I picked up the guitar for the first time when I was in my very early twenties. It was the days before YouTube and easily accessible internet, so I went to Musicland — you see kids, they used to have these places where you’d walk in and literally buy music off a shelf — bought a book with some chord shapes in it and a book of tabbed out sheet music for Pearl Jam’s Ten album.
I’m not sure what series of naïve neurons fired in assuming that Mike McReady’s iconic, tearing guitar from grunge music’s coming-out party was a good place to start learning this new instrument, but they were quickly proven wrong. The A chords coming out of my both tiny and tinny speakers sounded not at all like the crunched, angry tones coming from my brand new Discman, such that I assumed something was broken in the process. Perhaps, I imagined, the guitar I was using was somehow faulty, or the strings were substandard, or the author of my chord book didn’t know what an A chord was. But it was none of those things, I realized. It was me.
This easily could’ve been the moment I realized guitar was not for me and I should go ahead and move on to the next thing — because frankly that’s what I normally would’ve done at that age — but once I literally closed the book on Ten, shaped my hand into an awkwardly claw-like E (which looks a bit like you’re about to throw the worst Leopard Punch in the history of Kung Fu) and worked through creating a sound that seemed to have at least a passing acquaintance to music, I couldn’t put it down for long.
In my adult life I’ve gone down many roads only far enough to see the bend that leads uphill. There were a few other paths where I strode the twisting mountain, often grudgingly because there was some necessity or responsibility that compelled me, but there’ve really only been two where I tackled the long climb because I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise.
The first is writing, which for better or worse is probably the skill in which I place the most confidence. It is the place where I planted a flag and thought, "I’m good enough at this that I think I can spin a life around it and at least not die of starvation," and to date I have not been proved wrong. I have a love affair with words — or maybe just the sound of my own authorial voice — and we’ve managed to make this often strained relationship work for some two decades now. It was the mountain up which I could run with the wind at my back.
The other mountain is music, and it is my K2 — an often inapproachable and unforgiving summit onto which many have thrown themselves only to be shattered upon the rocky debris field at the base of the behemoth. Hell, I’ve fallen off the damn thing a dozen times. There is no clear path, no native guide, no map that I can decipher. And there are few places I’d rather be.
I was a band kid in school, a permanently second-chair saxophone player, always the understudy for the solos if first chair got sick — which she never did, because that’s the kind of go-get-it, mind-over-matter attitude you need to reach that first-chair grand prize. But I stuck with the instrument for seven years, learning how to read music, learning basic music theory and learning how to play with other people. These are skills that provide me no value to this day, but ones that I pointlessly prize. I understand key signatures, the difference between a treble and bass clef, time signatures, codas. All the Italian I speak is words that describe speed or intensity.
After high school was over though, I sold off my instrument for reasons I can’t recall but am sure were frivolous. I don’t really suppose I ever intended to pick up an instrument again. Until that Pearl Jam book, that $100 guitar and that cramped E chord, I really didn’t.
It wasn't even my guitar. A friend lent me his that he'd tried and given up on years before. It was some brand you've never heard of before, the sort of thing you'd buy at a Wal-Mart: an out of tune electric with an integrated speaker in the guitar case. It sounded a lot like playing a guitar you'd made in your basement out of balsa wood and piano wire, plugged in through a McDonald's drive-thru speaker. It wasn't hard to see why my friend had set it aside never to play again. It's less easy to understand why I didn't.
The way that music is capable of communication without words, with a language of arcane symbols perched on its striated ledger that create emotion with our without a word ever spoken is as close to magic as I understand. I simply have no choice but to try and speak.
Oddly, perhaps, I think writing and music come from the same place in me. In both exercises I'm trying to craft a shape of ideas in my head in such a way as to replicate or at least hint at the shadow of what I'm thinking and feeling. While I can use writing to convey largely concrete ideas, there is a palette of thought and feeling I can only articulate through music. Badly played, amateurish music.
That's OK, though, because most of the time what I've found is in both media I'm not talking as much to all of you as I am to myself. I've found myself on more than one occasion sitting with my guitar or at the piano in my house at the end of a day, sketching ideas in chords and notes only to find quickly that I'm unloading some kind of baggage that I really didn't know I needed to spit out. It's the kind of thing I think some people find in running, others in painting, some in talking and still others in moments of meditative silence.
I realize that's all very new-age and the sort of nonsense guys in the 40s and 50s spout when they are trying to "get in touch" with themselves. (My music is my meditation, man.) But there it is. And realizing this was kind of a burden off my chest, because when you're in your 20s you might be more likely to think, "What's the point of learning guitar if I don't play in a band or use it to impress a potential mate?" Knowing that it can just be a thing for you — that its only purpose is to allow you to communicate out something to yourself that you needed to say and hear from yourself — let's you suck at the actual mechanics.
So what if I'm not very good, and never will be? It gets the job done, and that's all I need it to do. It doesn't even matter all that much if I'm just hammering out the pentatonic minor solos of an Oasis song, or strumming familiar chords in an almost haphazard daze. More times than not, doing that lets me process my day, my life. And as long as that remains true, I will throw myself again and again at the crags of this K2.