I’m squirming my way through an A-minor pentatonic scale, my fingers stumbling through an awkward ballet. The tone conveyed through the pickups of my Fender Telecaster and out of my cheap Mustang amp, are unrecognizable as a song — and arguably, barely recognizable as music. I try to slide fumblingly from position 1 to position 2 and back again. The effect sounds vaguely like a song that forgot what it wanted to say for a moment, and then suddenly remembers again.
I try a brief vibrato on a long note that I’ve arbitrarily decided to hold, and then quickly think better of the attempt. Fingers on the move again, I am plucking at strings in the hopes that my left hand is caught up and actually holding down a note. My success rate for both hands working in concert is in the 90% range.
I play a series of five or six notes that sound, to my ear, something like music. In my sudden over confidence, I go for a bluesy-bend, aim for a full tone bend, go screaming past a full tone, recognize the mistake, overcompensate back down and finally settle on something largely discordant but at least in the ballpark. The note, should we choose to call it such, holds, fades, dies. In the background, I hear my boys playing a game on the Wii. I have the vague sense that they have turned their volume up. Unperturbed, I go back to noodling, a little quieter and a little more conscious of the noise I am making.
I try not to think about my perception that, despite a couple of years of half-hearted practice, I am not now nor likely will ever be particularly good at this instrument. Instead, I lean close to the instrument and let it drop poisonous lies into my ear, and lose myself.
Learning guitar is a story of little triumphs. Like most stringed instruments, it is generally unforgiving. It unmasks the uninitiated quickly and completely. There is so much more to it than just getting calluses enough at the tips of your fingers to press flesh against sharp metal and generate a noise. Uncovering the complex tonality of a guitar, and finding out how many different ways you can make sound with one note, reveals a complexity that, frankly, had I known about it to begin with I might not have bothered.
I think of playing guitar, however, like being beguiled by a clever glamour. When I look at the instrument I see a version of myself encapsulated within that instrument. When I pick it up, I believe on some level that I am fulfilling a destiny of a kind. I understand why people become obsessed with the instrument. It will tell you lies you want to hear, and it will fool you into a mystique that does not exist. When you see someone pick up a guitar at a party, and you have that moment of “Oh God, no. I’m at a party with _that_ guy!” spare a moment of sympathy, because he has been fooled by the wood and metal to believe a reality that probably doesn’t exist.
The thing about the guitar is that it demands attention. It is exceedingly difficult to play the guitar unobtrusively. You can’t just blend into the background, even if you try, because the guitar takes over.
Arguably, a lot of instruments are like this. Drums, for example, probably command a lot of attention. But, that’s the thing. No one looks at the drum kit, and thinks “you know what’s going to get this party really started? Drum solo!” No one walks into a friend’s house, sees they have a drum kit and suddenly, without warning, grabs sticks and just starts Neil Peart’ing the whole place up. No one shows up at a party and unbidden snatches an alto sax down from the wall to break out their version of Take Five.
Ah, but guitars. They lie to you. They whisper bad ideas into your head. You can look at a guitar, and even if you’re able to resist, there’s a deep voice in the back of your mind that suggests, “I think everyone in this room would really enjoy hearing how well I can play an open G chord.” Which is why the story about how you ruined Uncle Kenneth’s wake becomes legend in your family.
Unlike other instruments, the guitar’s physical presence demands attention from the moment you pick it up, even before you play a note. It is as though you are announcing that everyone needs to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to you.
Think about it, have you ever been in a place where someone is playing a guitar and you didn’t realize it? Ever walked into a coffee shop and spent ten minutes gabbing at a friend before you realized someone has been playing Oasis on a beat-up Martin the whole time? Ever had someone at a party grab up the nearest six-string and you were just able to go on about your business and ignore the playing? No. Well played or poorly, people congregate. They take notice. It is a narcissist's ultimate weapon.
I find myself conflicted even when I pick up to practice in my own home. I hear all the mistakes, all the things that I’d have liked to do better. But I also hear that siren call that says to just unleash hell and damn the consequences. Turn the gain all the way up, get some reverb going, and just drop an A chord like you’re Angus Young dressed in an Australian schoolboy outfit. Let it scream it’s barbaric yawp and then growl in contempt.
Those moments when I abandon myself to the lies, to the illusory image, to the very self-absorbed nature of the beast, are also when I find the most joy. So few things in this world reward the uninhibited. Even with the self-obsessed nature of the social culture, there is the other side which insists you control yourself all the more within that social context. Twitter and Facebook are a place to paint a carefully crafted version of yourself, but only a fool goes there and lets go with their real self and uncensored thoughts.
But the guitar is the opposite. The only way to tame it, to come to terms with it, is to give in to the temptation of expression. The only time you can make it sound good is when you finally stop caring if it sounds bad.
Which, I think, is why I love it.