Lies My Guitar Told Me

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.

Comments

I'm at work right now fiddling with a guitar pick I found in my pocket.

I can't wait to go home and sound lousy for an hour, all for those few moments interspersed in that time where I notice some run or chord I thought impossible a few months - or maybe even just a few days - ago comes out more or less effortlessly.

Which is why the story about how you ruined Uncle Kenneth’s wake becomes legend in your family.

brilliant!

Get out of my head Shawn! I started playing when Rocksmith came out and have been pretty obsessed ever since. It's totally unforgiving. I suck at chord transitions even though I practice every day but the little triumphs that you mention always bring me back.

It's the Dark Souls of musical instruments.

15 years ago I sold a Honda Civic to buy a Gibson ES-335. Took the bus a lot in the next few years.

Still play it everyday.

ranalin wrote:
Which is why the story about how you ruined Uncle Kenneth’s wake becomes legend in your family.

brilliant!

Agreed. Some good humor in this piece. Well done, Sean.

Also, this...

When I pick it up, I believe on some level that I am fulfilling a destiny of a kind.

...made me think of this.
IMAGE(https://sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/p480x480/537331_352142861560457_1358118312_n.jpg)

As a drummer who grew up trying to practice in a home of 7 people while realizing that guitarists get all the romantic attention, I suggest you cry me a river.

Elysium wrote:

just starts Neal Peart’ing

That sounds like something I definitely should not look up on Urban Dictionary.

Thanks for writing this, Sean.

This is not only fantastic, it's precisely where I'm at in my head right now. Thank you.

I guess it's time to fire up Rocksmith for another session.

I just started learning how to play this February, and unfortunately I discovered how much I hate doing chords. This means most of the "easy" tunes I try to learn end up being the opening to Iron Maiden songs, and once I have that down, I'm kinda screwed.

My roommate wants to form a band, and in some ways it is appropriate that while I hate chords and like the agile dance of the fingers, he hates the dextrous finger wriggling and prefers chords instead. Leaves him as rhythm and me as lead, and my friend that just moved in knows bass.

Funny thing is, when I play, I don't give a sh*t that I suck. The world just drops away as I strum on songs I'm slowly trying to learn, or as I put together some riffs and melodies to form some manner of a song. That my friend's USB connector for Rocksmith can work for recording music on the computer is awesome (if only I had software that could convert that to distortion).

I'm jumping ahead of myself whenever I pick up that guitar. I'm over-reaching. I'm too ambitious. This is perhaps why, after being briefly obsessed, I'm briefly apathetic. But I always come back, I always become obsessed again, and I always get a little bit better.

I only wish I asked my Dad for a guitar as a kid instead of telling him I wanted to do drums like he and my brother. I liked the drums, and I feel it helped me understand and appreciate music a bit better, but I just find the guitar more enjoyable (except for maybe xylophone and marimba and that whole family of instruments).

Every once in awhile I think I want to learn the guitar. I could read music back in high school, bit that was 25 years ago. Should I tempt fate and try to learn or should I simply hold onto the notion? Decisions, decisions.

ccesarano wrote:

I only wish I asked my Dad for a guitar as a kid instead of telling him I wanted to do drums like he and my brother. I liked the drums, and I feel it helped me understand and appreciate music a bit better, but I just find the guitar more enjoyable (except for maybe xylophone and marimba and that whole family of instruments).

Traitor.

wordsmythe wrote:

Traitor.

Don't blame me, blame my high school conductor. Guy was an asshole and killed my interest in the band, and any interest I might have had for the set (which I lack proper coordination for anyway).

ccesarano wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

Traitor.

Don't blame me, blame my high school conductor. Guy was an asshole and killed my interest in the band, and any interest I might have had for the set

They're all like that.

The coordination for set takes practice. That and not getting pulled along by someone who's rushing are probably the two hardest parts of drumming.

ccesarano wrote:

I just started learning how to play this February, and unfortunately I discovered how much I hate doing chords.

