I haven’t given this much thought, but I think at this point in my life, I have been playing guitar longer than I haven’t. Many of the few people that read this blog have not known me as a guitarist, but there once was a time when I wasn’t.
One of the few times I’ve performed in a suit.
I started off playing piano. I took lessons from my sister’s teacher. I think I took lessons for only two weeks or some very limited amount of time. To this day, I’m an idiot on the keyboard. It takes me far too long to spell out chords. I have a Wurlitzer around for recording demos, but for me to knock out a part takes hours and leads involuntary shouts of gratuitous expletives.
Next, I took cello lessons. My teacher was the same as my brother’s. See a pattern here? I can’t remember for how long I took cello lessons, but it was for a few years. For some reason I cannot remember, I just stopped taking cello lessons. I’m sure my interest in it faded, but I don’t think that was the sole reason.
After cello, I started to take viola lessons. Viola is a rather natural change from cello. The strings are tuned to the same pitches, just an octave higher. In fact, much of the viola music out there is transcribed cello music. I remember that transitioning from bass clef to alto clef was weird. Even now if you see a piece of viola music, the clef looks like a kind of a funny, goth “B”.
Less formal and with my trusty ’58 LG.
However, the physical playing of viola is quite different from cello. I don’t think I ever felt comfortable holding a viola under my chin. Moreover, my bow technique was always poor. My fingers bend rather strangely at the knuckles closest to the nails. Somehow, those knuckles didn’t allow me to keep my fingers “naturally” curved in a manner like my teacher insisted they should. This was a problem up to my very last viola lesson. My vibrato was manic and tight instead of being loose and flowing.
Despite my poor technique, I think I managed to play viola (and later violin) okay. I played in a number of orchestras, quartets, etc. I performed recitals, adjudications, competitions, etc. Violas are generally underrepresented, so it was easy to manage playing just okay. Playing that much was kind of fun. I met lots of friends. I think I managed to gain an appreciation and knowledge of playing in ensembles. I knew I didn’t really enjoy the competitive aspect of it, the posturing, and the grandeur of the classical music scene. Even back then I knew I wanted to play guitar.
I think it was my sister who bought a guitar for a special music class. It was a small-scale nylon string guitar. I remember that there were color coded stickers on the fingerboard between the frets to show which frets and strings you should play for certain chords. I think all three of us, my brother, sister, and I spent time playing this guitar. I clearly remember playing G, C, D, and Em chords. I also remember playing harmonics. I knew about those from cello and viola. Even back then I remember really liking it. I liked the idea of playing chords on a string instrument.
That must have had something to do with the beginning of my fascination with the guitar. I remember that my viola teacher had a classical guitar in his house. After my lesson, I would often have to wait because my mother and his wife were friends and would spend a long time gossiping. I would often try to sneak into the room where the guitar was. I’d just barely open up the case and play a few of the strings. I really wanted to pull it out completely and monkey around on it, but I didn’t think I was allowed. I didn’t even feel comfortable asking if I could. I generally assumed the answer would be no. Other times, we would visit another friend of my mother’s where I would be kind of alone while my mother and her friend would talk. That family had a steel stringed acoustic FG-style Yamaha that I spotted. Again, I was timid to bring the guitar fully out of its chipboard case. I’d just open it and play a few strings with it still inside. I think once or twice, I would pull it out, but I only played my coveted G, C, D, and Em chords quickly and quietly and then hide my tracks. Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I also figure out how to slide a D chord up two steps to play an E and then back down to A, or something like that. I still do that trick whenever I can.
At the time, guitar wasn’t an option for me. It was this forbidden thing. I definitely had the seeds of obsession. I remember sitting in orchestra rehearsal after a break playing my viola like a guitar. I had figured out the chord changes for the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” My stand partner thought it was hilarious that I had the audacity to do that. If the sectional teacher would have caught me, I’d likely be in trouble.
The big change came when my parents and I moved to Shreveport.
As I’ve surely discussed before, my parents and I moved to Shreveport just before my freshman year in high school. My brother and sister had already moved out of the house by that point. It was a big move. I continued to take viola lessons with a very nice teacher whom I liked a lot. She wasn’t strict. She encouraged me to consider interpretation of pieces. She didn’t assign me a bunch of etudes. Rather, she told me to use isolated measures of the pieces I was playing to develop my own etudes. I really liked that. At the same time, I didn’t have the inertia of playing in a bunch of orchestras and other constraints to keep me playing, so I just kind of stopped.
My parents definitely felt bad about having to move me from all of my friends and the life I had. To help ease their guilt, they bought me a guitar because they knew I really wanted to play one. It was a steel string Takamine. In terms of giving me something to do, my parents’ plan worked. I played that thing anytime I was at home, which was just about anytime I wasn’t at school since I had no social life back then. I took lessons with the initial intent on learning classical guitar, but those slowly moved over toward blues, rock, and folk. I ate it all up. I bought Guitar Player and Guitar For the Practicing Musician. I collected as much tablature as I could and I worked at it. I remember when my teacher wrote down Travis picking patterns for me. I practiced them everyday. I remember practicing them in front of the TV before school, and then when I got back from school, I’d pick up my guitar and start playing them again.
I was obsessed. What had once been this forbidden thing now was available to me and I wasn’t going to waste a single moment.
I still play guitar just about everyday. I have always felt like I was meant to play guitar. I just really enjoy playing guitar. I never feel any sort of need to stray or move on from it. The opportunity to play a 6-string guitar, acoustic or electric, was such a huge moment in my life. The magic of it has never gone away.