Failure To Quit
The first guitar I ever had was a beat-up $100 six-string acoustic pawn shop special. And, to be completely truthful, it wasn't mine. My dad (who later turned out not to be my dad, but that's another story) had bought it in the mid-80's so that he could accompany his school's choir. He bought chord books and everything - even went to a couple of lessons. Learning how to play an instrument turned out to be something that pretty closely resembled actual work though, so the idea of adding instrumentation to the kids' voices fell by the wayside. And so too did the guitar.
He didn't really notice when the case migrated from his study to my bedroom, or maybe he did and was just relieved that my mom wouldn't be asking him about it anymore. "Honey, why don't you practice guitar anymore? You spent $100 on it. It's a shame to see it go to waste." "Oh, the boy's playing around with it. I figure I'll let him have his fun and when he gets bored, he won't notice when I take it away." I could imagine them having that discussion; hell, I could practically hear it.
There was only one problem.
I didn't get bored.
And that acoustic guitar stayed in my room until I moved out.
At this point, I should note that I am not a guitar player by trade, training or talent. I have never played guitar professionally in my life. I have been fortunate enough to have the good sense not to tape anything I've played. I am, all things considered, a horrible guitar player. I have no skill and no discernible aptitude for learning how to play what my friend Pierre calls the Idiot's Hammer.
I should also note that I am a punk. I have a deep and abiding affection for punk rock. I listen to music that requires - at its most basic level - no more than three chords and I couldn't even manage that. I couldn't even play a proper power chord without hitting the wrong string.
But that beat-to-hell acoustic guitar stayed in my room anyway. It was a good friend for a lot of late nights, even after it went out of tune. Even after I broke strings. Even after I took a cue from Sonic Youth and started beating on it with drumsticks to see what other, perhaps more interesting, sounds I could wrench from its hollow body. That cheap pawn shop guitar saw me through some of the hardest times I would ever know, even though my awkward, fumbling fingers could never give voice to the music I heard in my head.
I haven't seen that guitar in years. But I still regret what I did to it.
I got my second guitar about a week after my mother killed herself. It was a Fender Squier Strat. I bought it at a guitar store that no longer exists. My friend Philip went with me and I still laugh about his rules.
"If you look at anything besides Fender or Gibson, I'll kick your ass," he said.
"What about a Rickenbacker?" I asked.
He thought for a moment and said, "Okay. I won't kick your ass for looking at a Rickenbacker, but you won't be able to afford one yet."
He was right.
And I walked out of the store with my Fender. Black on black. No inlays on the fretboard. Nothing fancy. Not even a case. Just a black guitar, six strings and the blues. I drank a lot of gin and bourbon that month and I played every day until my fingers bled. I still couldn't hit a power chord, but my drunken, fumbling, bloody fingers managed to pick out a few nice guitar lines here and there.
I've been playing that guitar for years now. I can't even count how many sets of strings I've gone through, how many nights I've spent smoking while I struggled through Replacements and Lou Reed songs, how many times I'd play some rudimentary progression for a friend and hand my guitar over to them, only to hear them articulate what I could only hear and hum; only to find that my guitar, like some of my former lovers, was more responsive in another man's hands.
But I love that fickle bitch anyway.
Finally, I came to my senses and switched to bass. As I told people at the time, I started playing music as a drummer. I picked up the guitar because I loved bands like Hüsker Dü, because I could hear what musicians like Richard Thompson played and I wanted to see what I could do. Bass offered two fewer strings - two fewer chances for me to fuck up. Besides, I could slow down. I loved how Greg Norton and Peter Hook and John Entwhistle's bass lines sounded.
Two P basses and no lessons later, I bought a Dobro.
