Saturday, October 2, 2010

My First Guitar, Pt. 1

Tony Rice--"Me and My Guitar" (mp3)

My first guitar was a Yahama FG-160. It was not an expensive guitar; I received it for my 18th birthday, but not on my birthday. I had to go to the store to pick it out. My mother went with me. Neither of us knew much of anything about guitars, but we entered the store with the specs of a guitar that a friend of mine said would be a good starter guitar. And that was the FG-160. It cost, I think, $126.

I thought I would get a left-handed guitar, me being left-handed. But the woman behind the counter said, "Oh, no, you're going to learn to play the guitar the right way."

And that was that. Who was I to argue? I like to suggest that that is the reason why I am not Jimi Hendrix. Well, one of the reasons, anyway.

To want to learn to play guitar at age 18 requires a somewhat unusual mindset. At least, for me it did. I think most of us have the idea that even by age 18, if you want to start something that is brand new, it is almost already too late. And I was coming to it with almost no background. And I was coming to it inspired by my friends who played, but with the realization that they had already been playing for many years and that I would remain hopelessly behind.

No one in my family had a single musical bone in them. We had a Wurlitzer organ for many years growing up, and we were forced to take lessons for one or two of those years, but the combination of an old woman teacher who smelled like Lestoil and my parents' desire to try to get us to play for company, especially to fill the awkward silences in the dining room when both sets of grandparents were visiting effectively killed my career as an organist. Oh yeah, and the songs I was taught to play, songs that were at least obscure to me so that I never had any idea what they were supposed to sound like.

So you would think that it was rock and roll that made me want to learn to play the guitar. After all, I had an impressive record collection, a pretty good stereo, and a basement that other family members rarely entered and all the time in the world to play records and listen to FM radio. I went to dozens of concerts. But it wasn't. It was bluegrass. It was fingerpicking.

I had a friend named Bob who had gotten fairly proficient at both of those styles. In this, as in all things, he was an expert salesman, or, perhaps better put, he had a gift for making what he did and what he had seem magical and very desirable. This was never more true (and never more safe) than where the guitar was concerned. After his lessons, he would show me the songs that he had learned, the songs that he was working on.

By that time, his parents had bought him a Martin, and he took meticulous care of it. But when he would take it out and play "The Boy Kissed The Girl (While Playing The Guitar" or "Billy In The Lowground," favorites of fingerpicking and flatpicking, respectively, I thought I had never heard anything more beautiful. The fingerpicking was syncopated, the flatpicking nailed down the chord changes like a machine gun.

Bob then became my teacher, the only guitar teacher I ever had. He taught me strings, chords, and keys, tablature and note-for-note transcription. He offered me light versions of the things that he was learning. Some of the earliest songs I mastered included Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done" and the aforementioned "Billy In The Lowground."

When you are 18 and learning your first chords and first songs, when you get a little taste of how chords fit together to make songs work, there is a simultaneous awakening: you suddenly understand what once seemed to be a mystery, but at the same time, you become aware of the difference between what you can do and what players who really know what they are doing can do. It is both illuminating and awe-inspiring.


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Cherie Seldon said...

I think it’s never too late to learn guitar, or any musical instrument for that matter. However, I also believe that the efficiency of the outcome depends on the skills of your mentor and of course, your motivation and determination to learn. Cherie @ Hamrock Music

Natalie said...

An inspirational post. There are so many people are thinking that they have passed so many years and this time is not for learning. Well, for those who thinks like this, I am going to say something to them, and that is learning don't need any age. Anyone at any age can learn anything that they want. Whether your 75 and you had a hobby that someday you will learn to fly a kite. But unfortunately when your time was started top learn that time you were busy in study and after that so many years has been passed. So you have killed your hobby. But that is not the right thing.