To play an instrument, you have to devote years to practicing scales, learning finger or bow positions, developing your lips to get just that right tone (if you play brass or woodwind), and studying theory.
You have to endure playing simple, nerdy songs like Hot Crossed Buns or Ode To Joy when what you really want to play is the latest song from The Plain White Tees. If you have an ear for music and those songs in your head don’t yet match your ability, it can be all the more frustrating.
But everyone needs to start somewhere. You can’t just pick up a guitar and instantly become Bonnie Raitt or Jimmy Paige, and we all know that playing the Guitar Hero is not the real thing.
What if…. what if, after hearing the opening chords of “Blackbird” by the Beatles, or “What It’s Like” by Everlast, I could just pick up a six-string, start strumming and sound just like that?
So, if I could instantly download a skill into my brain and body ala Matrix style, it would be the ability to play a mean guitar. No, not even a mean guitar. I’d be happy with knowing enough chords to be considered entertaining around a campfire.
I know the guitar is difficult. It takes more than having a garage and knowing a few chords for most to be really good at it. But playing guitar seems to be the most approachable, liberating instrument there is.
The guitar is my son Nathan’s third instrument. Back in the second grade, Nathan was gently fired by his piano teacher after less than two years of lessons. It’s not that he didn’t have an ear for music. He could plunk out a Rachmaninoff tune or the theme to Harry Potter with all its sharps and flats on one finger, but no one was going to tell him about correct hand positioning or posture at the keyboard, or what a C Major scale should sound like.
As she left our house the for last time, this demure woman in a stiff skirt and buttoned up blouse reassured me: “Don’t worry. He has the music inside him. He has to find the instrument he loves. And let him get a little older.”
Or, maybe it was the right teacher that hooks you to an instrument. Nathan is now on the threshold of his teen years. After four months of guitar lessons, Nathan is a little more receptive to taking direction from a guitar teacher than a piano teacher. But he still wants to play the guitar like Johnny Ramone. Now.
One day, Nathan comes into the kitchen.
“Mom, what does this sound like?”
Nathan breaks into a simple guitar riff, than bangs on his guitar quickly two times. As he plays, his brown eyes lock on me, eyebrows raised, mouth hanging open. An expression that reads, is this cool, or what?
“Of course I know what that is. It’s Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes!”
A little smile. “Yeah!”
Each week, we get treated to a mini jam session that is Nathan’s guitar lessons. Guitar teachers are a completely different animal than piano teachers.
Tuesday nights go like this: as Nathan wolfs down some dinner straight after two hours of religious school instruction, the doorbell rings. It’s Nathan’s guitar teacher. Nathan’s teacher can’t be more than 26. He works all day with at-risk youth. He has spiked short hair and a pierced tongue and one of those black plug earrings. Nathan’s guitar teacher is definitely not a piano teacher.
My husband has a very healthy, heterosexual admiration of this young man. Also a guitar-playing wannabe, he is in complete rock-star admiration as he listens to him warm up. Now, that’s what years of playing the guitar can sound like. Once a week, for 30 minutes, we have in our midst, a real guitarist who is in a real rock band.
Nathan has a long way to the top if he wants to rock and roll. But he is getting there. He can play the basic chords to Hotel California and I can slowly sing each bar, as he searches for the next chord, as I make dinner. And, he knows – of course – a standard blues riff. And Louie Louie. And Tequila!
I still have to nudge him to practice what his teacher actually wants him to practice, which is Amazing Grace. And I have to wonder: Did Jimi Hendrix’s mother have to nudge him to practice? Or Eddie van Halen’s mom? Or .. did Eric Clapton’s mom bug him about cutting his nails before playing?
Probably not. But they probably didn’t want to play the guitar as badly as I do.