Muso Mirror Interviews: Classical Guitarist Carlos Bonell

In the first in a new series where we speak to musicians about their careers and experience using the Muso Mirror, we are joined by Spanish-British classical guitarist Carlos Bonell. Carlos has played on a Grammy-nominated album, worked with Paul McCartney, and is now a big fan of the Muso Mirror. He speaks to us from his home in a small village in the southeast of Spain. 

Carlos Bonell was born in London, but to Spanish parents. He grew up speaking Spanish. As a teenager in the 1960s he would go to Spain on holiday to visit his aunts and uncles. “All the local children would be in awe of me because I had come from England,” he says. “They would ask me ‘Do you know the Beatles?’ 

credit: Portsmouth Festivities 2018

Image credit: Portsmouth Festivities 2018

Being a mischievous youth with a British sense of humour, Carlos’s response was natural. “I would really lead them on,” he says. “‘Yeah, course I do, course I do!’”

By some quirk of fate, 20 years later it was true. Carlos played guitar on Give My Regards to Broadstreet, a little known Paul McCartney album from 1984. He also played at Paul’s wedding to his second wife Heather Mills, and later helped the Beatle in composing a concerto for classical guitar. 

“It’s incredible,” says Carlos. “Life is really weird isn’t it?” 

Life has indeed been weird for Carlos. One of his earliest memories is sitting in school aged five, with a scary teacher looming over him. She was telling him off, in English, but he couldn’t understand a word of it. He soon picked it up. 

It was around the same age that he first picked up a guitar, the instrument to which he has devoted his life. He studied at the Royal College of Music, London, under celebrated classical guitarist John Williams. At 22, Carlos became the College’s youngest ever professor. In 1975 he played on John Williams and Friends, a classical album featuring two guitars, two marimbas and a bass. The album featured interpretations of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi, and was nominated for a Grammy. “I've got a plaque which is hanging on my wall,” he says. “It’s nice to have that, really nice.”

Carlos has recorded a number of albums himself, including classical interpretations of Queen and the gorgeous Magical Mystery Guitar Tour, an album comprising covers of 13 Beatles songs. His version of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is enough to make you forget there’s a pandemic on. When he recorded the album around 2012, he sent some tracks to Paul McCartney, who replied immediately to say he really liked them. (Incidentally Carlos picks out ‘The Fool on the Hill’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ as his favourite Beatles songs.)

Carlos has contributed to several books and magazines about guitar playing and now teaches aspiring guitarists — albeit over Zoom in the last few months. Dodgy connections and compressed sound mean it’s not ideal, but he’s managed. He’s just about able to hear his students’ occasional mistakes. “Weren't you playing an F sharp in bar 17 when it should be an F natural?” he’ll say during a session. 

One thing Carlos always does is encourage his students to practise in front of a mirror, something he’s done since he was a student himself. “The mirror has got a wonderful therapy about it,” he says. “I always felt it had a calming effect and it would oblige you to look at your hands. You would notice things that you would not normally notice to do with relaxation and positioning.” 

While Carlos was teaching at the Royal College, he taught Alphonso Archer, inventor of the Muso Mirror. Years later Alphonso approached Carlos with a prototype of the Muso Mirror. “It was a very imaginative and very practical idea from Alphonso,” Carlos says. He often practises with the Mirror now. “It’s incredibly useful.” 

The New York Times once described Carlos as “a player of superb poetic gifts”, while Classical Guitar Magazine called him “one of the great communicators of the guitar world”. Put that way, it’s little wonder he’s worked with one of the world’s greatest living songwriters. 

 Like all of the Beatles, McCartney never learned to read music, quite a contrast to Carlos’s esteemed classical style. “It’s not fair,” says Carlos. “Every time he would strum a chord for me it made the most beautiful sound, and the voicing on it was absolutely perfect. If he wanted to bring out the melody note, it would come out absolutely first time. If he wanted to bring out a middle not — which is much more difficult, he would bring that out too, first time. So he’s intensely, intensely gifted and musical… He doesn’t need me to say that, but I mean since you’re asking me, that’s my impression.”

 He speaks highly of McCartney, praising everything from his sense of humour to his work ethic. “I always thought that the musical engine behind the whole of the Beatles enterprise was Paul. I just had that feeling. He was the lyrical one, you know. John was the acid one, the one who poured a little bit of cold water on certain ideas and then turned them into something a little bit more biting. But Paul was the one I felt who really loved the whole idea of performance. And I think that was actually confirmed when I got to know him.” Carlos adds that he saw McCartney as deceptively shy. 

 Despite beginning in 2006, McCartney’s classical guitar concerto is yet to be finished. Carlos says a lot of work has gone into it and speaks fondly of how it sounds. “It’s a mixture of bits which you go ‘Oh that sounds like the Beatles’, bits which sound like baroque music, and other bits which sound like Spanish music,” he says. “I hope that if you write this up, it’s a good message to Paul: Paul, where is that guitar concerto? Shall we pick it up again? That’s the message.” 

 

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