“David Brandon has been a top influence in my son’s life. His excellent guitar instruction has catapulted my son to a level of playing that has made him stand out among his peers. Even more importantly, he is a model for my son’s character. That is something no one can put a price tag on!”

- G. Eddins, mom

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Classical Gas

In 1968, Texas-born guitarist Mason Williams made musical history when he released his guitar mega-hit, Classical Gas. It was the first and only time a classical guitar piece has appeared on the top-forty charts. Not only that, it is the highest selling instrumental of all time, and arguably, the most famous guitar piece in the world. Sprinkled with catchy melodic themes, key modulations, and complex rhythmic syncopations, the piece sparkles with ingenuity. Although Mason originally wrote the piece as a guitar solo, Mike Post arranged it for guitar and orchestra. The result earned three Grammy awards, and only The Doors kept it from being number one on the charts when it debuted. Countless artists have done cover versions of the piece (including Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell), and Mason has recorded it four times that I know of: the original Grammy-winning version, a solo version on the Handmade album, an American Grammaphone (Mannheim Steamroller) version, and a rendition in his Folio.

I had the good fortune to meet with Mason when I was on tour with Christopher Parkening in Oregon. He attended our concert and reception, and we also met for breakfast the next day. It was an honor to discuss Classical Gas with him, as it had been one of my earliest influences on the guitar. Mason was warm and gracious as I told him of his great influence on my guitar playing and that Classical Gas was one of the two most requested pieces for me, the other being Malaguena. Mason then offered some advice for the piece that he said I could pass on to my students. First, he said that in order to play the 2nd main theme and the modulatory sections the way he does, you must use a 3rd finger bar chord. Specifically, to bar a D chord at the 5th fret, you bar the 5th fret with the 1st finger and strings 2-4 with the 3rd finger on the 7th fret. This is tricky because you must not bar the first string with the 3rd finger. The second piece of advice is regarding the middle section where the horns come in so strongly in Db major. Mason said even Chet Atkins had called him while recording his version of the piece and asked what he would suggest there. Mason told him that in that spot, he could take the piece in whatever direction he wanted (and then come back to the piece later). When he told me this, I immediately remembered a series of Guitar Player articles where Chet had discussed his arrangement. It did have a brand new section in the middle, and I now knew why. Mason said that he just left the section out in his solo version and told me I could tell my students to create whatever they wanted to there. I told him I had always played the horn section on guitar. While he said he had never done that, he didn’t seem to mind the idea. In his new folio, he includes a guitar version of the horn section for those wishing to play that part on the guitar.

Interestingly, a few years ago I started to notice students asking about the Eric Clapton version of Classical Gas circulating on the internet. I said I wasn’t aware that Eric played it, and that I would like to hear it. When one of them played the recording for me, I thought “that really sounds like Mason playing, but without the orchestra.” I checked with Mason to see what was going on. He told me that it was indeed him playing. The piece had been used in the movie, The Story of Us, and Eric Clapton had done the rest of the music. Somehow Eric’s name had ended up on some of the internet recordings.

I still hear Classical Gas frequently, whether on the radio, in the dentist office, or in movies like Cheaper By The Dozen or The Dish. Students play it for me regularly, and I perform it myself quite often. What is amazing, is that I never tire of hearing it or playing it. In fact, through the years as I have studied the piece from a more mature perspective, I realize even more what a masterpiece it indeed is. A phenomenal guitar solo, it captivates audiences and enthralls guitar players who attempt to play it. Whether students play just the intro, or master a full version, it is easy enough to enjoy, yet challenging to master. I imagine that countless guitarists have come to the classical guitar because of that very piece. Beatle George Harrison is famously quoted as saying, “Andres Segovia is the father of us all.” I believe that if Segovia holds that position among guitarists, then Mason Williams is certainly the favorite uncle! By his amazing Classical Gas he has inspired generations of guitarists to pursue the guitar and unlock its treasures.

For the sheet music, check out Classical Gas – The Music of Mason Williams, published by Warner Brothers Publications. The book also includes many of his other great compositions including Saturday Night at the World, La Chanson de Claudine, and Flamenco Lingo.

Crossroads

One of my most vivid guitar memories is at the intersection in the lives of two guitar greats, who had both been an influence on me and my students. The late guitar legend Chet Atkins had invited my wife and me to his Austin City Limits (PBS) taping in the late eighties. He graciously took us to dinner to his favorite Austin restaurant that served good ole down-home cooking and gave us tickets to his public concert the night after the taping. My wife and I were just about to go backstage and say hi to Chet when I ran into my friend Eric Johnson, who lives in Austin and was attending the concert. I asked him if he would be going back to see Chet, and he replied that he had never met him. I told him he could go backstage with us and that I would be happy to introduce them. Eric asked if his father, who was also at the concert, could come too. I said of course, and to go and get him. When we got backstage, I indeed did get to introduce Eric and his dad to Chet, who had also been a big influence on Eric as well.

