With much prior teaching experience elsewhere already, Chris joined the staff of the Spanish Guitar Centre in Bristol while it was managed by founder Mike Watson. They ran the centre together until Mike’s death, whereupon Chris took the reins himself. After several moves of premises they ended up at 103 Coldharbour Road, where the centre remained for a number of years.
During this time it continued to flourish as a centre of excellence not only in teaching but in all matters related to the Spanish Guitar, providing a a friendly and invaluable service to musicians and the parents of aspiring guitarists. Chris ran a series of public concerts, later collaborating with the Bristol Classical Guitar Society in presenting first-class guitarists to a local audience.
By late 2017, Chris was facing a lease renewal and failing health and he finally retired, closing the shop for the last time. He died peacefully a year later, apparently with a guitar in his hands. The following tributes give some idea of the unique and committed contribution that Chris made to the guitar world and illustrate what a huge gap he and the centre have left behind.
Tributes to Chris
Tim Royal, former teacher at the Spanish guitar Centre
It became a rite of passage for Chris to take on the Spanish Guitar Centre after the founder Mike Watson retired. Mike had successfully run the business for many years, creating a successful teaching Centre along with a shop retailing quality instruments. Repair facilities were also an important service offered, as instruments would need attention over the years and setting up before being sold. Connections with the likes of Len Williams, Julian Bream and José Romanillos helped to confirm the Centre’s evolving reputation. Chris managed the business with Mike at the helm during this period, giving him the ability to embrace the knowledge needed to eventually take over.
Chris moved the business twice before finishing at the address in Coldharbour Road, the longest location until closure. At this point in time Chris had nursed the business through economic uncertainty for many years while building a thriving teaching practice. His promotion of annual concerts stimulated enthusiasm for the guitar in Bristol and beyond.
There’s an interesting side of Chris that not many people knew, a dichotomy, you might say, in that guitarists weren’t the most esteemed group in his vision, it was musicians that gained his respect, and there is a huge difference! That’s why he loved jazz, musicians and improvisation.
Sadly in 2017 with the onset of ill health and a lease renewal it became clear that Chris could no longer take the business forward. The centre closed for good. I guess from that time Chris experienced a significant void in his life. While he was being cared for I occasionally sent him books that would stimulate his appetite for literature. On visits he would reflect on good times and memories of music that had touched him. For me it felt that he’d transformed from his hardened business exterior to a warm engaging way of being. I believe there was a satisfaction that he’d kept an institution alive giving pleasure and opportunities to so many people.
As one of the team for nearly forty years, I met many musicians and enjoyed the experience gained from one of the few independent guitar centres.
Tim Royal, November 2022
Cuffy, former teacher at the Spanish guitar Centre
My good friend Old Chris. Where to start …….????
I first met Chris many years ago when a friend suggested that we should go and check out The Spanish Guitar Centre. That was when it was on Gloucester Road. It was like something from one of those magical movies, like the antique bookshop with the typical old guy who owns the shop and is full of amazing history and fascinating stories. One of those timeless places.
I was playing something by Andrew York when Chris appeared from out the back holding a signed photo of himself and Andrew York and proceeded to tell me about how he had brought him over to do concerts, and then he went on to tell me about all the other concerts he had organised.
He was so enthusiastic to talk about anything guitar-based and we chatted for a long time that day about guitars, as you can imagine. He was in his element just passing the time explaining everything guitar related and I could ask him anything and he was happy to go into detail and answer all my questions and provide any info on any queries I had. I remember leaving the shop in a really good mood and thinking to myself, it’s so nice to see someone like that who loves what he does and never seems to lose the enthusiasm, even though it appears that he has been doing that job forever.
