I started playing guitar in late November 1965, at the age of thirteen. Johnny Richardson, a middle-aged Black man from Jamaica, Queens came to our apartment in Astoria and gave me four lessons. I had a funky pawnshop nylon string at the time. In the first lesson, he showed me how to play Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.” I practiced four hours a day for the next week and got it down. By the time the December holidays came, I had learned a number of simple chords, a few songs (all by Dylan) and one rudimentary folk strum.
I spent the next year and a half flailing around, teaching myself a bunch of other Dylan songs (often with the wrong chords), attempting rock rhythm patterns (I particularly liked Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones)…and dreaming of playing like Michael Bloomfield. Even though I was listening to a lot of top shelf urban blues guitar (Buddy Guy, BB King, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin) and the hottest guys in rock (Danny Kalb, Harvey Mandel and, of course, Bloomfield), I had no idea how to get there.
Until I met Gil Schwartz.
It was the summer of 1967. Music was busting out. Monterrey Pop. Sgt. Pepper’s. Psychedelic rock was beginning to be played on Top 40 radio.
We met at University Settlement, a progressive sleep away camp nestled in the rolling hills of the eastern Catskills just outside Beacon, NY. It was a multi-racial environment, a mix of poor, working class and middle class kids and counselors. I’d been a camper there several years running. In ‘67, I was a “work camper,” a year older than the oldest kids. Had about three hours of chores a day. That left plenty of time for other pursuits, like guitar playing. Gil was a “kitchen boy.” He prepared and served food, cleared the tables, washed the dishes.
Music was a big part of the University Settlement experience. After dinner every evening, we all got together at a small outdoor amphitheater to sing folk and protest songs, sometimes watch performances. Several times a summer, Pete Seeger would come down the mountain and lead the singing.
I was fifteen years old. Gil was probably all of seventeen. I was a Jewish kid from Queens, he a Jewish kid from New Rochelle. And boy, could he ever play.
There was a large shed just behind the amphitheater stage, mainly used for storage. In the right corner sat a small drum set and a couple of guitar amplifiers. I walked in there one early July afternoon with the electric guitar my parents had bought me for my birthday that year. That’s the moment I met Gil.
He was sitting in a chair next to one of the amps, wailing away on a Fender Telecaster, the same model Bloomfield played on the first Butterfield album. Paul Kalb, Danny’s younger brother and a fellow work camper, was playing blues rhythm guitar alongside him. I’d never been that up close to such incendiary playing. It was thrilling.
When they finished the tune, he introduced himself and Paul. He eyed my guitar case. “Whatcha got in there?” he said. “A Fender Jaguar,” I replied, sheepishly. He gave a nod to Paul, who then excused himself, packed up his guitar and left. “Plug in,” Gil said to me. He started playing a basic blues rhythm in A. I tried to mimic his chords. “Play some lead,” he said. I shrugged and shook my head. Over the next ten minutes, he showed me where to put my fingers to create a simple minor blues scale. Then he went back to his rhythm part. I fumbled around, trying to reproduce what he’d shown me. Occasionally it sounded good. I was jamming! With one of the best guitarists I’d ever heard in my life.
Over the course of the summer, he taught me a lot of guitar. The major and minor pentatonic scales and ways to embellish them. Complex chords that made me sound like the guys on the records I loved. Blues runs that I couldn’t quite emulate, but that sounded great anyway. While playing with him, I picked up on his phrasing and rhythmic feel.
I came to camp that summer a novice. I left a player. When I returned home, all this new stuff I could do blew people’s minds. I was the first lead guitar player on the block. My friend Josh Kelman later likened hearing my playing that fall to hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Not that I was that good, but that the experience was that striking.
Gil didn’t play with a guitar pick. He used the fingers of his right hand in a quirky, yet effective technique that had the thumb, first and second fingers moving across the strings to get all the notes. He taught me this, too.
I still play this way. I’ve never tried to learn how to play with a pick. No doubt, one reason for that is laziness. Another is that I love the feeling of the strings on my fingers. But I mainly think of it as a dedication to Gil Schwartz, the guy who jumpstarted my playing in the summer of 1967. And whom I’ve never seen since.