Beginners’ pluck helps our novice get the guitar blues

Wharfedale Observer: Guitar Breakout tutors Mike Massen, second from right, and Joe Gallagher, right, with reporter Amanda Greaves, front, and other members of the Beginners’ Blues course Guitar Breakout tutors Mike Massen, second from right, and Joe Gallagher, right, with reporter Amanda Greaves, front, and other members of the Beginners’ Blues course

Two musicians have established Otley as the home of unique guitar day courses which are quickly growing in popularity among beginner and intermediate players across Yorkshire.

Based around the ‘nuts and bolts’ techniques, and aimed at adult players, Guitar Breakout runs all-inclusive group tuition covering blues, rock and acoustic playing, in a friendly environment.

Guitar Breakout is run by Mike Massen and Joe Gallagher – a regular of the West Yorkshire gig circuit, often seen playing at pubs around the county in a duo with his partner, Anne, or as part of the full line-up of Joe Gallagher’s Noise.

They draw on their experience of playing for many years, encompassing a variety of musical styles.

Their day courses are held at Otley Conservative Club, Borough-gate, and they are keen to promote the attractions of visiting the market town and make use of local businesses for the catering provided as part of each day course.

The courses are neither bogged down in learning music theory, nor about regurgitating one or two songs and going home without having learned something that will help the musician (or aspiring musician) improve.

Instead, Mike and Joe pack an awful lot more into the day, ranging from simple ways of finding your way around the fretboard, to useful tips and tricks used by performing musicians, such as economical ‘replacement’ chords that you might not see in beginners’ guides.

Most of all, it’s not too daunting.

Groups are limited to about five players, and while you will be called on to play a little on your own from time to time, the group also plays together.

The day starts with tucking into a bacon sandwich, getting to know everyone else and chatting about your own playing experience (in my case, not a lot).

Mike and Joe keep it incredibly encouraging, light-hearted and fun – adding plenty of anecdotes from their own years of playing guitar, as well as tales from the world of professional musicians.

The tutors are not averse to launching into a quick demonstration of how to play guitar, or indeed breaking out in song to accompany the students.

Players generally bring their own instrument – some courses are for either acoustic or electric – but it’s also possible to borrow one.

The courses they have planned this year range from Absolute Beginners’ day to more advanced Rock Riff and Lead Guitar, Songwriting and Performance Day, and a novel Build a Cigar Box Day – where you get to make and play your own three-string instrument.

The course I went on was the Beginners’ Blues All-Dayer.

This one has Guitar Breakout’s ‘two plec’ rating, meaning it’s not for the total beginner, and sure enough, a few of my fellow coursemates had more than just a little mastery of the basics.

Knowledge of some of the basic chords is needed for this one.

But the tutors also take into account participants’ different abilities and can simplify – or create additional challenges – to suit each guitarist’s level.

The day, which went at quite a pace at times, covered the origins of the genre, a look at the techniques and tunes of some of the greats, plus learning some vital scales, techniques and just generally getting the feel for blues.

There are just a couple of very simple rules.

One is to spread the word about Guitar Breakout; the other is no ‘noodling’. For the uninitiated, this is the surprisingly addictive habit of absent-mindedly messing around playing little tunes in the background when other people are talking or playing.

As well as some new-found skills and knowledge to try out – and yes, sore fingers too – each participant took away a booklet from the course to practise what we learned. And each of us is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a DVD recorded of us playing on the day.

The scariest bit of the course?

Well, when the course literature mentioned blues leads, I’d thought that might be about learning to play something well-known. I didn’t think I’d be there trying to improvise one on the spot.

Luckily, it turns out they were right. Learning just one easy scale makes it completely possible to sound like a half-decent blues guitarist.

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