I would pop in from time to time to buy strings and try out some guitars and of course… have a chat. There was never any rush when I went there and Chris was always willing to offer advice and knowledge about anything. It was quite some years later when I started teaching at the shop. It had moved to Coldharbour Road by then. That was another era that lasted for probably eight years or so. When I think about that time now I remember it as being a happy time. Lots of great and interesting characters popping into the shop sporadically. It felt more like a social gathering than a shop most of the time. There was always a lot of laughter going on. I always heard laughter coming from the front of the shop when I was teaching in the back, and Chris used to say that he could hear laughter coming from the back where I was teaching as well.
It was always good to turn up at his shop to start work because you never knew which one of Chris’s friends would be there drinking coffee and chatting away and joking. It was the kind of place where people would just pop in to see Chris if they were passing and I could see how much Chris enjoyed his visits and having a catch up. If it was going to be a good long catch up he would sometimes pop his head round the door and announce to me, “Cuff, I’m closing the shop for a long lunch and going to the pub.”
I remember some of my students would come early for their lessons so that they could have time to chat with Chris before their class. Sometimes they would stay after the class as well and just hang out and carry on with their chatting.
I was trying to remember what we used to laugh so much about but I don’t think it was anything in particular. We just passed the time talking and laughing about anything… all the daft stuff really.
Chris never lost his enthusiasm for guitars and music. He used to come to all my gigs in Bristol and became a regular figure at the bar in El Puerto and La Tomatina. He really loved the live gigs and socialising with the flamenqueros with a glass of wine. Actually , thinking about it… it was an ideal time really. Spending the afternoons with friends in the shop and the evenings in the bars laughing and joking and enjoying the music. What more could you want really. I’ll remember that era fondly. It’s just a shame that these times have to come to an end.
I still find myself thinking, ‘I’ll ask Chris”, if I have a guitar query. It must be ingrained in me because he was always my first port of call. I still have a string winder that Chris gave me. He made it himself. I use it whenever I change my strings and I always say hello to him when I take it out. It’s a nice thought to know that even now Chris is still there in a way, helping me with my guitar : )
Cuffy, January 2022
Louise Saunders, former teacher at the Spanish guitar Centre
Chris Gilbert was a perfect gentleman, a wonderful colleague and a dear friend. I first met him at the old Spanish guitar centre in Elton Road when he arrived to join the teaching staff sometime in the early 1980s.
His father had been a very talented organist and an examiner for the Associated Boards of the Royal Schools of Music, had clearly been a wonderful inspiration to Chris in his early years and had nurtured a very solid musical background from which to begin his preferred instrument, the guitar.
Chris studied the guitar with the brilliant player George Zarb and, personally finding teaching to be both inspirational and enjoyable, became a wonderful, sympathetic and extremely thorough teacher.
He went on to teach in many eminent schools, including Cheltenham Ladies’ College, before moving to Bristol and taking up a full-time teaching position at the Spanish Guitar Centre. He took over the Spanish Guitar Centre as a business several years later and was well known for his friendliness and hospitality to pupils, teachers, performers and guitar makers alike.
He was a wonderful raconteur and would always keep us entertained with fascinating musical stories and insights, usually over a beer after a concert or a long day’s teaching. He was a great enthusiast for promoting the guitar wherever he could and sponsored a huge number of absolutely brilliant, unforgettable concerts by many international players in conjunction with the Bristol Guitar society.
I feel honoured and privileged to have taught alongside him, to have known him for so many years, a real friend, and one who will be sorely missed.
Louise Saunders January 2022
Ben Spender, former teacher at the Spanish guitar Centre
I am delighted to be able to contribute a few lines in tribute to, and appreciation of, Chris Gilbert.
Chris had so many natural talents… as a teacher, player, concert organizer, businessman, etc. However, my most important memory of Chris is of an immensely generous person who simply had a natural sense of empathy and solidarity with all of us struggling in the guitar world. Chris had devoted his life to the Spanish guitar and he knew first-hand the trials and joys of trying to get by in this precarious profession. You felt straight away that he understood and supported you….
