In the last few years, I've developed a habit of tracking down and purchasing collectible memorabilia from my youth. The internet has made this pretty easy and it's amazing what you can find. My worst habit here is tracking down collectible Star Wars memorabilia (comic books, action figures, toys, etc.). But another area that I like to track down are artifacts from my early life with the guitar. That sounds weird. I don't know how else to say it, but now that I wrote that sentence, it just gave me some other ideas for things I'd like to track down. It's sort of like consumerist detective work and it's probably silly, but it's something I do.
So, my life with the guitar really began by asking my Dad to teach me how to play guitar. My Dad was a really good guitarist and pianist. He was completely self taught and he couldn't read music. He was just a complete natural. My Dad was right handed and he was missing several fingers on his left hand. For right handed people, you use your left hand to hold down the strings on the guitar neck and you pick or strum the strings near the bridge of the guitar with your right hand. I don't know why it works this way, but that's the way it naturally works out. My Dad couldn't really do what he wanted to do as a right-hander on the guitar since he was missing fingers on his left hand. So, he turned a right handed guitar upside down and essentially learned how to play the guitar as if he was left handed. He played all the chords upside down and he literally played the guitar upside down. Anyway, I don't mean to discount anyone's challenges with playing the guitar, I really don't. When I used to teach guitar, I always heard, "I can't play guitar because my fingers are too small." or "My fingers aren't strong enough." If my Dad could learn the whole instrument upside down, and convert his mind to see it as if he were left handed, there are very few excuses that I can accept that would prevent a person from playing the guitar. You'll notice in photographs of Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, they regularly played guitars upside down. That's because they were both left handed and in those days, guitars made specifically for lefties were very, very rare. They basically didn't exist. They're still rare today. It's very impressive that those left handed guitarists learned this way, but at least they were left handed and the placement of their hands and fingers was in line with how they saw the world. My Dad not only had to learn the guitar upside down, he had to force his brain to rewire the way he used his hands and fingers to match how a left handed person sees the world. Pretty amazing guy.
Anyway, my Dad's view of the guitar was so completely different than anyone else's due to how he had to learn the instrument, that he didn't really know how to teach a right handed person, learning the guitar right side up, seeing it as a right handed person would naturally see it. What he did have was a guitar he would let me practice on and a copy of "Elementary Guitar Chords" by Mel Bay, that he would let me use. He showed me C, A minor (Ami), G, and F, handed me the book and said, "Good luck."
The book is great. It's a book with chord diagrams for every chord and then a photograph of Mel Bay's left hand holding the chord. Those photos were so helpful to see what the chords really looked like with your left hand fingering it. The guitar forces you to sort of twist your hand and fingers into strange positions to hit all the notes needed for some chords so it was really useful for me to look at the photographs of Mel holding the chords correctly so I could see how I would have to angle or twist my hand and fingers to correctly hold them down. So, remember, I was really working on my own to learn guitar and my Dad couldn't help too much because if I looked at his hand holding the chords, the guitar itself and his fingerings were all upside down. So, this book was really great to have.
It was such a struggle to learn those chords. I wish I could say that I just picked up the guitar and it flew into my hands and my fingers danced over the strings immediately and it was just "meant to be" and finally I felt free! But, it was the opposite of that. I really, really wanted to play the guitar, but it was anything but natural for me. I would hold the chords just like the book said to, I would then strum the strings, and all I would hear would be a muted, "thunk." Occasionally a stray open string would ring through, but anywhere my fingers were, a muted, awful "thunk" would be all I heard. People struggling to learn the guitar will be familiar with this horrible sound, and it really does sound like, "thunk."
So, the process of me learning these chords was to hold them and then strum each string independently until I could make each fingered string actually ring through with a clear note. Then I'd move on to the next string. By the time I got through all the strings, the first finger I had cleared up would have returned to "thunk" status. Then, of course, there is the next battle. Getting the fingers to hold down the strings clearly is one issue, but then, you have to keep those fingers from unintentionally resting on other strings that are supposed to ring open, which is very easy to have happen. So, once I'd start to get the fingered strings to ring correctly, then I'd have to try and angle my fingers so they didn't mute out other strings. It's really pretty complicated. Plus, while my Dad's guitar was great, it was a beautiful archtop acoustic guitar. No one that I had ever seen besides my Dad played an acoustic archtop. That's really a jazz guitar but my Dad had no interest in jazz. It was just really cool and unique, which was very fitting given who my Dad was. But, the strings on this guitar were about a mile off the fingerboard. The "action," as guitarists call string height, was not friendly to say the least.
So, eventually I got C, Ami, and G to sound not terrible. Eventually those started to sound like actual chords. However, and this is a big however, anyone who has ever tried to learn guitar chords on an acoustic guitar with high action is very familiar with the dreaded F chord. C, Ami, and G all rely on a lot of open strings and all of the fingers just hold down notes with the tips of the fingers. F is different. It has no open strings, and, this is the kicker. With F, you have to hold two strings down with one finger. This is like a baby barre chord. A barre chord is a chord that requires you to hold a number of strings down with the side of one your fingers, generally your index finger. This F chord only required holding down two strings with one finger, but it was not easy. Thunk City. It was basically impossible for me.
You have to understand, the guitar was a big part of the overall plan for my life. I had it all worked out. The guitar was the key open up life for me and make everyone love me. As a kid, I really wasn't good at all the things I had decided that I was supposed to be good at. I was really good at drawing, reading and writing and I was an o.k. trombone player, but those things didn't really count for much in the "cool" department unfortunately, and I desperately wanted to be cool. If a sport involved a lot of hand/eye coordination with a ball, as most sports did, I was lousy at it. So, that avenue of being cool was pretty much closed to me. In hindsight, looking back, I know now that "cool" is not defined by all these predetermined things. I know now that being a good artist, reader, writer, and being a good trombone player really does make a person pretty cool. But I didn't know it then. All I knew was that I didn't really like myself and I felt that there was basically nothing interesting that I could do.
