Hail the guitar man

Guitarist Sean Woods. (1008PG19)
Guitarist Sean Woods. (1008PG19)

There are not many classical guitarists from Lettershandoney.

City of Derry Guitar Festival director, Sean Woods, was born in Leeds but he owes his upbringing to the small county Derry village.

Sean Woods pictured with his hero and classical guitarist Carlos Bonnell. (SUNINT120801)

Sean Woods pictured with his hero and classical guitarist Carlos Bonnell. (SUNINT120801)

Sean plays the classical guitar with the same delicacy and grace as say a seasoned guitarist from Malaga or Madrid but his accent is still very much Lettershandoney.

Sean was born in Leeds in November 1965 but when he was seven months old his family returned to Lettershandoney.

“Growing up in Lettershandoney was great,” remembered Sean.

“It was a very tight community and everyone looked after one another. I met some great people back then and some would still be friends today.”

The music book signed by Carlos Bonnell in 1987. (SUNINT120802)

The music book signed by Carlos Bonnell in 1987. (SUNINT120802)

As a youngster, Sean attended Mullabuoy Primary School before going on to study at St. Patrick’s and St. Brigid’s College in Claudy. However, academia and Sean failed to see eye to eye and at the age of 15 he left school and moved to Leeds in search of employment.

“I wasn’t ready to learn back then,” said Sean.

“I was a bit of a rebel and thought I knew it all. I moved to Leeds and got a job working as a labourer on a building site.

“I worked on building sites for the best part of 14 years and I don’t think there’s a city in England, Scotland or Wales that I didn’t work in. It was hard work but I really enjoyed it.”

Many years after meeting Carlos Bonnell on the streets of Belfast, Sean performed on stage with him at the second City of Derry Guitar Festival in 2003. (SUNINT120803)

Many years after meeting Carlos Bonnell on the streets of Belfast, Sean performed on stage with him at the second City of Derry Guitar Festival in 2003. (SUNINT120803)

Sean spent the last two years of his building career working as a bricklayer in Berlin.

“Living and working in Berlin was amazing. Myself and three other fellas shared a a studio apartment in Uhlandstrasse. I was married with two children at the time and whilst I was working away on building sites in Berlin my wife Bernie had her hands full rearing our children back home in Derry.

“When I worked in Berlin I was paid extremely well. I remember my first wage packet for four days work was about £750. I said to the foreman, ‘there’s been a mistake’ but he told me that that was the going rate in Berlin at the time.

“I worked really hard for those two years and sent as much money as I could back to Bernie and the children. With the benefit of hindsight, I am delighted that I got the opportunity to work in Berlin - it was a great experience.”

Sean was 30 when he decided to call time on his work in Berlin but unbeknownst to him, his life had already taken a different path seven years earlier.

What happened next changed Sean’s life and the youngster who had no time for school or for learning disappeared; Sean knew what he wanted out of life.

“I can remember it as if it were yesterday. It was 1987 and I was at home watching the television when a programme called ‘My Derry’ came on. It was hosted by Gerry Anderson and in it he was interviewing a classical guitarist from the Top of the Hill called Brian O’Doherty.

“I listened to Brian playing the guitar and thought it was one of most beautiful things I had ever heard.”

A while later, Sean was tuning in his radio to tape a rock concert when he came across a classical guitar programme on BBC Radio 3.

“I was really into heavy metal bands when I was younger. I was a fan of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. I looked completely different to how I look now - I had long black hair and a moustache.

“I always tried to get to the annual Donington rock concert but when I was 22 I couldn’t go so I decided to try and tape it off the radio.

“I was tuning in the radio when, by complete accident, I came across a programme called ‘Guitar Encores’.

“I heard a guitarist called John Mills play this wonderful piece of music - it really touched me.

“The ‘My Derry’ and the ‘Guitar Encores’ changed me - I wanted to learn how to play the classical guitar.”

Unsure of how to go about learning how to play the instrument Sean discovered a book that would teach him all he needed to know; the catch was that he had to travel to Belfast to pick it up.

“Don’t forget, this was a time when there was no such thing as Amazon so when I found this book I didn’t hesitate at all and went straight to Belfast to buy it.

“I went up to Belfast the day before the book was due to arrive and when I was walking past the Opera House I noticed that one of the world’s greatest classical guitarists, Carlos Bonnell, was in town playing.

“I bought tickets and went. It was the most amazing concert and the next day I bought the book.

“The next day I was walking near the Europa Hotel when I saw this man waiting for a taxi - it was Carlos Bonnell - I couldn’t believe it.

