The Guitar: On Aging, Mortality, & Respect


The Reverend Gary Davis said to me, “I am not now what I once have been”. He was probably in his early 70s.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200 he owned over the years.

The Reverend, with one of the six J200 he owned over the years.

Little by little, I’m catching up, and, over time, I’m coming to see what he meant. There are a lot of things that I can’t do on the guitar anymore…and the things I can do seem to happen slower than they used to.  So my motto is becoming “Nothing Flashy”. The bad news is that it’s a limitation, and that it’s humbling to face this inevitable effect of aging. The good news is that I’m much less tempted to show off, or to make flashy choices. This has made me strive to maximize the musicality and emotional content in my playing. Maybe that motto should be a mantra: “Say No To Flash, Say Yes To Taste”. It’s one I’ve been trying to live up to. Recognizing that many of our most celebrated guitarists have both flash AND taste, it’s an emotional struggle at times.

At one time, I studied T’ai Chi Ch’uan with a famous Chinese master called Dr. Tao. He was in his 80s and as slender as a twig (he refused to tell us his weight…), but I never saw anyone best him. He told us that HIS teacher, realizing how weak Tao was, had said, “Everyone else will have two methods: Power and elusiveness. You will have to make do with just one method.”


Now, more and more, I feel like Dr. Tao on the guitar; “No Flash…Just Taste”. And so it goes.


On the other hand, I’m alive, which can’t be said for many of my heroes. Some, like Rev. Davis, Lenny Breau, Clarence White, Jack McGann, and George Van Eps, have been gone for many years, or decades. But now I’m of an age where my idols seem to be passing away with great regularity. I was inspired by so many players, in so many styles. In the past 3 or 4 years, we’ve lost Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Doc Watson, and Steve Mann, among others; all early heroes and huge influences to me. Dave Van Ronk was just a few years before.

Dave Van Ronk

Dave Van Ronk



Rolly with Steve Mann in Berkeley CA, January 2006.

Rolly with Steve Mann in Berkeley CA, January 2006.

And now Phil Everly has passed away. I look back on my life, and my serial obsessions. When I was 7 or 8, I was totally consumed with the Everly Brothers. I didn’t even own a guitar, but I WANTED one so badly because I idolized these young gods of rock-n-roll and country. I finally started playing guitar when I was 15, and, within a couple years, I’d become obsessed with fingerstyle guitar, and especially the playing of Bert Jansch, Dave Van Ronk, and Davy Graham. Another year or two, and it was Rev. Gary Davis and Doc Watson. A few years later, in my mid-twenties, I moved to San Francisco and heard the tapes and legends associated with Steve Mann. Until I got serious about jazz, about ten years later, I ate, slept, and drank all of that music, struggling to comprehend these musical giants through 20 years of daily practice…

Of course, some of my heroes from that time are still alive: John Renbourn, David Bromberg, Pierre Bensusan, Guy Van Duser…the mishmosh of all of their styles helped me forge what has become my own style, and inspired my own creativity as a musician…. But here’s a point: The ones who are gone; I find that, more and more, I want to play their tunes, just the way they played them. It’s an almost irresistible tendency to homage. I do it partly to honor them, but mostly because their music was so good that it makes me feel good to reproduce it fairly faithfully.


This desire to play Davy Graham’s “Tristano“, Steve Mann’s “Amazing Gospel Tune“, or Rev. Gary Davis’s “Buckdance“, note-for-note, more or less, is a sign of genuine respect for the players who paved the way for the guitar players of today and of tomorrow…I’m a big proponent of teaching students how to think and arrange for themselves, and a large percentage of tunes I play were either written or arranged by me, but I recognize the value, and the sheer pleasure, of standing on the shoulders of those who came before by learning their masterpieces….and, who knows…maybe someday, someone will be learning an arrangement of mine, and I’ll get to pay it forward…


Posted on January 12, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. “If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

  2. Rolly, I can appreciate your thoughtful blog. I have thought more about my musical heroes and my limited playing abilities, in the last 2 years, than I have at any other time. The biggest issue I have with my age , I regret not devoting any time to guitar in my younger years and time is running out. How to deal with that , I haven’t quite figured out other than to not think about it and keep on, keeping on. Ed

  3. David Bromberg says that, because his playing is slowing down, he is now concentrating on rests.

  4. That would be an honor some day, eh? I’m such a stickler for note-for-note stuff of TE’s. But starting to do my own arrangements. Maybe…….just maybe…….some day! Nice view! Where’s everybody going?? 😦

  5. Great piece Rolly. The life cycle as applied to guitar, and your personal world of music, is something that could be endlessly explored. You wrap it in a nice, concise package.

  6. This comment thing is acting up. What I did say that is not showing is, Very thoughtful blog. I have thought more in the last year about my guitar heroes and my limited playing ability. Mostly of the time I did not put in to music when I was younger and that time is running out. Not much to do but keep on keeping on.

    • Ed, the first time someone comments on the site, I need to approve it before it appears. You’re approved now, so I think you won’t have trouble again.

  7. I liked what you had to say, Rolly. I’m about to turn 65, started playing in early 20’s and lost my left thumb and gnarled my left index finger in an accident at age of 34. I’m still playing (within my limitations as a right-hander with no left thumb) and arthritis is coming on now as well. Don’t know how much time I have left to play, but I’m making the most of it as I find my limitations have given me my own style, not of choice but of chance. Take it any way you can get it!

  8. and we reflect. but only for a while. its foolish to be concerned about what we can no longer do. let us continue to play and create what we can, and impress by touching those who care to listen, to one, well placed note.

  9. Wonderful showing of real emotion, of the coming to grips with the changes in our bodies we all face. Your stories told through and about your connection to the music you love and have performed is powerful–for me, not as a player, yet as one who sat for hours with those musicians when I could and by the “record players” which reproduced their music which in the imbibing became mine. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, Rolly.

  10. Thank you Rolly for this sensative and thoughtful post.

    Be well,


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