I started teaching in Bristol in 2001, trying to get around on public transport in a city I did not know – it can feel quite lonely. However Chris soon rang me to ask if I could teach at the Centre on a Friday evening after school teaching, and it was an occasion I always looked forward to. Chris would even drive to my local primary school and pick me up at 4pm! I was then immersed in all things Spanish guitar, and felt totally ‘at home’. The welcoming atmosphere that Chris created in the Centre was like an oasis in the desert for all of us – it was always a place to meet old friends and share stories. After an enjoyable evening teaching, Chris would then drive me to Temple Meads station for my journey home to Bath. I don’t think he actually lived anywhere near Temple Meads, so it was not exactly en route – it was just typical of his support for us to do this.
The Bristol scene in Spanish guitar was Chris Gilbert. For us teachers he would sort everything – good quality student guitars, music to start you off with, capos, the latest tuners, Grade music – Chris would have it all ready. Any time one of my students needed anything, I simply had to say ‘Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre and speak with Chris Gilbert’. It was basically ‘job done’ from then on, with all my students proudly showing me their new guitar at school the following week. He would always take an interest in the studies of a young visitor to the Centre, and I always felt my students got an extra good service from him. They would always eagerly say to me in class, ’He knows you! I told him you were my teacher!’
Chris seemed to be totally immersed in the Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre. He rang me once on a Sunday from the Centre – he was there all day doing the accounts!
Chris seemed to know everyone in the guitar world – he would relate stories about dinners with Elliot Fisk, concert chats with Julian Bream, organizing concerts for Alirio Díaz, Jorge Morel… the list goes on. He had so many humorous anecdotes to share and it was such a joy to listen to his experiences.
Chris is irreplaceable and his passing marks the end of an era for the Spanish guitar in Bristol. He was the face of the Spanish guitar in the city, and we all feel a deep sense of loss. However there is also for me a huge sense of gratitude for those 17 years of knowing Chris, and experiencing the support and friendship that he so generously extended to all of us in the guitar world.
Ben Spender November 2021 Bath
ROB RUSSELL 1948 – 2018
Robert Russell was a very talented person with many skills and abilities. He played a range of guitars from his electric and bass guitars (his first instruments), to his classical guitar and lutes. During his musical career he studied the lute under Anthony Rooley and became a Licentiate of Trinity College London as a lute teacher.
Rob’s lesser known interests included potholing, rock climbing, cycling, driving his ‘frog-eyed’ Sprite, and cooking creative dishes often with ingredients from his own lovingly tendered garden.
He was also an excellent musical instrument maker producing outstanding guitars, lutes and theorboes which demonstrate incredible workmanship. Some of the more unusual ‘historic’ instruments he made were very carefully researched. He would travel to find original existing instruments in museums and private collections which he would measure and examine in the greatest detail. He was always ultra-careful about detail and authenticity. As well as standard and, at times, innovative classical guitars, he also made ensemble models including the higher pitched terz and requinto as well as bass instruments. His last commission was a seven-string bass guitar for the performer, composer and arranger Gerald Garcia which he completed shortly before his death.
Rob will be missed as a talented and knowledgeable musician. He will be remembered at the Bristol Classical Guitar Society for his performances of duets and trios, sometimes accompanied on the flute by his wife Nicky, and where some of the guitars he made will continue to be heard.
From the obituary at Rob’s funeral:
“You will be remembered for the enduring gift of music and the legacy of your instruments; for your easy company, intelligence and wit; and for your great depth of knowledge and practical skills. These memories are magnificent hallmarks of who you were. A very special life and such a treasured friend.”
The following mail was received in July 2020:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am writing because I came across a biography of the late Robert Russell on your website. I recently purchased a left-handed seven-course lute built by Mr. Russell in 2011 through the Early Music Shop in York. It’s an absolutely wonderful instrument, with attention to detail throughout, and the sound is fantastic: warm yet clear, and a joy to play. It is an instrument I will treasure for the rest of my life. I wanted to share my story for anyone in your organization who may have known him.
