Laser Man Craig McCaw & MaybelleneSaturday, September 18, 2010
Guest Blog by Les Wiseman
When AW-H calls and asks me to write something for his blog, I realize the basic journalistic method of research goes out the window. He wants it now and he wants it impressionistic. Thus, my story of my glancing relationship with Craig McCaw, guitarist for The Poppy Family, guitar teacher and, since 1978, president of Roundhouse Productions, which puts on the rock-oriented laser extravaganzas at the Vancouver Planetarium, begins with a stroll down Granville Street.
A friend had warned me that you can get horny for a guitar, and when I walked into Long & McQuade in 1975, I wanted a Gibson SG. On the wall hung a beauty: mahogany with walnut finish, rosewood fingerboard. (This was when Gibson still had the good wood.) It looked like the handmade SG that Frank Zappa played and that was all that mattered. It had black plastic mini-humbucker pickups, which could be a bit of a liability, but it was beautiful. And I had to have her. (I’ve only seen two others like her in the last 35 years.)
I took her home, named her Maybellene after Chuck Berry’s first hit, and started working my way through a Mel Bay Learn to Play Guitar manual.
Suffice it to say, chunking Twinkle Twinkle Little Star through a Pignose turned to 11 did nothing for the rock’n’roller in me.
I went to Bill Lewis Music near Broadway and Alma, where all the cool guitarists hung out. Lewis had made guitars for Clapton, Page, Beck and David Gilmour (which he played on Dark Side of the Moon). Page recently sold one of his two Lewis guitars for a cool quarter mil. Inside there was a rotating parade of Vancouver rock types including, Maurice Depas, Jamie Bowers, Lindsay Mitchell and Tom Lavin.
I signed up for guitar lessons and went into a teensy knee-to-knee room and met my guitar teacher Craig McCaw. I recognized him, all frizzed hair and glasses, since I had seen him with the Poppy Family at the Alberni District Secondary School Auditorium when I was a high-schooler in Port Alberni.
I was knocked out, here a real bona-fide rock star was going to teach me how to wield my axe. He asked me what type of music I’d like to play. Defying all logic, I replied I’d like to learn how to play like Frank Zappa, or barring that unlikely possibility, some three-chord rock’n’roll.
McCaw immediately rose to the challenge. As I write, I am looking at his handwriting in my music dictation book, notating the blues scales in A. We plunked around with those for a while and then he taught me Hendrix’s Power of Love and Purple Haze. After our first lesson, he said, “Now go home, smoke whatever you smoke, or have a beer and practise.”
It should now be admitted that I have no facility for playing guitar. No ability to maintain a rhythm, no particular dexterity. So, I’d practice and thrash around and clunk out the first few bars of things and learned basic blues shuffles and turnarounds. Craig taught me as much as he could over a couple of months, but I was hopeless.
But then, he taught me THE TRICK. He taught me how to tune my guitar to open-G tuning. Now, with three fingers and essentially two chord forms and a capo, I could play a large amount of The Rolling Stones’s repertoire. I could sound (in a sorta modest way) like Keith Richards. That was Craig’s crowning lesson for someone who was never going to make it as a guitarist. That lesson has given me and Maybellene a lot of good times together. Today, Maybellene sits on a stand in the room next to where I write. She’s tuned to open-G. By now, I’ve removed the low-E string and subscribe to the Keith Richards-espoused method of open-G playing: “Five strings, three fingers and one asshole to play it.” Thank you Craig McCaw for bridging the gap between lack of ability and being able to have years of fun playing my guitar.