Thursday, January 26, 2012

Guitar Zero

I hate it when I know I let major opportunities slip away.  It haunts me for years afterward, especially when it would have been something really cool.  Like this story…

First let me set it up.  As you may have picked up from reading prior posts, I’m a music geek.  And the reason I think I’m such a music geek is that I so much wish I could produce actual music.  But as I’ve discovered, I have absolutely no aptitude for understanding music theory.  Oh, I can use the music lingo of performance… bars, riffs, fills, phrasing, verse/bridge/chorus… But the physical act of putting notes together or understanding how music works in real terms; it’s like a secret code that I just can’t crack.  So instead, I’m devoted to music “appreciation.”  I spent 13 years working crappy jobs with terrible pay, just so I could be near the music business.

It’s funny… when I was a kid, I was always so happy that my folks never forced me to take music lessons, like so many of my friends’ parents did.  I was always available to come out to play, because I wasn’t encumbered by piano lessons or sax lessons or guitar lessons.

But now, what I wouldn't give to be able to pick up a guitar, or sit down at a piano and entertain people. 

Rock and roll is a guitar culture, so I’m especially fascinated by the good guitarists.  I love to watch their hands when they play.  They make it look so freakin’ easy, but once you hold a guitar in your hands, you realize that it is anything but.  It’s only easy if you’ve cracked the code.  I know this because I actually have a guitar; a good one, too.  I’ve had it for about 20 years.  How I got it is the gist of the story.

Back in the early 90s, when I worked at the home office of my music retail company, we would have these big semi-annual company meetings.  All the Regional and District Managers would come from all over the company for three days of meetings and seminars with us home office folk.

I loved these affairs, not only because you got to meet the people you’ve only dealt with over the phone, but there were other cool extras.  They’d bring in music stars for the meetings and the nightly entertainment.  Celine Dion, Patty Smythe, Steve Forbert, Norman Nardini, (and several other R&B stars of the time whose names escape me) all played our event.

Another was Vendor Day, where reps from all the record labels and accessory manufacturers would set up display tables with information and goodies.  I’d come home with bags stuffed with CDs, tapes, display racks, tape cases and all kinds of tchotchkes.  The vendors would also “sponsor” various meals, where they’d pay for the food and then give a presentation during the meal.

One afternoon there was a lunch sponsored by Relativity Records, who at the time was home to hotshot guitarist Joe Satriani.  As part of their presentation, they had a guitar giveaway.  Everyone was instructed to check for a red tag under their chairs.  Then if anyone with a red tag could answer a question, they would win a brand new Ibanez electric guitar autographed by Joe Satriani.  (That was the kind of guitar that Satriani played.)

Well, I found a tag, as did two other girls, and each of us answered the softball questions to win guitars.  They didn’t have the guitars there; they would need to be built.  They said they would send them to us.

OK, so no immediate gratification, but still, it was very cool.

After the meetings, the plan began to change.  The Relativity label guy said that we would get our guitars presented to us on stage at the next big meeting.  He further insinuated that we would be expected to play something on it when it was given to us.

I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but as our next meeting drew closer and the label guy kept asking me what I’d be playing, I began to fret about it.  He kept going, “What, you can’t play a little ‘Louie Louie’ for us?

Apparently, that was supposed to be easy. But whatever… how the hell was I going to learn to play?  I didn’t have a freakin’ guitar yet!  I hadn’t even held one since I was a kid.  Now if they were giving away air guitars, I could have given them a real show. 

I considered taking lessons or something, but still, I had no guitar, no one I knew to teach me and no money to plunk down on formal lessons.  So I basically did nothing.

Then there we were at the next meeting, in a big auditorium with the stage dressed to accommodate the rock act they had booked for the afternoon.  It had mics, amps, and giant Marshall stacks on each side of the stage.

The girls were called up on stage first and were presented with shining white guitars.  Neither of them could play either so all they did was pluck a few discordant notes and then scurry off the stage.  I knew I was going to be lame, but was determined not to be that lame.

They called me up and presented me with a bright red Ibanez.  Hot red!  I loved it!
The autograph is on a panel on the back side.  I bought the amp for it at a later date.

They strapped it on me and plugged it into the amp.  I was good to go.

I wish I could say I had something special in store, but alas, I didn’t.  BUT, I did have a long history of watching guitarists’ hands, to further enhance my air guitar abilities.  (Don’t judge; it was the 80s!)  So I did the one thing I thought I could pull off… I just focused on one string, the bottom one that makes the highest notes.  I pressed the string up high on the fret board and began hitting the string.  As I “played” I slid my fret hand lower and lower on the neck, making the guitar pitch higher and higher, until I got to the bottom and just let it scream.  I probably should have used the Whammy Bar, but for my limited abilities, it was about as cool as I could do. 

The whole thing probably didn’t last any longer than 10 seconds.  I got in and out quickly, feeling weird about occupying everyone’s attention when I didn’t know what I was doing.  You probably don’t believe it, but I’ve never felt comfortable in the spotlight, especially when I’m not confident in what I’m doing.

