November was a relatively quiet month, as far as Holy Spirit bells and whistles go. My “faith walk” for the month centered on the nuts and bolts of being more Christlike. Not with any wild success. But no crushing disappointments, either. Somewhere in October or November I started a personal campaign to know Jesus the man. “Who are you? What was your favorite food? Do you know what California rolls taste like? What did you most enjoy making, as a carpenter?” That kind of thing. I didn’t get any answers to my questions. But I did get more comfortable talking to Jesus like I would any other person.
My biggest accomplishment in November was in taking a quantum leap forward with regard to guitar/bass guitar studies. I’ve been around guitars for the better part of thirty years, but I never studied and played more than one semester on college. I took a few open chords from that class and never did much with them. I always wanted to just ‘know’ how to play guitar; it seems like such a superior instrument (compared to drums) for expressing whatever music is in me. But I never had the patience to sit down and actually do the hard work of learning. I was mostly intimidated by what looked to me to be just an incomprehensible jumble of notes scattered across the fret board.
I’ve always heard music in my head that I’ve never heard anywhere else before. When I was very young, I was unaware of this phenomenon, like a fish is presumably unaware of water. In my teens and into my early forties, I spent a large percentage of my life playing in various bands. I gradually figured out that hearing original music isn’t something that everybody does. Next came a frustrated realization that I HAD to get the music out of me, or it would burn me up from the inside out. Yet I had no skill that would allow me to transfer said music out of my head and into the world. I’d need to know how to physically express music in a melodic way. That meant piano or guitar, most practically. The previous steps took about thirty years to mature.
With the sudden onset of marriage death a few years ago, I was blessed(?) with a lot of time in which do new things, time that had previously been occupied with being a husband, father, home owner, etc. Things that I was absolutely not anymore, or only as some grotesque caricature of the real thing. One of the ways I have spent my time has been to slowly learn some ins-and-outs of musical theory, guitar playing, and song writing. Plus some keyboard work, primarily to use the built-in accompaniment to support my melody lines in recording.
It’s all progressed at a glacial pace. Theory-wise, I could look back some decades to what I’d learned as a young percussionist. There was some fuzzy yet cemented memory of a few scales on the xylophone, which translate immediately to the piano keyboard. I studied the structure of all (I think) the Western variations of chords and why they are what they are (flat 3 for minor chord, for example). I have no expectation that I’ll learn most or even many of the possible chords. My first intent is to be proficient enough to play my songs to actual guitarists and keyboardists, so they can then perform live or in studio. Any proficiency after that will be for the love of musical expression. And that’s no small potatoes. I get so unconsciously excited about playing even rudimentary chord exercises that I’ll be awake three hours after going to bed. I’ve had to adapt my guitar playing to that reality; I try to be done with guitar at least two hours before trying to sleep. This blog entry is pretty much stream of consciousness.
I borrowed and then bought an acoustic guitar (from the guy who recommended I start this blog), probably four years ago now. I also bought a guitar song book and a guitar chord dictionary. I had a couple hundred song charts I saved from our church praise band over many years. I threw myself into the available studies, with the enthusiasm and energy that I can bring to things that I’m really engaged in. Unfortunately, my physiology didn’t match my enthusiasm for robustness. I spent three hours playing during one of the first Saturdays I had the guitar. In the process I wrecked my fretting hand, massively stressing muscle and connective tissue that I didn’t even know was there until I’d injured it all. I spent the next year learning how to warm up and stretch before playing any length of time. These years later, I still have lingering injuries that will flare if I don’t warm up and stretch well. In fact I now have matching injuries in both hands, since I went too far too fast while practicing my left-handed bass recently.
Left-handed guitar feels more natural than the other. From the time I first picked up a guitar, playing right-handed made my brain feel tangled. Even as an air-guitaring adolescent, it never occurred to me to play the broom right-handed. When I finally got my hands on real (right-hand) guitars in my late teens, everything felt very wrong. In the succeeding years and on into this brief period in which I’ve owned a guitar, I’ve never played anything on a right-hand guitar that didn’t feel like I was trying to release a square peg out of a round hole.
I have also wanted to play bass in addition to guitar. Bass is a simpler beast than a six-string. If you play a note on bass, then you are actually ‘playing’ the bass. So much more appropriate for ADD brains. I decided to get a left-hand bass. Might as well kill two birds with one stone. I visited Guitar Center one weekend last year. That particular store had a rack specifically for displaying their left-hand guitars. There was one black Ibanez SDGR bass. I considered the expense of a bass and an amp. I questioned whether I was a black Ibanez kind of guy. I left the store empty-handed.
For months I couldn’t quit thinking about getting a left-hand bass. It was a prodding that wouldn’t relent. I went back to Guitar Center. The left-hand guitar rack was gone. There was a sales guy standing out on the floor just staring at a wall of guitars. “Do you still have those left-hand guitars that used to be up there?” I asked him. He said, “As a matter of fact I just now moved them out into the main wall.” “Do you still have that black bass?” “Right over here.” He took me to it. It was a bass and it was left-hand, which satisfied what had become my only requirements. “I’ll take it.” We gathered up a modelling amp; a nice guitar cord; a guitar bag; and a strap (Ernie Ball in basic black). At the register, as I handed over my credit card, a sales associate next to my salesman took a phone call. The other associate covered the phone with his hand and asked over to my guy: “Do you still have that black left-hand bass?” No way. “Sold,” laughed my sales guy.
And that’s how I bought the black left-hand Ibanez bass guitar that I was absolutely supposed to buy.
Over the next year after purchasing the bass, I went through phases of practicing both bass and guitar. I was limited primarily by family commitments, blogging goals, and hand injuries. In the past couple of months I got into a decent rhythm of practicing right-hand guitar one day, then left-hand bass the next. It was the first time I’d been moving steadily back and forth between one brain hemisphere to the other. There was a noticeable freedom of thought and even physical motion as I played left-handed. This despite the obvious relative lack of fret and pick training, compared to playing right-handed. It only took me forty-seven years, but I finally figured out how to do it right. Left.
And also in that same period, I asked God to help me learn quickly whatever it is I need to learn in order to whatever He would have me do with music. One way or another everything changed this fall (This is the quantum leap forward that I mentioned way up there). After the years of fighting through scales and chord shapes and fret positions, like I was walking on a tightrope, I finally began seeing the guitar fret board as one large series of patterns. Patterns in the scales, moveable shapes in the chords, repeating patterns down the notes at each string and fret. I recalled something my friend (who suggested I start this blog) had told me a couple of years ago, when he was himself having the same breakthrough on guitar. Actually, I’d never forgotten what he told me – I just didn’t ‘get’ it until recently. He had been playing a lot of guitar at home and at church, and had been for many years, actually. He was really working to expand his capabilities. He said one day something like, “I’m seeing it all more clearly. Shapes and patterns…” Something like that. Now I get it.
I get it well enough that if my hands were trained to do what my mind now knows how to do, I’d be able to light up the guitar. As it is, I’m still training my fingers and hands. Given my age and commitments, I’ll not likely be able to become what I could have been had I picked guitar instead of drums thirty-five years ago. But the socially acceptable sublimated rage on drums kept me out of prison. And I’ve asked God to let me have an opportunity in the hereafter to be the musician in eternity that I won’t completely become in this life.