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Mundy and Me

Hello Troubadourians! Last year I memorialized three famous guitar players—and a few not-so-famous ones—as well as one legendary luthier. I had hoped that I could get to at least March before I had write another such memorial. Such is life that it’s January and I’m doing it again, this time from a very personal perspective. On December 2, we lost Mundell Lowe—Mundy to his friends—and I was honored to be among them. Other articles and stories will give you more biographical information so I’m going to devote my remarks to the personal interactions I had with Mundy. I first learned of Mundy by reading about him in Guitar Player magazine. It was there that I learned that he lived in San Diego and I wondered at the time if I might be able to take some lessons from him. Of course, I was both too timid and not “good enough” to even seriously consider seeking him out so it became a fading fantasy for many years. When I joined Folding Mr. Lincoln in 2009, I eventually found out that Mundy was the both stepfather of our fiddle player, Alicia Previn, and the father-in-law of our drummer, Jeff Stasny. It was through Jeff’s wife Claudia that I eventually met Mundy and became a student.

 

As I pulled up to his Tierrasanta home for my first lesson, I was more nervous that I could remember being in a very long time. I’ve met and played with and for famous guitar players before and I’ve gotten over being starstruck, but this was decidedly different. I was going to expose all of my weaknesses to a legendary guitarist in his own genre and in his home! Mundy’s wife. Betty, a famous singer in her own right, answered the door and with a smile welcomed me into their home. She called for Mundy and then whispered to me, “Don’t be scared of his gruffness. He’s looking forward to meeting you.” Mundy came down from his upstairs studio and greeted me with a firm handshake. He immediately began apologizing for the “lack of light” and informed me that he had macular degeneration and had trouble seeing. As it turned out, Mundy had been under the impression that Folding Mr. Lincoln was a “folk” band and that I was essentially a “folkie strummer” looking to get a real guitar education, so he was pleasantly surprised that I was actually an accomplished player looking to add to what was already an established style. As we ascended a very narrow stairway into the studio I was thinking that it wasn’t as dark as I thought but it certainly was intimidating despite Betty’s admonition. Mundy had prepared a lesson that essentially laid out his basic method for chromatic chord movement. It was written as chords on the staff rather than as chord forms and I struggled a little with reading the chords. “You need to brush up on your reading,” was Mundy’s comment as he helped me with the chords. “Yeah, I do,” I said. As I played through the first chords, I immediately saw a pattern and so being the lazy-ass that I am, I projected the pattern all through the chromatic changes, When I got to the “E” chord, Mundy stopped me and asked me what the heck was I playing. Embarrassed, I admitted that I was playing what I thought was the pattern through all of the changes. “You need to brush-up on your reading,” he repeated. Then he smiled to relieve the obvious tension and showed me the chords I was supposed to play. In the process, he found a couple errors in the notation and tried to correct them. “Damn, macular degeneration,” he said. “I used to be able to write this stuff…” Mundy then showed me an old standard, which I had never heard and could barely keep up with, then we started talking about guitars. Mundy said he’d had a lot of fine guitars over the years but he was now playing his custom James Mapson guitar exclusively. The Mapson had larger fret indicators on the neck binding so that Mundy could see them. Regular side dots were too small. I had brought my Collings Dreadnaught acoustic guitar to the lesson and he said that he wanted me to get a “real” jazz guitar, an archtop, so that we could study properly. As much as I wanted to get an archtop guitar, it was not something I could afford at the time. For future lessons I brought my Collings City Limits electric guitar, which didn’t really satisfy the look of a jazz guitar but it did afford me the range of the fretboard to play the things that Mundy wanted to teach me. During one lesson, Mundy told me to play a solo over a 12-bar blues in C. I’ve learned to “just play” even when the audience is a world-class player, so I just went for it and played as melodically as I could without resorting to too many bluesy licks. I like to drop down to the V chord rather than go up and when I did this Mundy stopped me. “What did you do there?” he asked. I explained that I like to drop into the V chord as I think it makes a blues more interesting. “Very good,” he said. “Continue.” When I finished, Mundy took my hands in his and looked me in the eyes. He said, “You have excellent blues hands, don’t ever change.” I cried. I’ve never received greater praise for my playing and for maybe the first time I felt like I was a “real” guitar player. That would turn out to be my last lesson with Mundy.

My time as his student was all too brief, mostly because the lack of time and money became too great of an impediment to further my studies with him. The material Mundy presented required more devotion to proper study than I was able to give and I couldn’t really afford the $100 per lesson that Mundy asked. Make no mistake, his lessons would have been a bargain at twice the price but at the time it was a lot for me. Mostly though, any pressure I felt was self-inflicted. Despite Mundy’s somewhat gruff teaching method, he realized that what he was teaching was like drinking from a fire hose for someone like me. I think I was probably his last student and I hope I can continue to honor his memory with my music.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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