John Melville Pearse, Guitarist 1939-2008
John Pearse, who died aged 69, was responsible for teaching a generation of British Folk and Blues enthusiasts how to play the guitar. He scripted and presented a highly successful series for BBC2, Hold Down a Chord, which was 1st broadcast in 1967 – a time when Folk Music had been making inroads into the world of popular music through the protest songs of Bob Dylan. The series, plus an accompanying book and album, was subtitled “folk guitar for beginners” and showed budding guitarists everything from fingering and syncopation to suggestions about fingernail length and tips on buying a second-hand guitar.
The programmes were sold to many other countries, and in a follow-up series, Hold Down a Chord: Fingerpicking, 1st broadcast in 1969, Pearse taught a variety of melody-picking styles from American guitarists such as Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy and Reverend Gary Davis. The accompanying book went through 4 reprints in its first year.
Pearse had learned his fingerpicking style from from Big Bill Broonzy during Broonzy’s 1957 European tour. It was referred to by the musicologist Alan Lomax as the Piedmont style. The melody line is fingerpicked in a syncopated style while the thumb plays a rocking bass line. He refined this technique, with the thumb-playing bass line providing a complex counterpoint to the melody. His media exposure made Pearse a much sought-after performer, studio musician and record producer, and he wrote many more guitar tutorials, including Ragtime and Counterpoint Guitar Method (1972), The Guitarist’s Picture Chord Encyclopedia (1977) and The Penguin Folk Guitar Manual (1979). He also wrote tutorials for the banjo, ukulele, dulcimer and balalaika, and in 1970 played the role of a Russian balalaika player in Billy Wilder’s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.
Pearse was born in Hook, near Goole, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but grew up in Prestatyn, North Wales, where his father ran a hotel. He became a professional musician when only 17 years old and moved to London. He established a reputation in the capital’s small number of folk clubs and, by 1960, was teaching weekly guitar classes at Cecil Sharp House, headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. He was soon a resident at the folk club there and wrote reviews for the house magazine, English Dance and Song. He wrote his 1st guitar tutorial, Teach Yourself Folk Guitar, at the age of 19.
Among the guitarists he influenced in those early days was the British folk singer Martin Carthy. He showed Carthy how to play Elizabeth Cotten’s accompaniment for her song Freight Train and encouraged him to work seriously on his guitar playing. After the first television broadcasts, he lent his name to the production of the John Pearse Guitar Strings but was unhappy with the quality and withdrew his endorsement to develop his own, high-quality strings. Moving to the US (where he later made another television guitar tutorial series, String Along), he worked for a couple of years in the late 1970s as a consultant for Martin Guitars before re-establishing his strings, guitar accessories and instrument-making business, Breezy Ridge Instruments, in Pennsylvania with his wife, the mountain dulcimer player Mary Faith Rhoads.
A medical accident in 1983 left Pearse paralysed, with little chance that he would play the guitar again. A cataclysmic myelogram procedure that paralysed him from the neck down and threatened to put an end to his performing career. Unwilling to accept the doctors’ gloomy prognosis he determined that he would both walk and work again. Within a year he had returned to performing, and in the mid-1980s hosted another guitar tuition programme for American television called . The business prospered, however, especially after the American folk guitarist Doc Watson endorsed his strings. Within 18 months, Pearse was walking again, and after years of painful rehabilitation and with the business well established, he was able to resume his performing career in 2002. He later released a CD, Live in Kutztown.
Aside from his music, he presented a television cookery series in the US, Cooking With Wine, made wildlife films in Africa and published a collection of short stories as well as a book on fly-fishing.
Pearse was a familiar figure at the NAMM music products industry trade fairs, where he was highly regarded as a creative, generous, larger-than-life character. His marriage to Rhoads was dissolved, although they remained business partners, and he married Linda Gibbard in 1994. Both survive him.
- John Melville Pearse, guitarist and folk musician, born 12 September 1939; died 31 October 2008
John passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early morning hours of October 31, 2008 in Germany where he and his wife, Linda, have lived for the past several years. It was the gentle conclusion to a dynamic life which changed the face of acoustic music