Sunday, April 5, 2009

Starting Out With The Guitar

My wife had played the guitar most of her life, and could easily pick out a song and adeptly play the right chords. Her ear sensed the time to change the chord. She always made it easy. Family gatherings were marked by the whole family playing and singing along, always on key, always in tune.

Every second or third song, someone would shout a different key and everyone quickly “transposed” to the new key. They were speaking, or rather “playing” a foreign language to me.
I sat in the corner, unable to carry a tune and not knowing which end was up when it came to anything with strings to play.

Oh, I knew I was no slouch in the music department. I’d played trombone in grade school and was second chair in the high school band. I’d also had three years of piano lessons. My wife couldn’t read music nor play the piano, so I at least had my specialties when we talked about music.

Still, the whole guitar and singing event galled me, and I wanted to fit in. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could still learn something new, and do something that everyone else in her family enjoyed.

One day, we found ourselves in a great guitar store in Portland. We admired the beautiful instruments, and soon, Karen found herself in love with a nice acoustic guitar, one with some real depth and beauty to its tone. She’d had a nylon string guitar, a cheap one, for many years, and she’d wanted a steel string guitar, a national brand, for a number of years. She was falling in love with the rich sounding guitar in her hands, and she decided to buy it.

“Why don’t you get yourself one, too, honey,” she said. “You’ve wanted to learn the guitar for a long time, and you’ll enjoy it.”

Well, I got pretty excited, and I was soon busy trying out several guitars, finally holding a beautiful mahogany acoustic guitar in my hands, a Martin. It felt good, in my inexperienced hands, and my wife and the sales clerk were both telling me that this was a good fit, and a great guitar to start out with.

I plunked down some serious cash, and left the store with my new guitar, a music stand, a guitar case, and all the other accoutrements that can come with a guitar. I had a few “beginner books” to take home, too. Soon, I set up my little practice area, and cracked open “Starting to Play the Guitar”.

No one told me that the first part of playing the guitar is to get your left hand fingers to bleed and throb, as tender skin is pushed into hard brass wire, again and again. In ten minutes, my fingers were on fire, and I was amazed blood didn’t run down my arm, as I pushed down on the strings.

And then there were the muscle cramps, besides the torture of the sharp wires and what I knew was permanent nerve damage. Each chord not only required the delight of Chinese bamboo torture, but also major muscle cramps, as my hand learned new positions, which, until now, I had believed were only in the repertoire of circus contortionists.

My right hand joined the fun, as I rubbed off the skin of my thumb and fingers, the word “strum” taking on the meaning of repetitive skin removal in the dictionary of guitar addicts.

Still, like the new heroin addict, I found myself drawn into this mysterious process of coaxing a decent note or two out of a series of pathetic stabs and quivering sounds, noise that drove my cats from the room every time they saw me pick up the guitar and sit down in front of my music stand.

Not wanting to confine my addiction and new abilities to create disturbing noises throughout the house, I began to try to sing the words to the simple cowboy songs in the book. My cats begged for me to open the front door so they could escape outside whenever they saw me grab for my guitar.

My wife, seeing me head for the guitar after dinner, would quietly excuse herself to go work on her computer upstairs, always making sure the door was shut tight. She probably put in ear plugs and turned up the volume on her headphones, as she surfed any website that offered sound. At least any sound that was on key and in tune.

Still, I progressed and kept at my struggle, and soon found myself making some plausible stabs at making music and playing a song enough that even my wife was able to identify the name of what I was attempting to play, and sometimes on the first guess.

Even my cats were more accepting, or maybe becoming tone deaf. They didn’t run and cry to get outside whenever I picked up my guitar, and one cat even took to snoozing next to me when I practiced. My fingertips now had thickening calluses, and my left hand could contort with the best of the circus people or that Hindu goddess who has all the waving hands.

I knew I’d made progress about six months later. My wife had shown enough courage to leave her office door ajar one night when I was playing.

“Honey, that was real nice. You’re coming along with that now,” she said. “I finally recognize what you’re playing.”

That was a real compliment. I also was able to recognize the songs I was trying to play.

I knew I’d finally graduated one night. We were getting ready to go visit her family and I’d dragged my suitcase to the door.

“Why don’t you take your guitar, too, honey,” my wife said. “The family would enjoy hearing you play.”
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