Music Director, Convivium Musicum, MIT Meridian Singers, The Boston Cecilia
Assistant Professor, Berklee College of Music
DAVE GODDEN 1943 – 2017
David Godden was born in London in 1943. He originally studied the violin with Elisabeth Rajna and also the piano before turning to the guitar in 1960 when his focus was mainly on commercial playing. He came to Bristol in 1964 to join the Dennis Mann Orchestra at the Grand Spa Ballroom while also appearing on television and radio. During this time he developed an interest in the classical guitar and its repertoire and joined the staff of the Spanish Guitar Centre in 1968 where he taught for twelve years. During this time he played with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra and the orchestra of the Welsh National Opera.
In the early 1970’s his increasing interest in the music of the 16th and 17th centuries led him to the lute and its literature as well as many other instruments of that period including the orpharion and viola da gamba. He gave highly acclaimed public recitals on the Renaissance and Baroque lutes as well as directing his own Early Music Consort ‘Poeticall Musicke’.
On leaving the Spanish Guitar Centre in 1980 he became a free-lance guitarist again working in theatre and cabaret and became highly regarded on the Bristol modern jazz scene.
In 2002 he moved to Spain where he revived his interest in the classical guitar and began writing for the instrument. He later returned to England where he continued playing and composing until shortly before his death to cancer in February 2017. During this time he gave a number of recitals for the Bristol Classical Guitar Society where he opened our eyes to little known music and composers: “You may not have heard this before …..”
Dave lived for and through his music. He will be fondly remembered in many quarters for his jazz and band arrangements, his playing and public performances, the skill and depth of his teaching, and his wide musical knowledge and ability especially in terms of the guitar, the lute and the music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. He will also be remembered, of course, as a constant and stimulating friend from whom one never ceased to learn.
ANDREW BRITTON 1951 – 2015
Andrew John Britton, esteemed guitarist and scholar closely linked with Bristol, has died aged 64. Andrew worked initially as a language teacher and translator and held various positions within Bristol’s library and museum services. He played both electric and acoustic guitar during his early years, but in 1974 abandoned them in favour of the classical instrument, studying first with Audrey Byard at the Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre, and subsequently with John Edwards, John Mills, Duncan James and Stephen Gordon.
He taught the guitar privately and at Bath Spa and Bristol Universities for several years, tutoring many of Bristol’s guitarists, including BCGS Friend Adam Purnell. At the same time, he performed in solo, chamber and concerto concerts throughout South West England, and participated in the master classes of Roberto Aussel, Eliot Fisk, Carlos Bonell, Jonathan Leathwood and others.
Around 1995 Andrew developed an interest in historical guitars and period performance, and studied the nineteenth-century guitar and its repertoire with Tom Kerstens in Bath. He worked as a freelance researcher and lecturer, specializing in English nineteenth-century guitar history and guitar iconography. From 2006, he was actively involved in CHOMBEC (Centre for the History of Music in Britain, the Empire and the Commonwealth), based at the University of Bristol. He wrote several local history studies, as well as the doctoral thesis ‘The guitar in the romantic period: its musical and social development, with special reference to Bristol and Bath’ (Royal Holloway College, University of London, 2010).
MIKE WATSON 1923 – 2011
The story of how Andrés Segovia caused the world to wake up to the magic of the classical guitar is well known and often told. In his train quite a number of people wished to explore this new delight for themselves. There was an aspiration to emulate at least something of the power of the Spanish master. Where to go for help? Fortunately a very small band of energetic pioneers was on hand to satisfy the requirement for instruments, tuition and material for study. Typically, these were accomplished plectrum guitar players who had been fascinated to discover that the classical dimension was not a whole world away from what they could do pretty well already. First of these on the scene was Len Williams, arriving in London from Australia with his schoolboy prodigy son John. Here he teamed up with another like-minded former jazzer, the theorist and composer John (Jack) Duarte. Sensing a pressing need, Len lost no time in setting up his Spanish Guitar Centre in premises near Leicester Square in 1952. Soon to approach him was a professional West Country jazz guitarist keen to establish something similar in his home city of Bristol. This dedicated enthusiast was Michael (Mike) Watson who has died on November 5th 2011 aged 88.