That's so weird, I have the exact opposite problem. I never had an interest in licks or leads when I started playing as a kid, so I'm only really decent at chords and barres and sometimes picking patterns out of those. I read somewhere, probably in Guitar World, that Robert Smith loved Jimi Hendrix songs, but only really loved the chords in the songs instead of Jimi's lead playing. I think that stuck in my head.

Not caring that one may "suck" is so important though. Of all of the hobbies I've half-heartedly started in my life, playing guitar is easily the most rewarding.

And now I have to learn bass lines for Rabbitcon. Anyone want to sell me a bass?

I enjoyed this piece, but as a proud Aussie I must insist that Angus wore an Australian schoolboys' uniform, from Ashfield Boys High School:

Also, as a singer, I feel the love for drummers -- guitarists are a dime a dozen, but if you wanna graduate from the living room to being in a proper band? You need a drummer.

So noted, and corrected.

Wowee, pedantry works!

Cheers Elysium!

Demiurge wrote:

That's so weird, I have the exact opposite problem. I never had an interest in licks or leads when I started playing as a kid, so I'm only really decent at chords and barres and sometimes picking patterns out of those. I read somewhere, probably in Guitar World, that Robert Smith loved Jimi Hendrix songs, but only really loved the chords in the songs instead of Jimi's lead playing. I think that stuck in my head.

Every time I try a chord I feel like my hand is in some unnatural claw-talon formation. It's so frustrating. But being able to play the opening to No More Lies or Dance of Death, or even learning the melody to Matoya's Cave, it just fills me with energy.

The problem is, a lot of these songs get much more difficult after the first few measures/riffs. Plus, there's the fact that I am pretty sure I won't be able to do any of the guitar solo parts until maybe never. Plus, at some point I'll have to learn how to play chords. I just need to stop thinking "I wonder what sort of melody I can make" and start plucking at strings.

Here's a question: is anyone else more comfortable playing standing up than sitting down? My roommates prefer sitting. I'm the only one more comfortable standing.

So....who's excited for Rockband 2?

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?

This actually happens all the time with my family. If my father picked up the guitar in the middle of our conversation and started playing, it'd be natural to just continue the conversation. It's just as likely we'd play along. I understand what you're saying, and it goes with any instrument, but I guess my background is different.

I'm kind of at the absolute beginning of this blooming obsession. I picked Rocksmith up on the cheap about a month ago, and just got a guitar from Amazon this week. I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm having a good bit of self conscious fun. Just tuning the strings and dialing it in during the tutorial was oddly satisfying.

ccesarano wrote:

Every time I try a chord I feel like my hand is in some unnatural claw-talon formation. It's so frustrating. But being able to play the opening to No More Lies or Dance of Death, or even learning the melody to Matoya's Cave, it just fills me with energy.

The problem is, a lot of these songs get much more difficult after the first few measures/riffs. Plus, there's the fact that I am pretty sure I won't be able to do any of the guitar solo parts until maybe never. Plus, at some point I'll have to learn how to play chords. I just need to stop thinking "I wonder what sort of melody I can make" and start plucking at strings.

The good thing about Iron Maiden songs is that there's a good range of difficulty in them I exclusively played Maiden songs for an embarrassing amount of time when I first started with guitar. Also, even if you hate chords they mostly use power chords and you can play them with just two fingers if you want. In Dance of Death half the beginning of the song is just a chord you pick anyway so the fingering is the same. If you can play that you can play the chords as well. You could try playing Stranger in a Strange Land too, the chords in the chorus are quite simple.

ccesarano wrote:

Here's a question: is anyone else more comfortable playing standing up than sitting down? My roommates prefer sitting. I'm the only one more comfortable standing.

I've done both. I play predominantly with Rocksmith, so once I got the PC version I play almost exclusively sitting down. Before that I played almost exclusively standing up. I like both for different reasons. I find it easier to get in a comfortable position when standing, but I can play longer sitting down because leg endurance is a non-issue.

ccesarano wrote:

The problem is, a lot of these songs get much more difficult after the first few measures/riffs. Plus, there's the fact that I am pretty sure I won't be able to do any of the guitar solo parts until maybe never. Plus, at some point I'll have to learn how to play chords. I just need to stop thinking "I wonder what sort of melody I can make" and start plucking at strings.

