Guitar Update

In 2019, after coming back from a weekend away in Memphis, I started seriously thinking about taking electric guitar lessons. I blame the mandatory documentary I had watch when I took a tour of the Stax Museum, which included a clip of Sister Rosetta Tharp playing a white Gibson SG with such grace and authority that one would swear she invented electric guitar music. Prior to that moment, I had no interest in picking up a guitar.

I know what you’re thinking: wow, a 50-ish dude learning electric guitar. How unique. Truth be told, I’ve been playing on-and-off in bands since I was a teenager, albeit on drum kit. I’ve known musicians all my life and even call myself one from time to time. In other words, it’s not because I was having a midlife crisis. I think there are different reasons people have for picking up an instrument like guitar. I think they can grouped into one of three reasons:

  • They want to learn to play [insert classic rock song]
  • They want to learn to play, generally
  • They want to develop a relationship with the guitar, as an instrument

When I made the decision to take lessons, I was certainly leaning toward the last camp, although that doesn’t negate taking enjoyment from playing [insert classic rock song]. It’s been four years, almost to the day of my first lesson, and I’m in a good place: I’m a proficient beginner who squeezes in guitar practice several times a week, when possible. I have a guitar at my office, my first guitar, a Riviera P93 (semi-hollow archtop), and last year, a treat to myself for Radioland being published, I picked up a second one, a Nighthawk (solid body) which I keep at home.

The first year learning guitar was hard. I know I have “feel”, which helped me previously in piano and drums. But guitar, in case you haven’t given it much thought, is a string instrument, which means that all the intuition and “feel” one may have isn’t going to change the fact that it’s like playing the game Operation: if your fourth finger is off by 3mm it’s probably going to sound like crap. So yes, I had to struggle with my lack of patience. I also have some genetic shenanigans with my fingers and hands (Dupuytren contracture), which can make some fretting harder; that said, I’m probably keeping my 52 year-old hands in better shape playing than not. A bonus is that my keyboard typing speed/dexterity has improved from playing!

Guitar theory is something I struggle with. Unlike piano, which is linear, guitar uses a matrix. So, learning the why around where things are and how notes interrelate, while important, requires time. And time, as I tend to mention, is something that is hard to come by. If I have 20 mins to grab a guitar and practice, I’m more likely to play sequences, or bits from songs that I’ve learned, or do scales. Sitting with a book, trying to understand how a semi-diminished chord differs from a full-diminished, doesn’t typically take priority. That said, I am soldiering on. Theory is like learning math in school, and with math I get frustrated quickly because it feels like I’m being forced to learn a game, albeit in the driest way possible, with rules that feel arbitrary. My guitar teacher made it clear that he didn’t like to spend too much time on theory because it gets away from learning/enjoyment after a while. (I think one of the bonuses of being in a band is that you can always ask the person playing with you for help with the theory parts you don’t get.) I’m currently working my way through Guitar Theory: Straight Talking Music Theory for Guitarists by Lee Nichols, for what it’s worth.

I listen to a lot of guitar-based music, and sometimes I’ll sit with my guitar while my playlist churns on the stereo, and if I hear something interesting, I’ll try to figure out what/how they’re playing it. This is one of the best things about learning guitar: figuring out other people’s riffs on your own, without going online to Ultimate Guitar or some other place. My most recent a-ha moment was figuring out the rhythm riffs on Howlin’ Wolf’s I Ain’t Superstitious. I was reading an interview with a noted session guitarist who insisted that rhythm guitar (as opposed to solo) was ultimately the best to learn from (and sometimes the hardest to master; on this note he mentioned Clean up Woman, by Betty Wright — to this day I’m still polishing that one, owing to how exact you have be with your strumming).

Some guitarists I admire/emulate: Willie Johnson (not to be mistaken for Blind Willie Johnson), Auburn “Pat” Hare, Robert Quine, Otis Rush, Chuck Berry, Hubert Sumlin, Bill Orcutt, Loren Connors, Gene Vincent, Lightning Hopkins, the list goes on.

As with other interests I’ve explored, like photography, I can see how easy it is to accessorize yourself to the point where you might as well open a store for all the goods you have accumulated. Thankfully, I’ve seen enough examples of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) early in my life to work with what I have and not add anything that I’m not going to get much repeated use out of. Nearly everything guitar-related I have, save for cables and picks, is pre-owned. Trust me, I’d like nothing more than a sweet ol’ Supro tube amp, or a Mark VI bass, but it’s just not worthwhile. Online guitar culture is a series of men posting glossy photos of what they bought, or arguing about “tone”. I don’t care for it, and tend to skirt around it. I’ll also propose that one could indulge oneself so much in gear that you neglect the basics: practicing guitar regularly.

If someone were to ask me what I play, the answer would be a little bit of everything. I will always go back to Blues, because there’s something very seminal (and unadorned) about what guys like John Lee Hooker and Mississippi Fred McDowell did. But as a child of the 70s, it’s impossible for me not to jam out with Funk #49 by The James Gang. I’m also alternately enamoured with tuneful tracks like Fingertips by the Brian Jonestown Massacre, or the sheer attack of The SinKing by Crystal Stilts. It’s not unlike my reading habits: if I like it I’ll read it. It’s as simple as that.

I’ll end with touching on the fact that it’s a relationship — that’s what I sought from learning guitar. I find that arrangement the most rewarding, as opposed to, say, building a man-throne for my guitar and showing friends that I can play AC/DC. You learn more about yourself this way, as well as learning music.