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 enjoyed the article, but I disagree with you on the drums point. If there's a drum set present at a party (which is, I admit, a less common scenario than a guitar), the odds are approximately 1 in 1 that someone will sit down and annoy the ever-living snot out of everyone at the party. There is nothing more intrusive than a drum set, and that goes 10x for a badly played one.

Felix Threepaper wrote:
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.

Not forgetting us bassists! If you can stop us from falling over all the time, forgetting our own names, walking out into traffic etc.

Fun wins. Spector is right.

A point to make here is that Telecasters have a notoriously thin or screechy sound, and the Mustang amp amplifies that. You could try a bunch of guitars at Guitar Center and see what sounds you like. Even though my playing hasn't gotten better, it sounds much better since I got a a Gibson Les Paul (very full sound and very versatile) and Marshall half stack.

I would like to add that getting several musicians with several guitars in a single room changes the party dynamic. Instead of having the one person being the center of attention, you split off into several guitarists/musicians plucking at strings and discussing playing music, and everyone else off discussing other things.

This happened with my friends back in Jersey, and it's happening all the time in my apartment whenever we have a gathering.

I loved this. I may never again mock the casual party guitarist. Trumpet? Yes. I have my sardonic boundaries after all.

I worship drummers who can just sit down and jam (I mean you, McChuck and Wordsmyth). Hacking on guitar seems easy by comparison.

I will say that the last 12 months is the most concentrated I've ever been on guitar, and I have focused almost exclusively on:

1: Barre chords
2: scales with precision
3: Playing full songs with a metronome or backing track

All three have been enormously helpful, and I can now do sh*t I could never do before. I still feel like I suck. I still don't care if I turn it up loud enough (grin).

This thread inspired me to get a real tube amp as I think I've gone about as far as I can with solid state. It's arriving Wednesday. Can't wait.

I wish I could do the metronome thing more. I just find it so tedious and it shows me how bad I actually am (haha). The metronome is the best thing you can probably do though. Like lifting weights, everyone hates squats but that's what makes you bigger, so you have to suck it up and do it if you want to progress. In playing guitar, you need timing to do the cool sh*t.

I'm really looking forward to Rocksmith 2014 as it has session mode. I think that looks like you're getting all the benefits of a backing track and a metronome. I guess the jury is out until that game comes out though.

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

You know I'm super late in getting to this, but I just wanted to say that we can't be friends anymore.

I've been "learning" the violin over the past few years and have just gotten to a point where I can start figuring out how to play something more complicated than Twinkle Twinkle Little Star So, if we're all talking about starting up a GWJ band, I can totes provide some string backup.

So for a beginner which is better acoustic or electric?

EyeDoc wrote:
So for a beginner which is better acoustic or electric?

Acoustic is tougher, which means you need to develop good habits earlier. Also, I find setting up an electric to be a nuisance whereas just picking up and playing on an acoustic whenever the mood takes me is easier. I actually need to get an acoustic again.

Electric though gives you access to Rocksmith and that cable is handy for running through your PC to record and use plugins and the like. If all you want to do is wail and melt faces then there's nothing wrong with starting on electric though.

Short answer. Purists will say acoustic, but really just do what you enjoy.

Hybrid?

MrDeVil909 wrote:
EyeDoc wrote:
So for a beginner which is better acoustic or electric?

Acoustic is tougher, which means you need to develop good habits earlier. Also, I find setting up an electric to be a nuisance whereas just picking up and playing on an acoustic whenever the mood takes me is easier. I actually need to get an acoustic again.

Electric though gives you access to Rocksmith and that cable is handy for running through your PC to record and use plugins and the like. If all you want to do is wail and melt faces then there's nothing wrong with starting on electric though.

Short answer. Purists will say acoustic, but really just do what you enjoy.

It's a matter of preference. I think the most important things are to 1. Be serious about committing to practice and 2. Spend a little money on a decent instrument. These two idea synergize - if you are gonna spend some dough, make sure it's money well spent.

