When you want to practice everywhere you need an instrument that can help you in any situation and that’s where a compact electric guitar comes in handy. There are some people who start learning the instrument a bit later and they need to make use of any small window of time to practice.
If you’re one of those people and you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some legendary guitarists who started their career late.
From prison to stage
Some people are lucky enough to be born in a family that’s capable of supporting their dreams and helping them along the way. Even fewer are lucky enough to have such a family and live somewhere where they can achieve their dreams. For Chuck Berry, one of the pioneers of rock and roll, only one of those was true.
He was born in a family of 8, in 1926, and although his parents were doing well within the society, the neighborhood where he grew up was a tough one. Due to his parents supporting him, he managed to have his first performance as a musician in 1941 as a student. However, shortly after, in 1944, he got arrested for robbing a number of shops and stealing a car at gunpoint.
Because of this he was sent to to the Intermediate Reformatory for Young Men at Algoa, where he managed to form a quartet with some inmates. They performed in the prison for a while and they were good so they were allowed to perform outside of it too.
He got married after his release in 1947, bought a small house and at the beginning of the 1950’s he was doing well enough with the help of some jobs and gigs around Saint Louis, Missouri. Through these gigs, he got to meet some great musicians and that’s what really started his career in 1955, at the age of 29.
As he was one of the first people to play rock and roll, Chuck Berry had a huge influence on the genre and the attitude associated with it. He was able to develop and refine and add blues and rhythmic parts into rock and roll and created a more distinct style. The lyrics he used were great for attracting the attention of teenage people, while at the same time discussing issues like consumer culture, high school life or fast cars, which were popular at the time.
Music critics described his music as one made to put a good light on teenage wishes that get fulfilled and good times. The primary melodic element of Chuck Berry’s guitar style was his riffing technique, which was excellent, but the songwriting and storytelling parts of his songs were also impressive.
There are many bands that have played his songs, and this includes the Beatles and the Rolling stones. Although you might not consider him one of the most technically gifted players, his style was clearly a distinctive and impressive one. His style went on to influence future generations of guitarists.
Wes Montgomery is another guitarist who started his career late. He was born in 1923 in a large family and his parents had many disagreements and they split up, so he ended up living with his father and some of his brothers in Columbus, Ohio. There he attended high school and he was fortunate enough to have an older brother that worked hard and bought him a four-stringed guitar.
He decided to return to Indianapolis, where he was born, and he got married there in 1943. Montgomery also started working in the city as a welder. One night, when he was at a dance with his wife he heard a Charlie Christian record. That started his love for music and he thus bought a six-stringed guitar, determined to learn how to play it.
His intentions were not to become a musician, but he already bought the guitar so he felt compelled to learn how to play it. He learned the instrument all by himself and started performing in clubs at night, all while still working for a milk company during the day.
Montgomery borrowed a lot from what he heard in Charlie Christian’s songs and that’s what eventually caught the attention of Lionel Hampton who was looking for a guitarist to join him. He played with the Hampton band for about 2 years and during that time he always called back home when going from a town to another, to make sure his family was doing well.
Because of the passion he put into everything he became a great musician, and although he started late, at the age of 24, he had a great career. Unfortunately, due to the same passion he had in his heart and the long unslept nights, he also passed away rather young at the age of 45, due to a heart attack.
Another interesting thing about him was the fact that he didn’t use a guitar pick or plectrum to play, not even his nails, but instead plucked the strings using the fleshy part of his thumb. He used to play downstrokes to create single notes and combinations of up and down strokes when he had to produce chords or octaves.
The reason why he developed this habit was not due to a certain technique that he was adhering to, but rather for keeping his neighbors happy. He didn’t want them to hear him play at late hours in the night, as he often worked long hours as a machinist. This way he managed to play quietly while still learning new things every night.
Later in his career when he worked as a welder, he often performed at two clubs at night, sometimes into the morning. He smoked a lot and while trying to maintain this busy schedule he often had blackouts.
Fortunately though, during one of those performances at night, the audience was so impressed with him that Cannonball Adderley, who was amongst the guests convinced Orrin Keepnews to sign Wes Montgomery to Riverside. That is how he got to record his first studio album as a leader. This was after an impressive period of twenty years as a musician.
For the love of music
Born in Queens, New York City in 1948, Johnny Ramone (or John William Cummings, his real name) grew up surrounded by rock music. Due to that, he was part of a band in high school called the Tangerine Puppets. He thus learned the guitar at a fairly early age, but nothing professional.
Funny enough, in the Tangerine Puppets he worked with the one who would later be his bandmate in the Ramones, Tommy Ramone (Tamas Erdelyi). After he finished high school he worked with his father as a plumber. He also attended military school and tried the college life for a while, without finishing college.
