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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Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine

Confession: I’m not really in quarantine. I used the term because it was shorter and easier to write than “statewide stay-at-home order,” which is technically what I’m living under. Second confession: “quarantine” sounds way more provocative and interesting than “stay-at-home-order.” So I took a writer’s liberty to be interesting rather than strictly accurate.

Johnny Cash.

But it’s true that I am playing Johnny Cash songs. I laboriously pick them out, chord-by-chord, on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in the basement. Because one thing I have, in a life where many things have been taken away and disrupted by COVID-19, is the gift of time. Freed from commuting, or post-work social obligations, or visiting the gym, I suddenly have more hours in each day. Hours which I can choose to use in unprecedented ways.

I bought my first – and only –  set of guitar picks in Austin, TX. Learning how to play guitar had been one of those things, like running another 10K race or understanding how to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, that I always meant to get around to doing. But after I came back from Texas, guitar-less, the picks literally sat in my desk drawer for almost a decade. Not forgotten, exactly. I prefer to think they were waiting. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Much of the world suddenly found itself at home. On a whim, I rifled through my desk drawer. And I found my guitar picks, the shiny plastic packaging unopened, just as I had placed them there on a long-ago summer afternoon. 

Take your pick.

The six picks all have a stained glass motif, reminiscent of church windows, in each of their designs. Since it is Holy Week, I chose the pick showing Christ crucified. I don’t know if that decision was religious or irreverent, but I went with it.  

I start with the basics. The last time I’d attempted to learn an instrument was under duress. I was five or six years old and my mother dragged me to a neighbor’s house so I could take piano lessons. I dutifully stuck at it and squeaked through a couple recitals over the years, but it never became a passion. Now, however, things were different. The quest for musical proficiency was a voluntary undertaking. And with the help of YouTube, I intended to teach myself.

I sat down to attempt my first lesson. By way of internet browsing I discovered a tutorial on a three-chord foundation that will lend itself to a wide variety of songs . I propped my laptop up on the coffee table, watched the videos, and tried to strum along. Feeling the need for a visual reference, I printed out a diagram with the foundational chords: G major. C major. D major. I glanced back and forth from the diagram to my hand placement. My fingers strained to reach across the fretboard. The guitar strings cut into the soft flesh at my fingertips; my skin had not yet grown calloused and inured to the pressure. 

If my hands seemed too short, my fingernails were too long. I’d never been one for manicures or even particularly long nails, but nevertheless, the length prevented me from fully pressing down each string. Even to my untrained ear, my chords sounded wonky. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and trimmed the nails on my left hand nearly to the quick. Then, for symmetry, I cut the nails on my right hand. Thus I made my first sacrifice: vanity. 

I futzed with playing the chords a little more. The sounds I produced edged closer to resembling something musical. But I hadn’t made a song, yet. I hadn’t even made notes. For inspiration, I decided to take a break and watch footage of Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. You know, the one where he sets his red Stratocaster on fire and then smashes it onstage. The Strat which he had painted himself. And the performance during which one of the most legendary images in rock n’roll history is captured, when Jimi kneels in offering, his beautiful guitar in flames. (Side note: that picture was taken by a 17-year-old who cut school to go to the festival. True story.)

Anyway, watching that footage on the first night I picked up a guitar was a mistake. I could practice for 100 years and never come close to touching Hendrix’s talent. Thus my second sacrifice: pride. 

I had no choice but to begin at the beginning. Reflecting that plucking at chords at random may not be the best way to make progress, I decided to try a song. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” can be played with three basic chords. It’s a song I’m familiar with, lyrics and all. And thanks to the deliberate, steady chord progression that Cash is known for, I know I won’t have to play particularly quickly. 

I get out the first chord. G major. It’s a fairly forgiving finger position, and the sound comes out warm and mellow. Then there’s C major, a bit brighter, sharper, that requires more stretching of my fingers as I struggle to get them into place. And finally D major, my favorite of the three, which produces a sound that seems at once familiar and little funky. 

And I’m playing. And singing. Slowly. Painfully. But its recognizable as pieces of a song. 

These are my beginning steps. My first chords. My first music in which I both play and sing. And with the uncertainty and with the discovery there is a wobbling feeling of joy. 

I’m a long way from having the chops to jam with Jimi Hendrix. But in time, I might be able to play along with Bob Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And Eddie Vedder doesn’t know it, but he and I are doing duets on Tuesday when I start to tackle “Release.” (I dare you to read the lyrics, close your eyes and listen to Vedder’s vocals, stick around for the psychedelic vibes of the song’s second half, and not feel something.)

Life is not always a line. Sometimes we circle back, pick up what was left behind, and find ourselves at the beginning again. And when so much of life as we’ve known it has ended, the beginning is not a bad place to be. 

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