It’s been six months since I bought my guitar. Six months, and I’m not really sure what I have to show for it. More stuff, sure. As in, I own more gear now: an assortment of picks, a gig bag, and a real, honest-to-goodness Orange amp. (I love that amp. Even hearing the little kick of feedback sometimes when I flip the power on makes my heart get warmer.)
I’ve started taking lessons. Actual lessons, in which I sit on a wooden chair in my teacher’s living room and we go through chords, and scales, and where to find individual notes on the guitar (because nothing is simple with guitar and a single string contains multiple notes.) We talk about arpeggios. Bits of the music theory and terms I grudgingly learned from piano lessons and voice lessons somehow resurface. I nod. Yes, quarter notes, I know those. Whole notes, half notes, eighth notes. Triplets. Allegro. Fortissimo. Staccato.
My nails are so short I no longer bother with polish. Not that I did much before. And the fingertips of my left hand, if not exactly calloused, are no longer as soft as they used to be.
Hard skills are a little trickier to quantify. A tally of my accomplishments might look something like this:
Chords learned = 6.5
Songs played (as in, attempted) = 13
Hours practiced = ?
I’ve touched music from Johnny Cash, Marilyn Manson, the Smashing Pumpkins. Pearl Jam. Bob Dylan. The Cranberries. Ozzy Osbourne. Beethoven. I can read tabs now. (Kinda.) I know about non-standard tuning. In fact, today I just downloaded an app that allows me to access dozens of non-standard tunings, and chords for hundreds of songs. I stumbled my way through “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran and felt weirdly accomplished, like a kid who’d taken the training wheels off her bike for the first time. To be clear, my playing wasn’t good. I saw a quote online that read “Learning guitar chords is like playing Twister with your fingers.” In my experience that’s been true. But the song was recognizable. And more importantly, a thing I could not have done 6 months ago today became possible.
I bought a guitar because I wanted to learn songs, that’s true. And of course ,the rebelliousness, the thrill of dabbling in rock n’roll and all that entails from the safety of my living room. I like the visceral thrill of making sound. And then making it louder.
But the truth behind the truth is this: I want to be better at slacking off.
In case any musicians or slackers are reading this and feel offended, hang on and hear me out. I understand that “better” and “slacking off” are inherently opposed. You can’t get better at something when the idea is to not try at all. It’s ludicrous. And I get that.
I also get that learning an instrument is a considerable investment of time and energy. Musical talent, like any talent, needs to be developed. Anyone who makes playing the guitar look easy, who can fall to their knees onstage mid-riff and throw their head back, still playing, like Jimi Hendrix (like the guy I saw last night), can only do that because they’ve put in hours and hours of effort. And it probably looked terrible for a long time before it looked cool.
But here’s the rub: all my life, I’ve been a bad slacker. It costs me considerable effort to do nothing. It is an act of will to ignore responsibilities and simply indulge myself.
I didn’t lack for opportunities, or inspiration, or examples. As a teenager in the 1990s, slackerism was all around me. This was when shopping at the Salvation Army was what the cool kids did, and “couch-surfing” entered the regular American lexicon. Slacking even drifted into my college years in the early aughts, with hackeysack games being regularly played on my campus quad and plenty of people listening to Phish. Except while my peers were playing hackeysack, I was typing up a term paper. Or at my work-study job. Or at my off-campus job. Or peer tutoring.
This hustle didn’t stop in graduate school, or in the early years of my career, or in more recent decades. Even the pandemic had me picking up a second job and joining the board of a local nonprofit. I also got an online certificate in game design and wrote a novel.
So, yeah. Much as I want to get “good” at guitar, there is also a desire to stop caring about the outcome, to stop measuring my proficiency. To let that sh*t go. And, you know, to just do it.
To simply be in the world “being,” and not earning my keep by “doing.” That’s the gift that my guitar gives me. As if I needed one. Because in this rare case, feeling is enough.