Keats and Yeats are on your side.
A band that has been at the top of my most played ever since I first listened to them is The Smiths. They go into a category that few bands/artists fall into which is that when I first heard them it was immediately life-altering. They were so different and obviously deep and rich and unlike the pop crap that everyone else was listening to which I’ve always detested. And I’m happy to report they’ve stood the test of time. I’ve decided to focus on the list of bands that were life-altering because I don’t know what direction music in America is going, but I have a feeling it’s into an area that’s ruled less by musical talent and more by equipment, money, and clicks. Pro tools and autotune can only get you so far.
Most Americans probably heard ‘How Soon is Now’ in the late 1980’s, early 1990’s and that’s their introduction and familiarity with them. Mine was different.
I had a rather melancholy upbringing, so The Smiths naturally spoke to me in that way. I was introduced to them in 1985 by Michael Marcin, whose sister I would later meet at Rollins College in Florida with me being a freshman and her being a senior. Both fun and exceptional people, who I’ve lost touch with. And he was a senior at Woodberry Forest when I was a New Boy but he liked me for some reason. We certainly shared the same musical tastes. He left me with a cassette one night to listen to on my walkman after lights out at our boarding school in Virginia. One one side was Meat is Murder, and once I listened to it I was hooked. And I still am. I listened to that cassette as much as I could.
Johnny Marr’s guitar playing and sound was revolutionary to me, and it still is magical. You’d be better off having three guitarists playing to pull off what he does, and I remember buying a Smiths music book years ago to learn to play their songs and upon looking at the chords and what was going on with them, I promptly put it aside. I still have it of course. But the chance that Marr met Morrisey was serendipity. I don’t mean to slight the bass and drum work, which is excellent as well, but the vocals, lyrics and guitar are what make this band.
Morrisey’s vocals are operatic, but his lyrics are what hooked me. Talk of spineless ghouls in Manchester schools and poets and a dark existence which I related to. All put together in an atmospheric bundle and marketed/sold in a non-commercial way. The band didn’t even appear on the albums. Hardly anyone in the states was listening to them, and the way we got our “underground” music was via college radio stations. The University of Virginia was nearby, so what was playing there made its way onto our campus by way of big brothers. The Smiths only produced four actual albums in four years, so it was a flash in the pan. But it was an almost nuclear flash.
I’m getting to the point in my life when I look back at music and frame it the same way my parents must have regarded their music they listened to growing up, which was during the embryonic stages of rock and roll. And that’s a lot of what I listened to as a youngster. My mother’s box of 45’s that she’d take to the beach house as a girl. Chuck Barry. Little Richard. Elvis. American music started growing up. England took notice of course. We created Disco, and their answer was punk. We countered with synth-pop and they compromised and joined in a decade of 1980’s awful bubblegum crap that persists to this day. I’ll never understand how some of the songs are still being played in grocery stores and malls from that era. Whose decision was that?
But England also produced some of the greatest bands during that time which of course are overlooked by people that have the power to dictate what remains through time yet has no musical taste. The Smiths are a band that will stand the test of time due to their quality in every respect. And that’s why I still listen to them all the time. They also were a big influence on another band I love and have written about here: Radiohead.
Morrisey moved from England to Los Angeles to escape the things he despised there. Unfortunately, LA is becoming a pretty horrible place to live, with medieval diseases, homelessness, trash, rats, drugs, crime, high taxes, and the other symptoms quite a few American cities have these days.
Cassidy is a great acoustic piece released on Bob Weir’s 1972 solo album Ace. It contains a lot of interesting bits and pieces, as it’s a tribute to Neal Cassady, who was buddies with Jack Kerouac, both members of the Beat Generation and artists of words, albeit more spoken than written. They let others do the writing and their use of the English language is loose and slippery and to me reflects the style of the time. Wildly imaginative and reflective of the Acid tests, open-mindedness and psychedelia that was popular around the Bay area where they dwelled around this time.
