I’ve never played guitar as well as I’d like to. I admire every guitar player that I've watched that makes playing seem effortless. I think my shortcomings stem in part a result of the scattershot way that I learned to play the instrument.
I started playing in my early 20s, after my line to God got disconnected, courtesy of Hyles-Anderson College. Stuck in the middle of the country with no funds to return home to New England, I had to figure out what to do next. At the time, mid-1984, I was 22, married, with a five-month-old son. My wife and I had spent our meager nest egg moving to Indiana, from Maine, on our quest to find some spiritual Mecca, following Jack Hyles.
Maybe God hadn’t entirely abandoned me, or maybe I was just plain lucky, but I managed—in the midst of double digit unemployment—to land a job that paid more than minimum wage, provided health insurance, and offered opportunities to work considerable overtime—did I also mention that it was at a prison?
Westville Correctional Center was a medium security prison, located about 10 miles northeast of Valparaiso, Indiana. From where we were living in Hobart when I was hired, Westville was a 25-mile straight shot east, out US 6.
While I could write volumes about my experiences working for four years in the bowels of a correctional facility, with its cast of characters, not limited only to inmates, I’ll spare you for now. My SPF post this week is about how I acquired my first guitar, and keeping with my format of five songs for the week, some of my favorite ones to play.
The first axe I ever owned was a cheap Les Paul copy electric that I paid $35 for. I had been working as a Med Tech at Westville for about a year when I noticed the 3 X 5 card on the break room bulletin board advertising the guitar.
I had always wanted to own a guitar, dating back to high school when my best friend, Dave Gray, a highly skilled player, told me that “my hands were too big to play the guitar.” Looking back, I think he enjoyed being the musician in our group of friends, and didn’t want any competition.
The guitar was owned by a guard at the facility and I drove over to his house in town on a Saturday and made the purchase. Since I didn’t own an amp, I improvised by playing it through my boom box.
My time in Indiana didn’t find me learning to play very well at all and I ultimately put the guitar away for a few years. When we moved back east in 1987, I began to work on my playing again, and even took a few lessons.
Since my acquisition of skills was piecemeal, plus I’d play for a few months and then, get bored and put the guitar away for months, and even years, it wasn’t until I started learning to play songs that I my playing finally moved forward.
While I’m still a rudimentary axeman, I can play a bunch of songs fairly well, and a few really well.
I haven’t been playing for most of the past year, and in fact sold a really nice Strat copy that I had, along with a vintage Fender amp last spring, in order to finance my trip to California to visit my favorite writer. I still have my trusty Yamaha acoustic, however, my first brand new guitar I ever owned. Last night I got it out and started playing it a bit.
In keeping with my SPF theme, here are five songs that I enjoy playing, which I’ll dub, “songs for my guitar.”
Woody Guthrie-This Land is Your Land/Library of Congress Recordings
Is there a song more American than this Guthrie classic? The chord progression is a simple one and this song is just so damn much fun to play and have people sing along with.
The myth surrounding the song states that Guthrie wrote it to counter Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” a ubiquitous song that Guthrie was tired of hearing on the radio, with the attendant jingoism represented.
Given that Guthrie had seen much of America by this time, had experienced the worst aspects of the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, as well as the racism and classism that followed blue collar workers wherever they went, Guthrie wanted a new song about patriotism, one rooted in the reality of his world and the world of many others just like him.
Jimmy Eat World-The Middle/Jimmy Eat World
I stumbled upon this song by accident. I heard the chords, and liked the muted nature of the progression. I started fiddling around with it before I checked out the chords, and it wasn’t long before I was cruising through it.
Since I suck playing lead, the break isn’t anything I’ll ever master. It’s still fun to play. Even better, it’s a great song on the acoustic.
Three chords, people, a D, an A, and a G.
Semisonic-Closing Time/Feeling Strangely Fine
This album is one of my favorites in my collection. This song is one I never grow tired of hearing.
There are certain songs that sound fairly easy to play, but when I begin working them out, and figure out the chords, more times than not they have a change that my limited chops prevent me from even being perfunctory. I was afraid this would be one of them, but alas, it has the old comfortable G, C combination that I love, with an Am and D mixed in, so even for me, it’s easy to play. I also love to sing it.
Violet Burning-Berlin Kitty/Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic
I made one last trek back into the church after 9/11. The denomination was The Vineyard, and Sunday morning services featured some amazing contemporary music, at least compared to what I had experienced in church.
Mary and I joined a small group Bible study. Since no one in the group could play guitar, I volunteered to be the worship leader, meaning I had to learn a bunch of songs, including a song called, “Invitacion Fountain,” by a CCM band named The Violet Burning. Like most worship songs, it was a strummy little number, but I still enjoy playing it to this day, even if the lyrics don’t take me to a higher place, necessarily.
I picked up a couple of Violet Burning CDs, including Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic, which is much “harder” than most of their other stuff. Unlike many CCM bands, I think their music stands up well against a lot of secular music.
This song, which has a world weary vibe not found in most of what passes for “Christian” music has a cool riff that sounded great with my Boss distortion pedal turned up to heavy distort. I could play this verbatim, along with the disc, which really helped me with my confidence as an electric player.
Green Day-Working Class Hero/nstant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur
While the late John Lennon wrote and released this song, it was Green Day who got me turned onto the song.
There aren’t many songs that capture the class issue as well as this one. Billie Joe nails this in a way that is both contemporary, and also is true to Lennon. It’s a fitting song for the band and one of the best covers I’ve heard in quite some time.
Learned this one during one of the best vacations of my life, a week renting a rustic cottage in Steuben. We spent the day hiking, biking, and just enjoying time away from the grind of life. Without a TV, I’d read for a bit, and after everyone retired upstairs, out came my acoustic and I’d play for a good hour and then head to bed to do it all again the next day.
Nice hammer on with the Am—simple song that is made by the strum patterns.
That’s it folks, for this week’s guitar lesson.