Monday, April 20, 2009


The Band--"The Shape I'm In" (mp3)
The Magnetic Fields--"Acoustic Guitar" (mp3)

Slowly, very slowly, I am trying to get my chops back.

Now, I'm not claiming that I ever had great chops to begin with, but they were certainly a whole lot more than what they are now.

We're talking about guitar here. In terms of sideburns, I never had any chops and could probably let them grow until Doomsday and never get anything more than wisps. I can hear it it now: "Hey, nice wisps."

I've never looked up the official definition of the word "chops," if there is such a thing, but I've always understood it to mean (quotations mine, for my definition) "playing with fluidity and grace, i.e. technical proficiency." It's kind of like, how good you are.

A person with real chops has total command of the fret board. He or she hits a note, any note, and immediately knows what it is. He or she knows numerous different positions for the main, popular chords and knows all of the jazz chords--those diminished, and 7ths, and mu chords--as well. He or she knows the major, minor, blues, and all the other scales. I never got that for. Well, the first part, yes. I can make a chord and various deconstructions of it four or five different places on the neck.

Or could.

When you stop playing guitar for a long time and then pick it back up again, there are no miracles. You find out immediately what you have lost. The first thing is you hurt. Guitar players build up incredible calluses on their playing fingers, and when you stop playing for a long, long time, those go away. Switching to a ukelele for the summer does nothing for those calluses. The second thing you lose is finger memory. Oh, you don't forget the chords or how to form them, but your fingers lose the precision of placement that they had when you were forming those chords over and over day after day. So you get some dead string or buzzes or just plain shitty sounds. Maybe you want to try a little solo or a bluegrass run. The fingers remember how to ride that bicycle, but they are wobbly and slow.

So, the guitar chops project begins. The problem is that we all develop so many different chops and it's almost impossible to keep them all up to speed. At various times, I've had basketball chops, fiction and poetry writing chops, romantic chops (I know, all things are relative), gardening chops, running chops. Right now, I'd say my cooking chops are pretty good and that's about it.

I have a divorced friend I was talking to the other night, and we agreed how awful it would be for him to re-enter the dating scene right now. The reason? Though we didn't say it then, it's because he's lost his chops. It's one thing to stumble through a song on a guitar--imagine how that translates into the world of searching for a new woman when your mouth doesn't work quite right and you don't know the current standard behaviors and you still have the memories of what it was like, but not only are you not sure how you accomplished what you did, you aren't even sure you want to try to learn how to do it all over again.

There's a simple fact I've learned to live with: the amazing people who seem to accomplish so much more than the rest of us don't. They don't. They can't. There isn't time. They haven't been granted any more hours in the day than we have. They've simply decided to put their energy into those visible, public aspects of life, while the invisible (to us) parts suffer. Chops are a choice, and many of us are blessed with an ability to develop strong skills in a number of areas, sometimes simultaneously. But ultimately, we're going to have to choose between what (or more likely, who) we want to nurture and develop now and what we used to take pride in being pretty good at.

Still, the guitar beckons from the corner of the living room.


troutking said...

I have no chops, but I still want to do Dylan night.

Bob said...

Troutking, all that stands between you and Dylan Night is you.

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