Cult of Personality

After writing about meeting Dave Gilmour it got me thinking about all the other famous and maybe not-so-famous people I’ve met whilst working in music shops. While the trappings of fame I’m sure has its moments, being recognised while trying to go about your business must be a drag. Everyone feels like they own you and want a piece of you, and your time, and your autograph too – why not? My meetings with celebrities range from the bizarre to banal.  Ronnie Drew (The Dubliners) had a row with me as he tried to convince me that the shop I worked in sold certain strings when, seeing as I had the stocklist in front of me I knew we didn’t. He was a trifle upset. I sat down with Andy Cairns (Therapy?) and helped him choose a guitar. As far as I can remember he came back again months later and bought another one from me too. I sold Chris Martin (Coldplay) a very expensive acoustic guitar that he bought as a present for Gwenyth Paltrow. I had no idea who he was, just some dude who said he wanted to buy his girlfriend a nice present. Pierce Brosnan bought an accordion from me when he was getting prepared for his role in Evelyn. Nice man, very polite and unassuming. (As a kid I’d actually bumped into him years previously when he was shooting Remington Steele in the Phoenix Park, Dublin.) Nils Lofgren (E Street Band) was hilarious, came into the shop with his crew looking to buy a guitar lead I think. A lot of big names just send the crew out to do the menial tasks, but not Nils. It was too long ago now to remember what was said but I do remember we had a good laugh. Put me on the guest list to his show that night too. Great gig, he reminded me of Iggy Pop for sheer raw energy on stage.

There’s definitely more but I need to scour the recesses of the old memory, it’s been a while since I worked the shop floor.





Photo of Nils by Gerry Gardner – originally posted to Flickr as Nils Lofgren Ronnie Scotts 97, CC BY 2.0,

What are the best strings?

We’re going to take a look at Acoustic guitar strings first. There are a few things to consider when choosing strings – the gauge (fancy word for thickness) the material (bronze etc.) the brand. I would also suggest that the level your playing is at will have some bearing on your choice but let’s start with gauge. So this is how thick the strings are and traditionally is measured in inches as most guitar strings are manufactured in USA and they haven’t followed Europe down the metric route. Why is this important, well when you’re buying strings normally we ask for the set by the thickness of the first string. For example if I want a medium set of strings I would ask for 13s because the first string is .013 inches thick. I could just ask for a set of medium strings but the word ‘medium’ can have different connotations to different people. In the world of the acoustic guitar medium strings are about as thick as most people will go so it doesn’t really tie in with the more usual idea that medium might be somewhere in between extremes.

The material for acoustic instruments is usually bronze or some mixture of bronze with another metal. Type of metal affects the sound – phosphor bronze are bright sounding whereas plain bronze would be duller sounding. Remember this is all relative and new strings will definitely sound brighter than the set that’s been on your guitar for the last ten years! This can come as a shock if you’ve never changed your strings because your guitar will now sound very different than before and maybe you’d gotten used to how it sounded with those worn out strings and you quite liked it.

Brand – well like other aspects of our life branding affects our decisions. Maybe you like the name or the colour of the packaging or your favourite guitarist uses a certain brand. As far as brand is concerned I think all the major US makes are good, some of them might use different methods to produce their strings but essentially it comes down to trying out the different brands on your guitar to find out which one compliments your guitar the best.

So finally your playing ability – if you are a total novice you will have different needs than a professional. If you are a total beginner I would recommend getting the lightest possible strings, learning the guitar is tough on the fingers why make it even more so. On the other hand if you are a pro, well it depends on your needs so for tone and volume you want to be going for the heavier end of the thickness spectrum (best for recording) but for every-night gigging especially if using a pick-up you’re not entirely relying on the acoustic properties of the guitar so you could choose a lighter set of strings.

Electric As with acoustic guitar strings some of the factors to consider when buying strings are gauge, material and brand. Also the genre of music and/or the way that you play can influence your choice.

So gauges for electric guitar; probably the most used gauge are 9’s (E 1st string .009) These are fairly light and easy to bend. As with acoustic strings the heavier the strings the more tone so if you’re into blues you might want to go up to 11’s or if you’re into dropped tunings you will want to check out some sets of strings that have heavier bass strings to be able to cope with detuning.

It seems that the majority of strings are nickel plated but you can also get stainless steel (bright sounding) and cobalt (supposedly higher output but I’ve never tried them). Most of the strings I’ve used have been roundwound but it is possible to get flatwound strings which are very smooth but have a duller sound but no string noise when you move your fingers, they tend to be used more on big jazz guitars. Also it is possible to get strings that are somewhere in-between called groundwound.

If you’re starting out and this all seems too much then I would suggest trying a set of 9’s (they most likely will be nickel-plated and roundwound) and see how they suit you. Once you’ve been playing for a while you can always experiment with different strings, remember if you don’t like them you can just buy another set.

One word of caution though if you usually have 9’s on your guitar and then put on a set of 11’s the extra tension from the heavier strings could mean that you will have to adjust the truss rod in the neck. If you’ve never done this before I would suggest going to your local music shop or guitar repairman and getting them to do it.

Classical guitar strings are usually graded by tension rather than gauge. Normal tension will be perfectly fine for most students playing classical guitar. When you get to an advanced level or if you are performing a lot then you should consider high tension strings. A set that I used quite a bit were a mixture with normal tension treble strings and high tension bass strings. These seemed to suit my guitar really well. Also it can be worth experimenting with mixing strings from different sets or even from different brands. The materials used in making the strings will also impact on the sound they produce so that nylon stings have quite a warm sound and flurocarbon will offer a brighter sound and more projection. There are a lot variables here as the wood that your guitar is made from will also have a big impact on the sound, experimenting with different strings is the best way to find what best suits your guitar. For a while I was using an E 1st string from one brand and the rest of the strings from a different brand so overall there was a mix of both materials and tensions.


