25 January 2009

"I always played scared"

the ADG's Philip Martin perfectly captures the perils and pleasures of playing a guitar. even if it is not a Gibson : )

An editor here at the newspaper asked me to contribute to a story about New Year's resolutions, specifically to say what underused local resource-restaurant or music venue or opportunity for recreation-I intend to take more advantage of in 2009 than I had in previous years. It was not, on the surface, a difficult assignment.

A New Year's resolution can be wishful or self-flattering, and the most worthy ones are probably best kept private. If we mean to become better people, the first step might be to realize there are so many areas in which we need improvement that public declaration of intention to mend one fault only calls attention to unaddressed multitudes. I usually don't make resolutions, and if I do I don't consider the calendar.

On the other hand I like to please people, especially editors, and was flattered to be asked. So I tried to write something that satisfied the prerequisites of the task without sounding overly smug. The editor in question looked it over, found it wholly inadequate and returned it with a nice note saying that while it wasn't what she was looking for, she'd be happy to see the piece fleshed out as a column.

I wasn't going to do that, in part because what I wrote was just a few lines about how I planned to play more guitar in 2009 than I had in years past, not out of any hope of becoming a better guitar player but because I enjoy it.

But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that while there's much I do poorly, few of those things could be called enjoyable. But I like to play the guitar. And recently I acquired a new instrument that's finer than any I've ever owned. It has a big, warm tone (some of you real guitar players can probably guess the make) and a comfortable action that makes it easy to play. It's more guitar than a player of my ability needs or deserves.

I have referred to myself as the "world's worst guitar player," which may not be strictly true but serves as fair notice for anybody who might think I'm being falsely modest.

I am only competent in a narrow mode of playing. I can write my own songs and play them, play a few standards and sometimes understand what other guitarists are doing (or trying to do). While I tell myself I play as well as I need to play (though I suppose I don't need to play at all), the truth is though I've been playing nearly 40 years I've never progressed beyond the comfortable plateau I hit when I was around 15 years old.

This is only partially my fault. While I could have become better had I taken lessons and applied myself-aside from learning a few riffs from guys I've played with, I'm entirely self-taught-I recognize that I lack the necessary musical facility to be genuinely good.

Though I played in bands when I was younger, I always found it stressful to learn new songs. I never understood how some guitarists could play back, note for note, a riff they'd heard once. I never made the necessary earto-fretboard connection that even mediocre guitarists eventually get.

I could learn songs, but I needed to write out the chord changes and sometimes watch the hands of the bass player or my fellow guitarist. I could play with others in a rudimentary way but I had only the vaguest concept of scales-I thought more in terms of safe boxes on the fretboard than in sounding the interesting notes that formed in my head. I always played scared.

The only reason anyone ever let me be in their band was because I wrote songs and had a passable-in some quarters-folk-rock voice I wasn't shy about using. The bands I was in played really loud and our music didn't require much virtuosity from the rhythm guitarist.

Looking back, I don't quite know how I pulled it off except that I really wanted to be in a band then. I practiced a lot and genuinely enjoyed coming up with songs. I don't think I realized I wasn't any good-after all, I was playing in a band that was sometimes getting paid.

These days, I understand I am a talentless musician. I'm not tone deaf but have no particular gift either. My approach to music is the same I take toward writing: I listen for rhythm and phrasing and maybe have a knack for it. I can write a poem that scans. But there's a more important sonic dimension I recognize but do not fully understand. There are people who hear much more profoundly than I can, who can dive into those waters to retrieve treasures that I cannot imagine.

That's all right. Those of us without great gifts still have a right to song-for most of human history music was performed by people with common voices and modest talents. It's only been in the past 100 years or so that people routinely have the opportunity to hear highly skilled, prodigiously talented musicians play. While there are millions of really good guitar players out there, being a bad guitarist isn't a sin-as long as you don't insist on inflicting your playing on other people.

Most of us probably don't do much that we're not good at doing; getting through the day is difficult enough without throwing in recreational challenges. But it's probably helpful to bump up against limitations now and again, to flail and occasionally fail. It is good to get in water over your head if only to apprehend how serious and complicated the world can be. It is easy to dismiss what we don't understand- to mentally reduce hip hop to rhythmic thuggery or dismiss bebop as random bleats and honks.

So I resolve to play more guitar this year, not in the hope of getting better but because my nice guitar deserves to be played and because I find it pleasant. And I sometimes surprise myself with an accidental pull-off or stray harmonic-the sort of ornamental flourish that, in real music, might pass for a grace note.