From six pack to six strings… it’s an unusual journey, but one that was written in the stars for former bodybuilding champion Brett Charles Barrett. Victoria Benn reports. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Christian Sagesse, an award-winning classical guitarist recently described as one of “the best European guitarists” by a Spanish daily newspaper, is appearing in the Yorkshire market town of Skipton this evening, to play at the town’s acoustically superb Holy Trinity Church. Local classical guitar aficionado Brett Charles Barrett, a self-taught luthier and impresario, is the man behind this exclusive event.
This will be the ninth classical guitar concert featuring world-class performers that Brett has organised. More interesting still is that all the artists who have performed at Brett’s concerts have become close personal friends of his, artists like the Yorkshire-born guitar virtuoso Alan Brinley Shaw, Norway’s Christina Sandsengen – whose debut album is set for worldwide release – and one of Spain’s top guitarists, Paco Seco. Brett has even named his latest guitar after Paco’s daughter, Anadhara.
What makes Brett’s success exceptional is that he only started making guitars seven years ago. “I originally picked up the guitar when I was 13, purely as a way of getting attention from my busy parents, especially my dad, who played guitar in a country and western band”, explains Brett. “From the start I showed potential and even had a scout from the London College of Music visit me at school. My dream then was to go to Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, but I didn’t achieve the entry qualifications to make that happen. Instead I studied music at Harrogate College, but I became disillusioned because of the other studies I had to do, as all I wanted to do was just play the guitar.”
With his enthusiastic nature and a new found interest in bodybuilding, Brett’s passion for the classical guitar slowly gave way to a serious dedication to the gym. Within just a few years Brett had established a name for himself and was winning competitions up and down the country. The pinnacle of his career was achieving a second place in the Mr United Kingdom competition in 1994, by which time any interest in the guitar had been sidelined.
Despite the accolades, a series of personal problems managed to bring Brett’s world crashing down. By his early 30s his bodybuilding career was over, and he had become a virtual recluse. “I started to get back on my feet about 12 years ago,” confides Brett. “I had managed to get a job and was earning a wage, but deep down I knew that something was missing from my life. I wanted to be up there again feeling that I was good at something… It was another four years before I found what was missing.”
Brett’s father died suddenly in 2007, and it was whilst organising the music for his funeral that Brett rediscovered his lost love of the classical guitar. “Dad had requested Cavatina by John Williams, and listening to the album again after all that time was like an epiphany for me – I suddenly realised how much I missed the guitar. I knew the practice would be hard, but I also knew the discipline would be good for me. The other strange thing is that in my early twenties I had ordered all the materials to make a guitar, but they had stayed in the box. Once I started playing again I remembered about this unfinished project, and dug everything out and finally built it.”
Brett took his newly finished instrument to a respected local luthier for an assessment; the verdict was pivotal, as the luthier was not only very impressed, but encouraged Brett that he should make another.
Brett has honed and refined his craft over the intervening years. Each guitar takes him about six to eight weeks to make, his preferred materials being European spruce for the top, and Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides. He also likes to use ebony to add colour and contrast. Essentially though, all his guitars are bespoke, and potential clients have the opportunity to try out different guitars crafted in different woods and designs in Brett’s showroom, and then select the combination of wood and shape that will create the sound, tone and feel that they prefer. Brett is proud that his guitars are completely handcrafted, including the rosette, which is something many other luthiers buy in pre-fabricated.
“When I decided that I wanted to take guitars seriously as my profession I felt strongly that I needed to give them their own identity. I had always admired the guitars of Jose Romanillos, in particular the rosette which Jose had created to signify the arches of the Mezquita Mosque in Cordoba, Spain – I wanted to come up with a design that was as beautiful as that, but full of personal significance for me.”
After much experimentation Brett created his “chalice” rosette. His early designs presented the chalice in a two- dimensional formation, whereas his later and current designs present it in three dimensions. In fact, Paco Seco’s latest album, Jerez, features one of Brett’s guitars on the cover, clearly showing his beautiful and symmetrical design. “The chalice has a spiritual significance for me. It may have other connotations, but for me it is about creation, and within the rosette it becomes an eternal ring of creation, which seems like a good starting point for an instrument someone will create music on,” says Brett with a smile.
Social media has helped to forge Brett’s new friendships and burgeoning network of internationally acclaimed classical guitarists. Showcasing his guitars on Facebook started to generate interest from the likes of Paco Seco who described the rosette as “beautiful”.
Indeed, the first concert Brett organised was a chance event suggested by Alan Brinley Shaw himself, who had found Brett via social media. It transpired that they had shared the same guitar teacher in their youth, and so Alan suggested that they organise a concert in his honour. Brett quickly saw the benefit of such an event as a means of reviving the popularity of the Spanish classical guitar, as well as a means of getting his guitars into the hands of some great guitarists – and so jumped at the chance. The reviews of this concert led to other classical guitarists such as Christina Sandsengen asking to become friends, which in turn has created many more concert opportunities for Brett.
The most remarkable account of Brett’s self-made luck though has to be the story of how he met Christian Sagesse. “I had gone to LBA to collect Andrea Dieci, one of Italy’s finest classical guitarists off the flight from Bergamo Airport for a concert I was hosting in July 2013. When I got there I saw the most remarkable sight; there were three Italian men, all in smart black suits, all with guitar cases on their backs, talking with one another. There was a buzz about them, as they looked like something out of a movie. The three men were Andrea Dieci coming to see me, the amazing Guilio Tampalini who was over for a performance of his own, and Christian Sagesse who was over visiting his girlfriend, who astonishingly lives just outside Skipton. For three of Italy’s top guitarists to be on the same flight to Leeds was a huge coincidence, but one which has resulted in not only a great friendship, but a great coup for fans of classical guitar in Yorkshire.”
The way Brett tells it makes it sound easy, but his modesty belies a deep affinity with the guitar, which is revealed through his skills as a luthier, as well as through the friendships he has built. Paco Seco described Brett’s guitars as evoking and inspiring “depth, kindness, love and beauty”. High praise indeed, and praise that was indisputably worth the wait.
• For further details about Brett’s guitars and the Christian Sagesse concert that will take place tonight at Skipton’s Holy Trinity Church, visit: www.barrettclassicalguitars.co.uk