Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anyone Can Play Guitar

Like millions of American teenagers, I entertained the dream of learning how to play the guitar. For most, this exercise in wishful thinking falls under the category of unfulfilled New Year’s Resolution. Guitars of varying quality and expense are purchased, often by benevolent parents. A few half-hearted lessons are undertaken, but nothing much comes of them. By the end, guitar and case are shoved into the back of a dusty closet and entirely forgotten.

For me, the outcome was quite different. I’d shown a natural talent and musical ear from a very young age. My mother, who loved music, quickly identified my ability to reproduce the melodies of classical works on the piano. I remember playing the first couple minutes or so of Mozart’s “Turkish March”, all with my right hand. He'd composed it as a child, when he was about my age. My mother took it upon herself to teach me the instrument, as she had some proficiency herself and had taken lessons herself earlier in life.

Piano, regardless of interest, was not a seamless fit. I found reading music to be a chore. Playing piano requires a manual dexterity that only frequent practice provides. It also insists upon an integration between the differing parts of the left and right hand. I could only manage one half of the equation. Left hand positions, even if they were only chords, had to be learned painstakingly, in rote form. Unlike the basic melodies produced with ease by my right hand, my musical ear deserted me.  

In time, my mother found an elderly woman who taught piano out of her basement. Her house was a five minute walk from my own. Even with her expertise, I found the training confining. By then, I was building a strong and abiding love for rock and an appreciation of what would within a few years be called alternative. The formal style I was learning seemed trapped in a time capsule, years out of date.

I never lost my love for music, but I believed that my role was fated to forever be that of a spectator, not a performer. A dramatic change I could have never foreseen arrived the summer in between my freshman and sophomore year of high school. Football had consumed most of my free time earlier. The void now present in its place had to be filled by something. I resolved that this time I would take on a discipline I enjoyed, one I could do in isolation.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so this time I tried my hand at a much sexier instrument. Five years before, I’d taken lessons one summer from a co-worker of my mother’s. Mom was a teacher in an elementary school, and so was he. He arrived at my house punctually once a week. Much as had been true with the piano lessons, I didn’t make much progress there, either. I assumed that guitar was completely beyond my abilities.

The second time, as it turns out, was the charm. Previously unable to change chords quickly and crisply, I discovered to my amazement that I now could. The small victories added up one by one. After learning a few rudimentary chords, my basic understanding of the instrument grew and grew. I knew enough to let my strong singing voice take center stage, an instrument in and of itself.

Now in high school, I heard through the grapevine about a particular English teacher. He was an impressive guitarist in his own right, even moonlighting as a paid performer in his spare time. The band of which he was a part played regular gigs around town. There was a kind of mystique around him I was curious to observe for myself. He won the respect of many other students, which was rare.

Years later, I learned he had mentored several generations of aspiring guitarists, one of which later achieved a degree of instant fame on a popular television show. His name was Taylor Hicks and he ended up winning American Idol during its fifth season. Like me, he had been an athlete in high school, but was more comfortable as a musician.

I spoke to this teacher after school one day. I can't remember exactly what was said by way of introduction, but he indicated that he'd be willing to play together.

We can jam, but I don’t teach lessons. I want you to know that up front.

By this I suppose he meant he had no patience for the nitpicking and repetition that characterizes most musical lessons. If I was willing to play along with him, and maybe ask for clarification every now and then, that was okay. He was always willing to stay after school an hour or so. With time, I learned a vast variety of classic rock covers, the sort any Friday and Saturday night band at a bar or restaurant would be asked to reproduce passably. I was setting myself up to play covers for a few hundred dollars a night, as he did.

With his help, I even began to learn a few lead guitar lines, though soloing was a talent I did not possess. The pentatonic scale was my best friend when I dared take a solo. However, I did become a very capable rhythm guitarist, which a band always needs. The teacher sparked my curiosity. I found that I could, with enough work, figure out the chords to many of the songs I loved. The Internet once again provided me a great wealth of information. An army of guitarists like me posted the chords and changes to songs they’d uncovered through their own musical discernment for free.    

The fuse ignited, I kept pushing my understanding further and further. A series of happy accidents led to increased comprehension and competence. Learning barre chords was a welcome and totally unexpected breakthrough, one I managed when practicing by myself one afternoon. Many guitarists rely on that particular skill to expand their musical repertoire. Without it, changes in key and chord progressions would be more limited, as would the seemingly simple flourishes that make a song memorable.    

I built up the requisite callouses on the surface of my fretting hand. I learned about strings and picks, and which ones I preferred. I could even passably talk shop with another serious guitarist. Though I found it distressingly challenging to learn, I eventually figured one of most tedious parts of being a guitarist. There is a proper way to change strings, one I did not understand at first. Most things came together subconsciously, as a matter of course. Something magical and exciting was present, an enthusiasm and energy that had never existed within the stuffiness of the pianoforte.

From him, I learned the Led Zeppelin and The Who songbook. Intrigued, I learned much from observation. When I struck out on my own or played with other musicians, these were songs I could comfortably slip into during jam sessions. If I wanted to vary my setlist, I could add them to my repertoire. It didn't make me much money, but I was thankful for the creative outlet.

Now that I'm in my early Thirties, I know the window of opportunity no longer exists, but I question whether anyone can make a living in music these days. Most people I played with have switched to hip hop or jazz, because that's where the money is these days. I believed that talent alone would be enough, but the stakes are too high and the slots are too limited. My chances were always infinitesimal, but I do have some interesting stories to share.  

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