Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Monday, July 6, 2009
the oud, the zither, and the vina have been around since about
3,000 B.C. Over the centuries, the bodies of the instruments
morphed, and the number and arrangement of strings changed.
By the mid-19th century the guitar (its name supposedly a
corruption of a Persian word) had achieved its standard,
recognizable form and six-string permutation.
Your humble narrator must have seen these ancient instruments
many times before. But the first time he sat up and paid attention
to them was 1995.
At Presbyterian College, in beautiful Clinton, South Carolina, nearly
every dorm room contained an acoustic guitar (This is an
exaggeration, to be sure, but it is an exaggeration for effect; thus,
it is forgiveable. Don't question it). Even if the denizens of these
rooms never so much as touched these guitars, except to move
them and make space for futons or piles of laundry, they had them
nonetheless. It was a rite of passage, and I longed to make that passage myself.
When I came home for summer break after freshman year, I
informed my parents of this desire. My mother's response was,
and I quote, "Alright; just so long as you don't give up the piano"
(If you recall from Part 3, I had taken up the keyboards again
during my senior year of high school.
My response: "I won't." (The eventual outcome: I did. And no
one called me out on it. But I digress...)
Because I was all of 19 when I made this humble request, I was
still indulged by my parents. And so, during that long, hot summer
of 1996, while the world turned its gaze on my corner of the world
(Atlanta) for the Olympic Games, and I slaved away as a lifeguard
at the WhiteWater amusement park, they went to Ken Stanton and
got me my first guitar.
I can still remember it: A Washburn D-10N 6-string. A plain top
(no "sunburst" polish or other frou-frou). Barnyard red sides. And
with it a soft case, a strap, a set of picks, an instructional video, a
thin instructional book, and two beginner lessons at Ken Stanton---
all for the modest price of $200.
I watched the video first, and picked up on the tuning process---long
the source of much later squinting, straining and bad stage jokes*---
fairly quickly. Then came the first three chords: A, E, and D.
E and D were pretty easy. A was a bit of a challenge. You see, there
are two schools of thought on how to finger A---well, actually two
schools of practice (there's very little that's cerebral about this). One
school insists that A should be fingered this way (numbers indicate
fingers of the left hand, starting with "1" as the index):
The other is equally adamant that A should be fingered this way:
As fate would have it, the instruction book I learned from taught the
second fingering of A. So that's how I learned A: with this admittedly
Sixteen years later, I sometimes miss those first tender months of
my playing, when the plain-jane chords of beginner lessons sounded
lustrous and full, and I imagined being a hit songwriter/rock star.
Nowadays I can run through all the major and minor chords in about
a minute or less. I quickly get bored with what I'm playing, and the
luster seems to have worn right off. Perhaps I've sacrificed my
childhood wonderment on the altar of speed and technique...
But then I remember how much time it took to move from one chord
to the next, particularly from any chord to A. You could have boiled an egg in the middle of it all...or maybe even knitted a handkerchief!
The Ken Stanton instructor taught me three things in those two
all-too-brief lessons: 1) how to fingerpick a Delta blues, 2) how to
play Blues Traveler's "Run Around", and 3) how to play Alanis
Morissette's "Head Over Feet". The first two have remained to this
day, because I love blues music and because "Run Around" is one
of the simplest songs to play (four chords---G, C, A minor and D---
repeating endlessly). Alanis? Naw; I worked through my inner- woman phase years ago. Now I'm a thoroughly modern, post- femininst man; lookout, world.
And so it was back to PC, toting my little plain-topped, red-sided
baby under my arm. I was a big man on campus now!
Late that winter (fall semester, 1996) I cowrote my first song.
Mr. Thomas, a freshman that year, had already been playing
for a little while when we met in the PC Choir. But he humored
my absolute lack of skill by letting me hang out with him in the
commons building between the newest male and female dorms
on the far end of the campus. There we strummed away (or,
rather, HE strummed away, and I stumbled along as best I
could) into the wee hours of the night, furtively searching for
the Muse, and anxious for any gifts she might see fit to bestow
on us poor, humble supplicants.
