As I’ve noted on my blog, I recently bought a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, and I’m learning–slowly–to play. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of kinds of art: writing (obviously), photography, painting, drawing, playing piano and organ, garden design, making prints, stage directing, and even a half-assed attempt at sculpting. Though I’ve enjoyed all of these, writing and photography were the only two that I thought I showed any aptitude for. And, though I love photography and think I’ve grown in the field, selling a print now and then, and even having a couple of shows, I am and always have been a writer. (One day, when I was six, I sat down and wrote a short story. Something about living under the sea. Wish I still had it, but it’s vanished over the years. To me, the funny part was that I took it to my mom and demanded she type it up. I think she was a little taken aback, but she did type it for me. Unlike many artists, I had parents who always supported my efforts. I hit a fallow period between six and eight, and then I distinctly remember thinking, writing that was kind of fun: let’s try it again. So I wrote another short story, and another, and, pretty much, never stopped.)
When I bought the guitar–which I call “Red” because it is a shockingly pure candyapple red–the store provided a free lesson. The instructor was showing me how each fret represented a half-step, which clicked for me as it corresponded to a piano’s keys (and I can read music). I noted the similarity to the instructor, and he said, “Yeah. It’s like having six pianos.” (Which is really not true, because it takes two hands to make a chord on the guitar and one for a keyboard. You also can’t individually bend or vibrate a piano’s strings, but I digress.)
What has struck me are the seemingly infinite options for making sound the electric guitar offers, which I’m just starting to grasp as I’ve learned how chords are formed, how scales apply to solos, the many ways strings can be thumped, rubbed, stretched, and mauled, and the many voicings that emerge from which pickup you’ve selected (three on the Strat with two settings combining pickups), the pickup tone controls, the amp settings, and, in my outfit, with a nifty little foot-operated box called a Digitech RP50, the mind-blowing array of available voicings–from clear, ringing notes with a touch of reverb to create the feeling of playing in a large hall to absolutely demented, psychedelic overdrive, flangers, phase-shifters, noise gates, delays, and various amplifier modulators. You can make it sing, cry, scream, and simulate jet aircraft. It’s absolutely marvelous. I’ll be deaf in no time.
One evening, after playing some teeth-rattling distortion, I just kind of reeled, overwhelmed by athe choices the guitar offered, and I suddenly thought of a favorite quote from Miles Davis, which has actually informed my writing as much as my understanding of music: it’s not just the notes you play, Miles said, it’s also the notes you don’t play.
Which seems obvious, but it lies at the heart of making art, for we’re offered so many techniques, colors, effects, traditions, schools of thought, theories, pacings, and structures, that, once you get past the puppy love period where you want to do everything right now, you understand how holding back is just as important as holding forth. It’s not just a matter of making the right choices: it’s a matter of knowing when to stop, when to step back. Of knowing when, essentially, it’s right.
And, if you’re dedicated enough to be honest with yourself, doing an art–any art–really well is so terribly, terribly difficult that you’d lock up if you thought about it directly. Someone once asked Walter Cronkite if he ever thought about the millions watching his newscasts, and he said no, he thought of it as speaking one-to-one with a single person because, if he really thought about all the people out there, he’d be too terrified to do his job.
I don’t know how much aptitude I have with the guitar. I feel like I’m learning, and once in awhile, I make sounds that please me, and that’s all I’m really in it for. That and developing sufficient skills to play a song or two with friends. It’s refreshing to do an art that’s not a profession. But playing the guitar is devilishly hard to get right, and the more I seem to grasp, the more complicated it becomes. The relationship between difficulty and reward reminds me of an evening at a fiction writing workshop nearly 30 years ago when I’d presented a short story, which, frankly, was terrible–an utter cliche from beginning to end (and not even an interesting cliche). Out came the knives, and, when it was over, my self-esteem had been thoroughly diced. The woman running the workshop said, hey, how about we take a break, and everyone trooped off into the kitchen while I sat immobile, staring at the carpet. A minute or so later, the workshop leader came back and handed me a glass of wine.
“Christ,” I said. “Does it ever get any easier?”
She gently patted me on the shoulder and said, “You better hope not.”