Column: Guitar-playing days are gone

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It sits in the corner wondering why I have forsaken it. It calls to me in its silence. Its beautiful wood grained curves beckon me to hold it once again. It is my 27-year-old Epiphone acoustic six-string guitar.

Why this old guitar still wants me to play it is a mystery to me because the sounds I produced from it were always mediocre at best. That’s not the guitar’s fault, though, because musician friends of mine would pick it up and make its strings sing wonderfully.

Let’s start from the beginning. I’ve always had an interest in music, spurred from a variety of sources when I was a kid, including my mother’s record collection, her autoharp, and her musician brothers and sisters who played informal hootenannies at family gatherings back in the day. Later I would accumulate my own record collection to feed the need for sound.

As children, my mother sent my brother, sister, and me off to take that rite of childhood passage—piano lessons. My sister and brother handled the keys quite ably with my sister going on later in life to take up the flute. I, on the other hand, was quite hamfisted at the piano, which had to be painful for my music-loving piano teacher to suffer through at my weekly lessons.

I can’t remember how long I took piano lessons, but I do remember the one song that I tortuously tried to play. It was called "Lots of Good Fish in the Sea," and my banging on the keys no doubt reminded all who heard that, while the sea may have lots of good fish, there was little good coming out of my efforts in the key of "C."

Fast forward a few years. The piano debacle had long since lost its sting and I was itching to try my hand again at making music. I always loved rock groups and folk bands, and a musician friend told me one day, "You should try the guitar. It’s versatile. It’s portable. Plus, it’s more personal. You can hug a guitar."

So in 1980, this friend and I went to a music store. He told me to try a relatively inexpensive guitar first, that way I wouldn’t be out too much money in case I was a musical bust. He pulled the golden brown Epiphone guitar off the wall.

"Here’s the guitar for you," he smiled.

I bought the guitar and a chord book and set off to be a guitar hero.

It took awhile to toughen up my fingers to properly hold the strings, but I picked up a few of the basic chords pretty quickly. Much to my surprise I was soon able to strum out a few songs (using all chords, no fancy finger picking as I never did figure out how to do that).

The first song I learned was the old Woody Guthrie folk standard, "This Land is Your Land." I wanted to learn that one first as a homage to the folk music I heard as a kid and because I’m a Woody Guthrie freak. Other songs soon followed (I sought out the ones with the easiest chord changes), among them The Doors’ "Take it as it Comes," the Who’s "Behind Blue Eyes," CCR’s "Who’ll Stop the Rain," and some Bob Dylan tunes, "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright," and "The Times They are a Changin.’"

Now when I say I could "play" them, it just means I could get the chords in the right order and make the switches. It was not artistry. Plus I had the weird sensation of not being able to speak while I played the songs. It’s like my brain disengaged my vocal chords so I could concentrate on playing chords.

Later on I started making up my own ditties based on chords I could handle. I usually played when no one was around. Sometimes a patient girlfriend would listen. Other times I’d feel bold on a summer evening and sit on the front porch and strum.

But it got to a point where I never got any better at it. I’d reached a plateau.

I began playing less and less and now I can’t remember the last time I picked up my old guitar.

Why did I stop? Maybe I just realized my shortcomings. Maybe the guitar just wasn’t my instrument. Maybe I’m just not a musician. Maybe I was too critical of myself. Maybe I’m just too lazy to practice.

I still love to listen to music and, though I’ve ignored it, I still like my old guitar. Maybe I’ll give it a hug.

Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.

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