During the early 90s I worked in a posh music shop called Chappell of Bond Street, which as the name suggests was situated in that exclusive area of London. It thought of itself as being upmarket, (maybe it still does) and was frequented by wealthy sheiks and Queens of African states. I was in charge of the Guitar department  but my accessory counter, (strings, picks etc.) was shared with the Brass & Woodwind dept. so I had to know about any products relating to that department too.  I answered the phone one morning to an enquiry about metronomes; the clock-like device that musicians use to keep time. The basic electronic models began at about £20 I informed the caller, to which I was told that this item was to be a gift, so I countered that we had a very nice wooden clock-work, pendulum type in stock that would make a perfect present for £80. That would be great, could I put it aside for a Mr. Gilmour for collection later that day? Of course sir. I hung up the phone, immediately thinking ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it turned out to be Dave Gilmour?’ You have to remember  that as a young 20year old guitarist and fan of Pink Floyd this was a natural train of thought. I dismissed the idea thinking that  this was London after all and how many Mr. Gilmours could there be in that metropolis? So when later that afternoon a certain guitar player from Pink Floyd stood before me requesting to see the metronome he’d reserved earlier I was star-struck. I tried to remain calm, I did try, but here 2 foot away from me was one of Rocks great guitar legends. My initial professional reaction was to feign indifference but eventually my excitement couldn’t be contained and I asked him was he doing any recording at the moment. It broke the spell a little bit. He  seemed like an affable man but I could see he was uncomfortable as soon as he realised he’d been recognised. He answered politely but without much enthusiasm. Sometimes it’s said that it’s not a good idea to meet your heroes, but to me he came across as an ordinary bloke just wishing to go about his business without being hassled which is fair enough and probably much harder to do nowadays.  I wish I’d kept a copy of his signature though.

What Guitar should I buy?

This is a difficult question as the instrument you buy can either encourage you to play or put you off learning. Probably the first thing to decide is your budget. Generally more expensive guitars are better quality, sound nicer and are easier to play but for a first guitar they are more than likely going to be too expensive. Set your budget and try to get the best guitar you can within that price range.

Secondly if you don’t have much experience with guitars I would suggest buying a well-known brand such as Yamaha, Fender, Epiphone and there are plenty more. It doesn’t guarantee anything but there is a better chance that a guitar from a well-known brand will be of a certain quality.

Thirdly, for acoustic/classical guitars, if your budget will stretch to it, a guitar with a ‘solid top’ will sound nicer, these are usually more expensive than the very first entry level models.  A ‘solid top’ just means that the top of the guitar (the front bit with the hole in it!) is made from one piece of solid wood and not from several layers of laminate. Sometimes it’s good to try expensive guitars because then you know what you should be looking for in terms of sound and playability.

Finally do some research, ask friends what brand of guitar they have and obviously what they think of it. If you’re not confident in your playing ability maybe try to bring a friend who can play to the store to help – they can play the guitars and you can listen, maybe you’ll like the sound of one guitar more. Ask for advice in the music store, but obviously use your own judgement.

Avoid buying really cheap guitars from supermarkets, not mentioning any names but any of these that I’ve seen have been atrocious and unplayable and would definitely put you off playing the guitar. Support your local music shop instead, they specialise in selling instruments not bananas

Best of luck choosing a guitar and let me know what you buy.

There are different types of guitar which one should I start with? 

Well a good place to start is to figure out what genre of music you want to play. If you want to play folk, pop, rock or acoustic blues then a steel-string acoustic would be the preference. If you plan on learning classical music then you will need a nylon string classical guitar. Or maybe you want to play lead guitar and then you could look at electric guitars.

Regardless of genre classical guitars can be a good starting place for budding guitarists, they have several advantages – they tend to be cheaper, they are softer on your fingers, the body is a bit smaller (handy for petite people) and the neck is a bit wider (useful for people with larger hands/fingers).

But can I play folk/pop/blues music on a classical guitar? Well yes, but it won’t have the same tone – they have a softer sound – so if the sound is the most important thing for you then to get the ‘folk’ sound you would need a steel string acoustic. This pretty much applies equally to blues, pop or rock. So steel strings might give you the sound you’re looking for but be prepared for sore fingers at the start (especially so if you buy a budget model).

And is it ok to start learning on an electric guitar? Yes, although years ago the attitude was that you should start on an acoustic and then progress onto an electric but if the music you’re interested in playing is mostly played on electric guitars then there’s no harm in starting with an electric instrument. Remember though that you will need to budget for an amplifier and possibly a pair of headphones if you want to be able to practice without disturbing anyone else.



Crossroads Blues

A shimmering sun beats down mercilessly on Robert’s head. The wooden signpost offers his back some solid support as he sits, his legs stretching out in front of him. His battered brown guitar case, also availing of the signpost’s services is visible from the corner of his right eye. The piece of twine he’d taken from the post office is wrapped around it, tied with a basic knot. It keeps the lid closed and prevents his pride and joy from tumbling out, face first onto the dried yellow grass. The air is stifling, oven hot, the heat haze sets the horizon hovering in the distance. Continue reading “Crossroads Blues”