The guitar has been a constant companion in my life since I was 17 years old. Now, I own 7 guitars, a mandolin, and am contemplating the purchase of a ukulele. No man needs this many guitars of course, but the guitarist who has played for thirty years is bound to pick up a few—and lose a few—along the way.
Guitar players fall into several categories. The first is what I call the Guitar Hopist. The Hopist is a person who purchases a guitar, plucks about on it for a month or so, realizes that it is much harder than anyone led him to believe, and then puts the instrument aside with the hope that he will someday magically gain the ability to play it, perhaps via osmosis, or by listening to enough Beatles records that he will just wake up one day to discover he can suddenly, without any practicing, play like George Harrison.
The Hopist never gets rid of his guitar. The Hopist’s guitar hangs on a wall, perhaps, or is propped in a corner of his bedroom. Perhaps it resides in some closet or attic. It is never removed entirely from the house. The guitar, for the Hopist, is a symbol more than an actual musical instrument. It is a symbol of creativity or freedom or cool or a future in which he envisions himself finally having the time to really devote to the instrument. The Hopist is a miserable liar and is to be despised, like anyone whose mind is filled with hope but no action. Hope without action is as useless as prayer without god.
The second category is the Strummer. This individual learns to strum a few chords and sings. He is mostly harmless, that is until he finds a captive audience, then he can be downright malicious and should be avoided. The best way to avoid the Strummer is to pretend you have to go to the bathroom between songs and then never come back. The Strummer is ubiquitous, mostly found in coffee shops, local bars, and neighborhood parks. The Strummer is not despicable really. He is more of a pathetic sort. A man with dreams to be like his heroes, John Lennon, John Denver, Bob Dylan, or Cat Stevens, or in the case of the female Strummer; Melissa Etheridge, Joni Mitchell, or Ani DiFranco. Most guitarists start out in this category. Only a few move on to the next.
The third category is the Musician. This guitarist has gotten good enough with the instrument that he has had some paying gigs. He has written a few tunes. He shows some promise. But the world is ultimately a cruel place. It chews up and spits out Musicians with promise like a hayseed chews up and spits out sunflower shells. As rejects of the music world, these guitarists can wind up in many places. Local cover bands, recording studios (often as sound engineers), school music rooms, or—the worst possible location for them—the guitar store—sometimes as private guitar teachers for scabby prepubescent boys with braces and rich parents. The music store is by far the worst fate for a Musician. It is a half world, a world of crushed dreams, broken hearts, and perhaps a bit too much weed. You can recognize the guitar store Musician immediately. He usually sports some sort of ridiculous hairdo—envision a style that is one part MacGyver and one part Joey Ramone—and vaguely resembles (because, again, the world is unkind) Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. He has not made up his mind if he is a guitarist or a salesman. He hates sales. He hates other guitarists. He hates himself. He hates music stores. And most likely, he hates you.
If he has sense, the Musician avoids all of these bad ends by simply staying home, building a little workable studio in his house, and recording songs for his cats and his friends on Facebook whom he hopes will give him at least 5-10 likes per song. This Musician is mostly harmless. Pathetic, but harmless. This is about where I fit in.
The last category is the Professional, or the Virtuoso. I admire these folks. I aspire to be one, but I, like the Hopist, doubt I will ever apply myself enough to achieve it. To be a virtuoso at anything requires a singular dedication, a nearly insane level of focus and discipline. A little raw talent doesn’t hurt either. And I had (and have) none of these things.
Playing the guitar was always work for me. I worked and worked at the instrument. Eventually of course, things became more natural, but in the beginning years, my friends and family mostly hated me. I played the same chords over and over again, and these I played badly, with buzzing strings, flat thuds, and tortured notes. I played the same songs. I plucked the same stupid tablature to songs every beginning guitarist must learn. I traded in one guitar for another, certain that a new guitar would make me a better guitarist. It never did.
Eventually I taught myself how to read music and began playing classical guitar pieces. This is where my knowledge really began to grow. I came to appreciate guys like Francisco Tarrega, Isaac Albeniz, and Napoleon Coste.
And though I never played Bach or Weiss with brilliance, it was enough that I could play them with mellifluous mediocrity. In this way the guitar became a constant in my life. I loved the smell of the spruce and the mahogany. I loved the feel of the ebony fret board. I loved the guitar’s shape, like a woman—a real woman who knows a few things. I loved the sound. I have studied left hand techniques; fretting, arpeggios, and scales. Today I have begun honing my right hand technique—the last frontier for the guitarist, really, amid many other subtle “fine tunes” he must make if he wishes to really improve.
The guitar, like so many instruments, presents an illusion. The true instrument is not made of wood or bone or nylon. These are simply outward manifestations—the housing for the equal and necessary dimension—the dimension of nothingness that we mostly ignore when we think of the guitar, or for that matter, the trombone or the piano. We must be careful not to focus on one thing at the expense of seeing other things. If we focus our attention on the right hand, we forget the left. If we focus on the strings, we forget the wood. If we focus on the wood, we miss the space the wood contains. And without the chamber housed by the wooden walls, what would the guitar be? A guitar is simply the body where sound resides, and from which music springs. But the music is not the guitar. Nor is it the empty space within. It is a relationship between the space and the matter, between something and nothing. The wood and the space are both necessary, just as the air, the ear, the nerves, and the mind are necessary. Without even one of these components, the whole affair breaks down.
David Regan, a ceramics teacher of mine many years ago, was constantly amused by the ways in which the thrown vessel controlled him. “It is not,” he said, “solely an artist pushing a shape into life. It is the unmolded clay that pushes the artist as well. Just as a cup full of hot tea controls the drinker.” Just as the guitar controls the musician. Decisions are made, but what inspires the decisions? Does the gradually emerging form inform the artist, or does the artist inform the form? If you can split this question in half, you are a sage beyond my understanding.