It seems that memory is clearest concerning either the
greatest of things or the worst of things; the middle-range
stuff tends to get overlooked. I'm not sure whether that
song we bludgeoned out was necessarily the worst I've
ever remembered, but it came close. With lyrics such as
"Your love is like a drug addiction" and "I can't read your
mind / But if I could, what would I find", and a chord
progression modeled after, you guessed it, "Run Around",
our Lennon-McCartney effort would have had to beg for
the chance to tie Pete Best's shoelaces!@
After this disastrous debut#, I kept my distance from
writing for a while, and concentrated on learning more
chords and improving my timing. Like any beginner, I
struggled mightily with barre chords. For the young,
the weak, and even the out-of-practice, trying to keep
that index finger clamped down firmly across the neck
was almost the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules! My own
efforts were so bad, and the buzzing from an improperly-
clamped neck so vexsome, that for almost a year I
avoided any chord sheet that featured an F major
(which in standard tuning requires either a capo or
a barre fingering). Even today, my barring ability
is abyssmal; I just disguise it by moving up the neck
And, college being college, there were plenty of people
who were, skill-wise, light-years ahead of me. You
could trip over them walking back to the dorm; you
could lay them down on the lower quad and walk to
class without touching the grass; you could stack them
end on end and reach the moon---
(---you get the idea?)
In the Presbyterian College "scene", three musical acts
dominated: Beamstalk, Jazz Onions, and a third group
whose name escapes me at the moment.
Beamstalk was an all-guitar, sometimes-trio / sometimes- duo that played from jerry-riged stages or the beds of pickup trucks. Their songbook hewed fairly close to the mid-90's collegiate "norm": lots of Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, and Dave Matthews, amongst others. In hindsight, their skill levels wer about average, but they SEEMED to be really good to my unlearned ears.
Beamstalk, strumming the light fantastic.
Jazz Onions$ was modeled after Dave Matthews
Band, right down to the instrumentation: guitar,
bass, drums, and fiddle (well, violin really, but
who's counting?). They lacked a woodwind
player (the guitar chair was doubled), but their
inspiration was plainly obvious; DMB's catalog
figured prominently in their setlists. They were
such cool guys; even the stand-offish manner of
some of their members demanded respect (even
if it simultaneously engendered resentment).
I would sit there on the Couch at Inklings---PC's
budget-constrained image of a coffee house, tucked
away in the dank basement of the largest men's
dorm---listening to them roll through "Dancing
Nancies" and Collective Soul's "World I Know",
Inklings Coffee House. In the right corner, sight unseen, was an electric organ. On many a lazy Friday afternoon I used to fiddle around on it and pretend I was Rod Argent.
The group-with-no-name was not so much a group
as it was an aggregation of musicians. Elliott and
Brian were seniors, jam-band fanatics, and really
laid-back guys. They were in charge of taping the
concerts at Inklings, Dead-style, perhaps in the
event that someone wanted a recording (or maybe
they just taped them for their own enjoyment).
Occasionally they would play there, Brian on keyboards
and Elliott on guitar. The jam-band influences were
front and center; long musical passages would unwind
from their instruments like brittle scrolls, floating
across the sticky floor before finally piling against
the far wall, to be kicked through by scruffy hipsters
with little patience for the wisdom of the ancients.^
One weekday morning, they blessed us with a Dead-
esque rendition of "Amazing Grace" during a prayer
meeting before classes. I thought I had died and
gone to heaven.
How I envied them all, these talented people!
"If only I could be in a band," I thought. "That
would be cool!"
Soon, I would get the chance...
* Such as this little gem: "This is a piece we learned from an ancient Chinese
scroll. It's called 'Tun-Ing'."
@ Thomas, you don't happen to still have this song sheet, do you? ; )
#...but at the time, I was downright PROUD of it!
$ They were Jazz Onions, not The Jazz Onions. I once made the mistake of
referring to them by the later designation, only to be corrected by
one of the guitarists: "No, Dan, not The Jazz Onions, just...Jazz Onions. You
know, kinda like Dave Matthews Band, not The Dave Matthews Band.
Got it?" "Yeah, I got it."
%Their lead guitarist/vocalist, Stephen, played a seminal role in my
taking up guitar. He lived right down the hall freshmen year, and unlike
so many other hallmates, he didn't go into conniptions when I asked,
"Can I play your guitar?", even though at the time I didn't know
how to play one. He was an easy-going fellow, quite likeable. Now he's
a doctor living in West Virginia, and still writing songs.
^Wow...that's probably the lamest attempt at "hipster music writing" I've ever made.