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Mike Coombs - A lighthearted journey through his life so far
Mike was born to English parents in the country now known as Sri Lanka, but then called Ceylon a long time ago. At the age of 4 he was brought to the UK partly because his parents wanted him to be educated here. Had he had any choice in the matter it is probable that he would have preferred to stay in the warmer climate. His parents bought a house in the leafy suburb of Carshalton, Surrey.
He first discovered music as a triangle player in his kindergarten school band, but found the triangle's melodic properties to be sadly limited. As he grew a little more he discovered that he could vary the pitch of his mother's cylinder vacuum cleaner by putting his hand over the pipe and he would sing along with it in some sort of harmony. This was his first foray into the realms of electronic music. It was not to be his last.
His first proper Musical Instrument...
A couple of years later his parents - well, mostly his mother as his father, by his own admission, was "tone deaf" and not that interested in music - decided that he needed to learn the piano. An old upright player piano was obtained and he began under the tutilage of Miss Austin, began to learn to play it. Although he studied classical piano, (Beethoven and the like) he would love to improvise his own tunes. One day his pet hamster, Harry, decided that the piano would make a more spacious home than his cage. This caused his mother some concern and so he decided to create his most famous avante garde performance (sadly witnessed only by his parents), "Driving Harry Hamster Out Of The Piano". The piece was highly acclaimed as it succeeded in doing "what it said on the tin". Fortunately the RSPCA did not get to hear about it, though his neighbours probably did.
He continued to learn the piano, until the age of about 14/15 he requested a guitar for his Christmas present. This was of course by now the sixties, the age of CND, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the folk movement and protest singers - most notably Bob Dylan who is a hero of Mike's to this day. His father, somewhat reluctantly it must be said, did buy him a nylon strung classical guitar saying (and probably hoping!) that it would be a Nine Day Wonder. There began the longest nine days ever - hopefully there's many years left to go!
The first guitar...
Mike was enrolled with a local classical guitar teacher, a move which, although it didn't turn out to be a long lasting relationship, Mike is now very thankful for the solid technique that he learnt in the first few months of his lessons. However, the sound of nylon strings didn't keep his attention and he wanted a steel string. There was only one problem. No money! His father wasn't about to spend the money on a second guitar so the obvious - as it seemed to him at the time - thing to do was to buy and fit a set of steel strings to his classical guitar. He probably wasn't the first, and from Mike's experience in teaching guitar, was definitely wasn't the last person to think like this. Needless to say his classical guitar teacher was not happy. However, he didn't tell him why it was such a bad idea! Oh... (I hear you say) ...You don't know why either? Let me explain...
Classical guitar necks are made of wood, as are steel string guitar necks. The important difference is that the tension of steel strings is much greater than nylon strings. In a steel string guitar, in order to stop it from assuming the shape akin to a banana, a steel bar is inserted along the length of the neck which counteracts the pull of the steel strings, thus keeping it straight. Needless to say Mike's guitar ended up banana shaped and in addition the belly of the guitar became slightly distended and the joint result of this demonstration of tensile forces produced a horrifically high action - that's the distance from the strings to the fretboard. This of course made the guitar extremely difficult to play. Most people would have found it impossible and would have given up there and then...but not Mike. He knew he was going to become a guitarist no matter what.
He decided that he would have to continue along the steel string route having discovered the Black American blues guitarists like Rev. Gary Davis, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt etc. singer songwriters Dylan, Tom Paxton and thanks to a knowledgeable record store owner he soon got turned on to British guitarists like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn to name but a few. Through his church youth club he met Dave Smith who had been playing about six months or so and had mastered a few chords -classical players don't usually think of chords like folk players do - and Dave shared what he knew with Mike. Remember this was the Sixties, no one had even thought of the internet so it was hard to find anyone who could play folk blues like Mike wanted to learn. This was however the golden age of the folk club. He would catch the bus to the Waddon Hotel (Croydon) Folk Club every Wednesday as early as possible so he could get a front row seat and watch people who could play better than him. He'd also grab them in the interval or at the end of the night and get as many free lessons as he could. After a year he started teaching Dave Smith, who although he had progressed a little wasn't quite as dedicated. Dave was in fact more driven by working hard for his GCE O and A levels than mastering the guitar.
Mike was unable to do music at his school as, for some reason which he finds entirely mystifying, was in the A stream for French. This made it compulsory for him to study a second language, German. However, he enjoyed his music lessons greatly and this was the last straw as far as he was concerned and decided to put even more time into his guitar playing, and used much of his French and German lessons to work at his maths homework, thus leaving a bit of extra time to play the guitar.
His music teacher, Mr Brenchley organised monthly trips to hear the Croydon Symphony Orchestra at the nearby newly completed Fairfield Halls, as well as visits to the Proms so although not interested in playing classical orchestral music he has remained fond of it all his life.
This concentration on his playing meant that Mike did little or no academic work other than Maths, Physics and English the only subjects (apart from chemistry) that he enjoyed and could do with little or no effort. Consequently these were the only O levels he attained and left school at 16.
His parents were not particularly happy with him and in an effort to placate them he enrolled at Ewell Technical College to do an OND in Physical Sciences. However, as fate would have it, on this same course he met a fellow guitar enthusiast Ed Quick. Although they both enjoyed the subjects they had enrolled to study, Mike and Ed spent a large amount of time bunking off lessons to go and jam together.
Well done, you're still reading - I must be doing something right! However, there is a lot more to come but you'll have to wait for the next instalment as I wanted to get this new site online as soon as I could. If you know (or think you know) anyone mentioned in this article please let them know and get them to email me as I've lost touch with a lot of people from my past who it would be good to see again. Join my mailing list to be informed when I add the next section of my Bio.