Learning To Play Guitar

I finally did it. I finally developed the discipline and with age, cared little enough of what others thought, to sit down and figure it out. It took me over 40 years to get here. It didn’t come easy and I still lack the proficiency to feel confident enough to play in public but I can at least strum the strings well enough to recognize the tune. How many years did I squander without playing the guitar? Of how much joy have I robbed myself? How many ears have I spared by waiting this long?

               I was told that as a newborn in the hospital, I had my new family gathered around the plate glass window to look at this pink, squirming creature who was joining their clan. One of my great grandmothers noticed my foot was bouncing up and down in the crib as I lay there and announced, “look-a- there, he’s got rhythm”. However, my wife can attest that this rhythm, didn’t develop much beyond that point. On our honeymoon, as we sat at a dinner table watching a show in the hotel’s lounge, the singer on stage had all the new husbands in the crowd come up and join in a dance competition. I wanted to bolt for the door but not wanting to seem a stick in the mud to my new wife, I decided to shed my default, introverted skin and play along. Well, rather than shame myself further, lets just say that my wife considers it the most embarrassing moment of her life and leave it at that.

               I grew up with music in the house. It was always playing, no matter the house. No matter the parent. Before I can even remember, my mother was playing the piano at home and later at church. Most evenings she and I would gather in the living room to listen to records while my Dad watched television after supper. There was Frankie Valli, who we called the man with the squeaky voice, begging for Sherry to come out tonight. He sounded like someone hit him in the unmentionables with a green citron melon. We listened to Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Mamas and Papas, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Elvis, and even Sha Na Na. My mother had even seen the Beatles in concert as a teenager with her sisters and a few friends, when the Fab Four played Atlanta-Fulton County stadium. This group of girls from Moreland, Georgia sat in the nosebleed section, barely able to make out what John and Paul were singing into the microphone. Mama said a lot of girls around them were screaming and crying just like you see on the old footage. One of the ladies chaperoning my mother’s group slapped a girl she didn’t even know square on the jaw to bring her back to her senses.

               My father was partial to the Temptations, the Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cook, and Buddy Holly. Most of my memories of listening to music with him fall upon time spent driving. Driving to school, driving to the farm, anywhere we went, he had music playing. I remember going to old record shops with him when our family went on vacation and spending more time than I wanted browsing the bins. Later, when the digital age arrived, he amassed a vast collection of music on an external hard drive and catalogued it all in notebooks. He even bought a juke box at one point.

               My aunts-my mother’s sisters-were both very talented musically. My Aunt Sally played the piano and flute and still does at church services. Aunt Kate played the guitar and also the saxophone in band, and today leads her church choir. When I was 5-7 years old or so they were still in High School and the school band was a big part of their lives. When we visited I sometimes got to sit with the band during football games. At one point, with the help of my grandmother, Sally and Kate made me a little band uniform like theirs. I mimed playing the trumpet but it never took beyond that. Sally and Kate introduced me to the music of Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac.

               As I entered my teenage years around 1983-84, I began to search out my own music and develop my own musical tastes. I gravitated first toward the Police and then Journey, whose Escape album was the very first album I purchased on my own. Then Springsteen. I wore out the Born in the USA album in the 8th grade.  Along came Tears for Fears, Prince, and of course, Van Halen.

               During High School I discovered R.E.M. and quickly devoured their first 5 albums. Like millions of other people I became a U2 fan with the Joshua Tree album. I also got really into The Cult (yes, this is the name of a band) around that time. This was the age of hair metal, so naturally I also fell under the influence of bands like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Poison, Ratt, and even saw a little known band by the name of Guns N Roses open for Motley Crue in Albany, GA on November 4, 1987. By the time I reached college I had discovered lesser known but great bands like Drivin N Cryin, The BlueRunners and Dreams So Real. Started listening more to Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I remained devoted to REM, U2, and the Police, but what really got me was the first Pearl Jam album in 1991. They have been my go-to ever since. Heck I’m listening to their Live at Benaroya Hall album as I write this.

               So, you see where I’m coming from here. Perhaps it was the era in which I came of age but of all the great music I heard growing up, that which I felt most deeply, down into my very bones, was based on the guitar. There’s the solo to While My Guitar Gently Weeps by the Beatles, Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, the Who’s Baba O’Riley, Like a Hurricane by Neil Young, or the live version of Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers.  As the strings of an electric guitar bend and wail it sounds like anguish and joy and relief and pain and pleasure all rolled into one.

               The guitar evolved from two ancient instruments. The lute resembled the guitar except that it was more rounded, had 20-30 strings and was played with a quill feather. This instrument was developed by the Egyptians, passed to the Greeks, then to the Romans, and finally made its way to Europe. The Moors brought with them an instrument called the oud when they invaded Spain in 711A.D. The instruments continued to evolve through the Renaissance. The lute slowly declined in popularity and was replaced in Europe largely by the Baroque guitar, which had up to five gut strings and developed the curved shape we see in the acoustic guitar today. Finally, by the 1790’s Spanish guitars were standardized to resemble the modern guitar with six strings.

