How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barre Chord
My fingers hurt, and I love it. My office is a tangle of wires and electronics, cords snaking into, out of and around all kinds of techno-detritus. My YouTube subscriptions page is up on my computer screen, and it is filled with a cavalcade of new and recently added feeds. Against the wall leans a used Fender Telecaster, and my fingertips are marked with tiny, inflamed canyons, roughly the size of a guitar string.
I have spent the past two hours alternatively learning, exploring and bungling new scales, arpeggios and chord progressions, along with a spattering of actually trying to play something complete and coherent. I have watched a half dozen videos on a variety of lessons — this one on the CAGED system, that one on blues progressions, this other one on transcription. It is a reckless style of learning without goal or conceit. And I am deeply satisfied in the afterglow.
I plug my computer into the AUX input on my brand new Fender Mustang I amplifier, plug my headphones in, and play randomly from my music. I wander up and down the fret board, trying to find the right place to mimic the classic, slow-hand riff from Wonderful Tonight. I finally settle in the real estate of the 12-13th fret. I work to make my bends sound intentional and controlled rather than the slow ramp-up of a tornado siren. I still can’t quite get vibrato to work without looking like I’m trying to choke a snake, but the key here is that every step is fun and somehow rewarding.
This is all happening because of Rocksmith, YouTube and the internet.
I’m not surprised that gaming has inspired an interest — amateurish as it may be, in the musical act of creation. Despite the fact that I am essentially Fry with a holophoner in his horrible, human meat-hands when I pick up my axe (a weapon I wield to chop out the love of music in those around me), playing my guitar brings me positively silly amounts of joy. This was not how it felt the first time I tried to learn the instrument.
When I first picked up my old Alvarez six-string, I felt very much like a man alone on an island. I’ve never been one for formal lessons, and so there we would sit, my guitar and I, glaring at one another, waiting for the other to make the first move. I would play a chord or two without meaningful direction and wonder vaguely if those chords sounded like that one part in that one song or not. I would buy songbooks, get them home, open them and then close them back up quickly so they would stop hurling notes indiscriminately at my face.
I did stick with it, and became one of those guitar players who know all the really easy open chords and then looks for songs that play exclusively in that schoolyard playground. I was the kind of person who saw a B chord coming and would decide, “Welp, I guess that’s it. I’ll never play this song again.”
Bleak as that may all sound, I did grow to enjoy it. But it was a slow, almost agonizing process.
There were moments of hard-earned triumph. My wife, who is comfortable singing in the presence of others and is therefore probably an alien, would encourage me to learn songs she could sing along with, and that spurred me to keep with it longer than I probably would have otherwise. But, eventually and inevitably, I abandoned the instrument.
I figured this was a good thing. I’ve always said, for example, that if you can be talked out of trying to be a writer then you should be. I just assumed the same was probably true for guitar.
This was all in the late nineties, and by 2000 my old Alvarez and even my 12-string Martin had become these things that just lived in our guest bedroom. The callouses on my fingers healed. The shapes of chords faded from my short-term muscle memory. Music became a thing that I exclusively received.
Really, if you want to draw the line all the way out, Guitar Hero in 2005 planted the seed and tilled the dead soil of my interest in creating music. I know, I know — These games were as close to playing a musical instrument as jumping on a trampoline is close to flying an F-15 — but what it did show me is that technology could make something that might otherwise be crushingly dull (pushing plastic buttons on a child’s guitar toy) incredibly fun. And, over the years with the various incarnations of that game and its big brother Rock Band, it continued to reinforce.
To be honest, I had entirely expected that pro-guitar in Rock Band 3 would be the final link in the chain that rekindled my dead interest in mangling a guitar. It did not, perhaps because somehow the mechanics of playing guitar mode on RB3 forced you to take what was mostly an instrument and hobble it down to something more like the plastic toy. To play the game effectively, the strings had to be muted, which made the experience less like playing a guitar alongside a song and more like playing a picnic table.
Rocksmith eventually put it all together and made the whole experience fun in a way it has never been. And in its aftermath I discovered that the internet and technology have made the independent experience of learning to play an instrument completely different than I remember. Being able to go onto YouTube and in fifteen minutes have some guy named Justin show me something fun and relatively easy to do has revolutionized the way I interact with my learning. I am not on an island. I have something that pushes me to evolve and then rewards me for making the attempt, whether its a new high score on a difficult song or just the sound of my own effort syncing up nicely with the sound coming from my computer speaker. I can’t help but think now about how close I had been to so much cool, fun stuff in my first go-around, without ever knowing.
I mention all this because for a very long time I heard a lot about how games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band did nothing for getting people to actually play music. As many of us had suspected for a long time, this statement was flatly wrong, because although it may (or may not) have equipped me with any skills I’d need to take up an actual instrument, it did build in me a desire and a sense of fun. I’ll never take the stage under big lights to thunderous applause, so maybe it would have meant nothing if I’d never picked up a six-string again, but right now I’m sure glad I did.
Now, who wants to hear me play “Smoke On The Water”?