Vintage Guitar Scene: Paul Cumming and his National Tri-cone

This is the story of a vintage resonator guitar and one of its owners.

Some years ago I had a “significant” birthday celebration, and one of the musicians who came along to join in the celebrations was Paul Cumming – an old friend from our days together in Perth, WA. Paul (a.k.a. Elroy Flicker) was a guitarist/singer who played in a number of bands in Perth and later in Melbourne. He was a great guitar player and front man, and stories abound regarding his wild performances and his reputation for partying.

Unfortunately in 1991 Paul was involved in a car crash which left him a quadriplegic. For most guitar players this would have signalled the end of a musical career, but Paul was no ordinary individual, and during his rehab he came up with a plan. He determined that with the limited movement he had in his left thumb he’d be able to hold a slide and play lap steel, and so with the help of some friends, he set about making this a reality. He soon developed sufficient technique to get back into playing, and formed a succession of bands that played around Melbourne pubs.

Paul arrived at my birthday party bearing a guitar, together with a licence agreement he’d prepared. The agreement – a “Learner’s Lending License” provided for me to retain his guitar – a 1929 Style 1 Square-neck National Tri-cone– for a one year period, with the possibility of extension by negotiation. The agreement stated that the purpose of the loan was “to perpetuate, disseminate and further spread the joy of Hawaiian music worldwide”.

I’d played a bit of electric slide guitar for many years, but had very little experience of lap steel. Having been entrusted with such an amazing instrument, it was incumbent upon me to set about learning a bit more about lap steel playing.

Upon each anniversary of the agreement I would contact Paul regarding the instrument and he would readily agree to an extension of the loan. I was therefore able to enjoy his beautiful instrument for a number of years, using it on a number of recordings. Although these recordings may not have fulfilled the conditions of the loan agreement in relation to “spreading the joy of Hawaiian music”, Paul seemed to approve of my efforts.

Eventually Paul said that he’d like to have the Tri-cone back, “to do a bit of cultural stocktaking”. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and when I returned the guitar (in April 2017) I was shocked to see how much his health had deteriorated. He told me that he didn’t have long to live, due to complications arising from his condition. Sadly Paul passed away on 8thAugust 2017.

His life was celebrated with a wake at the St Kilda Army and Navy Club, where many of his musical colleagues performed and toasted his memory in a manner that would have met with Paul’s approval.

Paul was an intelligent, witty and generous man with a tremendous knowledge of guitars and amps and a significant collection of musical equipment, all of which he shared freely.

Studio and live recordings featuring Paul are available at https://elroyflicker.bandcamp.com/.

About Ben Rogers 16 Articles

Ben Rogers has played guitar for a long time, and has accumulated an odd assortment of guitars over the years. He plays around Melbourne with Instrumental Asylum – a surf/spy/guitar-noir group, and also with his gypsy-jazz combo The Ben Rogers Trio.

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