“I ran towards him with my book in my hand. I had long hair and a moustache at the time - poor Carlos must have been terrified,” laughed Sean.

“I told Carlos that I was trying to learn how to play the classical guitar and he stood and chatted to me for ages. I got my picture taken with him and he signed my book - the book’s called ‘Music From Scratch’ and I still have it to this day,” he smiled.

Sean took to the guitar like a duck to water. For the next seven years he worked on building sites by day but at night Sean rushed home where he practised for hours and learned how to read music.

“I am completely self-taught,” said Sean proudly.

“I achieved Grade Eight [the highest grade there is] in playing the classical guitar. I had a natural aptitude towards playing the guitar - it’s hard to put into words.”

Sean bought his first ever classical guitar from a music shop in Strabane for £32. His fervour for the classical guitar went from strength to strength and when he returned home from Berlin in the mid 1990s his wife suggested he try and build a career out of his musical talent.

“When I started playing the guitar I never ever thought that I would earn money from it. I started playing the guitar because it was something I thought I would enjoy doing.

“I had just come back from Berlin and I didn’t know what I was going to do. There wasn’t much work about Derry but one day Bernie arrived home with a large pile of university prospectuses.

“I didn’t know what to think. I was in my thirties and I hadn’t a qualification to my name - but I was thinking about applying to go to university to study music - I must have been mad.”

Sean applied to study musical performance at the Leeds College of Music.

“I got called for interview so I prepared two pieces of music to play on my classical guitar. The man who was assessing me was called Graham Wade and midway through my first piece he stopped me and asked me to play the next piece I had prepared. I was gutted because I thought he thought I was no good.

“I finished playing my second piece and turned to Graham and said ‘ah well, it was worth a try’. To which he replied ‘what are you talking about?. You have great technique and skill - we’d love to offer you a place.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing - I turned to him and said ‘are you f******g serious, sir?’.”

After a year at the Leeds College of Music, Sean spent a further three years studying at Leeds University. Whilst there he helped to form ‘The Breton Hall Guitar Quartet’ with Nathan Martin, Wyeth Cooke and Japanese classical guitarist Satoshi Ikedi.

“They were great days. We all try and keep in touch. Bernie and I are actually just back from visiting Satoshi in Tokyo.”

When he was at university Sean would practice playing the classical guitar for five or six hours every day.

He’d rise every morning at 6.45a.m., have a coffee and then practice for two and a half hours before going to university. When he’d come home he’d do the exact same; have a coffee and practice for two or three hours.

“I thoroughly enjoyed university life and it was hard at times as Bernie was home in Derry with the kids but looking back now, it was one of the best things I ever did.”

Since graduating Sean has worked for the Derry Classical Music Society, North West Regional College, the University of Ulster and Donegal Vocational Education Committee.

Sean has passed on his love of music to hundreds of students from all over the world but ten years ago he decided he wanted to go one step further.

In 2002 Sean founded the City of Derry Guitar Festival. Since the first festival was held in the University of Ulster, Magee campus ten years ago, Sean has managed to bring some of the biggest names from the classical guitar world to Derry.

This year’s festival is the festival’s tenth anniversary but it is the festival that was held in 2003 that holds the most sway with Sean.

“The second year of the festival was really special because it was the year I got to perform on stage with Carlos Bonnell.

“I told Carlos the story about the photograph, the book and meeting him in Belfast in 1987 and he couldn’t believe it.

“Carlos is one of my best friends now and Bernie and I have visited him in Spain, Italy and he even invited us to stay at his home in Venezuela.”

This year’s City of Derry Guitar Festival runs from August 24 to 26. Sean says that he has high hopes for this year’s showpiece.

“I am really excited because this is the first year that the festival will be held in the new North West Regional College building.

“Carlos Bonnell is coming again this year and we have artists and musicians from all over the world. It’s a festival for everyone. From complete beginners to experts - the festival has something for everyone.”

Sean also owns his own successful recording studio - Birchwoods Recording Studio in Ardmore. He said that his hopes for the future are to expand his work through his recording studio and continue to improve the City of Derry Guitar Festival.

“Music is my life - I don’t really know or want to do anything else. I still love playing the classical guitar and I suppose that’s why I am so passionate about the festival.

“As long as I am about I’ll make sure the festival gets bigger and better every year,” said Sean smiling.

For further information on the City of Derry Guitar Festival telephone 028 7131 1288; Twitter @DerryGuitarFestival or Facebook: www.facebook/cityofderryguitarfestival.

For further information on Sean’s recording studio visit www.birchwoodsrecordingstudio.com