Don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never really thought of myself as a guitar player. But I’ve been working at it for 39 years.
After this amount of time, at least I’m beginning to get an idea of what a guitar player isn’t. I think that, perhaps by starting there, I just might be fortunate enough to figure out what it takes to become one shortly before I die.
I didn’t always want to play the guitar. The idea appealed to me, but it seemed like too much work. Then, somewhere around 1969, I decided that I wanted an electric bass. That bass run on Sugarloaf’s “Green-Eyed Lady” nailed me.
My mom had a different idea: If I’d take piano lessons first, we could see about the bass later, once she saw that I was serious. You see, we already had the Kimball spinet. But (whiny voice) I didn’t want to play the piano!
Five years later I found myself fulfilling the rôle of vocalist in my first band. The band already existed and were ready to get rid of the choir-boy persona that the first singer had brought along with him. I auditioned for the part and got the position on the spot. Funny, I’d never really thought of myself as a singer.
My first guitar, which was bestowed upon me by a friend, was an old Silvertone (yes, I’m serious) that only had five strings on it. They were Extremely Heavy Duty gauge, I believe, and about 1/4 of an inch above the fingerboard. I asked my friend why in the world he was presenting me with this glorious gift. He responded that it was because he knew that I wanted one, and besides, it hurt his fingers.
I’d been wanting a guitar for sometime since I’d gotten the singing gig. I had been writing poetry seriously for a few years and was in the process of signing my first book deal with a publisher up in New York City. It was becoming clear how musical accompaniment could benefit the transmission of the mood of my writing.
All of which was nonsense, of course: I was hopelessly out in left field with a right-handed guitar, and besides, I was about to have my first book published. Unbeknownst to me, the publisher was one of those ‘vanity’ affairs where, if the individual is willing to foot the bill, they’ll publish the work and lavish one with all sorts of praise in the meantime. My dad had as much faith in me as I did, and agreed to fund the flattering of my young ego. Worst of all, my writing was hopelessly sophomoric. I regret the ignorance in my decision to this day. Some years later, a group of attorneys became wealthy individuals in representing several of us aspiring writers in a class-action lawsuit against the publisher. My poor dad ever saw a penny of the settlement money while I was humbled…if not embarassed.
I needed writing experience, and I needed it now.
I grew my hair out, I walked miles of railroad tracks, I hitch-hiked all over the South and the Southwest, I drank wine in a flatbed trucks. I went hungry for days. I slept on floors of apartments of people I didn’t know, I even dropped acid. I got a job selling periodicals and publications for a while… magazines to you lay-people. Door to door. I bought a better guitar (a ’61 Martin 00-18 $150. dude!) I got married. My young wife became jealous of my guitar. I busted my Martin with a hammer (please, I know). I became a father. I got divorced. I got married. I became a father. I got divorced again.
Nothing helped, I couldn’t write or play any better than when I started.
I began buying several guitars. I figured that once I got that special instrument, all of my talent in all of it’s glory, would come pouring out of me. Meanwhile I wrote constantly, trying to get to the core of who I was. I knew that sooner or later, things would begin to take their proper place.
But nothing ever happened.
Finally, I was reading an article written by Rick Emmett which had been published in Guitar Player magazine. He suggested that an aspiring guitarist immerse him or herself in something known as practice. Practice, it seemed, was something akin to playing, yet it was something altogether different. In a later article I read, which had been written by Robert Fripp, he asserted that whereas playing required the involvement of the emotions, practice necessitated the utilisation of the intellect.
That was enough to convince me. I bought a metronome, a footstool, a classical guitar, grew my nails out and proceeded to sit down and create scale charts specifically for a fellow who, being born hopelessly out in left field, played a right-handed guitar.
Some habits can’t be broken.
I worked tirelessly. Sometimes I practiced five hours a day. I did major, natural, melodic and harmonic minor scales until I found myself practicing in my sleep. My brain was hurting. I was improving as a writer, but wasn’t getting any better on the guitar. I didn’t understand. I gave the classical to a friend and went back to my steel string.
Some years later, I got a job in a music store as a salesman. After the sales techniques I’d learned on the road, I was capable of selling nothing to a vacuum and getting top dollar. Plus, I knew just about everything I could learn about guitars. I was a natural! I was responsible for selling 75% of the merchandise that left the store that year. It was the perfect job for someone with a gear obsession. Finally, I bought my first left-handed guitar, a Fender Telecaster, I also scored my tube-amp-for-life, and ordered a top-shelf acoustic guitar while working there, too. So I continued to practice, but with little effect. I was beginning to think that I simply wasn’t cut out for it.
My second ex-wife and I had gotten back together a couple of years earlier. One night she got mad at me and left in her car and didn’t come home. I went to sleep.
The next morning I received a phone call from the hospital. She’d been in a serious auto accident and was in intensive care. I rushed to the hospital where I would stay for the next two weeks, watching over her as she slowly recovered.
Finally, after she’d improved and physical therapy became necessary, I was able to go back home to rest my brain.
I sat down in the quiet den that afternoon, drained of energy. I had no idea I was so exhausted. I looked at my guitar which I hadn’t touched for two weeks and, with the off-handed thought that some playing might be good therapy for me, I picked it up. The sound was so soothing. I just followed along behind some meandering idea that came drifting out. I was like a leaf in a creek.
But then, something occurred: my practice and my emotions met at the crossroads.
Soon, I was lost in the moment, playing with intensity I had never known. The pain that I had been imagining for so many years had become a reality, and it became clear that it wasn’t about me. It found a small crack and ripped a gaping hole in me a mile wide. I was playing the blues for the first time in my life and tears were streaming down my face. I wasn’t playing someone else’s blues, I was playing my blues about someone else. And suddenly I discovered where all of the practice had been going, which I thought that, up until then, had been a waste of time.
I’ve learned a lot about myself since then.
I still haven’t learned how to be a guitar player yet.
But I know a great deal about not being one.
Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter. Period.