Cassidy is a beautiful acoustic number written by the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir with poetic lyrics complements of the incredible JP Barlow, who Weir wrote many songs with, as Jerry Garcia similarly paired up with Robert Hunter to write many of the Dead’s more notable and famous songs.
By John Perry Barlow with Bob Weir
Recorded on Ace (Warner Brothers, 1972)
Cora, Wyoming February, 1972
I have seen where the wolf has slept by the silver stream.
I can tell by the mark he left you were in his dream.
Ah, child of countless trees.
Ah, child of boundless seas.
What you are, what you’re meant to be
Speaks his name, though you were born to me,
Born to me,
Lost now on the country miles in his Cadillac.
I can tell by the way you smile he’s rolling back.
Come wash the nighttime clean,
Come grow this scorched ground green,
Blow the horn, tap the tambourine
Close the gap of the dark years in between
You and me,
Quick beats in an icy heart.
Catch-colt draws a coffin cart.
There he goes now, here she starts:
Hear her cry.
Flight of the seabirds, scattered like lost words
Wheel to the storm and fly.
Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.
An explanation by John Perry Barlow:
This is a song about necessary dualities: dying & being born, men & women, speaking & being silent, devastation & growth, desolation & hope.
It is also about a Cassady and a Cassidy, Neal Cassady and Cassidy Law.
(The title could be spelled either way as far as I’m concerned, but I think it’s officially stamped with the latter. Which is appropriate since I believe the copyright was registered by the latter’s mother, Eileen Law.)
The first of these was the ineffable, inimitable, indefatigable Holy Goof Hisself, Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, Hart Kennedy, Houlihan, and The Best Mind of Allen Ginsberg’s generation.
Neal Cassady, for those whose education has been so classical or so trivial or so timid as to omit him, was the Avatar of American Hipness. Born on the road and springing full-blown from a fleabag on Denver’s Larimer Street, he met the hitch-hiking Jack Kerouac there in the late 40’s and set him, and, through him, millions of others, permanently free.
Neal came from the oral tradition. The writing he left to others with more time and attention span, but from his vast reserves flowed the high-octane juice which gassed up the Beat Generation for eight years of Eisenhower and a thousand days of Camelot until it, like so many other things, ground to a bewildered halt in Dallas.
Kerouac retreated to Long Island, where he took up Budweiser, the National Review, and the adipose cynicism of too many thwarted revolutionaries. Neal just caught the next bus out.
This turned out to be the psychedelic nose-cone of the 60’s, a rolling cornucopia of technicolor weirdness named Further. With Ken Kesey raving from the roof and Neal at the wheel, Further roamed America from 1964 to 1966, infecting our national control delusion with a chronic and holy lunacy to which it may yet succumb.
From Further tumbled the Acid Tests, the Grateful Dead, Human Be-Ins, the Haight-Ashbury, and, as America tried to suppress the infection by popularizing it into cheap folly, The Summer of Love, and Woodstock.
I, meanwhile, had been initiated into the Mysteries within the sober ashrams of Timothy Leary’s East Coast, from which distance the Prankster’s psychedelic psircuses seemed, well, a bit psacreligious. Bobby Weir, whom I’d known since prep school, kept me somewhat current on his riotous doings with the Pranksters et al, but I tended to dismiss on ideological grounds what little of this madness he could squeeze through a telephone.
So, purist that I was, I didn’t actually meet Neal Cassady until 1967, by which time Further was already rusticating behind Kesey’s barn in Oregon and the Grateful Dead had collectively beached itself in a magnificently broke-down Victorian palace at 710 Ashbury Street, two blocks up the hill from what was by then, according to Time Magazine, the axis mundi of American popular culture. The real party was pretty much over by the time I arrived.
But Cassady, the Most Amazing Man I Ever Met, was still very much Happening. Holding court in 710’s tiny kitchen, he would carry on five different conversations at once and still devote one conversational channel to discourse with absent persons and another to such sound effects as disintegrating ring gears or exploding crania. To log into one of these conversations, despite their multiplicity, was like trying to take a sip from a fire hose.