And that's not exactly accurate either. Gibson owns the trademark for Dobro. In case you aren't familiar with what a Dobro is, it's a resonating guitar. In short, there's a metal cone, usually aluminum, set in the body of an otherwise hollow guitar body. The cone amplifies the notes; it also provides a highly distinct sound - a little tinny, a bit of echo ... playing one is almost like stepping into an old blues session. John Dopyera invented resonators in the 1920s. He started a company called National (which provided a home for Adolph Rickenbacker - name sound familiar? - around the same time Dopyera departed) and left to develop DOBRO - a combination of Dopyera Brothers - guitars. Litigation resulted in a merger - time passed, the company changed names and finally Gibson bought it.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that I own a National-style resonating guitar. Not a Dobro. If you ever want to see a guitar so beautiful that it will literally take your breath away, take a look at one of the Gibson Dobros. Me? I doubt I'll ever play well enough to deserve an instrument like that.
I love my resonator though. I picked up glass and steel slides for it, figuring - perhaps correctly - that if I focused on notes and single strings, I could eventually learn the fretboard well enough to be a passable blues player or maybe pick up some decent lap steel skills. And so far, that hasn't happened either. I just keep picking out the same Replacements and Lou Reed songs, trying to puzzle out Bob Mould and Richard Thompson leads, and looking for tablature with chord diagrams.
I am, after all, a punk at heart. And impatient.
I don't want to learn music theory.
I simply want to play.
With anyone. Anywhere. Any style. For any reason.
With that said, my resonator, much as I love it, is in pieces at the moment. During one of my many moves, part of the biscuit bridge fell out. I contacted a local store here that also performs small guitar repairs - the owner told me to bring the guitar by. And in 60 minutes, I learned more about my guitar in his shop that I had ever known about any instrument. He deftly disassembled it, took the face plate off and saw what was wrong. He didn't have a biscuit bridge but he went into the back of the shop and rattled around for a bit and came back out with a piece of plastic and a small saw. He measured the bridge, marked the plastic and cut it to fit. Then I went to the hobby shop next door and bought a slender piece of balsa wood and cut it down to size.
I spent the next week sanding, filing and cutting a custom part for my resonator. No clamps. Just my hands and a table. No gloves. I have more than a few scabs on my fingers and knuckles right now and the piece still isn't done but I'm working with my hands, making something, fixing something that isn't a computer, for one of the first times in my life.
And it feels damn satisfying.
Yeah, I know I can probably buy a biscuit bridge, but fighting to make one from scratch, the way guitar players used to do it, holds a certain appeal for me. I feel more connected with the guitar, even though I still can't play it for shit. Fashioning the part with a knife and some wood seems more ... authentic. It seems more honest. It seems true.
With all that said, guitar is still an easy instrument to play badly - particularly when it comes to punk rock - and I manage to do that well. My fingers stutter on the strings and they can't speak the words I need to say in the language I need to hear. I can't manage the three chords; I can't even manage one chord that I can identify or regularly play. By all rights, I should have given up by now because I'm really no good at it and show no signs of getting better.
But then I listen to Woody Guthrie's picking. It sounds simple, like anyone can do it. And that's part of what punk was about, right? Breaking down the barriers between the amateur and the professional, bringing music back to the people. It was music played by people who frequently couldn't play music, and since I can't play music, in some weird way that means that I'm making music, right? That draws a direct line from Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson through Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran to Joe Strummer and the Raincoats ... to me.
I was talking with my buddy Davey about this once. I hop in the van with his band on occasion. I'm sort of a roadie, but mostly I just drive and smoke a lot and periodically haul amps around. He's actually the one who inspired me to get a resonator. I was telling him how much I love playing guitar even though I have no idea of what I'm doing, rambling on in that self-deprecating vein until he stopped me and said, "It's more like you don't know what you're doing right."
He's right. I don't. But sometimes, I can hear it. And on those nights, I go to bed around dawn with bloody fingers and I sleep a very satisfied sleep indeed.
I'm a punk. And I'm a lousy guitar player. But I am a guitar aficionado in the true spirit of that word. It takes dedication to continue to fail at something for so long. But in my eyes, the only thing I'm doing is failing to quit doing something I love.
And I do love my guitars.