A Conundrum

Sometimes I have bits and pieces of song lyrics in my head. I’ve found a few of these to be particularly relevant exhortations: “all women around the world want a phony rock star – who plays guitar!” John Mellencamp: Play Guitar. (gee, I always thought that one was “all women around the world want to be a phony rock star – who plays guitar.” But in the interest of this educational collegial website, sigh, I thought I’d better get the quote right). “Pick up your guitar and play” The Who: Won’t Get Fooled Again.

Of course, it’s much easier said than done. There are so many other distractions, as well as necessary duties in life, that there is often little time left for anything unscheduled. As much as I love playing music, I often find that I need to have a goal in mind in order to make time to play. And then there is the frustration of not being as good as I want to be, when I do make time to play. The adage that practice makes perfect must have been written by a guitar player. In order to play well you need to practice. But in order to play at all you must be inspired. Inspiration comes from enjoying what you play. That’s tough when what you play doesn’t sound inspiring. Hmm, a conundrum worthy of exploring…

In the feedback from my first column (The Other Side – thanks to all for reading it!) was emailed a charming story from a reader. She wrote:

“I’ve always been strongly attracted to music, but it used to scare me, all those strange alien-like symbols, the weird theory sounding more like math than art. Well, I thought it wasn’t for me. Mom told me it would be wonderful if I learned music, but we weren’t wealthy enough, it would take too much of my time, I was 15 and, according to her, much too old to start.” (the readers may gasp here) While traveling, she bought some CD’s one of which was Melissa Etheridge’s Your Little Secret. “And that was the time when I fell in love with guitars. Hopelessly, since I was sure music wasn’t for me. I would listen to her (Melissa’s) music over and over, replaying the intros, in my mind I would change the rhythm, I would play music from samples on my computer, I had no idea what I was doing, had no one to guide me. Teenage years have left me depressed and with a multitude of deep-seated feelings. I was 17 and needed something real, so I bought a cheap guitar.

Everything’s always been very easy and fast to learn for me. Playing guitar wasn’t. It was a challenge. It was frustrating, funless. I gave up.

To make a long story short, I ended up {moving}, my guitar was left behind, and something was clearly missing. I don’t really know what led me to buy a blues harp last year, but it was a good thing since it made me realize how much I wanted to play music, and it was not about harmonica, it was about guitar. So, in January I went to visit my family and took my guitar home.

Three weeks ago, I played my first chord ever. Something clicked. My ability to learn fast and to have fun while learning is back. Still, I am twenty and this little voice inside my head keeps telling me I’m too old to start music lessons, the only way not to hear it, I guess, is to play louder.”

Play louder indeed! To the young lady who volunteered her story; thank you for sharing your insights. You are never too old to learn. Whether it’s music, language, dance, science, or cooking, if you want to learn something, you can. I remember I learned to ski at 27. I wasn’t very good at it, and decided to take more lessons in my early 30’s, while my kids were learning. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, as my kids were making much faster progress than I, until I met my instructor. He hadn’t learned skiing until he was 36 or 37. And here he was, teaching skiing in his 40’s! Let me repeat; you’re never too old. If it’s fame and fortune you’re looking for with your music, remember that Bonnie Raitt didn’t enjoy commercial acclaim until she was 40 something.

Another thing that our young lady’s story reminds me of is a quote from the book Zen Guitar, by Philip Toshio Sudo, “Always keep a beginner’s mind.” When our fair reader was able to do that, she found the inspiration that allowed her to pick up, play a chord and find her way.

The trick is to find something that inspires, as my young correspondent has. Fall in love with a song and then want to replicate it. Or find a riff to replicate. That works for drums, horns, pianos, any kind of musical instrument including the Kazoo. I found that when I first picked up the guitar, all I could really play were chords. I’ve always loved the song Somebody to Love, from Jefferson Airplane (for chords and bass riff see Playing Along) and for a long time, playing Emin and A were a great way to find rhythms to sing by, or just to pound out! Then my live-in bass player showed me the riff for Heart’s Crazy on You, and that was something I played again and again until I got it right. My guitar teacher showed me the chords and picking for Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven (grrr) which remains a meaty chewy bone to work on again and again and again. I still haven’t perfected it. But it sounds a lot better than it did the first time! I was also haunted by a tune called I’m Telling You Now by Keb’ Mo’. It’s got this great beginning….

Just as our reader found out, sometimes you hear a piece of music and it gets into your blood. You find that you are obsessed by it and need to play it. First you learn how to play the instrument. Then you push along, so that you can basically play the tune you were inspired by. Then you play it again, and again, polishing the piece like a fine piece of wood. After a while you find yourself playing it how you hear it, not necessarily how the artist plays it on his/her album. The music finds a way to express itself.

And all because you listened to a song you wanted to play.

Music can bring great pleasure to the listener, but even greater pleasure to the performer. Even if the audience is just one.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. We now have our own forum in the Guitar Forums. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story.