He filled his few and momentary lapses in flow with the most random numbers ever generated by man or computer or, more often, with his low signature laugh, a *heh, heh, heh, heh* which sounded like an engine being spun furiously by an over-enthusiastic starter motor.
As far as I could tell he never slept. He tossed back green hearts of Mexican dexedrina by the shot-sized bottle, grinned, cackled, and jammed on into the night. Despite such behavior, he seemed, at 41, a paragon of robust health. With a face out of a recruiting poster (leaving aside a certain glint in the eyes) and a torso, usually raw, by Michelangelo, he didn’t even seem quite mortal. Though he would shortly demonstrate himself to be so.
Neal and Bobby were perfectly contrapuntal. As Cassady rattled incessantly, Bobby had fallen mostly mute, stilled perhaps by macrobiotics, perhaps a less than passing grade in the Acid Tests, or, more likely, some combination of every strange thing which had caused him to start thinking much faster than anyone could talk. I don’t have many focussed memories from the Summer of 1967, but in every mental image I retain of Neal, Bobby’s pale, expressionless face hovers as well.
Their proximity owed partly to Weir’s diet. Each meal required hours of methodical effort. First, a variety of semi-edibles had to be reduced over low heat to a brown, gelatinous consistency. Then each bite of this preparation had to be chewed no less than 40 times. I believe there was some ceremonial reason for this, though maybe he just needed time to get used to the taste before swallowing.
This all took place in the kitchen where, as I say, Cassady was also usually taking place. So there would be Neal, a fountain of language, issuing forth clouds of agitated, migratory words. And across the table, Bobby, his jaw working no less vigorously, producing instead a profound, unalterable silence. Neal talked. Bobby chewed. And listened.
So would pass the day. I remember a couple of nights when they set up another joint routine in the music room upstairs. The front room of the second floor had once been a library and was now the location of a stereo and a huge collection of communally-abused records.
It was also, at this time, Bobby’s home. He had set up camp on a pestilential brown couch in the middle of the room, at the end of which he kept a paper bag containing most of his worldly possessions.
Everyone had gone to bed or passed out or fled into the night. In the absence of other ears to perplex and dazzle, Neal went to the music room, covered his own with headphones, put on some be-bop, and became it, dancing and doodley-oooping a Capella to a track I couldn’t hear. While so engaged, he juggled the 36 oz. machinist’s hammer which had become his trademark. The articulated jerky of his upper body ran monsoons of sweat and the hammer became a lethal blur floating in the air before him.
While the God’s Amphetamine Cowboy spun, juggled and yelped joyous *doo-WOP’s,: Weir lay on his couch in the foreground, perfectly still, open eyes staring at the ceiling. There was something about the fixity of Bobby’s gaze which seemed to indicate a fury of cognitive processing to match Neal’s performance. It was as though Bobby were imagining him and going rigid with the effort involved in projecting such a tangible and kinetic image.
I also have a vague recollection of driving someplace in San Francisco with Neal and a amazingly lascivious redhead, but the combination of drugs and terror at his driving style has fuzzed this memory into a dreamish haze. I remember that the car was a large convertible, possibly a Cadillac, made in America at a time we still made cars of genuine steel but that its bulk didn’t seem like armor enough against a world coming at me so fast and close.
Nevertheless, I recall taking comfort in the notion that to have lived so long this way Cassady was probably invulnerable and that, if that were so, I was also within the aura of his mysterious protection.
Turned out I was wrong about that. About five months later, four days short of his 42nd birthday, he was found dead next to a railroad track outside San Miguel D’Allende, Mexico. He wandered out there in an altered state and died of exposure in the high desert night. Exposure seemed right. He had lived an exposed life. By then, it was beginning to feel like we all had.
In necessary dualities, there are only protagonists. The other protagonist of this song is Cassidy Law, who is now, in the summer of 1990, a beautiful and self-possessed young woman of 20.
