It was almost exactly a year ago that, on a whim, I wandered into a Portland music store, saw a Fiesta Red Stratocaster, and went: I want that guitar.
Since then, we’ve been through some ups and down, Red and I. Some buggy electronics had to be fixed. The cord jack has been replaced. A tuner broke and had to be replaced, and eventually I may have all the tuners upgraded. I’ve switched to the marvelous Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, who have allowed me to play some things I just couldn’t manage on middle-weight Fender strings. I added an effects box and a wah-wah pedal, and I’m thinking of buying myself a looper for my birthday. And I’ve gone from barely being able to play A, D, and E chords and not being able to strum to some facility in strumming and finally being able to play the dreaded B chord and some barre chords. And even eke out a little bit of lead. It’s been a journey.
Beginning around 1980, actually. I was in Southern Oregon for summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, and a buddy of mine wanted to take a look at a Strat a guy in Gold Hill had for a sale. I offered to drive because I thought it’d be interesting (and to help a friend), and when we got there, the Strat was sitting on a stand in front of Fender amp (a Twin Reverb, I believe). When the guy plugged in and played what I now recognize as a minor pentatonic scale, my heart just turned over. That sound. As I recall, my friend passed on the guitar, but I thought seriously–seriously–about it. But I was a poverty-stricken college student and I just couldn’t let myself go for it.
The fork not taken. Now, I wonder how my life might have been different. Not that I’d be in a band or anything, but all the friends I might have made and good (or bad) times I might have had, because having a guitar–especially an electric guitar–changes you. It’s like the door to a another society. I never knew how many of my friends play guitars until I bought one, and suddenly people were saying, hey, let’s get together, man. And not just guitars, but drums, basses, keyboards. Having an electric guitar in your life becomes an organizing principle. Inevitably in life, you realize some things too late (about eight years ago, I realized another fork I missed, which was foregoing photojournalism for straight reporting, a choice that might have let me stay in journliasm while leaving my head free to write fiction). But then, as Tom Stoppard wrote, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Maybe one of those choices might have prevented me from becoming a playwright, which–as frustrating as that field is sometimes–I would very much regret not having experienced. The would-haves and could-have will only make you crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about them anyway.
As with any art, I’m finding that the learning process has slopes, plateaus, and downgrades. You work to achieve a certain facility, then you enjoy that awhile, and then you move on to the next step, only to find out the more you know, the more the complexity of your task increases. Next year this time, assuming I stick with it, I hope I’ll look back to now and shake my head at what little I knew. The current plan is to increase my facility in changing chords and learning some blues licks as to improve my meager lead vocabulary, along with the practicing required to actually play what I’m learning. Plus I’d like to spend more time playing with others because it exponentially jacks up the fun quotient (and makes you a better player, I think). Wisely, I think, I’m trying to keep my goals modest and attainable, because it’s failing to achieve those big leaps that can sometimes discourage you. Now, nearly every day I pick up the axe, I feel progress. That’s good for the soul
But the main thing is it’s still fun, despite some evening such as last night, when nothing worked and I was too tired to tune up properly, and it was just chaotic noise (as opposed to creative noise, which I’m rather fond of). And, unlike the kid who still kind of aches for that sunburst brown Strat with the white pickguard (I still see it in my mind’s eye), I have a lifetime of musical experience as a listener with broad and eclectic tastes to bring to the endeavor. Which is why I can have as much fun playing Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” as I do playing the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
So here’s to Leo Fender (and Les Paul, while we’re at it) and trying new (and old) things. I suppose this has been a year that’s changed my life, but, the truth is, they all do. Just some more than others. And thanks to the friends, family, teachers, and other compadres who have put up with my fumbling and stumbling and blown notes and excuses and apologies and who have graciously encouraged me, even when I was making noises that could cause small animals to shrivel and die.