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.

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Houston

I had the opportunity to finally visit family in Texas last April. This would be my first time seeing my father in about seven years, and my half-siblings (and extendeds) in an even longer period.

It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but I was happy to have done it, despite the stress of driving on Texas highways and their many overlaps and cutoffs, despite spending most of the time in suburban enclaves, which are not my thing.

My father’s getting older. He’s over 80 now. One of the reasons I chose to go this year is that I realized that his ability to travel is increasingly getting harder, and it would be presumptuous to expect him to make an appearance in Canada any time soon. His hearing is going, and he’s beginning to walk with a shuffle. Getting older is a thing. A real thing. One of the first things I did when I got back to Toronto was text my brother and urge him to make travel plans in the next couple of years.

There was some unfinished business that I wanted to take care of on this trip, and that was finally putting my hands on my late uncle’s Guild D40 (if you haven’t read about this, you can start here). I realized, when I had the opportunity to handle it that I’ve never held, let along played, an acoustic guitar in my life. I started taking guitar lessons in 2019 but it’s been strictly electric. It was so light and airy compared to either of my guitars. The neck was shorter so I had to adjust where on the fretboard I was choosing to play lest I run out of real estate. Most of all, the resounding dynamics of an acoustic guitar. It was magical, and I was relieved that I had the opportunity to have access to something of my family’s past.

photo of my playing my uncle's guitar

I’ve been working on a piece about my relationship with my father, his past (which I inherited), and my uncle’s murder in Austin in 1979. It will probably be the hardest project I ever undertake.

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Patience

In a previous post I wrote about how guitar lessons have been a gateway for me to work with patience, and I thought I would devote a little more space to that (side note: sometimes I’ll look back on blog posts and see how cramped/dense the ideas are, which reminds me a bit of how my first drafts look like when I’m sketching fiction — except it’s not exactly in the nature of blog posts to go back and revise, so I apologize if sometimes what I end up writing here is a little nebulous).

Anyways, guitar and patience. I didn’t go into guitar thinking I would be doing anything great or fancy. Not starting a band or anything. I just wanted to build a relationship with this instrument — something I couldn’t do when I played drums (due to their cumbersomeness and noise, especially if you are living with someone). Thing is, drumming came naturally to me, even though I never really sought them out. I took piano when I was a kid, and when I signed up for concert band (because why wouldn’t you find any way possible to avoid staring at a blackboard) my keyboard skills weren’t quite at the level to easily follow the sheet music that accompanied the band. And so I was thrown into percussion. I took to it quite well because I’ve always had a keen sense of rhythm. Going into high school, the percussion section expanded and there was usually drum kit available to practice on. And so I helped myself and eventually joined a rock band. We lasted about 5 years and there are, as they say, no regrets. But, as I mentioned, it wasn’t so much my dream to be a drummer, as much as it allowed me to stay close to music. My relationship with drums is arms-length let’s say.

With guitar the first thing you realize is that, unlike drums where the pressure is keeping the beat, if your calloused fingertips are off by only a couple of millimetres you are probably going to play the wrong note. In other words, the feedback loop of wrong/right is much more immediate and sensitive, reminiscent of piano (even more so, I would say, especially if you trying playing guitar with an overdrive pedal). As a highly sensitive person (not diagnosing myself but being honest nonetheless) this feedback loop can be very intense, and, if I’m in an off mood, the “wrong” feedback can get on my nerves fairly quickly, leading me to melt down a bit. And this is where patience comes in. I’ve had many instances where, either because I’m developing a new skill (say, a pull-off using my fourth, or “pinky”, finger) or increasing my speed with an advanced piece, I’ll end up having a bad day. In the beginning of learning guitar, those bad days were stormy for me; I got frustrated with myself, frustrated with my lack of finger coordination — all the things. I learned a couple of things over time (which is easier to do when you’re playing a song you like): bad days are part of learning and not an indictment of any innate ability you have to do something; and taking time off (be it an hour, a day, even a week) — although it might seem counterintuitive to those of us who read about performers spending several hours each day practicing — allows you to come back to your instrument with a fresh mind and, in my experience at least, if not better technique then easier comfort with the instrument. As a result of allowing myself to take it easy, on myself and my expectations, I’ve gotten better at being able to picture myself overcoming the inevitable short-term stumbles and seeing the bigger picture where the mistakes I’m making today are not carved in stone forever, as they sometimes feel in the moment.