A cheap 100 dollar guitar, in particular a cheap acoustic, will just make your life more difficult. There's an upper limit to the effect but you really do get what you pay for.

Meanwhile:

Acoustic with a jack (acoustic/electric in the parlance of guitar center) is a great compromise, and honestly, there are some amazingly good cheap ones. I tried this one a month ago:

http://www.guitarcenter.com/Epiphone...

It's $150 bucks and it was fantastic.

Super cheap electric guitars will frustrate the crap out of you, honestly. Yes, electric is "easier" in that your playing thinner strings. I still do most of my practicing acoustic because it enforces better form. You can fuzz up a crappy electric and get away with MURDER form wise.

rabbit wrote:
Acoustic with a jack (acoustic/electric in the parlance of guitar center) is a great compromise, and honestly, there are some amazingly good cheap ones. I tried this one a month ago:

http://www.guitarcenter.com/Epiphone...

It's $150 bucks and it was fantastic.

A question to the floor. How does the Rocksmith cable deal with an acoustic electric? The piezo pickups are very high impedance, so I'm curious if anyone has tried it and had success.

gamerparent wrote:
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.

What's your beef about violin? Are you saying that it's better that people are playing Rocksmith instead of "Violinsmith", because if the latter, the amount of cat-drowning awfulness imposed on the world would shatter the earth? If so I may agree with you.

It's odd to me seeing folks complain and compare about chords versus runs, rhythm versus lead, because my musical background is so different from the sadly boring and common American musical experience of hearing nominal music growing up and therefore aspiring to play nominal music.

Sure, I knew about the Beatles and Nirvana and whatnot as a kid/teen, but my real interests were always Mozart and Bach. So playing violin from ages 8-20 most of my time was spent learning the techniques of that instrument, obviously, but also the fundamentals of music very differently from the pathetically predictable 4-instrument bands of late 20th-century contemporary music. It wasn't until Guitar Hero / Rock Band came out that I grew an impetus to actually know and learn some of this more disposable but sometimes entertaining popular music, so by way of those games I moved from rough familiarity with some of the better music of the last 50 years to capable of naming a song and band from hearing it. Moral: these games / tools should expand your musical palette not only to new bands but to new forms of music.

So I guess my contribution is this: don't play Rocksmith only so you can play your favorite song or two. Once you've acquired the basic skills for a given instrument, take that new musical understanding and see whether it affects your ability to appreciate musical genres you never enjoyed before.

Example for you guitarists (skip to 5:30 for the guitarist's entrance on stage)

I think the notion was that when violin playing goes bad, it can go very badly indeed.

The biggest issue with ROcksmith, in thinking about it, and acoustic guitar, is that the recognition of palm muting and hammer ons may not be up to snuff, and worse, you'll hit full step bends pretty fast, which can be murder on an acoustic until you get really strong fingers.

I haven't played Rocksmith, but my guess would be that playing it with acoustic guitar would be really difficult and frustrating for a beginning player.

wordsmythe wrote:
I think the notion was that when violin playing goes bad, it can go very badly indeed.

Good, yes, absolutely. But I didn't want to pass up a chance to make a larger point.

Podunk wrote:
I haven't played Rocksmith, but my guess would be that playing it with acoustic guitar would be really difficult and frustrating for a beginning player.

As a beginner using an acoustic guitar, I can vouch for that. My wife bought me Rocksmith for my birthday. I hooked up a Woody series pickup to my acoustic and started playing. It played just fine for a while but once it started getting into the bends and hammer-ons, I just couldn't do it.

The biggest discouragement to playing with an acoustic, however, is the fact you have both the amp'd sound through your pickup AND the natural acoustic sound blasting out and driving your family crazy as you repeatedly try to nail "Higher Ground."

Yup. I'm in the market for a decent (a.k.a. cheap) electric guitar.

Bob