While delivering dry cleaning in the early 70’s he met another future bandmate, Douglas Colvin, who would later become Dee Dee Ramone. They would often have lunch together and during that time they would discuss the music they liked and the bands they both loved. With the help of this friendship and the love for rock, they decided to go to a music shop nearby.
Johnny bought a guitar for only $54 while Dee Dee bought a bass. Tommy, being a good friend of Johnny would later join the two and together they would become the Ramones, along with Jeffrey Hyman, later to become Joey Ramone.
Thus, when the Ramones started performing, Johnny Ramone was already 26. The band went on to become one of the most popular of its time and some of its songs are still popular today.
In terms of his technique, during his entire career, Ramone was almost always a rhythm guitarist, and for him, that implied using only downstrokes, as well as full six-string barre chords. This technique is quite unique and it made his sound be a special one too, especially when paired with the fact that he liked to use high gain tone coming out of his amplifier.
Ramone was thus good at producing an aggressive guitar sound that had a lot more rhythm in it, compared to what other guitarists offered at the time. This led to an early influence on punk rock bands. One interesting thing about him was the fact that he disliked guitar solos that were too long, and as such he never really wanted to learn how to play solos.
However, he still played small lead guitar parts on some of the band’s songs, and when he did those they were deviations from pentatonic scales, so nothing too fancy. Most guitar solos found on the band’s recordings were added in by some uncredited guests and they were created to add more appeal to the songs, so they can be more popular.
Johnny Ramone described Jimmy Page as probably the greatest guitarist there ever was, and as a result, it appears that Ramone took big parts of his style of play from Page. That includes the fast downstroke guitar riffing style often found in Page’s playing technique. Although Ramone makes it all look simple, his technique is a lot more complicated than it seems at first sight.
The really late bloomer
James Lewis Carter Ford (or T-Model Ford) was a blues musician that had a really interesting life and career. Some people start playing the guitar at a really young age. Others wait until they reach maturity to play the instrument they love. Well, this man seemed like he was waiting for his retirement when he started being a musician when he was about 75.
Born somewhere around 1920, T-Model Ford didn’t really know his birth date. That may be because he had a rough childhood and an abusive father. He didn’t go to school, so he was illiterate. That’s why he worked modest jobs since he was a child.
Furthermore, he wasn’t a good citizen either, as he was convicted for 10 years for murder, but got out after 2 years. Some say he had 26 children and many wives. His 5th wife gave him a guitar as a leaving present and he started to learn how to play it, without knowing how to read music or anything like that.
He couldn’t even explain his technique, but he somehow managed to reproduce the style of some of the musicians he admired, including Muddy Waters. Ford was good enough to play in juke joints around the country. Somehow, Buddy Guy, a great blues guitarist and singer, discovered Ford’s talent and took him as an opening act for his shows for a while.
The Fat Possum Label contacted Ford and offered him the chance to record an album, followed by others. So in 1997, Ford released his first album, after a life of being an illiterate and a person who mostly had nothing to do with music.
Ford suffered two strokes, one in 2010 and another in 2012, and despite them, he still managed to perform, albeit with difficulties. He passed away in 2013 after a music career of 16 years and a life of 90 years. So, if you feel that you’re starting too late, remember these great guitarists that followed their passion no matter their age.
After 2008, Ford had the chance to work with GravelRoad, a band based in Seattle. This started as an event where Ford needed some help with playing in Minessota for the Deep Blues Festival that was taking place in July.
The guys from GravelRoad were big fans of Ford and they were already performing at that festival so they agreed to offer him help and thus their collaboration started. Together they went on a tour comprising of ten shows in that summer.
Fort was already having health problems when touring, so when the tour ended he had a pacemaker inserted. His condition worsened over time, but he kept appearing with GravelRoad from 2008 to 2010. Despite the stroke he suffered in 2010 he still managed to complete the tour scheduled for that year, although he had difficulties with mobility in his right hand.
Tom Morello is another musician that started his career rather late. Born in Harlem, New York, he wasn’t really interested in music until he went to college. That’s where he also started learning more about politics and maybe that’s why some of his songs have a heavy politic “taste” in them.
Getting a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University, he was a smart musician from a young age. After some failed band attempts, he and Zack de la Rocha started the Rage Against the Machine band which gained significant popularity in the rock era of the ’90s. Their songs had a lot of influence over young generations.
For some reason, many people believe that Eric Clapton started playing guitar late. The truth is he started when he was about 13 and received his first steel-stringed guitar. He didn’t like it because it was difficult to play. But two years later he started playing it more consistently and he loved it.
He put the time in to learn many new chords and was inspired by the blues musicians of that time. Clapton used a small recorder to capture the music he was playing and after a practice session, he always listened to the way he played to make sure he will improve in the future.