A gifted, determined and amiable character, Mike saw to it that his best intentions were always successfully realised. The Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre, which he established in 1954, remains there to this day, albeit in new premises. Mike has recalled his early years in that city in a memoir which he wrote in 2000:
My mother was a fine pianist so it is not surprising that I was introduced to music at an early age. I became a boy singer and soloist, and learned to play the banjo ukulele at the age of 7 or 8 years. The plectrum guitar caught my interest at about 10 years, when I studied with Lew Carson and later with Reg Bishop. For a lesson with Reg, which then cost 2s 6d, I used to cycle from Bishopston to Brislington with my guitar case on the handlebars.
Mike was also a talented child actor, and the great success of his performance in J M Barrie’s The Boy David, in which he played the lead role, resulted in his leaving school in 1938 to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. This led to work in radio, films and theatre, but with the outbreak of war all contracts were cancelled and he returned to Bristol, working for the BBC West Region as a Junior Programme Engineer. He also joined a four-piece dance band on guitar, performing on Saturdays at the Victoria Rooms. He made his first broadcasts on the instrument with that quartet. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy, training as an electrical engineer. After his first ship had been disabled by an acoustic mine in the North Sea, it was towed to Woolwich for repairs where a spot of shore leave allowed him to explore the wartime London music scene, on occasion sitting in with such musicians as George Shearing and Stephane Grappelli. Interestingly, both these musicians were to stay at Mike’s family home in Bristol whenever they were gigging there during the war. After repairs, Mike’s ship set sail from Woolwich for the Far East. A quartet was formed on board, and on arrival in Australia they did some broadcasts. Mike also met local musicians and played in jazz clubs. Later he transferred to the Pacific Fleet, visiting Japan after the surrender, where a short spell in a dance band convinced him that they “hadn’t quite got the hang of things there”!
After de-mob in 1946 he rejoined the BBC in Bristol but found that their tight schedules were conflicting with his pre-arranged gig bookings. In 1948 he resigned to free-lance as an actor and musician. From 1948 to 1968 he played Sid Luscombe in the West Region radio family serial At the Luscombes. Mike was also inspired to start to study the classical guitar with characteristic dedication after listening to Segovia on the radio. He recalls filling in all his free time with practice on this instrument. Once he was satisfied that he was good enough he made contact with Len Williams in London in the hope that he might gain insight into the world of playing and teaching the classical guitar. He was warmly received and came away with more than he could have wished for, as Jack Duarte observed in his notes for a brochure promoting the Bristol Centre in the 1960s:
The meeting of Michael Watson with Len Williams resulted in the planning of the Spanish Guitar Centre (Western Area). All the resources of the London Centre were placed at Michael Watson’s disposal, and there is now co-operation of the closest kind. Outside London, the Bristol Centre is the best-organised, best-qualified, and largest teaching centre for the guitar in Britain; those who live within reach of it should account themselves fortunate. Michael Watson is a fine player, and an educated musician, also an experienced teacher, and he is in close touch with every important development in his field. In guitar teaching Bristol leads the provinces.
Len Williams offered Mike full use of the extensive range of printed teaching material used by his London Centre. He had no problem either with the name Spanish Guitar Centre being used with the proviso that (Western Area) was always placed in brackets next to it. Another high point for Mike was his experience of attending Segovia’s summer school at Siena, Italy, in 1955. Aside from being received into the presence of the great man, useful contacts were also made with leading players from around the world.
