“This is my guitar. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My guitar is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my guitar is useless. Without my guitar, I am useless. I must play my guitar true. I will. Amen.” - Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, senior guitar instructor, Full Metal Jacket.
After a quarter century, I have finally upgraded my guitar.
My dream of being a guitar player was born in the same way most meaningful childhood dreams are born – from jealousy. It was Prom Night 1980 on the Jersey shore, and everyone’s dates were gathered around the fire pit to listen to the guy strumming the guitar as the waves gently caressed the sand. Thanks to that guy’s musical charms, that was the only caressing happening on that beach. The girls gathered ‘round and were hypnotized by his renditions of Led Zeppelin classics, Steve Forbert ditties and Don McLean ballads. OK, there's only one Don McLean ballad, but as we all know, that song goes on for hours. I vowed never again would I let some musician kick metaphorical sand in my face by stealing my date’s attentions. I would master the guitar, and the girls would swoon.
I got right to work. An undertaking of this magnitude required deep thinking, however, and about 5 years worth of deep thinking passed quickly in the misty haze of college. My first lesson happened in approximately 1985, when Terry Coe introduced me to the complex stylings of Pink Floyd and Neil Young. Learn 4 chords and you can play about 80% of their entire catalog of tunes.
Practice is fairly sporadic when you don’t own a guitar, and I wanted to improve. I must have dropped some major hints, because that Christmas, 1986 I believe, my brother bought me my first guitar. It was a Hondo, very similar to a Fender or a Les Paul guitar since those brands also have strings and a neck - standard. The similarities end there, however. Given my neanderthal talents on the instrument, we were perfectly matched. It was a beginner’s model, and so was I. Now I could play Pigs on the Wing (Part I), Horse with No Name, and Heart of Gold all day long, or at least until my fingers hurt. 10 minutes, tops. I couldn’t sing along, though, since that skill was much like patting your head and rubbing your belly simultaneously, a trick that sounds easier than it is.
For the first 18 years or so, I couldn’t play any song seamlessly from beginning to end. I knew pieces of about 10 songs, and I would pound these riffs out mercilessly, most famously jamming my interpretation of the ending of Starship Trooper by Yes. That little sequence really helped build up my fingertip calluses. It also helped clear the room on occasion. No matter. I was having fun. I had forgotten that the original inspiration for learning guitar was to impress women. It had morphed into a hobby that I was proud of, but only if no one ever heard me. It was more fun to tell people that I played the guitar than to actually have to prove that I could play.
I did not treat my first guitar with the proper respect due a vintage Hondo. I left it in damp basements. I didn’t buy a case for it until 5 or 6 years ago. I tuned it reluctantly. I ignored it for periods of years in the 1990s and early 2000s. Thankfully, I have recommitted to the art. I am playing about 5 nights a week for 20 minutes or so. I could struggle through dozens of songs, most of which a reasonably culturally aware passerby could recognize. I had no idea until I bought the new guitar, though, how much that old Hondo was holding me back.
With my new guitar, I know what an A chord is supposed to sound like now.
Sometimes, the equipment does make a difference. You could have a very good golf swing, but until you hit a ball the first time with a King Cobra driver, you have no idea how good. Upgrading from the classic wooden hockey stick to a top of the line composite can add speed and movement to your slapshot. I now have a guitar that proves that I can play actual, recognizable songs from the beginning to the end. I still have the strumming technique of an ape, but I am a guitar player, at least in the privacy of my basement.
I’m ready to head back to that beach in Jersey and claim my prize.
Hey, where’d everybody go?