GROWING UP IN A SMALL KANSAS TOWN, I wanted to learn to play an instrument because all the smart kids knew how to play an instrument. My parents ignored me, but they let me get a car instead. I really didn’t do anything about the whole music thing until one Saturday morning here in the big city when I walked into a music store in midtown Manhattan and bought the cheapest guitar possible (“You can pay more,” a college friend said, “but you can’t pay less”) and toted it back to my apartment. Then I sat on my couch and stared at it for a while and realized I might’ve made a mistake since I didn’t have a clue how to play it, but I refused to accept that idea.
That’s when I found Park-Slope-based Winslow Browning on the internet. We talked and he asked me what style I wanted to learn—Rock? Classical? Country? Um, Easy Listening?
Gee, I hadn’t thought about that. “I like the Beatles?” I said, except it did sound more like a question.
“Okay,” he said.
“Yeah. I have a T-shirt with their drum logo on it and everything.”
“Okay,” he said.
TWO DAYS LATER HE SHOWED UP AT MY APARTMENT at the appointed hour with his guitar, which looked to me like the most beautiful instrument this side of Spain. He examined my guitar critically, then he showed me how to sit properly, how to hold it, and how to play the notes of a scale — you know, Every Good Boy Does Fine. He showed me flats and sharps. Then he told me to pick up a music stand and First Lessons for Guitar (Las Primeras Lecciones de Guitarra) by Julio Sagreras.
We never spoke of Rock, Country, Easy Listening or The Beatles again, but he did do his best to teach me how to play Spanish classical guitar.
AND 15 YEARS LATER BROWNING IS STILL AT IT, as he has been all his life. “When I was growing up, my parents had a string guitar lying around my house,” he says, “and I learned chords and stuff playing with my friends, then I had a chance to take classical guitar lessons and it made my heart flutter.”
Browning went on to study music with renowned classical guitarists Fred Nance and Juan Mercadal, the latter a Cuban master. “I was so totally steeped in the classic music field and so hungry to reel that all in and take all these classical classes, all this pop music stuff got tossed out on the other side,” he told me.
SO THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED TO MY LEARNING TO PLAY “DAY TRIPPER” AND “I FEEL FINE.” I wouldn’t say I was an abject, miserable failure at classical guitar (although the pieces Winslow did manage to teach me sounded nothing like they did when he played them) because he taught me how to play scales and tune it and change strings when I had to. And I can still do all that stuff when forced to at knifepoint. He also taught me that it was a good thing my parents didn’t waste money on music lessons for me and let me waste it on a car instead. But in his hands even my cheapo axe sounded beautiful.
IT’S A GREAT THING THAT WINSLOW’S STILL AT IT, sometimes giving lessons in his five-floor walkup, or anywhere around the city really — he comes to you. Also, he and his wife, accomplished flautist Suzanne Gilchrest, present a limited concert series with their group Guitar Among Others. Like Paul McCartney’s later career, or Steely Dan’s, GAO’s lineup always changes. And each summer they travel to Summerkeys, a summer camp for classical musicians in Lubec, Maine, where he’s the only guitarist who teaches solo playing.
“In the Brooklyn Eagle a few years ago there was an article that talked about how Brooklyn was made up of a bunch of small towns and villages,” he says. “I love telling the story in Lubec because it really is a small town; it’s very comfortable, and you’ll walk up the street and someone will say ‘Hey, that was a great concert last night.’” No wonder they say that to him: Like I said, the guy really knows how to play a mean Spanish classical guitar.