May 13, 2007 at 10:46 PMMy guitar has slept peacefully in its case for nearly eight years now. Wow, I used to play guitar. Back during my first summer here, I used it to lead songs for the evening chapel service over on the other side of the lake, at our summer camp’s “Wagon Train” horsemanship program. Question is, can I still play it?
It took a bit of buzzy thunking around on the fretboard to find the chords I still remembered: G, C, D, A, Am, E, Em... That’s about it. Barre chords were off limits. You have to build callouses along your index finger in order to "barre" chords, and I only had two days before Sarah and I would play at Veronica’s. Luckily, you can get by with only 7 chords for celtic music, so we were all set for some fun: Sarah on flute, and me on my acoustic guitar.
In a moment of clever foresight, I went out and bought light gauge strings to save me some blisters. I unwound the first thin wire from its geared peg, wiping off a shocking buildup of hay dust on the fingerboard. I wasn’t sure which way the new strings should wind. Clockwise? And how do I finish off these trailing wire ends when I’m done? Certainly, there must be an explicit lawbook regarding guitars and their string changing protocol. Maybe I should google it. And what about this neck? It needs adjusted. I found the appropriate allen wrench and twisted it in the hole just under the edge of the neck. One way or the other, I moved the neck so that the strings were closer to the frets again. I wondered if I should have taken it to a guitar luthier (or whatever guitarists call the people who do neck adjustments on guitars).
Then came the practicing. I frowned at the sound I was making. Should I relax my right wrist more? Is this pick too thick? How do I get all six strings perfectly in tune with each other? Pythagorean, just, or even-tempered tuning? Probably even-tempered. ...I feel like I’m really squeezing the neck! Oh, my picking. Is it okay to pick each note from top to bottom? Is that cheesy? When do I pick upwards, versus downwards? I could use an infinite combination of picking and strumming, but which ones are the best ones? Gosh, my sound is tense. I need to relax that wrist. I’m hunching too much. My legs are crossed, is that okay?
Augh, stop it! Stop the scrutinizing! What am I doing to this instrument I used to play so indiscriminately? Back in the day, I didn’t care about any of this! I just sat there and played. No one told me what was right or wrong. (Except for this one time, someone pointed out I’d wound my strings the wrong direction. But I didn’t care; I knew which way to go to get it in tune, so what did it matter?)
My guitar was a free spirit. I kept it in the hayloft and snuggled it up to campfires at night. I used white paint from the outhouse project to decorate its case. And me? I was decorated with a straw cowboy hat. I wore work boots and bathed twice a week, even though the dust I slept in smelled like manure. I sang silly songs. I ate moon pies without flinching. Do you think I cared about Pythagorean tuning and string brands and right hand guitar etiquette? No. I had guilt-free, not-so-perfect fun, strumming my not-so-perfect guitar with a bunch of mediocre singers, there in the Wagon Train chapel service.
I remember what an awful summer I thought that was, smearing whitewash over outhouse cobwebs every morning before horsemanship lessons, and shoveling out Ben and Duke’s pen every afternoon (stupid Belgians). Between the Lakeside program and the Wagon Train program, Wagon Train became known as “The Dark Side.” I’d have cried myself to sleep on my dusty Wagon Train pillow in my dusty Wagon Train shack every night if George hadn’t walked the sawdust trail from Lakeside and snuck me out the back window to meet up with friends over at the archery range. Really, it wasn’t so bad, swatting mosquitos and eating stale popcorn by twilight. It was far from perfect, but I was in love, and I didn’t care as much about all the flaws as I thought I did.
When the high polish of professionalism encroaches and threatens to put to extinction all the whims and whimsies of the musical spirit, it is important to reserve some sacred retreat to be used solely for the purpose of unbridled enjoyment. For me, it’s folk music, be it fiddle or guitar. I know I’m not that good on the guitar. Some would call my style amateur. Literally defined, I’d say they’re right, and I prefer to keep it that way.
(photo courtesy of Lee Johnson)
Singing and playing the guitar leaves me exhausted but with a full feeling. Seems the same for you in a personal way.
When I degunk my strings, I mean change them, I take them and tie the old ones into a series of square knots (two or three to stabalize the mess; and, as I've gotten older make sure they go directly into the garbage.
The dangling ends are candidates for a small pair of wire cutters, allowing me to focus better on a clean tight wind rather than starting right at the beginning. As it happens, I've never broken a string in such a way as to be able to use all that excess anyway--they always break just short of that point.
Having just hauled three truckloads of horse poop for my gardens: you ain't alone. Makes me want to write on the lamarckian agricultural basis of civilization and life, but I'll save that'n.
I've heard some pretty nice and even sophisticated sounds coming from those pull out the box settings around the campfire--I'll bet yall sounded good too.
"Barre", eh? Ye olde English spelling, putting e's where they don't neede to be! In honor of the Steele namesake, I changed it. Thanks for pointing that out, Tom.
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