When I first met her, she was less than a month old. She had just entered the world on the Rucka Rucka Ranch, a dust-pit of a one-horse ranch in the Nicasio Valley of West Marin which Bobby inhabited along with a variable cast of real characters.
These included Cassidy’s mother Eileen, a good woman who was then and is still the patron saint of the Deadheads, the wolf-like Rex Jackson, a Pendleton cowboy turned Grateful Dead roadie in whose memory the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation is named, Frankie Weir, Bobby’s ol’ lady and the subject of the song Sugar Magnolia, Sonny Heard, a Pendleton bad ol’ boy who was also a GD roadie, and several others I can’t recall.
There was also a hammer-headed Appaloosa stud, a vile goat, and miscellaneous barnyard fowl which included a peacock so psychotic and aggressive that they had to keep a 2 x 4 next to the front door to ward off his attacks on folks leaving the house. In a rural sort of way, it was a pretty tough neighborhood. The herd of horses across the road actually became rabid and had to be destroyed.
It was an appropriate place to enter the 70’s, a time of bleak exile for most former flower children. The Grateful Dead had been part of a general Diaspora from the Haight as soon as the Summer of Love festered into the Winter of Our Bad Craziness. They had been strewn like jetsam across the further reaches of Marin County and were now digging in to see what would happen next.
The prognosis wasn’t so great. 1968 had given us, in addition to Cassady’s death, the Chicago Riots and the election of Richard Nixon. 1969 had been, as Ken Kesey called it, *the year of the downer,: which described not only a new cultural preference for stupid pills but also the sort of year which could mete out Manson, Chappaquiddick, and Altamont in less than 6 weeks.
I was at loose ends myself. I’d written a novel, on the strength of whose first half Farrar, Straus, & Giroux had given me a healthy advance with which I was to write the second half. Instead, I took the money and went to India, returning seven months later a completely different guy. I spent the first 8 months of 1970 living in New York City and wrestling the damned thing to an ill-fitting conclusion, before tossing the results over a transom at Farrar, Straus, buying a new motorcycle to replace the one I’d just run into a stationary car at 85 mph, and heading to California.
It was a journey straight out of Easy Rider. I had a no-necked barbarian in a Dodge Super Bee try to run me off the road in New Jersey (for about 20 high speed miles) and was served, in my own Wyoming, a raw, skinned-out lamb’s head with eyes still in it. I can still hear the dark laughter that chased me out of that restaurant.
Thus, by the time I got to the Rucka Rucka, I was in the right raw mood for the place. I remember two bright things glistening against this dreary backdrop. One was Eileen holding her beautiful baby girl, a catch-colt (as we used to call foals born out of pedigree) of Rex Jackson’s.
And there were the chords which Bobby had strung together the night she was born, music which eventually be joined with these words to make the song Cassidy. He played them for me. Crouched on the bare boards of the kitchen floor in the late afternoon sun, he whanged out chords that rang like the bells of hell.
And rang in my head for the next two years, during which time I quit New York and, to my great surprise, became a rancher in Wyoming, thus beginning my own rural exile.
In 1972, Bobby decided he wanted to make the solo album which became Ace. When he entered the studio in early February, he brought an odd lot of material, most of it germinative. We had spent some of January in my isolated Wyoming cabin working on songs but I don’t believe we’d actually finished anything. I’d come up with some lyrics (for Looks Like Rain and most of Black-Hearted Wind). He worked out the full musical structure for Cassidy, but I still hadn’t written any words for it.
Most of our time was passed drinking Wild Turkey, speculating grandly, and fighting both a series of magnificent blizzards and the house ghost (or whatever it was) which took particular delight in devilling both Weir and his Malamute dog.
(I went in one morning to wake Bobby and was astonished when he reared out of bed wearing what appeared to be black-face. He looked ready to burst into Sewanee River. Turned out the ghost had been at him. He’d placed at 3 AM call to the Shoshone shaman Rolling Thunder, who’d advised him that a quick and dirty ghost repellant was charcoal on the face. So he’d burned an entire box of Ohio Blue Tips and applied the results.)
