Strings

There was a time in my life when I was actually a pretty good guitar player, if I do say so myself. College years, mostly. I was always chronically short on cash, had plenty of time on my hands, and lived in a neighborhood where nobody gave a damn if you cranked up a stack of amps at 2 in the morning and worked on Billy Gibbons solos until your hands bled.

I was never all that solid from a technical perspective, but I made up for a lot with speed, feeling, and the basic musical intuition that most of the men in my clan seem to be born with. Besides, when you’re playing hard rock you can cover a lot of flaws in technique with enough volume, feedback, distortion and the appropriate (distorted) facial expressions.

Then I quit school and went to work and the free time dried up. Got married and suddenly cranking the amps to 11 didn’t seem like such a good idea. A few years after we moved to North Carolina our house got broken into and ransacked, and all my amps and gadgets got stolen. Thankfully they didn’t take any of my guitars, but without anything to plug them into they just hung there on the wall. I’d look at them every once in awhile and think “One of these days I’m going to get another amplifier and get back into playing…” – but I never did.

Before I knew it, 15 years had passed and I hadn’t touched a guitar at all.

Then a few years ago I spent a weekend trout fishing with my dad and two of my uncles on the Williams River up in West Virginia. They all brought their acoustic guitars, and we sat around the fire every night singing the old songs, telling the old jokes and the old stories, laughing until our faces hurt.

That weekend really struck a chord (so to speak) with me. It reminded me of why I liked playing music in the first place. How simple it could be. That you don’t need anything expensive, heavy, fragile or even electric. Just a tune in your head and a wooden box with some strings stretched across it. It also reminded me that it didn’t have to be work. Playing could just be fun. There was no need for every session to be treated like a warm-up for my big opener at Madison Square Garden. You can just play and sing for the joy of it.

I talked so much about it that Vicki got me a Fender FR50 Resonator for my birthday 2 months later, and I’ve been playing just about every day since. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun, but it hasn’t been easy by any stretch.

Trying to learn when you haven’t played in 15 years is almost as bad as learning from scratch, and in some ways it might be worse. My brain could remember the basic chords and scales and things, but my fingers had forgotten them entirely, so it felt a lot like trying to play with somebody else’s hands. Just rebuilding my calluses took months. I’m also 30 years older than the 12 year old boy who picked up his dad’s guitar and sat on the front porch plucking at it every night, and you’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t – I was) at how much of a difference age makes in this whole process. Those creaky old neurons have a much harder time picking up new things and wiring new patterns.

As it normally does, my basic stubbornness has complicated the crap out of the process as well. I decided early on that if I was going to be learning all over again, I might as well do it right this time, so I’ve been working a lot harder on avoiding shortcuts and tricks, forcing myself to keep going back to the difficult things, and trying to develop a more sound technique.

The most surprising part of all this isn’t how much I’m enjoying it – but how good it is for me. I’d forgotten that playing guitar is just good zen. When I’ve been working my ass off and my head is full, I can take a 15-minute break, play a few old songs and hum along, and clear out the mental clutter. It’s done wonders for my productivity, and the way my job is going right now I really need that.

The great unanswered question would be “What’s the point? Why am I doing all this?” Do I want to keep working on it until I’m capable of performing in front of people again, or am I just noodling around? Those are normally important questions for me, because I usually want to feel like I’m working towards something. Having a goal (or at least a destination) keeps me focused, and keeps my overly-curious mind from leading me in all sorts of scattered directions.

But I’m OK leaving the question open, I think. Playing isn’t interfering with things I should be doing, it’s good for me, and I’m having fun with it.

That’s enough for now.

Ken

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4 comments to Strings

  • Ellen Stoune

    Maybe the goal is simply to enjoy that Zen mind that graces the rest of your life. Maybe… Plus I heard a doctor on NPR the other day talk about activities like your guitar playing being good for the brain. Helps keep the synapses flowing and stuff. But who really gives a shit about all that stuff? This post actually makes you sound happy.

  • ken

    It’s distressing to think I may have imperiled my carefully cultivated COF (Cantankerous Old Fart) branding campaign, Ellen. I’ll be sure to remedy that with high levels of irritability and petulance in future posts.

  • Roy Hendrix

    Hi, Ken.

    I don’t think you need a goal for your playing. I have a 5-string banjo that I bought in 1981, when I was taking some classes through an adult education program in San Jose, California. I never did get very good on the banjo, but I still have it and the tab for several songs that I received in the class. I haven’t touched it in years. Last week, I was feeling a little lonesome, and pulled the banjo out. I sat down with the tab book and the banjo, and started trying to work through some of the songs. After a while, I looked up at the clock, and was surprised to see that two hours had passed. I felt more relaxed than I have for weeks. I think there is a Zen quality to music that you should just enjoy. Lord knows there is enough stress in our daily lives that anything as enjoyable as music that helps us relax is welcome and beneficial.

  • ken

    Hey Roy, if you decide to start picking up that banjo on a regular basis, take one word of advice from me: YouTube. I was amazed at the number and quality of tutorials, lessons and demonstrations that people have put on YouTube for pretty much any instrument you can think of, and it’s all free. It’s made a world of difference in my picking, and shown me things I never would have thought of on my own.