An Axe to Grind

I’m the proud owner of an electric guitar. A Squier Bullet Stratocaster, in fact. (It’s blue. And shiny.) It sits in the corner of my dining room, waiting for me to play it – which I have, every night since I brought it home, which happened to be a Friday the 13th. Three days before a full moon, and two days before a blood moon lunar eclipse. I don’t know if the stars aligned on the timing of my purchase, but it seems the moon certainly did.

I could give all kinds of reasons for walking into a guitar store in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that night and walking out with an electric guitar. Was it fate? Boredom? Impulse?

Doubtless all played some role. But the truth is simply this – I wanted to make some noise. And I was tired of waiting for it to come into my life through other means. I was tired of “someday” and “maybe” and “later.” I wanted music, I wanted sound, and I wanted them to come from me.

My Squier.

This was not my first musical adventure: I had been subjected to piano lessons in childhood. It wasn’t even my first brush with guitar (see Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine). But it was the first time when the choice of instrument was entirely mine, the first time I could make a decision driven not only by looks and purpose, but also feel.

The cerebral sank back; the visceral rose to the surface.

In fact, walking into the guitar store that night it was the culmination of a long, slow, silent rebellion that began in the summer of 1985. Then I was five years old, learning to play piano by ear. (I was taught by Suzuki method, which meant I spent hours in my room listening to cassette tapes, learning songs by listening instead of reading music.) I heard songs, played them, and forgot them. Because I had no hunger for nice pieces by classical composers. There was nothing in that music that left me wanting more.

I took a breath and walked over to the wall of guitars that hung from floor to ceiling. It was dazzling, really: colors, shapes, sizes, with the least expensive ones near the bottom and the fancier ones dangling well out of reach. But I had come prepared. Both with the image of how I imagined my rocker self – black jeans, black t-shirt, chunky metal earrings, a sweep of shining copper eyeliner – and a list of what I was interested in. After a few cautious moments of exploration, I found it.  

Feeling both sheepish and exhilarated, I cornered a teenage salesclerk to ring me up.

“You already have cables? And a practice amp?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. (I lied.)

“Ok, cool.”

Then this: Me, breaking into spontaneous laughter the entire drive home. Me, carrying the box upstairs like a holy relic and laying it down on the bed. Cutting carefully with the scissors as I slice through the packing tape. Peeling back the wrapping. Me, picking the guitar up for the first time and smiling.

I have to learn everything. Where to connect the strap. How to hold a pick, how to place my fingers. Which ends of the cable go where when I finally get around to plugging into the amp. I spend an hour in the kitchen that night with the guitar and a tuning app, fighting an uphill battle to get low E to be less godd*mn flat. And I laugh and keep trying. When starting from zero, every gain in knowledge feels exponential.

I learn the names of the strings. I figure out how to turn on one pickup, or two, or three. (First I have to learn what pickups are.) I play my first riff. It is halting and awkward and perhaps I am the only one who could recognize what I am doing. Then I play it again, and again, and again. I play it louder.

For it is a rare instance in my life when the outcome doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be good.  I don’t have to play at all. But I will. Because play is a gift. Music is a gift. Holding that guitar unlocks something in me. And I laugh and rock on.

To be continued…

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