I was still wrestling with the angel of Cassidy when he went back to California to start recording basic tracks. I knew some of what it was about…the connection with Cassidy Law’s birth was too direct to ignore…but the rest of it evaded me. I told him that I’d join him in the studio and write it there.
Then my father began to die. He went into the hospital in Salt Lake City and I stayed on the ranch feeding cows and keeping the feed trails open with an ancient Allis-Chalmers bulldozer. The snow was three and a half feet deep on the level and blown into concrete castles around the haystacks.
Bobby was anxious for me to join him in California, but between the hardest winter in ten years and my father’s diminishing future, I couldn’t see how I was going to do it. I told him I’d try to complete the unfinished songs, Cassidy among them, at a distance.
On the 18th of February, I was told that my father’s demise was imminent and that I would have to get to Salt Lake. Before I could get away, however, I would have to plow snow from enough stackyards to feed the herd for however long I might be gone. I fired up the bulldozer in a dawn so cold it seemed the air might break. I spent a long day in a cloud of whirling ice crystals, hypnotized by the steady 2600 rpm howl of its engine, and, sometime in the afternoon, the repeating chords of Cassidy.
I thought a lot about my father and what we were and had been to one another. I thought about delicately balanced dance of necessary dualities. And for some reason, I started thinking about Neal, four years dead and still charging around America on the hot wheels of legend.
Somewhere in there, the words to Cassidy arrived, complete and intact. I just found myself singing the song as though I’d known it for years.
I clanked back to my cabin in the gathering dusk. Alan Trist, an old friend of Bob Hunter’s and a new friend of mine, was visiting. He’d been waiting for me there all day. Anxious to depart, I sent him out to nail wind-chinking on the horse barn while I typed up these words and packed. By nightfall, another great storm had arrived. We set out for Salt Lake in it, hoping to arrive there in time to close, one last time, the dark years between me and my father.
Grateful Dead songs are alive. Like other living things, they grow and metamorphose over time. Their music changes a little every time they’re played. The words, avidly interpreted and reinterpreted by generations of Deadheads, become accretions of meaning and cultural flavor rather than static assertions of intent. By now, the Deadheads have written this song to a greater extent than I ever did.
The context changes and thus, everything in it. What Cassidy meant to an audience, many of whom had actually known Neal personally, is quite different from what it means to an audience which has largely never heard of the guy.
Some things don’t change. People die. Others get born to take their place. Storms cover the land with trouble. And then, always, the sun breaks through again.
Give it a listen:
My introduction to guitar was around age 12 or 13 when I won a classical Yamaha guitar from a radio promotion I’d entered. I remember my mother driving me to the radio station to pick it up and then me sitting on my bed in my bedroom wondering what in the world to do with it. Little beknownst to me, or my parents, a classical guitar isn’t what most tweens aspire to play and is quite different from a steel string acoustic guitar most people are familiar with. It has thick nylon strings on a much wider neck, which isn’t suitable for kid’s hands, and produced a plunky sound most people probably associate with Flamenco, or Andres Segovia if that cultured. I was determined to learn it, so my mother signed me up for guitar lessons with a man named Mr. Foley who lived in the next neighborhood, and was around 95 years old and I remember really liked to suck on his dentures and make a distinctly froglike sound. I remember sitting in his bedroom with him and his acoustic guitar, while his wife cooked supper in the kitchen next to the bedroom, strangely, and him writing out musical notes on special musical papers while trying to teach me such popular hits with the teens such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.” I stuck that out longer than anyone should have thanks to my mother being determined not to waste the entire $50 or so she spent on the ten lessons we’d signed up for. I immediately hated the guitar.
