really crackly. I don’t think their recording equipment was as good back then. This stuff’s okay though. Look.”
Blithe to the fury in Rupert’s eyes Jeremy swipes a plectrum from his bedside table and breaks into a loose imitation of the introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Pride and Joy, tongue wedged hard into his cheek.
“Slower,” shouts Rupert. “And cleaner. And bin the distortion. Clean setting please. That’s a guitar, not a fucking leaf blower.”
[pullquote]”That’s a guitar, not a fucking leaf blower.”[/pullquote]
He points at Jeremy’s amp, though the teenager takes little notice, rounding off his fusillade of bum notes and badly fretted clicks with a loud whoop. His eyes sparkle like a young puppy backing away from a dried turd it’s just found and delivered to the feet of its master.
“Just…appalling. What about that Buddy Guy solo I gave you to learn?”
Jeremy pauses, brow furrowed, fingers motionless for a moment. “Buddy…Guy,” he says slowly. “Oh yeah. That weird one.”
“Yeah, like…all kind of…spidery. I didn’t really like it. My Dad listens to that stuff. Dire Straits and all that. I like it heavier. You know, like this.”
Jeremy strikes a power chord, his crap amp blurting thick, ugly sound. Rupert flinches, rubs his forehead.
“Or this.” Jeremy sticks out his tongue and hits a huge bend high up the neck, lifting his picking hand into the air and giving Jeremy a rock salute. “Hendrix, baby!” he yells.
“Hendrix.” The word tumbles heavy from Rupert’s lips to the dirty carpet below and lies there, unheard. Hendrix. It all began with Hendrix, didn’t it? No such thing as electric guitar before that.
“Turn. It. Down.”
Jeremy gets the message this time and leans over his bed to adjust the dials on his amp. Rupert checks the time on his watch. Two minutes down, twenty-eight to go. He sighs.
“What have I told you about using distortion?”
“That it rocks?”
“That it makes me sound like Jimmy Page?”
“For fuck’s sake, Jeremy.”
“Okay, okay Rupe. I’m joking.”
“Don’t call me Rupe.”
“’Learn first, distort later. If I absolutely have to.’”
Rupert feels the familiar righteous flush he gets when preaching on this subject. Distortion is For Fakes; it’s at the top of his musical manifesto, along with Less is More and Fret Fifteen Reads Stop. These are the tenets upon which his own playing is based, these are the rules by which he expects his students to play.
The distortion issue is common amongst the lazy little shits he’s paid to coach, many of whom seem to equate mastery of the instrument with the simple fact that they are making audible noise. It’s Rupert’s job to shatter these illusions, to insist on thicker, more painful strings, accurate fretting and a clean, almost puritanical approach to tone. Django Reinhardt, T-Bone Walker, Lonnie Johnson, the pioneers of the electric guitar; none of these used distortion, none of them needed it. These were the masters, upon whose altars each and every aspirant guitarist of Rupert’s was expected to proffer libations of time, effort and study in return for the merest hint of encouragement, the promised upturn of a smile.
Less is more. True music lies in the silence between the notes. The blues is silence coaxed. Such was Rupert’s message, such were Rupert’s teachings, and when you heard him on that stage with that guitar, making those sounds, it was all but impossible to doubt that he bore the mark of artistic divinity. Rupert knew this. This was a fact. And like a wandering monk, a musical crusader, a veritable Buddha of the blues, Rupert was responsible for the spreading of this message, this music, wandering like a six-stringed Zarathustra through the noisy wreckage of a cacophonous world with its fingers wedged in its own ears.
Rupert Rathwell-Stubbs didn’t just teach guitar; he taught musical philosophy. His philosophy.
“Check this,” says Jeremy, gaily lifting the volume on his electric guitar and noisily crucifying the intro to Smoke on the Water.
“Oh god.” Rupert raises his hands to his face, resisting the urge to scream.