An Essay on Six Strings

Music has always been a big a big part of my life—in particular, the guitar. I’ve been playing for over 20 years now; from studying magazine tablature in my childhood bedroom, to playing in a punk band and drunken open mics, and now just goofy living room performances for my kiddos. A guitar is a special object for me. And even though the guitar is now a perfectly comfortable object in my hands, it’s still full of that magic and possibility.

 

In one of my college writing classes, we were asked to write a line-by-line imitation of a pre-selected literary master on the subject of our choosing. I chose to imitate Jorge Luis Borges’ essay Blindness. While I can’t take full credit for the writing style, I thought it was an interesting study worth sharing:

– – — – –

I was given my first guitar at the age of thirteen. I had just received, my mother told me, a million songs. To date the count is only twenty—most of which I can only half-play. (but perhaps half-playing twenty is more fulfilling than fully-playing a million.)

Little by little I began to feel somewhat like Sisyphus­­—finding that for every note I learned there was a scale, for every scale a set of chords, every chord a progression, and this to no end! Others have described learning music as an aural adventure, delighting you around every corner. There I was—a clumsy teen with no attention span realizing that I had before me on the fretboard five fingers, six strings, seven notes in the major scale, and a million songs to go. I questioned the gift’s nature.

I imagined the inventor of the guitar to be some kind of twisted demon, for you had to be evil to force these numbers onto this shape. But I knew there had to be a reason so many artists—true, at the time it was rock stars—kept at the infernal device. They could make a guitar weep in their hands while mine just complained. But I kept on, and I eventually passed into an understanding with my guitar—you could say, because now I ask of it only simple complexity and sometimes a discordant harmony.

We have, then, a meeting of the wills. And, for me, the pleasures of disappearing into the melodic trance called music. For most amateur musicians, the pleasure is, surprisingly to some, that elusive chakra that is ignited when playing. Not that onstage, somewhat ego-driven performance we see on the over-priced stages. It is not so much to perform, but to play. Sadly I don’t remember the exact moment I found this secret.

When I think back to those first years, I relive the squawk of poorly-fretted notes, the swollen fingertips, the pride felt upon first strumming Mary Had a Little Lamb. What means I endured! To this end I am grateful of my resilience. I know I won’t progress much further—at least not to the extent I have, and in a way, I mourn that. Similarly, I don’t quite remember that uncertain feeling of not being able to ride a bike—balance is second nature now. But what joy the first time you made it to the end of the block and back! The same applies to music. I no longer have to think of where to place my individual fingers, but the pleasure of that first, full, clean chord­­…

The gift at thirteen turned into a mysterious provider of sanity and repose. An aspiring musician, or any man, must realize that whatever is given him is boundless; everything has potential. Any shape you are given, including a tube with many keys, a disc to beat on, a curvy box with six strings, all have future songs—hidden behind notes, scales, and chords, of course. And if you’re lucky, you may find that precious place to which we musicians withdraw when playing.

This essay begs to end with a quote from Frank Zappa:

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

So by that advice, I can only leave it to the beginning musicians to discover the magic I’ve attempted describing here. Through blood and discovery—as impossible as the climb seems—is the only way to understand. Keep on.

 

 

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