I’ve been cognizant of this because when I’ve been revising my writing in the past — my fiction in particular — sometimes my notes can be brutal. In a fit of frustration I’ll write things in full caps (“DOESN’T MAKE SENSE?!”) which, while maybe capturing how I’m reacting to something that’s a rough draft, doesn’t exactly make for pleasant reading when I come back to implement the revisions to the story or book. It’s like taking on the tone of a quasi-abusive teacher or parent. It can be oppressive and can make the process of revision (which is where the magic truly happens) tedious and soul-melting whereas I know it’s supposed to be where I develop a closer relationship with the work. Note the word relationship.

If you will excuse the generalization, there are two types of people who pick up a guitar: the person who wants to learn [insert cool song], and the person who is curious about developing a relationship with the instrument. Sometimes the former turns into the latter, but rarely does it go the other way if your intent is honest. Likewise with learning to write (which, in the end, is largely learning to revise) I’ve taken some of the lessons I’ve learned with guitar and patience and applied them to how I “speak” to myself in my revision notes. Do I need a stern lecture? No, I don’t. Do I need shouty language? No, I don’t. And, now that I’m up to my knees in revisions to Radioland, I’m implementing this approach. The full-caps are gone. Instead of “CHANGE THIS” or “NO” I try to write something akin to an editor’s voice — an editor who wants the intended end-result to rise to the surface of the current draft — with something like “This is working but could use clarity.” Imagine coming to that while you’re making changes? Doesn’t that sound more reasonable (let alone approachable) than something like “WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY HERE??”

I suppose I’m putting this out there to show that there are many ways to grow as an artist — at any stage– and one of those ways is indirectly applying the lessons of one form to another. I still have bad guitar days and will continue to experience them as long as I endeavour to play, but the important thing is that I can look past those days. And because of that, I’m better able to see (and believe) that I can, as a novelist and short story author, work through the rough patches in my writing.

(P.S. Big shout-out to Michael @ Red House Music Academy)

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Michael Cahill, Coda

Let me begin by saying that this is the short version…

For those who haven’t been following my blog, my uncle, Michael Cahill, was shot and killed in 1979, in Austin Texas. This happened as he came upon someone burglarizing his apartment, who fled on foot with my uncle’s prized possession — a Guild D40 acoustic guitar. As I covered in 2006, this sad episode in my family’s life was resurfaced by journalist Denise Gamino of the Austin American-Statesman (Gamino is now a former staffer and her very excellent article is no longer on their site, however I’m linking to a copy of it here). Fortuitously, a producer from America’s Most Wanted came across it and reached out to my aunt for permission to spotlight this cold case on one of their episodes. And so, in 2007 I got to see the story of my uncle’s murder not only re-explained and re-contextualized, but also recreated with actors on broadcast TV.

And then…nothing happened. I wrote about it here and here and that generated interest. People reached out to share their theories, sometimes the odd story about Michael. Over time — especially given the cancellation of America’s Most Wanted (and the erasure of its online presence which wiped out all of the stories they covered, a crime in itself for families whose only hope for justice was the information that site provided) I grew ambivalent to any suggestion that I should be hopeful my uncle’s murder would find any sort of resolution.

On February 7th of this year, I got on a plane to Tulum, Mexico, for a vacation. When the jet landed on the tarmac of Cancún International Airport, I saw that I’d received a voicemail. I ignored it, assuming it was work-related, or maybe just spam — it was from an area code I didn’t recognize — until I returned to my office on the 18th. It was a Tuesday.