They get more difficult because they are built out of chords. You simply have to work through the discomfort and learn the fundamentals.

And Power chords and Barre chords can go a long way. Barre chords kill me though.

Wembley wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Here's a question: is anyone else more comfortable playing standing up than sitting down? My roommates prefer sitting. I'm the only one more comfortable standing.

I've done both. I play predominantly with Rocksmith, so once I got the PC version I play almost exclusively sitting down. Before that I played almost exclusively standing up. I like both for different reasons. I find it easier to get in a comfortable position when standing, but I can play longer sitting down because leg endurance is a non-issue.

I played rockband standing up because I used to have a 65 inch tv. Now I play rocksmith sitting down because my monitor is 24 inches and harder to see.

aphesian wrote:

I'm kind of at the absolute beginning of this blooming obsession. I picked Rocksmith up on the cheap about a month ago, and just got a guitar from Amazon this week. I have no idea what I'm doing, but I'm having a good bit of self conscious fun. Just tuning the strings and dialing it in during the tutorial was oddly satisfying.

Pick your favorite song and play that. A lot. Like, until you get good at it. Doesn't matter if you suck at song X, you totally nailed your song.

Being a musician, one of the things that i will note is that the spate of rhythm games, and now more advanced forms such as Rocksmith, have given people learning instruments a much better sense of timing than ever before. People who used to learn guitar on their own, and just played in their bedrooms, often struggle once they try to play in a band, because on your own, you can stop and fumble and find chords without penalty, but in a band, playing together, you can't be doing that, because no one is going to wait for you. The song goes on whether you have the right chord or not.

And also, at least it's not violin. It could be worse.

Wembley wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Here's a question: is anyone else more comfortable playing standing up than sitting down? My roommates prefer sitting. I'm the only one more comfortable standing.

I've done both. I play predominantly with Rocksmith, so once I got the PC version I play almost exclusively sitting down. Before that I played almost exclusively standing up. I like both for different reasons. I find it easier to get in a comfortable position when standing, but I can play longer sitting down because leg endurance is a non-issue.

I find my 25.5" scale guitar is easier to play standing and my 24.75" is easier sitting (though I tend to prefer to stand). The length of the longer one makes it a bit tougher to reach properly when sitting but the weight and balance are better when standing.
YMMV based on your height - I'm not really a tall person.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

They get more difficult because they are built out of chords. You simply have to work through the discomfort and learn the fundamentals.

And Power chords and Barre chords can go a long way. Barre chords kill me though.

YES! There's not two ways about it, you HAVE to work through stuff. What's awesome and satisfying is that you WILL eventually get it. Stuff that seems impossible (like barre chords and in my case, using my pinky on the high e and my ring finger on the low E in a basic g chord) will all of a sudden start to become something you can handle.

Learning the chord shapes is a big key to picking. Even if you have trouble transitioning from chord to chord (like me) you'll find if you know the shape it will improve your picking.

Barre chords are horribly difficult at first. I'm finally at the point where my hand just kind of shapes that on its own, but I still have trouble putting it into a song from another chord. They're worth their weight in gold though as they're in a million songs and they automatically form a power chord.

I'm totally in the "Picking is easier to me" camp, my buddy is the opposite so it seems to be you're either this or that usually. What's cool though is that if you learn some scales, you can jam when your buddy is playing chords just by playing notes in a minor pentatonic and it sounds awesome.

I was fully aware of the cliche I was traveling down when I picked up a guitar in college. I never went as far as to trying to be that guy who plays at parties, but I think, considering all the time I spent trying to learn how to play Ziggy Stardust, the people around me thought of me that way. For me, it was a way to channel some of my stress from work, studies, exams and (trying) dating.