By STEVE PFARRER
It began with a red electric guitar, a Fender Duo-Sonic that his friend James Taylor sold him for $100 back in the early 1960s, when he was a young teenager.
Fifty years later, John Sheldon has used that pivotal moment as a starting point for a unique performance piece — part music, part comedy monologue, part memoir — that traces his musical journey and recalls the tumultuous era when it began.
And now Sheldon, who’s been wowing Valley audiences with his guitar licks for more than two decades, is taking his “The Red Guitar” show to the world’s largest arts fest: The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, which features more than 3,300 shows — theater, dance, music, opera, art exhibits and much else — in some 300 venues during a three-week span.
For Sheldon, of Amherst, “The Red Guitar” is a product of the theatrical experience he’s gained over the last several years, composing and playing guitar music for a number of plays and performances. During his roughly 80-minute set, he plays the riffs and chords of many of the guitarists who first inspired him — Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Eddy, Jeff Beck and others — while talking about his own development as a player.
Sprinkled through that story are some of the entertaining anecdotes his fans have come to know over the years: how Taylor, a family friend who was a frequent visitor to the Sheldon home in Cambridge in the 1960s, taught Sheldon some of his first licks, and how Sheldon ended up playing lead guitar for Van Morrison for a while when he was just 17 and the enigmatic Irish singer-songwriter was living in Boston.
And in “The Red Guitar,” which Sheldon debuted in Greenfield a couple years ago, the wiry guitarist also finds a way to place his story within a larger framework.
As he put it during a recent interview at his home, “The Fender Stratocaster came out in 1954, just about the time of the first deliverable hydrogen bomb. So I grew up in this era with these two big inventions — this incredible, creative, artistic one that came to dominate my life, and the other one, this incredible destructive force that could end it.
“It makes for a pretty good story,” he said.
Sheldon’s two-week run in Edinburgh, from Aug. 5-20, is being produced by Serious Play!, the Valley immersive theater ensemble; he’s composed and performed music for a number of the group’s productions. Artistic director Sheryl Stoodley said Sheldon, aside from being a brilliant guitarist, is also a skilled composer with an intuitive sense of what kind of music will work for a theatrical piece.
“I think at the same time, John’s exposure to theater helped him develop a sense of how he could bring this new element to his music,” said Stoodley, who will join Sheldon on the trip to Scotland along with her husband, Robin Doty, and Sheldon’s wife, Susan.
“I think [‘The Red Guitar’] is perfect for the Fringe,” said Stoodley, who worked with Sheldon to craft a shorter version of his show, about 50 minutes, for the Scottish festival.
Sheldon’s also a veteran songwriter who’s recorded numerous albums over the years, from rock ‘n’ roll to instrumental acoustic guitar pieces. His old friend, Taylor, recorded two of his tunes, “September Grass” and “Bittersweet,” on two albums he released in the early 2000s.
But Sheldon’s also long made his mark as a guitarist with a style that’s at once fluid, melodic and technically stunning, yet which never seems overbusy even as his hands fly up and down the fretboard. Unlike many electric guitarists, he plays almost entirely fingerstyle (occasionally he uses a thumbpick), which allows him to move easily from single- and double-note leads to plucked chords.
Ed Ward, rock music historian for National Public Radio, has called him “one of the great guitarists of our time.”
In his show, Sheldon uses a looper that he activates with foot pedals, creating backing rhythm tracks on the guitar. That lets him both solo over the top and give audience members a better sense of what he was hearing when he was a teenager, listening to records and trying to decipher the different sounds.
In one sequence from the show, filmed a couple years ago, he describes listening to “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s, a Southern soul instrumental group that also backed singers like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. To recreate the song, he lays down a simple bass pattern, adds in another chord pattern that imitates an organ, then plays bits of scratchy, sometimes discordant lead guitar.
“What is that?” he says, as he plays a quick, atonal burst on his red Stratocaster and the audience laughs along. “I mean, that’s not even a note. … I play along with the record, but I cannot make that sound.”
Eventually, Sheldon relates, he wrote a letter to the group’s guitarist, Steve Cropper, asking him how he created his unique sound — and Cropper wrote him back a couple weeks later.
“Think about that,” Sheldon said with a laugh during his recent interview. “That would never happen today. You’d send someone an email and you’d never hear back from them.”
That’s part of what Sheldon is trying to convey with his show: how the ’60s were on one hand riddled with chaos — from the Vietnam War to fights for equality for Southern blacks to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. — but how the era had a certain innocence and magic, too, especially for young musicians discovering new groups and sounds.
A story to tell
Sheldon says he first experimented with doing a monologue while playing a gig in 2013 at the Deja Brew, a Wendell pub and eatery.
“It’s the kind of place where you can kind of play anything, and I just kind of starting talking over the music,” he said.
He’d been thinking more generally of writing stories or a book about his experience playing music, which included a stint in California in the 1970s as a studio musician and a support guitarist on tours, followed by his earning a degree at the New England Conservatory of Music and then his move to western Massachusetts. But as he developed his monologue a bit more, he found it worked well with his guitar playing.
“I’d been writing songs for a long time, but with this, I had another voice,” Sheldon said. His theater work, he agreed, likely opened his thinking to new ideas, as well.
His Edinburgh version of “The Red Guitar” will take listeners up to about 1970, when Sheldon was playing lead guitar in Bead Game, a hard/progressive rock band that was recording an album in a New York studio at the same time Jimi Hendrix was rehearsing in the next room.
Sheldon says he’s a little nervous about playing at the Fringe Festival, as he doesn’t know quite what to expect. With so many performers and venues at the festival, he said, it seems it’s important to get people’s attention quickly.
He’s got one possibility to address that. In his studio, he worked a distortion pedal and the guitar’s whammy bar as he played the low E string, producing an ominous, quavering tone designed to reflect the fear of growing up in the nuclear era.
“I’ll hit them with the H-bomb,” he said.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at email@example.com.
John Sheldon will perform on Petersham Town Common July 30 at 7 p.m. (www.facebook.com/groups/VillageLyceum). He will also perform Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls in “The Red Guitar: Return from the Fringe.”
To see a trailer for “The Red Guitar,” visit www.johnsheldon.com/vimeo.html.