Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Guitar Story

There are many reasons that people who met me over a decade ago would see me differently than those who've met me recently, but there's one reason in particular that secretly bothers me.  Most people I know now would be surprised to hear that I used to play the guitar.  A lot.  The people I met before would be equally surprised to hear that I no longer do.

Everyone in high school seeks out their thing that sets them apart, and for me that became playing the guitar.  Well, that and I basically always wore the same poncho.  I was happy to later find out that the key feature I enjoyed (the marsupial pouch in front) could also be found much more fashionably in hoodies.  But this isn't a story about my deep abiding love of a good zip-up hoody.  This is the story of my rise and fall as a guitarist, my great shame, and how I plan to bring back something I once loved.

My parents purchased an old nylon string acoustic guitar at an auction sometime when I was very young.  I'm pretty sure the intention was that one of them would learn to play it, but I first found it in a closet sometime around the 6th grade.  This timing coincided with the beginning of what I'll overstate as my musical awakening.  I was beginning to really listen to music, and the idea of playing along and maybe creating my own music appealed to me.  So I picked up that guitar, turned on the radio, and tried to mimic the sounds I was hearing.

Keep in mind that this guitar was horrifically out of tune.  I had no teacher and no internet.  I hadn't the slightest clue what the relationships between the strings were supposed to be, so I just randomly tried different frets until it sounded like what was coming out of the radio.  Eventually I got a hold of some old guitar books and was able to correctly tune the strings relative to each other, but I think there was still a good stretch there where I tuned off of the radio.  (These kids today with their automatic electronic tuners, grumble grumble)

I remember playing for a talent show in middle school with a kid from my neighborhood, Mackenzie Pinch.  We did a little self-written acoustic duet.  The weird thing is I can't for the life of me remember what sort of audience we had, so I don't know if it a real talent show or just an audition.  I don't think they turn down anyone in middle school talent shows, so it must have been the real deal.  All I remember is being critiqued on my lack of showmanship.

I played with a couple of different friends over the years.  And of course every time we had to form a band name and concept.  I remember Kindred and Sterc in particular.  At one point I had a brief arrangement at a local church.  Mind you, at the time I was a stewing pot of venomous anti-Christian pseudo-intellectualism.  I think they hoped that by just being around the whole process it would somehow convert me.  It didn't work - I just enjoyed the opportunity to play with a band.  The songs weren't exactly rockin', but it scratched an itch.

So I played around, had a good time, and slowly got better.  But I don't think it really became part of my identity until after my Freshman year of high school.  It was then that I started bringing my guitar to school to play during the lunch break.  That thing went with me everywhere, and my playing really picked up a notch.  I had started my journey in the grunge era, and then went back in time through classic rock.  But the thoughtful acoustic licks of the Dave Matthews Band gave me some excellent material to work with in my senior year.

But there's a time for everything, and that time is college.  That's when my playing was at its peak.  Some random evening in my dorm I wandered onto the wrong floor which turned out to be the right floor.  I met Dan and Billy and we started playing music.  It became a regular thing, us playing in the common area in the evenings.  Half the students on the floor loved it and half hated it - presumably because they were trying to study or some nonsense.  But me for it was the best of times.  It was casual but fun.

One of us blossomed.  Dan stuck with it and has really grown into a lovely singer songwriter over the last decade.  You can check him out online here, or in person this Saturday the 23rd at the Crocodile.

The other component of playing music in college was sunny days on the quad or red square.  One of these days some dude came by and started playing with me.  His style was interesting, his material original, and we hit it off musically.  We agreed to meet again and it quickly became a regular thing.  It actually got kind of serious.  We started recording songs, performed in the university talent show (for real this time - I definitely remember this one), and most of my guitar activity started to revolve around this duo.  It seemed great at the time, but it was actually the beginning of everything unraveling.

The songs were his, and he also provided the vocals, so I settled into an accompaniment role.  It was nice to focus on that and grow my melodic skills.  But over time I became dependent.  It wasn't about what I brought to the table; it was about what I could add to what was already on the table.  All of my song ideas started to dry up from lack of attention.

I realized I didn't have a real personal connection with this guy and so I was only half interested in the partnership.  I eventually broke it off.  Well, I stopped returning phone calls.  Same difference?

I had left myself in a situation where when I picked up the guitar I didn't know what to play.  I had the skill to do something with it, but no spark of inspiration.  So I'd pick it up, fiddle around a bit, and then set it back down again feeling somewhat disappointed.  Eventually I started accelerated the process by not picking it up at all.  I got a job, moved, and it became all to easy to forget it all. 

It's hard to explain the emotion.  Sitting there feeling like you have this untapped potential.  You have a voice, but you have nothing to say.  I felt creatively barren, thoroughly uninspired and uninteresting.  And then I was ashamed for leaving it behind.  It had been such a huge part of me but then it was gone.  It's like an old relationship where there are all these awkward maneuverings to avoid having to think about what it used to be and how it can no longer be that.  You find yourself avoiding contact altogether just to prevent any opportunity to stir up old emotions.

Time has given me the perspective to understand what went wrong, but it's been harder to find a path to fix it.  Essentially, I became overly focused on creation.  If I couldn't bring something original to the table then I was a failure.  By concentrating on the value of creation, I had lost the simple joy of just playing.  Before it had never mattered if I was playing someone else's song.  But as soon as it mattered more if it was my song, my sense of contentment became susceptible to the ebb and flow of creative juices.  God forbid there be an extended period of ebb.

So the fix that had to be made was to restore that joy of playing.  It sounds easier that it is.  If every time you pick up an instrument you feel like a failure then it's hard to muster up the energy to idly strum a few tunes.  And the longer you go without playing, the fewer songs you can remember to play.  So even though I've known what the problem is for years, it's been hard to overcome the wounds and move forward.

Thankfully a potential solution has fallen from the heavens: Pro Guitar for Rock Band 3.  Basically you can now play a real guitar with Rock Band.  You choose the song, it'll tell you how to play it, and you can just focus on having a good time.  But it's real.  Real chords, real scales.  Real.  It's exactly the thing I've needed.  So I dropped the (not insignificant) chunk of cash on the setup to get me back on the wagon.

I've been at it for only a week now.  It's too early to say how this will play out.  But I'm optimistic.  It was good to feel the muscle memory kick into action and pick up right where I left it.  The callouses haven't fared as well, but a daily regiment will have those back in no time.  In the meantime I just have to pace myself a bit.  But I think it's working, and it's got me walking around with a bit more bounce in my step.

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