I pawned that guitar as soon as I was old enough to do so, but was eventually struck with the desire to learn to play again, hitting my teen years and realizing boys that played guitars attracted pretty girls. I failed to realize the important part, which was that the boys had to play with some proficiency. That was the untold trick. In any case, I managed to get my hands on a steel string guitar, which I probably begged my mother for until blue in the face, and in return, received a bottom of the barrel, piece of junk guitar that sounded awful, even for the 1 second it stayed in tune, and I’m not sure if it ever was put in tune, since tuning it requires at the minimum, a note to tune it to and some knowledge of doing it. Back then, tuning forks were the norm, not even electronic tuners, which can be bought for a few dollars today.
That guitar was also a flop, needless to say. Thinking the problem was that I was thinking acoustic, which was out of style even to Bob Dylan at that time, I soon got my hands on an electric guitar, bought for a small sum from the local pawn shop that I had become acquainted with. Not in the best part of town either, thinking back on it.
I actually managed to learn some chords on that guitar, which I don’t remember the make of, but still have the Crate amp I bought to go with it. I remember the strings getting very rusty very quickly, not surprising considering our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean where everything rusts within minutes. But not having the inclination to or budget to change my strings each week, I eventually sold that guitar for money to buy a surfboard, which was a much more used and enjoyed item during my teen years. Also, I bought a black Fender Squier Bullet electric guitar for about $100, which was the going rate back then for one at an actual music shop, which I graduated to.
I learned more and more on that and even landed a Fender acoustic guitar, which I hated. It was a piece of junk, but I didn’t really know it since I didn’t know much about guitars at the time. It was never properly set up, and the action was terrible, and it didn’t stay in tune, and just wasn’t a quality instrument in any way. I often bought Guitar Player magazines and learned to read tab, and learned to exchange riffs and scanty musical knowledge with friends, but it was still a frustrating experience. And remained so for a long time. I taught myself to play lots of Beatles tunes and riffs from magazines that had tablature. And so it went for a long time. I eventually sold all my guitars and was without one until I received an all-maple Ibanez dreadnaught for a birthday present my sophomore year in college. And I played and had that for a very, very long time until it was broken by a pack of 8 crazy puppies I was looking after who knocked it off its stand and broke the headstock beyond feasible repair. I still have it, however, nested in its case.
I could go on from there about every guitar I’ve owned, but I’ll fast-forward to present day because this post is about “learning to play guitar” not “Michael’s uninteresting collection of guitars over his life.” But hopefully it shows some dedication to the instrument and what a lot of people I think go through before deciding to either part ways with the notion of ever learning to play it, or actually becoming proficient with it, which I believe anyone can do, if they really want to. Especially with the resources available these days, which are light-years ahead of anything imaginable when I was a kid. And what I intend to discuss here.
You don’t need to learn how to read sheet music to play guitar. I’d argue few guitarists actually can, and those that do know it came from a piano or keyboard background before learning the guitar. The guitar is considered a keyboard instrument, and if you hold it the right way you can see why. Your fretting fingers are akin to the string lengths on a piano and your right hand provides the keystrokes, while the body of the guitar acts similar to the construction of a piano. I took a course in college that was “Physics in the Arts” which was sone of the most interesting classes I took. In it, I learned how instruments and sound work, as well as our ears and brains, to process the sounds, and my “thesis” project was demonstrating how guitars produce sound and work, complete with a demonstration of putting sand on a soundboard of a guitar and playing it to the class to watch how it creates different patterns from the vibrations.
But one activity that pays dividends, and is pretty easy, is to learn tablature. Tablature is the visual representation of the guitar fretboard with keys as to where to place your left-hand fingers(or whichever hand you use for fretting) and which fingers to use for plucking, or upward or downward strokes. It also uses some more involved graphics to illustrate bends, slides, pull-ons and offs, harmonics, and other subtle fret-hand techniques you should know. It’s easy to pick up and read, relative to sheet music, however. There are lots and lots of websites and apps that use tablature extensively, which I’ll list below in the TOOLS section.