I still have that guitar; it sits on a guitar stand in my living room.  Right out of the chute, I picked up some How-to-Play books and tried to teach myself to play using tablature (meaning diagrams of where to put your fingers, as opposed to reading the music notes).  In 20 years, I’ve managed to learn three chords, E, A and D.  That’s it.  But I figured out that you can play “Louie Louie” with E, A and D.  The label guy was right, after all.

 I’ve never been able to form a C or G without stopping completely and carefully arranging my fingers.  That kind of thing brings a song to a halt pretty quickly.

With the place my life is at now, I could definitely hack taking lessons, but the onset of my Delayed Pressure Urticaria (hives) in 2001 made guitar playing pretty much impossible.  If I press the strings for more than 10 minutes, my fingertips will swell up like sausage links.  Not good, when you type for a living.

Twenty years later, I still think about that day.  What an opportunity I had, to do something cool and unexpected.  I totally should have scraped together some bucks for some guitar lessons.  I wouldn’t even have had to learn that much.  I’ve thought about this a lot; if I had a do-over, I’d learn how to play the intros to a couple of classic rock songs.  If I could have strung a couple of those together, it would have killed because it would have been so unexpected, coming from me.  Here’s how I see it now:

A tall gangly guy ambles up to the stage and a bright red guitar is hung around his neck.  He looks like a deer in headlights as he glances up at the crowd.  He plucks a few single notes, as if checking the sound.  As the last single note sustains and fades, he arranges his fingers high on the neck and begins a grungy, fat-fingered version of “Louie Louie.”  The crowd approves, as no one expected him to be able to play anything recognizable.

After a chorus/verse/chorus of “Louie Louie,” he sustains the last note, then looks up and smiles.  The crowd begins to applaud, but before they can get going, he raises his hands over his head and starts a rhythmic clap.  As the crowd picks up the beat, he hits the strings again, producing the instantly recognizable beginning of “Smoke on the Water.” 
After a couple of passes through the main riff, he again holds the last note and looks to the audience.  With a small smile at the corner of his mouth, he plays the opening to “Highway to Hell.”  The crowd goes crazy… they had no idea that the guy could play.  Now they were going along for the ride.

In quick succession, he ran through the openings of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming,” the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” and J. Geils Band’s “Come Back,” before finishing with AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds” and “Whole Lotta Rosie.”

Throughout most of the songs, he stood stock still, concentrating on his fingers, but as the AC/DC rolled, you could see his body come to life as he moved his legs with the signature Angus Young leg stomp and head bob.  As ‘Rosie’ kicked in, he suddenly turned and did the Angus ‘scissor-kick’ over to the side of the stage and back.

As he retook the center of the stage, he held one last note; left hand on the strings, right hand reaching for the sky, as a thankful salute to the appreciative crowd, before bending into a deep bow.  He straightened and cut the note off with a flourish on the fret board and waved as he strode off the stage.

“Follow that,” he said to himself as he disappeared into the wings.

A guy can dream, can’t he?


Ashley and Stephanie said...

I think eBay is the only logical next step. But I too share your passion for music without having one freaking idea as to how to play an instrument haha. Great post :)


Judie said...

Well, I did take guitar lessons as well as piano lessons. Unfortunately I have very small and slender hands, and I never could play any chords successfully in a comfortable way. So much for that!

You guitar is certainly classy-looking, Bluz! It's never to late to learn!!


Deb K said...

Until the next to the last paragraph before you devolved into your fantasy remake of the day, I was all about "hey, it's not too late, you can take lessons now, no time like the present, put it on your bucket list," and a few other trite but genuine expressions of encouragement. Then when I read about your hives issue, my heart sank for you. Truly. This seems like a really big regret of yours in the missed opportunity department and I hope you consider taking a music theory class or you can check this off your bucket list!

bluzdude said...

Yeah, that's why I put that paragraph in there... I knew everyone would be going, "Hey numbnut, go take some freakin' lessons!" Hell, I'd be saying it too! Just this week, my boss offered up her guitar-playing son to give me lessons.

As a note for you or anyone else that has recently begun visiting, I have something called Delayed Pressure Urticaria (hives). This means whenever I come into extended contact with hard or pointed surfaces, the next day I'll have a painful red lesion, or raised lump there. It's the worst on hands and feet. I posted about it last May, here:

Needless to say, guitar strings digging into my fingertips would make for an agonizing next few days.

bluzdude said...

This guitar would have been perfect for you... the neck is thin and the strings are very close to the frets... "low action", I was told that's called. Supposed to be very easy to play. Except by me.

bluzdude said...

First of all, thank you for confirming that the internet is not broken. You're the first comment since this post dropped on Thursday night. Until now, this post was being ignored like a girl in math class.

It's funny you mention selling the guitar. I've considered it a number of times (as I have considered selling the rest of my trove of music memorabilia). I remember right after I got my guitar, I showed it to a couple of people that knew something about guitars. All of them were amazed by how easy it was to play... you know... if you knew what to DO! One guy told me it was worth about $2000. I said "Now if I ever find myself out on the street, I know what to sell."

He said, "Your CAR!"

For the record, I think he was vastly overstating the worth. I haven't seen any Ibanez guitars on Ebay or Craig's List going for anywhere near that.

