The Spirit of the Guitar

To become a great guitarist, first you have to understand what the guitar is, where it came from and what kind of person plays one. You first have to swim in its spirit and rejoice in its romance.

Betty – My heart was beating as I waited outside the door of the little studio where I was about to get my first lesson on the guitar at twelve years old. I prayed to God the night before; “I wanna play just like Jimmy Page.” My new teacher called me into the room and asked me to take out the $50 guitar my parents bought me for Christmas. He asked me to take a good look at it. He then asked me what I thought it looked like. I didn’t know the answer. He said; “it’s shaped kinda like a girl don’t you think?” “Kinda curvy,” he said. He then told me to treat it like a girl. “Hold it gently, treat it nice and don’t let it get dirty.” It’s true when you think about it though. Nobody I know names their guitar “Pete” or “Joe.” They usually give it a girl’s name, like “Lucille” or something. My guitar’s name is “Betty.”

Keep on moving – It is shaped like a girl, but why? Why did the guitar get built in the first place? What makes the guitar different from all the other instruments? I’ll answer it for you. Unlike a piano, you can carry it around with you. That’s why the guitar got invented. Most historians would agree that it was born in or around the desert, somewhere in the east, maybe around the Arabian Peninsula or the Persian Gulf. You see, people had to move around a lot in those days; you went where the water or game was. They couldn’t carry a piano around on a camel (or whatever guys rode around on in those days) so they wired some gut strings on a wooden thing with some holes in it to amplify the sound and carried it around with them. Without a doubt they used it by itself or in a group to accompany themselves, probably singing tunes about life and love and things like that. I must stress the word accompany. You can carry a violin around with you, but you are gonna look silly accompanying yourself singing a tune with it. The polyphony of the guitar, which would develop over time, is what would eventually make the guitar the most popular instrument on the planet.

Those guitars weren’t called guitars in those days and didn’t have six strings like guitars do today. And they probably looked different, although it was basically the same thing that Jimmy Page played on “Whole Lotta Love” that made me get down on my knees on the night before my first lesson. The romance of the guitar is found in its mobility. Even the first guitarists were rolling stones, travelers, playing under the stars.

Inroads – The guitar would eventually find its way into Spain and the Troubadours would carry it around Europe singing the same songs celebrating life in different languages. The guitar would get all its strings in Spain, become popular and eventually develop into the modern day guitar.

Appeal – One of the reasons the guitar is so accepted by the masses is that it is the true instrument of the common man. The problem back in the old days was there was no electricity. These days, if you wanted to throw a party and get all your friends over to dance, you would just plug in a radio and go to it. Four-hundred years ago, if you wanted to dance you had to hire an orchestra, since there where no radios. If you didn’t have any cash, you would have to make your own music. I imagine all the neighborhood cats would bring their guitars down to the local watering hole and play some tunes while the girls would dance and sing and generally have a good time. This tradition is still alive in Flamenco music today. The guitar is a radio.

Spending money – I’m gonna have to go backwards here and give you a little history lesson. In the 1300s all of a sudden, the European population got a middle class. It is for a reason you would probably never imagine: The Plague. The plague killed off about a third of all Europeans back in those days. Since all those people died, a labor shortage was born. Since there weren’t enough workers, the workers demanded better wages. Europe had some cash and they wanted to spend it. Since they didn’t have Gucci downtown they wanted silks from the Far East. Also, since they didn’t have electricity they didn’t have refrigerators. Since they didn’t have refrigerators they also wanted spices from the Far East, China and India. Spices would help preserve or, yes, cover up the taste of food that was getting a little too ripe. Spices were worth their weight in gold. Ever wonder why food around the equator is real spicy? Anyway, this gave birth to two things: the search for an all-water rout to Asia and to the African slave trade. I know, you’re asking what does this have to do with the guitar. I’m getting’ to it.

Birth of a new musical era – To make a long story short, Columbus rather than going all the way around Africa, decided to sail west. He knew the world was round rather than flat and figured he would sail into Asia using a shortcut. He wanted to get there through the backdoor using an Atlantic route. He misjudged the distance but in the process he discovered the South American continent. He never found out the truth, and died thinking he found India. That’s why Native Americans are known as Indians. Pretty silly if you think about it.