The first modern guitar was developed in the mid 1800s by a Spanish musician and Luthier named Antonio de Torres Jurado. Jurado gave his guitars a broadened body and other innovative designs that gave them their distinct heavy sound. Europeans soon began to put steel strings on these guitars and hauled them to America, where its design would continue to evolve thanks to people like C.F. Martin and Orville Gibson until Adolph Rickenbacher created an electromagnetic device that would convert the strings’ vibrations into clear, resonant sound and it became the instrument that enraptured millions of kids like me.

               It was in High School that I first wanted to make those sounds come out of an instrument myself. But I was too self-conscious to ask for lessons or even tell anyone I wanted to learn. I borrowed my aunt Kate’s acoustic once and thought I could teach myself to play by listening to a cassete tape, pausing it and picking out the notes. But I had no clue what I was doing so I gave up and resigned myself to living vicariously through my guitar heroes.

               I tried again in college, borrowing a cheap novice guitar from one of my cousins who had taken lessons and then lost interest. However, once again I couldn’t make sense of it and lacked the gumption to ask for help or make the effort to read and learn. I couldn’t understand how to make my fingers bend to shape the chords and gave up once more. But I continued to carry that guitar around with me as I moved from one apartment to another over the years and finally into the home I now share with my wife and kids.

               Finally, at 40-something years old and with a wife, two kids, a job, a mortgage, a farm, two cats, two dogs, four rabbits, and a vegetable garden, I decided to sit down over the Christmas holidays one year and force myself to learn to play. The first thing I ever learned to play was a note by note version of “Amazing Grace”. For some reason its still the only song I’ve been able to pick out note for note myself. Then I decided to tackle chords. This personal triumph was made possible by the miracle of the nefarious internet, where you can find the chords to virtually any song you can imagine.

               I didn’t even really know what chords were and if I had to explain it to you now I doubt I could. But, I bought a beginners chord book, which showed where to place my fingers on the strings, and at which fret—another term I had to learn. It seemed obvious that the shapes of many chords were developed as a form of torture in the dark ages to twist fingers into positions they were never meant to attain.

               I began with perhaps the easiest chords to learn—D, A, and G. There are entire songs you can play with those three chords, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was able to bend my fingers into the shapes for these chords and learned to switch between the three faster and faster. Over the course of a few days it got easier and easier as my finger muscles developed their memory, until I could change between those three chords without thinking about it.

               From D, A, and G I moved on to C, E, and Am (A-minor), adding these to my meager repertoire. At that point I could make attempts at quite a variety of songs. I bought chord books for Tom Petty, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, American Folk Songs, Old Gospel Hymns, Zeppelin, and the Beatles, who by the way used very complicated chords on some of their songs.

               I learned that regardless of the artist, songs that sound simple are often quite hard and vice versa. Take “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin for example. Sounds complicated but its much easier to play than The Beatles’ “Blackbird”, which sounds as though it should be easy to play.

Each evening I parked myself on the piano stool in our living room and practiced and practiced to the chagrin of my wife and daughters. Pretty soon I came to understand song tabs, looked on-line and learned to pick out the themes to “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Bonanza”. I could only play sitting down, looking at the fretboard (another fancy guitar term) for the longest time. I couldn’t fathom how one could do this standing up, not looking at where you place your fingers.  As my muscle memory got better and better I could also play standing up. I learned some songs so well I didn’t even have to look at the chords in the book to play them.

               I still play to myself most evenings or in the rare spare moments of a day, when the house is empty. Often enough that I am able to keep the calluses on the ends of my fingers, by which those with the observational powers of Sherlock Holmes can tell a guitar player. I’m a step above air guitar now and with tabs, even learned to pick out a passable version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” note by note, which sounds best through an amp with distortion—Hendrix style. I’m dabbling now with scales, though I fear I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to form bar chords.

               They say the guitar or any instrument for that matter, is good for cognitive function. Playing an instrument helps create new neural connections and strengthens old ones within the brain, which helps to keep your mind sharp as you age. Hopefully, I started just in time. It’s a great stress reducer as well. So, I add these to my reasoning for spending time with the guitar. But, my wife’s not buying it.

               I don’t think I’ll ever master the guitar. I don’t think anyone does. Not Jimmy Page. Not Eric Clapton. Not even Eddie Van Halen or the great Chuck Berry. Duane Allman had not mastered it either when that flat bed truck drove into his motorcycle’s path on Hillcrest Avenue in Macon. As good as these guys are or were in some cases, they would likely be the first to tell you they were always learning. I never expected to be as good as those guys. I just wanted to be able to play like Andy Taylor on the front porch in the evening. Playing the guitar is a journey. One I hope to be on for the rest of my days. I’ll never be as good as most. Just ask my wife. But, sometimes that’s ok.

©2020 Lenny Wells

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