Thursday, September 07, 2006

New tricks, for an old dog

I haven’t been blogging as regularly, of late. I did post something over at the writing blog, yesterday, but my last post here at Words Matter was a week ago, Monday (one of my longer absences). It hasn’t been because I’ve been sitting around being fat and sassy, either. While I hate to neglect the blog, probably more from habit than any obligation for a small group of readers, the reasons for my absence are legitimate and justifiable, at least to my way of thinking.

Back when Mark (my son) was small and Mary and I were living the life of paupers in northwest Indiana, I was working at Westville Correctional Center. This medium security prison (now a supermax facility) was our economic tether in an area of the country with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. While I'm not proud of working in a prison, at least I wasn't a guard and I was at least providing some needed medical care for the incarcerated. Plus, being a state job, we had health insurance and I could work some overtime. Ah, the things we do as cogs in the capitalist machine.

One day, while perusing the ad board, located in the vending machine area of the building I worked in (as a med tech), I noticed a 3 x 5 card advertising a used Les Paul copy electric guitar, for a mere $35 dollars. Having always wanted to play guitar and looking for something to do with my downtime, since we didn’t own a TV at the time, I called the owner and it wasn’t long before I was holding my first guitar.

When I was 12-years-old, Sparks Department Store in Lewiston had a cheap Japanese Strat knock-off for sale that I would look at every time I went shopping with my mother. On our regular Friday morning shopping excursions, I made sure to check out to see whether anyone had picked up the guitar that I very much desired. Lo and behold, I never owned one during my youth and was actually discouraged from playing by my parents and my athletically uncoordinated best friend at the time, who I surmise didn’t want his jock buddy from stealing the thunder of his own claim to fame. Dave told me that my “hands were too big” to play the guitar any time I’d try to get him to teach me a few chords, or a song. Granted, the few times he actually allowed me to pick up his axe (which felt so right in my hands), I was woeful and clumsy, which is typical of any non-prodigy, neophyte player. Unfortunately for me, I believed it and hence, never took up the instrument at a time that would have been perfect to learn—my teenage years.

Since my prized guitar was lacking an amplifier (what do you want for $35 dollars, anyways?), I made due sans much sound, awkwardly forming the chords in my Mel Bay practice book. Looking back, I can’t believe how difficult acquiring even the most rudimentary chops was, for me. The guitar didn’t come naturally and lacking a lot of free time (with work and a young family), I didn’t put the time, or discipline into acquiring foundational skills and technique that I should have. Unfortunately, the guitar spent more time gathering dust, than in my hands.

Purchasing my first amp, a Gorilla practice amp, in downtown Chesterton, Indiana helped ramp up my enthusiasm. My progress couldn’t be measured exponentially, but my little Gorilla, replete with a distortion switch made the chore of practice a lot more fun. To this day, plugging in and playing loud is always more fun and less demanding, than working through chords, scales and modes on my acoustic.

While I’m no Eddie Van Halen, Dave Matthews, Jorma Kaukonen, or even Billie Joe Armstrong, of Green Day, I’ve managed to learn to play well enough to be dangerous. My guitar playing has always played second fiddle to all the other things in life, despite how much I enjoy playing and hearing the sounds I can coax out of my instruments.

I’ve upgraded my equipment from those days, long ago, mired in the Midwest. Back in 1990, I bought a Yamaha FG-400, my very first and only acoustic I’ve owned. This model, a good beginner’s acoustic (and no longer made) has been a perfunctory instrument for an amateur musician, like me. The closest model I could find on the Yamaha website was this one.

A few years later, tired of my cheap Japanese imitation of a real electric, I decided I wanted a “real” electric. I had my heart set on a Fender Strat, but found a beautiful powder blue Fernandes (also used by a great indie band at the time, Polvo), for about $300 cheaper than the Fender. With a whammy bar and nearly the same action and capabilities of the more expensive Fender, this seemed like a reasonable compromise for someone whose playing time was hit-or-miss, at best.

Both my Yamaha and Fernandes brands have served me well. I still have both and have added a vintage Fender Princeton tube amp, with a reverb unit, to the mix. That and a few pedals give me more than I’ll ever need with the limited playing I’ve ever done for others.

The nice thing that I’ve found out, over the years, is that despite long periods of inactivity from playing, what you acquire in skill and knowledge doesn’t disappear. Each time I’ve come back to my music, I’ve been able to build a new level of skills to my playing. Granted, despite owning a guitar for 20 years, my playing is intermediate, at best. Still, I’ve learned some songs (a tip given to me by the great Jorma Kaukonen, who I met before he played at the old Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, formerly on Forest Avenue, in Portland) and enjoy singing and playing along to some of my CD’s.

Being back in the day-to-day work world and no longer freelancing, has me attempting better time management. I continue to work on the writing, but I also have added “guitar time” to my weeknights. Right now, I can’t play every night, partially due to time constraints, as well as the fact that my fingers are very sore, as I attempt to build up the necessary callouses that come from playing regularly several nights per week.

While I still have a long way to go before I play like I’d like to, I’m enjoying music again, particularly the feel of having a guitar in my hands. I hope I can make playing music a regular part of my life, as I think it helps me with the creative process that also lends itself to writing.

Here are just a few songs that I’m working on:

“Berlin Kitty” The Violet Burning
“California Stars” Wilco/Billy Bragg
“The Middle” Jimmy Eat World

I’ve even composed a song of my own that I’m still working out the lyrics for. Who knows; maybe I’ll have a MySpace page up before you know it and a CD out there for the masses?


Weaseldog said...

Rock on man!

I look forward to hearing what you've got!

Joe said...

Interesting that I'm sitting here with my guitar on my knee, strumming and reading your blog instead of writing. I've been playing a lot more recently as well, which (along with other things) has kept me from my blogs. I'd say I'm at the advanced-beginner stage, pretty good with the chords but not capable of any sort of solos.

I've written three songs in my day, only one of which ("Bank of America Blues") has original (and very redimentary) music. The other two are Weird Al-style songs where I have modified the lyrics of popular songs. One ("Pirate Ladyville") is a takeoff on "Margaritaville" and was inspired by my friends in Harpswell. And for my father's 75th birthday I rewrote the lyrics to "It Was a Very Good Year" into a song that, as my brother succinctly summarized, "talks about how great (I am) while slamming everybody else."

It's fun. As with everything, we should get together and jam one of these days.

Joe said...

That's "rudimentary"

Anonymous said...

That's "rude"

Dottie said...

There is nothing better than to have music in your life. I am happy for you and hope you continue to make the time. I know how important singing is for me. Geek that I am, I even enjoy the rehersals!

weasel said...

Are you ready to play in public, hit the open mikes? Between you and Joe playing it's a ready made excuse for a (long overdue) blogger booze up in the midcoast. I would join you alas I have a tin ear, so I'd have to just offer moral support from the bar. Unless you need a spoons player for your rythym section, that is.

Jim said...

What a nice surpise to see all the comments! I've been away from the computer for a few days (non home-based employment will do that) and was pleased to see the comments.

As they say, music is the universal language.