For as long as I've been both writing and obsessing about music, I suppose it is about time that I learned how to actually play it. So this year, I've decided to finally put my money — or in this case, my pen — where my mouth is, and learn how to play the damned guitar.
Not that this decision came about as the result of a mere whim. Oh no. Fate played a very significant hand here. It actually began about three months ago when I won Jimi Hendrix's guitar — well, sort of anyway.
As part of my day job working in sales for a local music distributor, I spend a lot of time on the road travelling all over the states of Washington and Oregon to call on my accounts. As you might imagine, this takes me to some very interesting places — particularly when it comes to grabbing a quick bite to eat on the run.
During one such stop a few months back, I was at a lunch spot when I noticed a display for something called "Hendrix Coffee." Yes, you heard me right…"Hendrix Coffee." There were all these different blends, that came in bright purple packages with Jimi's mug plastered on them, and clever names like "Voodoo Child" and of course, "Hey Joe."
Next to the coffee, was this beautiful black Fender Squire Stratocaster and a box where you could enter to win it. Which I did, while waiting for my French Dip sandwich (I passed on the coffee).
The thing is, I never expected to actually win the damn thing.
But low and behold — and to my absolute surprise — a few months later I get a call from Jimi's brother Leon (at first I thought it was a prank), telling me I had won. Leon, incidentally, is the apparent CEO of the Hendrix coffee company, and he also plays in a band himself. In addition to the guitar, a Marshall practice amp (nice!), and some of the coffee, my prize package included an autographed copy of Leon's CD Keeper Of the Flame.
Now, I haven't actually listened to Leon's CD yet — and with song titles like "Jimi And Me," "Voodoo River," and "Purple Flame," I'm not sure I even want to. Between the coffee and the "original" sounding song titles, it's actually kind of easy to start suspecting at least a hint of exploitation there. Being a fan of Hendrix since my childhood — I actually saw him in concert twice while he was alive, once in Hawaii, and once at Seattle's Sicks Stadium just a few months before he died — there was also an ever-so-slight element of creepiness about all of this.
Still, in fairness, Leon probably didn't suspect his winner was a guy who moonlights as a music writer on the internet when the guitar (also autographed by Leon), and the rest of the booty was handed over. Anyway, the call was not mine to make at this particular time. All I knew was that I was now the owner of a beautiful new guitar. The question now, was what to actually do with it.
The thing is, as long as I've obsessed about music I've never actually learned how to play. As an armchair critic, I like to think that I can play the role just about as well as anybody. My nerdish obsessiveness with records dates back to childhood, which also means that I've absorbed a considerable amount of knowledge about such things over the years. I've soaked it up like a proverbial sponge. I can quote you things like album titles, labels, and producers right off the top of my head like clockwork.
But I can't play a lick.
As the drummer in my band back in junior high school, I was so bad they actually fired me, and then they made me the singer. The truth is, I really wasn't much better at singing. But with my long hair and pre-beer gut teenager's frame, at least I more or less had "the look." More importantly, I was enough of a natural ham back then, that I had no problem making an ass out of myself as a frontman doing bad imitations of all of Mick Jagger's best moves.
That was then.
So what's an aging Rockologist to do with this kick-ass Fender Squire Strat I've just acquired? Letting it just sit in my living room trophy-style gathering dust and cigarette smoke was simply not an option. On the other hand, it's a little late in the game to try learning something as potentially cumbersome as music theory.
Nope. What was called for here was an instant crash course. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix right freaking now, dammit!
Besides, if Steven "Stumbletown" Adams, a quiet unassuming sort of guy that I went to high school with — who never once displayed a hint of musical talent in all the years I spent going to high school keg parties with him — can put out his own, surprisingly quite good sounding CD (stay tuned for the review), I figured I had as good a shot as anybody. By the way, thanks for the inspiration Steven.
So I turned to the only place I really could. I went out and purchased Guitar For Dummies.
While Jon Chappell's "for dummies" instructional course in guitar doesn't promise you'll be ready for that open slot in Pearl Jam or the Stones anytime soon, it does more or less guarantee you'll at least learn the basics. The DVD version claims to deliver this in 75 minutes. The book takes a bit longer, but is written in the sort of easy to follow language that even a musically challenged guy like me is supposed to be able to grasp.
I purchased both.
So being the sort of instant gratification whore that I am, I pulled up a chair, strapped on my ax (man, it feels cool to say that), and plugged in the DVD first. The good news here is that the easy stuff is, in fact, pretty easy to learn. Once Chappell gets past the no-brainer stuff like how to hold your guitar, and the differences between an acoustic and an electric guitar (hey, I am a music writer right?), I'm absolutely itching to get to the good parts. Like when do we get to play "Stairway to Heaven"?
Of course before we get there, we have to learn how to play actual chords. And as soon as you can say E Chord, damned if I'm not playing my first song, even if it is "Frere Jacques." So far, so good. Changing chords (from a D to an A) for that time honored punk-rock classic "Skip To My Lou" proves a bit tougher (my fingers are starting to hurt for one thing). But so far this whole learning guitar thing is proving to be a piece of cake.
So, just when I'm starting to think that this may not be so tough after all, Chappell pulls out the first obstacle. One that on that first, initial try has me starting to rethink this whole learning how to play the guitar thing.
Now, I've been around seasoned guitar players most of my life. I've sang with them as part of a band, and I've interviewed them as a music journalist for pete's sake. But not a one of them ever told me that learning to play an F chord was such a bitch. Honestly, you've got to be some kind of freaking contortionist to master this thing — the way you have to curl your ring finger around that last string.
By the time the lessons on the DVD have progressed to playing "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore," a song that has five chords (which unfortunately include the dreaded F), Chappell is going a bit too fast for me. The innocuous folk ballad might as well as be some punk rock shit played at Ramones speed. And suddenly I have a new appreciation for how guys like Jimmy Page were able to do this shit night after night, even while stoned out of their minds at times on all matter of pharmaceuticals.
The point at which I almost threw in the towel — at least for this particular night — came when Chappell got to the various styles of things like the bass string downstroke, and finger picking. Which kinda sucks because this was also the point where you start to learn cool songs like "Sloop John B" (did I mention that this instructor has a particular thing for songs related to the sea?).
Unfortunately, this didn't matter because I was still stuck back there trying to wrap my baby finger around that damned F chord. Even with the luxury of the pause button on the DVD, I just wasn't ever able to get past that appropriately named "F". And speaking of my fingers, did I mention that they hurt like hell at about this point? I think I know what the Beatles meant now with that whole "I've got blisters on my fingers" thing at the end of "Helter Skelter."
So the good news is I learned to play my first few songs on the gee-tar, even if they were only things like "Frere Jacques" and "Skip To My Lou." Unfortunately, there would be no "Smoke On The Water" or "Stairway to Heaven" on this night. So I'm an impatient bastard — what can I say?
But I'm not giving up. No, sir.
My new master plan, which commences — well, whenever — is to come at this again using the book, rather than the DVD. The way I figure it, that way I can take all of the time I want mastering the dreaded F chord, before moving on to "Sloop John B" and the complexities of finger-picking and the like.
Come hell or high water, I will do this. Can you say "helllllllo, New York?" Madison Square Garden, here I come.
Hey, if "Stumbletown" can do it…
Wish me luck.