I don't know how I decided that the guitar was the key to opening up the world to me but I definitely did, even before I ever played it. I just somehow knew it was going to be a big part of my life. You would think that the next part of the story is that it magically flew into my hands and it felt like I had always known how to play it. I've heard those stories before from musicians and that's amazing, but that isn't what happened with me. What happened when I held the guitar in my hands was "thunk." So, running head long into that F chord was pretty devastating. I knew that as impossible as the F chord was, F was considered to be a pretty basic chord. If I couldn't even make it past that F chord, the rest of the guitar playing world was certainly going to be off limits to me. There's a famous quote from one of the ancient Stoic philosophers that I'm going to mangle here. The quote goes something like this. "Disappointment and despair occur when a cherished belief about the world has a head on collision with the reality of how life really is." That's what I experienced with that F chord. I held my fingers just like Mel did in the picture, I strummed it over and over again. But unlike the C, Ami, and G chords, no matter how much I tried, I was never able to get it to stop sounding like one big, ugly "thunk."
So, that F chord threw off my whole plan for how I was going to become a spectacular person. Remember, I basically believed that I was worthless and the guitar was my one ray of hope for acquiring some worth. Obviously, this isn't healthy thinking but I didn't know any better. Also, what in the world is a 10 year old kid doing disliking himself that much? This is probably why I'm drawn to collecting memorabilia from childhood. I wasn't really there to experience my childhood, I was living in that depressing world of illusion. At any rate, that's where I was and the guitar was going to save me from all of this and make me like myself and make everyone think I was great too. So, that F chord derailed more than just playing guitar for me.
After about 4 months of trying every day to play that chord and only hearing "thunk," I sort of gave up on the guitar. Somehow I then got into learning the electric bass guitar. I had always loved bass and that seemed pretty cool too. I loved Iron Maiden, and Steve Harris, the bass player, was the leader of that band. Gene Simmons was cool and he played bass. So, I got another book on how to play the bass, I borrowed a bass from the band department at school and I started learning the bass. I found the bass to be much friendlier than the guitar. It was great. The bass really did come pretty naturally to me. I progressed really quickly on the bass.
I have a strange and funny memory of learning bass that just returned to me. I was learning to play bass so I could play in the "Stage Band" at school. I was going to be a "double threat," trombonist and bassist. So, the band director let me borrow the bass as long as I learned to read standard notation. The world of guitar music is split into standard notation and tablature. Tablature is a system of numbers on a staff that correspond to the number of strings on an instrument and tells you exactly where to put your fingers. It's great, and I love tab, but it sort of removes you from the being able to relate to music written for a band, since that's all written in standard notation. The "teach yourself to play bass" book I had was great but each exercise was written in both standard notation and then a second staff beneath would have the notes written out in tablature. Tab is a lot easier so I learned everything from the tab line and pretty much ignored the standard notation. When I went back to play for the band director, he said, "That's great, but you have to be able to read standard notation."
So, I went back home with this book and I put strips of duct tape over all of the tablature staves in the book to force myself to learn standard notation. Since I knew how the exercises were supposed to sound from learning them in tab, I could tell when I was playing the notes correctly with the standard notation. Also, bass music is written in the bass clef and it's a concert pitch instrument, so the notes were all the same as what I was used to from the trombone music. So, it really wasn't that difficult.
I got pretty good at the bass pretty quickly. I'm thinking now that maybe I should have actually focused my musical life on playing bass instead of guitar. I still own a few basses. Maybe I'll return to that eventually. O.K. Back to the story. So, the bass was what I played and the guitar was that instrument that sat in the corner collecting dust now. All I played was bass. Then, one day, just for old times sake, I picked up the guitar again. This after playing the bass all the time for probably about 4 months or so. The weirdest thing happened when I picked up the guitar this time. I could play all those guitar chords, C, Ami, G, and even F perfectly. Even F! It was so strange to me. I hadn't realized it, but after all those months of playing the bass, with its huge strings, my fingers had become very strong. When I picked up the guitar again, with those skinny, little strings, it was like a joke. It was like a toy. The guitar strings were so easy to hold down compared to the huge bass strings.
It was so strange. After months of never touching the guitar and completely giving up on it, I picked it up again and I could immediately play. It sounds odd to say, but after that, most things on the guitar came pretty easily to me. I play the guitar all the time now and it's like another limb on my body. It's so natural to me that it's like walking or talking. I still encounter things that I can't play and I still make mistakes all the time when I play, but playing the guitar is like speaking or something now. The guitar is amazing to have in my life, but contrary to what I believed as a kid, it didn't make me any cooler than I already was. I was also surprised to learn that being able to play the guitar really naturally didn't make me any happier either. Later in life, I had to figure out how to be happy and I learned that it really didn't have anything to do with guitar or music. Music and the guitar are wonderful parts of my life, and they do make me feel very happy if I already have the capacity to feel happiness. But if you aren't capable of feeling happy, nothing can make you happy. I'm glad I eventually figured that out.
So, I lost track of that initial Mel Bay book or my Dad took it back when I didn't need it any longer. I sort of forgot about it until I walked into a music store recently and saw that the store had an original copy of the book on display. It brought back such a flood of memories. I asked the people in the store if I could hold the book and they said "no." I went home and did my detective work online until I found a copy of it. It really wasn't expensive at all to buy a copy. And just like playing the guitar, owning a copy of this vintage book hasn't made me any happier. But, it's really cool to have.