The Bristol Centre was housed in a modest domestic building in Elton Road. Initially Mike had taken a gamble and now it began to pay off. Numbers grew to the extent that he was able enlist help from some of his better pupils. One of these, Gordon Saunders, eventually became a partner in the enterprise, helping considerably with teaching and building up the commercial side of the business, particularly the importation of guitars from Spain. There was private tuition on offer, but the greatest activity was in the evenings when classes were held. At its height, the Centre was catering for around 230 pupils each week.
In 1962, I too was taken on by Mike, the introduction being made after I had met his brother Gordon by chance while visiting Reading. It seems Mike was suitably impressed with my finger-style arrangement of Lullaby of Birdland, which I played for him one afternoon when I visited the Centre for the first time. I was welcomed in, but had to build my pupil numbers gradually and was paid accordingly. Working at the Centre afforded a wonderful opportunity to learn the trade and to meet the great and the good of the guitar world as they passed regularly through its doors. John Williams was a frequent visitor, always stopping over when he was performing in the West or Wales. Others included Jack Duarte, Ike Isaacs, Paco Peña and the Presti-Lagoya Duo. Often they were there to perform at recitals organised by the Centre. I was there for about five years. Much later, Gordon Saunders also departed to open his own business (with a change of instrument!): Saunders Recorders, in Blackboy Hill, Bristol. Also on the staff for some years were Dave Godden and his late wife Audrey. Dave was a professional musician very experienced in all styles of guitar playing. His diversity also extended to the lute, and he was at one time widely sought after as a recitalist on that instrument.
During the 1960s the first classical guitar summer schools were held at the Elton Road premises with just a few people attending. These were very successful, and as interest grew a more suitable larger venue was found at Cannington College in Somerset. The running of this annual event remained in hands of the Bristol Centre for some years until it was eventually handed over to Jack Duarte. At one time the Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre also operated branches in Cardiff and Swindon. In charge of Cardiff was the very knowledgeable Robin Pearson who first became a friend of the Bristol Centre through his attendance at the Summer Schools. With the blessing of Mike, Robin left Cardiff to establish the independent and still-active Nottingham Spanish Guitar Centre, which he managed until his untimely death in 1983.
With the sound guidance they received from Michael, many remarkable players emerged from the Bristol Centre. Among them two world-class performers stand out. These are the recitalist Anthea Gifford and the lutenist Anthony Bailes. Mike also formed a classical guitar duo with Louise Durrant, another of his talented graduates. An ex-pupil highly respected by Mike and who kept in touch over the years was John Edwards, a gifted recitalist and teacher. Not to be forgotten is David Daw, who had a fast and phenomenal technique on the instrument as a youth. Later a prominent Bristol architect, he designed the splendid house that Mike had built not far from the Bristol Downs. Local solicitor Stephen Smailes was another professional person and excellent player who dipped into the world of the guitar for a while, helping out Robin Pearson at Cardiff.
Over all his years at the Bristol Spanish Guitar Centre, Mike continued to enjoy playing jazz gigs and often went over to Cardiff to perform at the TWW TV studios (now HTV). By the 1990s the time came for him to pass the business to another former pupil, Chris Gilbert, who continues the work and ethos of the Centre from new premises in Coldharbour Road. Timothy Royal, a long-ago pupil from Elton Road days still helps out there. With retirement, Mike once again returned to the jazz which had first drawn him to the instrument and was active on the Bristol scene until he finally felt it was time to take a proper rest from it all.
Although his health deteriorated badly in his last years, Mike remained in touch with many of his past musical friends with his mind still keen and his memory intact. He managed to organise care which allowed him to remain in his own home throughout this difficult time, only needing hospitalisation at the very end. He was greatly helped by his former wife Denise, who lived nearby, and his loyal friend of many years, Mary.
Michael Watson is survived by Denise, his son Nick, his grandchildren Tegan and Finlay, his brother Gordon and his sister Joy.
Pat Benham 23/11/2011