Bottom line... If and when my hives problem goes away, I may seek lessons. Then my biggest problem will be waiting to become good. I don't have the patience for all that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" crap... I want to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan in 2 weeks!

Pat Hatt said...

I've always had the urge to learn too, as I have an appreciation. That sucks big time about the hives. But I never have any regrets over what I did or did not do because if you think about it, if you did that thing you'd have regrets about something else. You'd always wonder about what you are doing now or you wouldn't have such thoughts and maybe not even appreciate where you are at because you never went down the path you are now to have the regrets. So best to just take it as it comes and do what you do, let the rest fall where it does, least that's my take on it.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

My best friend used to play an Ibanez! Just the name brings back so many memories. It's funny that if you were presented with the challenge of entertaining a crowd on guitar these days, you'd just go to YouTube, watch a couple of videos, and be a rockstar by the time you had the thing in your hands.

Unknown said...

I started playing guitar when I was six years old. I thought at the time, that it was the instrument for me. I wasn't very good, but passable and it depressed me. And then I heard John Bonham play drums when I was about 10 years old (I'm older than you) and my life changed. I fell immediately in love. I sat down behind a friends kit and discovered my true instrument. I was a natural and didn't know it, wouldn't have known it if I'd stuck with the guitar. Try a different instrument. I think there's a musician in all of us, don't stop looking for yours. I've put you on my blog roll and am going to follow you on twitter. Have a lovely weekend.

Unknown said...

And about your Urticaria, one of my former lab assistant has that. It took the docs about a year to diagnose him correctly. It's a difficult thing to live with. He would start with one or two small hives on his back and by the end of the next day, his entire back would be swollen. He was a wonderful guy and a good friend. I miss seeing him every day. Best of luck managing yours. You have my sympathy.

bluzdude said...

I love drums. Way back in the day, we lived in an old house with a finished barn. I had a buddy that brought his drum kit out there for a couple of weeks so I got to play around with it and learn where things were. One thing I learned is that I'm OK on drums as long as I don't use my feet. I'm completely incapable of keeping different rhythms with hands and feet. But other than that, I had a blast with it. Really helped my "air-drumming."

Paid off about 20 years later too, because I went to a party where the host was a musician and had some drums in his garage. I slid behind the kit and played along, surprising the hell out of everyone. I blogged about it here:

I guess that's the cool thing about drums... you don't have to be able to read music... if you have the coordination, you can just go by the feel.

Lastly, thank you so much for the follow, and retweeting my post announcement. That was very kind of you.

bluzdude said...

I developed the DPU in 2001, just as I turned 40. It was like, "Happy birthday to you... now begin your physical disintegration."

I read that the average length of time people have this malady is 9-10 years. I'm past that now, so I'm hoping they'll go away soon.

Was your lab assistant's hives triggered by contact, or something else like stress?

bluzdude said...

I'm really OK where I am. To me, the big difference is that instead of writing posts about the cool shit I wish I did, I could write about cool shit I actually did. Which a lot cooler...

bluzdude said...

Oh definitely... if all that happened in these times, I totally would have pulled some How To's off YouTube. I found I learned so much better when someone could show me what to do, as opposed to reading about it.

The little bits I can do, I learned from a friend. When I was managing a Video Rental store, about 5 years after getting my guitar, I hired a guy that was a guitar player. He got real excited when I told him about it, so one night we brought our guitars in and after closing, we set up and he showed me some things. Taught me that I could play "Wild Thing" with the chords I knew, and using that, I realized that I could then play "Louie Louie." There's my set list... two songs.

Whitney Soup said...

listen to eminem's lose yourself over and over and you'll find yourself seizing more opportunities

bluzdude said...

If I listen to Eminem, I'm afraid I might lose too many brain cells to even seize a pork chop.

Deb K said...

Holy cow Batman, this is quite a situation you're enduring. I hope that they soon leave never to return! I have an image of you as the bubble boy...the one who could not go into sunlight because of a rare condition.

I now know I must go back and read all of your archives because you're such an interesting storyteller. So much I'm missing otherwise!

bluzdude said...

Believe me, I FEEL like the Bubble Boy sometimes. I have pillows on the arm rests of my desk chair at home, have padded wrist-rests all over the place... it's bizarre. I'm used to being indestructible; it's weird to have to take such precautions.

If you want to check out some of my other good stories, I suggest going down to the "Label Cloud" at the bottom right side of this blog, and clicking on "Stories and Misadventures." Also try "Best of Darwinfish," for my self-considered best work.

sherry stanfa-stanley said...

Never taking music (or voice) lessons is one of the big regrets of my life.

My heyday was when a group of friends decided to do the song "Lonely People" by America for our eighth-grade talent show. One of the ones with actual talent learned the harmonica solo by ear (in minutes), and taught it to me (in weeks).

I never picked up another instrument in my life, but I still remember the applause when I played that freaking harmonica.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. Next life, for both of us, maybe?

bluzdude said...

I have a couple harmonicas... I thought that surely I'd be able to learn to play them...

No such luck.

But man, the applause is addictive, isn't it? As bloggers, the comments have to be our applause.