How Ralph McTell twisted my fingers

Ralph McTell
Ralph McTell

I once had a bruising encounter with the legendary folk singer Ralph McTell.

Ralph is a peaceful man but he twisted my fingers all over the place – all because of his classic song, The Streets of London.

Ralph accompanies the song by picking out the melody on the guitar.

Ralph McTell Streets of London

Learning to play Streets of London

When I was 16, I was really taken by the accompaniment and set myself the task of learning how to play it exactly as it sounded on the record.

This was back in the 1970s, long before the days of video tutorials, lessons on YouTube or even decent tablature books.

I very quickly ran into problems. When I put the record on my Dansette record player I was disappointed to find that Ralph was playing in what seemed to be D Flat.

I had no idea how to play a D Flat chord

I had no idea how to play a chord like D Flat but I was determined to play the song exactly as recorded so I set about working out all the chords.

I then had to work out how to play the melody at the same time as getting that nice bass sound.

It was impossible. Having to bar across to get create weird chords in the key of D Flat meant I didn’t have enough fingers to do the clever stuff. I started to think Ralph McTell must be some kind of superman.

Disheartened, I gave up for a while and only came back to it after a chance meeting with a guitarist when I first visited a folk club.

Revelation when first heard of a capo

He put me straight in seconds. He told me McTell played the song in D and if my record player turned that into D Flat then it wasn’t spinning at the right speed and I should buy a new one.

Just as importantly, he pointed out that McTell played the song by putting a capo on the second fret and then played the song as if it was in C Major.

This was like a revelation to me. I’d never heard of a capo until then but I bought one the next day. I started to play the song as if it was in C and the whole thing became so much simpler.

Melody fell easily under the chord shapes

The melody fell easily under the chord shapes and it almost seemed effortless.

It meant I could join the legion of wannabe folk singers in the seventies who had learnt to play Streets of London as a rite of passage and who subsequently went on to flog it to death in the folk clubs.

Sorry about that Ralph.

The point of all this I suppose is to show how so much time and effort can be wasted for the sake of just a tiny bit of knowledge.

By Patrick Kehoe

Pat Kehoe is a writer for Irish Music Daily. His favourite Irish music bands are the Dubliners and Planxty.