The message was from Randy Crafton the owner of Kaleidoscope Sound, a recording studio in New Jersey. While doing an inventory of their music equipment, they looked up the serial number of one of their studio guitars. Unlikely as it may seem, even as I write this, that serial number was the same as the one my uncle died chasing in 1979. It had likely changed hands many times; at some point I’m sure someone will investigate this.

This past Friday — Good Friday — the guitar was delivered by UPS to my father in Houston, just in time for the 41st anniversary of my uncle’s death. My family down there is, to say the least, ecstatic, and I am still gobsmacked at how this all came to be. Let’s face it, the probability is beyond calculation. I’m grateful, which feels like a tremendous understatement. Grateful to the people at the studio in New Jersey. Grateful to everyone who has shared Michael’s story (including that serial number!) on the web. I will most likely write something more comprehensive about this, because there are so many moving parts — names, places, people — and the story is much larger than what I’m able to encapsulate here. But I’ll get to that when the dust has settled.

Guild D40

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The Memphis Effect

As mentioned in my last post, going to Memphis had an effect on me. One thing that it affected that I didn’t have the space to mention was how I was influenced musically.

First, let me tell you about American museums (or at least museums in Memphis): unlike here in Toronto (I’m thinking of the ROM) where you are basically in an Ikea and are able to roam about and find the exits freely, the museums I went to in Memphis (namely the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music) subscribed to a similar script. First, thou shalt sit and watch an obligatory documentary for at least 12 minutes before entering said museum. Second, after said documentary has been screened, thou shalt exit through appointed theatre exits and continue through a prescribed path until the gift shop approacheth, not unlike a mouse in a maze.

Thing is, during the Stax documentary (which was very well done, as was the NCRM doc), I witnessed the apparition of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Now, if you have a decent knowledge of rock-and-roll, you might have heard Sister Tharpe’s name as an early influence on the genre. This is similar to how some of us might hear the name Kepler attributed to astronomy or Cruyff as pertains soccer. I sat there on that Saturday afternoon (I was amongst a cohort of three people) and watched an excerpt of her performing the gospel standard Down By The Riverside with a choir behind her, ripping into her white Gibson SG for a ridiculously soulful guitar solo.

That did it.

Leaving Stax, I proceeded to watch everything I could on Tharpe, with particular attention to her electric guitar performances. This was not someone playing rhythm guitar while she sang, strumming chords. Just as her voice had a beautiful, soaring quality with a lot of power behind it, so did her guitar work. Technically and tonally she was (and is) extremely expressive, demonstrating a vocabulary of electric guitar playing that predated rock-and-roll as we know it, combining both religious and secular gospel with R&B. There are a number of good places to read more about her — here’s one. And another. It’s no surprise that when she was finally (belatedly) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard who introduced her.

But I wanted more. I was inspired to the degree that I wanted to explore what I saw beyond listenership. And so I did my research, and after a couple of weeks, I located a guitar teacher. And after a lesson or two, I ended up locating a semi-hollowbody guitar — an Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93 (pictured) that someone was selling because they weren’t finding use for it.

An Epiphone Riviera Custom P-93

I play drums and can do adequate keyboards, but I’ve never (ever) wanted to learn to play guitar (just magically “play” it? Sure, but not actually learn the thing), despite the fact that some of the greatest influences on me are from guitar-driven music. Learning guitar is a strange yet rewarding process of teaching the increasingly calloused finger tips of my left hand to traverse the frets and coordinate themselves, touching the strings at first hesitantly, then, with practice, confidently. Oh, and then there are the pickups, the tuning, the tremolo bar. I’m not doing this because I want to start a band or play on stage, but rather because I’m drawn to this process, and a relationship that I am building with the instrument.

What am I learning? Mostly surf and rockabilly, for the time being.

Here’s more SRT:

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