Chet was gracious, as always. One of the greatest guitarists in the world, he was a true country gentleman. What impressed me most about these two musicians is the mutual respect and admiration, regardless of the style of music or level of fame. Eric was invited later to appear on a recording with Chet, an honor he shared with Jerry Reed, Doc Watson, Les Paul, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Liona Boyd, Mark Knopler, and Larry Carlton, among others. I felt privileged to witness the meeting of these two great guitarists for the first time and now, to continue sharing their music with students through the years.

As a footnote to that memorable moment, Willie Nelson made a surprise guest appearance at Chet’s concert that evening. Willie’s performance was very characteristic of his unique signature style. I’ve admired how Willie is able to use his old iconic Martin classical guitar, Trigger, (yes, the one with the big hole in the soundboard) so effectively in country music all these years. The two country legends had quite a history together, with Chet having produced many of the Willie Nelson hits at RCA in Nashville. Chet also kindly introduced my wife and me to Willie, who was as down to earth and humble as could be. Despite the great success of these musicians, they still treated people with sincerity and respect. In fact, Chet had a sign on his desk which read, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” Another lesson from one of the greatest guitarists of all time.

The Sound of Perfection

My favorite movie has long been The Sound of Music, with its great music, spectacular scenery, and inspiring story. So when guitarist Christopher Parkening asked me to record Silent Night with him and Julie Andrews for her 1990 Hallmark Christmas album, I was thrilled for the opportunity. I flew to Los Angeles, and after rehearsing the piece with him, we went to Julie’s office to work out the musical interpretation with her. Julie was as warm and gracious as she seems on the big screen. I remember thinking as I played and she sang, that I was hearing the very familiar and famous voice of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins along with our guitars. She remarked she had chosen Silent Night for her recording because it was originally written for guitar and voice, and that it has a lovely, intimate quality.

After we worked out the musical details, we recorded a version with her right there in her office on a small tape recorder. Chris and I then headed to Capitol Records, where we recorded our real guitar tracks with Neumann microphones while listening to our demo version through the headset. After we were satisfied with our recording, Julie recorded her voice on top of that. The producer then added the London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Boys Choir to fill out the arrangement. The result is a intricate full version of Silent Night that just started with an informal recording at the Julie Andrews headquarters.

We met with Julie again two days later at Capitol Records to do a promo video for Hallmark. It was a staged production, with Chris and I actually “guitar syncing” to our real recording. Julie’s voice was live, but it was not the actual final version. It was great to hear her wonderful voice once more along side our playing. Overall we spent hours and hours on the project, making sure every detail was right. Julie Andrews is indeed a perfectionist, and she was brilliant to work with. In fact she said that, “The amateur works until he can get it right. The professional works until he cannot go wrong.” That’s great advice from one of the greatest movie stars and singers of our time.

Enough Guitar Concertos?

While on tour a number of years ago with classical guitarist Christopher Parkening in Europe, we landed in Vienna for the last concert of the season. While arriving at our sound check at the intimate Brahms Hall, we noticed famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story) rehearsing in the adjoining Symphony Hall. I asked Chris if he knew him, and he replied that although he had met him before, he didn’t know him well. We decided that after our sound check, we would go over and say hello. After introductions had been made, Chris casually encouraged him to write a concerto for the guitar. (Andrés Segovia had given the mandate to increase the repertoire of the classical guitar, and Chris has been faithful to do so.) Maestro Bernstein laughed and said that the guitar had enough concertos. Then he said, “Now the tuba…there’s an instrument that could use a concerto!” That was as close as the guitar world got to a having a guitar concerto from one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. I was inspired, however, to see Christopher Parkening use that and other opportunities to try to enrich the repertoire of our wonderful instrument.

BGS Fast-Track System

Glad You Asked…Could you explain the BGS Fast-Track System? David responds:

The new BGS Fast-Track System is an overall teaching philosophy. It refines and puts a name to how I have taught guitar for over thirty years. The five system components are Great Music, Strategic Exercises, Practice Goals, Technique/Musicianship, and Theory/Improvisation. It is essentially what each of our instructors keep in mind as we teach guitar lessons, regardless of the level or style. In other words, we like to balance our lessons to include a variety of important elements.

Is is hard? By no means. In fact, most students don’t realize they are on the FTS. They only see the quick results and rapid progress in their playing.

Here is an example of how FTS works in a lesson. Let’s say we are teaching Eric Clapton’s Layla. Learning fun music promotes quick progress, whatever the style (Great Music). If we find the student is having difficulty with the first lick, we create a brief study of it to help master the move (Strategic Exercise). We suggest unique ways to practice the song during the week (Practice Goals). We might adjust a hand position, suggest an alternate fingering, or fine tune a strum pattern (Technique/Musicianship). We also examine the differences between the straight 8ths electric version with Derek and the Dominos and the swing 8ths Unplugged acoustic version. We explain how Clapton uses the octave principle to derive his lead lick from the rhythm riff. We even have the students jam over the Verse in C# minor and the Chorus in D minor, creating their own solo (Theory/Improvisation).

All of this happens very naturally as the student enjoys learning the song. Students not only have fun playing great music, but they come away with a deeper understanding of the mechanics behind the music as well. Once learned, all of the techniques can easily be applied to other songs for even quicker progress.