On playing the guitar

Playing the guitar has been one of the biggest pleasures of my life. I learnt how to play on an Ibanez acoustic, it was big and bulky, too large for me, with a tough high action. It was a beast of a guitar. Those high set strings never got low and responsive, no matter how I adjusted the neck gingerly with an allen key, a quarter turn every afternoon, letting it set, until I increased the bow in the neck a fraction bringing those strings down. I struggled to restring it, pulling at tough stuck pins, winding vicious thin strings the ends whipping at my wrists. That guitar made my fingers bleed, it gave me callouses on my left hand so thick that those fingers felt different to the ones on the other side. On that guitar I learnt how to play chords, then scales. It made my fingers strong, so bar chords sounded clearly, it made me try harder to be accurate, despite the fact it was unyielding. I started to write songs, and found the sweet delight of playing lead along to songs on the radio. I was Lenny to Patti’s chanting and wailing, hit that high e, baby, and keep it coming.

I learnt to play by playing other people’s song. I remember the first song I ever learnt to play had three chords: Dead Flowers by the Stones. I played it until my fingers got used to remembering where to go, I played it until I could move onto Song for You by Gram Parsons, and When the Ship Comes in by Dylan. By the time I could pick out Girl from the North Country, my fate was sealed. I loved playing the guitar. To me it was meditation, it was relaxation, I could get lost in the sounds and the patterns and the concentration. I got better, and better. I started to teach other people, showing them where to put their fingers, and starting them down the road to the head patting tummy rubbing co ordination of playing. It never ceases to amaze me how many people buy a nice guitar, and never actually learn how to play. It sits there until they decide to sell it on Craigslist. I feel so sad for these unloved unplayed guitars.

That guitar made me a guitarist.

By the time I got my Martin I knew how to play, my fingers were tough, and I was well versed in Chuck Berry-isms and chromatics. By the time I got my Martin, I could appreciate it.

Billy came into the hotel room with a hard shell guitar case, not a gig bag. The case said Martin. I didn’t honestly expect him to have a Martin in there. He opened that case and the Angels sang. Grand auditorium body, only a little wear and tear on the finish, solid rosewood back and sides, spruce top. “Is that a rosewood fretboard?” I asked nervously, wondering where he stole it from. “Yup,” he replied. I asked if I could touch the guitar. Guitars are like motorcycles you never just touch someone else’s without asking. I picked it up. It was heavy but smaller bodied, more comfortable, setting it on my knee I played a g chord. I judge all guitars that I do not know on that chord. It is the most open, the most honest, the most simple. You can tell a lot about a guitar by how it handles a farmer G. I barely had to touch the strings. No buzz, and out rang the most pure sustained note with so much warmth and depth that it could make a girl who loves guitars cry.

I started to play Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues, that old Dylan song. Halfway through, I realized I hated my Ibanez and things were ruined forever more.

“Why don’t you sell the Ibanez and take this one? You like it, right?”

After I had seen the receipt and guarantee and almost cried, some deal involving his Les Paul and a bag, I didn’t argue. I took the guitar. The Martin was mine, the Martin and it’s green velvet lined case with the place to store things under the neck rest. That was when I realized he loved me. Any man who would do a deal and then give you the Martin, clearly loved you dearly. Any man who looked so nervous waiting to see if you liked it, like he had just proposed and was proffering a ring he wasn’t sure would fit, any man who knew me well enough to try, clearly cared about me more than he ever let on. “Love you, too, Old Man…” I whispered.

Over the years I cared for the Martin like a family member. It was polished only ever with a slightly damp soft rag. I only used Martin light strings, which I changed before they could rust, even when I had no money. Sometimes the guitar ate strings and I didn’t eat food. It always went back into it’s case, never lived on a stand or a wall. I rarely showed it off, I never let anyone else play it, apart from Billy. Billy played it occasionally ditching his Norman, but preferring his electrics, that were called things like Slaughterhouse.

The next guitar he gave me was a seafoam 1969 Mustang, in it’s own original hard tweed case. It was delicate and antsy. It only responded to the lightest of touches. It needed those slinky strings and someone more gentle than Billy. He hated that guitar. I loved it. A Danelectro followed in my punk years, with a built in fuzz box that needed a battery, that was a workhorse of a guitar, it was dirty and noisy and didn’t mind abuse, but when it bucked against the handling it fedback in a wave of paranoid disastrous calamity. Finally a red telecaster made in Mexico. It was a sensible guitar for sensible fun nights. You could bop around playing PJ Harvey covers at 3 am and knew it didn’t need careful handling. It was a guitar you could play while drunk, which is a huge compliment. We sold the Tele, and I was sad, but I kept the mustang and the Martin.

I kept them until he told me I was standing on his floor and went to take my acoustic with me. I figured I’d leave the mustang so he could sell it. It was too much to carry. I went to grab the handle of my guitar case, decades down the line, and he pushed me away. “You aren’t taking the Martin,” he snapped. “It wouldn’t be right.” “But it’s my guitar! It has been mine for years! You gave it to me!” “You aren’t taking it.” He wouldn’t let me take the Norman instead, or the Seagull he never touched. I was to leave with no guitar.

As I got into the taxi, waving goodbye, him sullenly refusing to say sorry, and wishing me well, whilst promising not to drink, I shed a few tears. I shed them for the nasty old man my nice old man had become. I shed them out of fear. I shed them for my guitar, the Martin. The Martin my kids had sung along to, the Martin I wrote songs on, the Martin that I played from here to there and back again. My guitar.

I didn’t have a guitar for months. I was like a smoker quitting the ciggies. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I tried guitar after guitar, hating them all. I tried cheap plastic sided Martins and felt a wave of revulsion rising. I tried bright Taylors, and realized I was a Martin kinda girl. I tried Gibsons and Fenders, Recording Kings and Yamahas. I almost bought a laminate rosewood Yammy, it was the least awful of an awful bunch. Then I saw my dinged up Guild on the shelf, played a G chord, and gave them the money. It wasn’t the Martin, but it was the right guitar, a guitar in it’s own right. It was mine.

4 thoughts on “On playing the guitar

  1. kmabarrett says:

    LoL! I am not a “guitarist” yet, but I’ve sure been bitten by the bug… I had my first 2hr noodling session on Saturday and my finger tips are still sore. It didn’t stop me from practicing another hour yesterday, though. When I finished, I was laughing. I was reminded of my early days of programming computers – intense, yet relaxing and invigorating all at the same time. Thanks for the post! It made me feel like I’m not alone.

    1. The Paltry Sum says:

      You are not alone, I’ve been playing for many years now, sometimes for others, sometimes just for myself. It is a wonderfully responsive thing, a guitar. Stick with it!

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