I’m linking up with myself this week and Not So (Small) Stories. Come read some of the other wonderful posts that span genres and subjects. My post this week is about learning to play acoustic guitar, as I recently stumbled across a photo of my first week learning to play. I had a few encounters or friendships with actual legit musicians along the way and have linked to their music below if you want to check them out. Also, there are tons of references to the Indigo Girls, still one of my favorite song-writing duos. I bought studio recording time next month and am thinking ahead to that, while also remembering my journey of playing guitar and writing songs. Whether you are musical or not, I’d love to hear some of your music inspirations or loves in the comments!
Her face was unremarkable, but the moment my camp counselor stepped behind the microphone with her guitar and began to play, she became suddenly and irreversibly beautiful. Her hands especially: one curved around the neck of the guitar, the other flurrying over the strings. Outside the screen windows of the meeting room, cicadas sang backup. In those few short minutes as her voice and the sound of the strings, a stir of desire awoke.
I spent the next week at camp flitting like a moth around the small groups gathered on porches around an acoustic guitar. Whether it was the counselors playing camp songs on their 12-strings, or prodigy Erin McKeown picking out songs she had written, better as a 7th grader than the counselors in their 20s who had played for years, I stood at the back, not speaking or singing, enthralled.
I returned home begging for a guitar. My parents, remembering the three years of piano lessons in which I played by ear and faked the ability to read music, wisely said, “We’ll see.”
Two years later I finally got my first guitar from a boy I thought was cute. It was $50, an old acoustic from Sears with a bit of a warped neck and a high action which made it difficult to play. I had a video, “Teach Yourself to Play Guitar,” that got me nowhere close to sounding anything like the Indigo Girls.
I began dating the boy who sold me the guitar and he promised to teach me to play. But when I kept after him, he handed me a mix tape of neo-classical guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen. “Tell me which songs you want to learn and I’ll teach you,” he said. I was daunted by the intricate runs and aggressive style, nothing like the delicate finger-picking in the songs I loved. He scoffed when I played “Ghost” for him on his tape deck, and then again at my voice, which like my guitar, grew quiet and dusty in the year that followed.
A few years later, freed from the oppressive opinions of that boy, I began to sing at youth group. At first softly, tremulously. Then more freely. “You’ve got a pretty voice,” people told me, and I began to think again about the guitar I had left the basement.
My youth group friends loved to sing. On retreats and late nights in bedrooms and back porches, we sang. I remember a night of driving, three across in my front seat: my best friend Emily and a dear friend Patrick, now lost to cancer. It is one of my favorite memories of time spent with him, simply driving around Richmond as “Swamp Ophelia” turned in the tape deck. Emily and I sang along, falling in and out of the harmonies as they got too high or too low. “Beautiful,” Patrick said, when the tape clicked to a stop.
Once I fell briefly in love with a boy who pulled over in a parking lot during the middle of a night out to climb in the backseat and play a song he had written. I could not move from my seat while he played, watching headlights of cars pass by through the windshield, his breath so close to the back of my neck as he sang.
As my friends departed for college one by one by one, leaving me home alone, I found the hot August days insufferable. But a friend scribbled out the chords D-A-G and how to play “Sanctuary” on a torn-out piece of notebook paper. I rescued my very out-of-tune Sears guitar from the basement and spent hours on those three chords. The song was simple, but it became the most beautiful song because I could play it myself.(Click to Tweet)
I spent two weeks coming very close to the Bryan Adams standard of playing til my fingers bled. My swollen fingertips ached when I played, but somehow more when I stopped. As though now that they had connected with strings, they needed to keep the connection fresh. By the time we packed the car and drove an hour north to college, I had callouses instead of swollen fingers and had written three songs. Simple songs, terrible and repetitive songs, but songs. My own songs.
I drove people crazy in our dorm playing constantly, sometimes the same chords for hours as I matched words to music. I took to writing in the empty classrooms in academic buildings, left open for students to study all night. I was the soundtrack to many people’s cram sessions, or else the reason some of them packed headphones. I finally learned to play “Ghost” on the guitar, feeling triumphant about not only the ability, but a sort of final stamp in the face to a boy who had made me doubt myself. I spent the whole next summer’s pay investing in a Taylor, which I still guard like it’s my child.
Thinking of that camp counselor, I began to sign up for talent shows and open mics. A terribly nervous and awkward performer, I talked too much between songs or sometimes stopped in the middle if I made a mistake, stammering awkwardly before taking up right where I left off. I began opening for bands and secured a few solo shows, full two hour shows. Most of the time the nerves never left and I rushed through the songs, longing to get down off the stage. But a few times, I slid into a magical place and something palpable filled the air, connecting everyone in the room through the sound of my songs. I got the coveted go-ahead wave at open mic night to play an extra few songs. I made someone cry. I brought the house down singing a duet with a friend when we moved from “Landslide” to “Patience.” Never mind that it was his killer Axl-like vocals and less my own.
Most of my joy in playing came from echo-y rooms alone or with a trusted friend. Harmonies intertwining in the air and resonating in my chest with a rich fullness. My fingers moving over the frets and strings as though they were completely on their own. If I thought about it too much, my fingers got stuck. I had to let them go on their own, a trick of the subconscious. Having never learned to read music, my relationship with my guitar is something more instinctive, a primal relating that comes not from understanding or knowledge, but a connection I can’t explain.
I’ll never stand in front of a cheering crowd of fans, but my love for guitar is strongest in a small, quiet space. Just me and the music, my hands and the strings.