Anyway, when the news got out, a bunch of people wanted to go. Who do you think raised their hands? Remember that going in a boat to South America was probably a real drag. It probably took months to get there and once you got there all you had was a jungle. I can tell you for sure that it wasn’t rich people. Rich people weren’t about to give up their big houses to go live in the woods in a foreign land. It was the guys looking for a new life who went, and they brought their guitars along with them.

Africans – That’s right, it wasn’t the rich, but the other guys who went. You need a lot of people to build a New World, so at first the Europeans used the Native Americans as slaves. The only problem with this idea was that almost all of them died because they had no resistance to the diseases that the Europeans brought over. That’s why the scourge of mankind, the slave trade, started. On the way over to the New World they stopped off in Africa and got themselves cheap help.

To make a long story short (again), the Spanish and Portuguese workers brought over their guitars (radios) with them, combined their musical ideas with the percussive skills of the Africans and a new era of music was born. The Rumba would evolve in Cuba. Meringue starts up in the Dominican Republic. Argentineans create the Tango. The Portuguese, trying to get around Africa to East Asia, mistakenly ran into South America (pretty funny if you think about it) and since nobody is around, they claim part of it and call it Brazil. The music they make is called the Bossa Nova and the Samba. The Clave, the rhythm that can be found in all Latin music, is a present from Africa. If you ever get a chance to hear some genuine African drum music, you will hear the same Clave throughout. Even in Louisiana, blues players used the Clave to build rhythmic motifs. Check out Bo Diddly’s “Who do you Love” if you get the opportunity.

Birth of the Blues in America – In the early nineteen hundreds, ex-slaves started carrying the guitar around the south with them and playing blues music for mostly black audiences. The spirit of the guitar was still the same. It was perfect to carry around and accompany oneself with. Robert Johnson would end up making a name for himself before he dies at the tender age of twenty-seven in Mississippi. In 1948, twenty-eight year old Muddy Waters moves up to Chicago from Mississippi, looking for a better life away from the South.

Once again, a man in search of a new life carrying a guitar with him. He finds the clubs in Chicago overwhelmingly large. So he, like many of the guitarists started to do in those days, jumps on the electric bandwagon and begins to pave the way for electric blues to become musical force. Later on in the sixties Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix get into the old recordings of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and make their own versions of their tunes, and I end up listening to Jimmy and Jimi at twelve and get hooked. And that’s why I find myself at twelve years old at my first lesson. And keeping with the tradition, my teacher, on this sunny Saturday morning, teaches me how to play a medium shuffle twelve bar blues that I still play today with the same feeling of adventure that I felt way back then.

Before you do anything – Before you start working on your scales and chords and all the other things you need to do to become the greatest guitarist around, start by understanding the spirit of the guitar. Let’s review:

  1. The guitar is like a woman – Treat the guitar with respect. When I meet a new student for the first time I always play his or her guitar before I do anything else. I check to see if the guitar is clean and well cared for. It is a reflection of the student’s attitude about guitar and music in general. The Japanese say, if you want to find out if the Sushi chef is good or not, check his knife.
  2. The guitar is a radio – The guitar was built to move, not for you to play in your room. It was designed for you to carry with you and tell your story with it. It was made so people could listen and sing and dance and celebrate life. The guitar isn’t about chops – it’s about stories. Every time I travel with my guitar, it makes me feel happy to know I’m carrying on in the tradition of the Troubadours and blues musicians of the past. I don’t care if the flight attendant is perturbed because my guitar takes up all the room in my overhead compartment. I’m bringing it with me. And when I get where I’m going, I’m gonna tell someone a story with it.
  3. The guitar is about adventure – The guitar was brought around the world by people looking for new lives and new chances. All these people where risk takers, and their guitars were their best friends. Don’t be afraid to be a guitarist. No matter what bad luck comes to you in life, you will always have the guitar to play. And don’t forget, the greatest joy there is, is the joy of making music. I would rather live as a poor, happy guitarist than a rich, unhappy banker. Always follow your heart and you have nothing to fear.

Think about these things while I get my next column together, the one that will deal with the next step in becoming the best guitarist you can be.

Check out these links for some history lessons:

Until next time…