Ukulele-playing chimney sweep gives lessons at Council on Aging

Apr 11, 2023

Peter Gugliotta acknowledges that, outside of “Mary Poppins,” musical chimney sweeps are a rare breed.

And yet, there he was, strumming his ukulele in Room 227 of the Council on Aging, wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt under his Atlantic Chimney uniform. Gugliotta, who lives in Foxborough, has cleaned out chimneys for 40 years. He has played guitar for 56. 

“I was born with it,” he said. “You feel it.”

The overcast afternoon of Friday, April 7 turned into Hawaiian sunshine at the Council on Aging, as Gugliotta gave ukulele and guitar lessons to a revolving door of eager students. 

“This is a language you’re learning,” he told his students. “Music is a strong language. It’s a language that will reach every people.” 

Spots in Gugliotta’s 30-minute weekly classes were sold out over a month before they began on Friday. 

Instruments, music stands, picks, books, tuners and other pieces of equipment were donated by Music Drives Us, a Norwood-based music education nonprofit.

Gugliotta calls himself “a born teacher.” His mother wanted him to be a priest, but he decided to sweep chimneys instead. He has the vocal cadence of Groucho Marx and the singing voice of Elvis, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson — depending on who he’s imitating. He often ends his nuggets of wisdom with “Capeesh?”

“You don’t have to be the best player and you don’t have to be the fastest player,” he said. “You just have to want to learn, and know that it takes time… Capeesh?” 

When Gugliotta started playing guitar in 1967, at age 12, lessons cost $3 an hour. Nowadays, the typical price is $30 for 30 minutes, but those at the Council on Aging could take Gugliotta’s lessons for free. 

With just three cords, he said, his students had “the power to create something.”

“Like this?” Janet Zaccardi joked, playing the ukulele behind her head a la Jimi Hendrix. 

She played the ukulele when she was a girl, “about 100 years ago,” but has since forgotten how.

“It has an upbeat, happy sound,” said Zaccardi, who took lessons on a ukulele that her friend gifted her. 

She wants to learn how to play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” 

Gugliotta made a list of famous musicians who have died due to drugs. He said that instead of turning to drugs, his students could get “high on life” by playing the ukulele. 

“Anyone can play it and pick it up quickly, have fun and smile,” he said. “You can make other people smile.” 

Jeanne McCarthy said that due to her arthritis, the ukulele is the perfect instrument for her.

“It has a rich sound,” she said, “but it’s a very small instrument so it’s easy to handle.”

Luke Loneland has never played the ukulele, but decided to challenge himself by taking Gugliotta’s class. He wants to learn how to play “Let it Be” by the Beatles.

“I’ve always wanted to learn how to play an instrument,” he said, “and now is a good time.”

For the first lesson, things started out simply. Gugliotta explained the parts of the ukulele, how to tune it and how to hold it. His attitude toward playing is slow and mellow, like the music he produces from his instrument.

“Don’t get frustrated, don’t throw it through the TV,” he said. “If you practice fast, and you practice sloppy, then you’re going to perform sloppy.”

He told his students that they only need to practice for 10 minutes per day, and that he sometimes plays the ukulele while driving.

“Don’t do that,” he said. 

Sharon Boyer worried that she wouldn’t have enough time to gain Gugliotta’s level of experience. 

“Don’t compare yourself to other players,” he said. “Compare yourself to yourself. Admire people that are better and say ‘Somehow, I’m going to become that way.’”