The biggest help in the last 20+ years has been the adoption of the internet to help people learn to play the guitar. Youtube itself must have millions of videos and billions of hours dedicated to it alone. Guitar manufacturers like Fender have made lessons available to complement their guitar sales. And above all else, there are tons of free videos by people who just like to teach others that have spent no small amount of their own time producing some incredibly-high-quality videos to do just that.
A word of caution: with so much material and so many videos, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with material that isn’t helpful and isn’t structured in a way that’s optimal for a beginner, or anyone, to just jump in and start learning. I’ve spent hours watching (mostly) guys that have thrown up (almost literally) videos that aim to teach you something about becoming proficient playing the guitar. Don’t just jump in.
Finding someone online that teaches songs and artists that you enjoy listening to certainly helps. As I mentioned above, when I began and was forced to learn “Twinkle Twinkle” instead of James Talyor or Jimmy Buffet, I became immediately discouraged. While it’s important to have material you can at least tolerate, I urge you to view learning as something more important than ONLY learning the songs you like. The goal is to play guitar, any artist or song, not just a couple of favorites. It won’t take you long to learn that many of your favorites are composed by using just 3 or so chords, and after you perfect those, you’re on your way.
Two people I’ve found that teach better than anyone else, are on YouTube. The Stitch Method, based in Sarasota, Florida, USA and Paul Davids, from the Netherlands.
Ian Stitch caught my eye because he teaches a lot of the material I love: The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, and others, and really digs down deep in some of their most amazing works. He teaches the theory, which I believe is important. Learning the chords and scales is vital- don’t get me wrong- but the theory and how it all works together is equally important at a near point to learning the basics. Otherwise, you’ll plateau and become disinterested, if not frustrated. I’ve been there. Many times. I’m writing this all out to save you the years I learned by trial and error.
Paul Davids caught my eye because, well, he’s eye-catching. His videos are top-shelf in terms of production value, and every other type of value you can think of. He’s a top-notch educator, knows what he’s teaching backwards and forwards and presents it as if he works for Pixar. His videos are entertaining, well-done, and I can’t say enough good things about them. Everything is meticulous, which is one of the reasons I think I like them, even his hipster appearance is military-level. He’s kind of a perfectionist, as am I.
Fender has done an exceptional job with onboarding people to guitars with their lessons. It’s a marketing initiative called Fender Play. This is a great example of how marketing guitars well can help a business, help an art form, help people create, and generate interest in their products while genuinely teaching people how to play their instruments. It’s a situation where everyone wins.
As mentioned above, videos are a great visual and auditory way to learn. Most internet formats are even interactive so that you can chat and interact with the teachers one on one, in fact, for free. They’ll hold AMA (ask me anything)sessions that can be useful when you hit a snag.
But above that, you can watch your favorite players play their songs and dissect how they’re doing it. If you’re interested in traditional players like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dickey Betts, Johnny Marr, or whomever, there is goldmine after goldmine of them playing live where you can watch, pause, rewind and study just how they’re doing it. And if you’re into non-traditional players like the guys on Radiohead, there is still a treasure trove of videos where you can see how they create their sounds and get inside their heads and learn about the gear they use.
This is a video by the awesome and humble Alex Lifeson of Rush teaching how to play the songs he’s helped write, for example:
Or Johnny Marr playing “This Charming Man:”
Or this incredible video which is a talk with Ed O’Brien from Radiohead discussing his approach to playing guitar and his experience. It’s an amazing look into the backstory, and a non-traditional guitarist who’s become a master of his art:
The fact is, if you don’t play consistently and diligently, you’ll never get better. That’s just a fact. With anything. The best players do nothing but play and have spent days locked up in hotel rooms and elsewhere just playing and studying and teaching and learning. Fortunately, practicing the guitar isn’t as hard as, say practicing football or tennis where you need a lot of space and equipment.
The tricks I’ve found to practice – to MAKE yourself practice, even when you don’t feel like it – is to have your instrument available as much as possible. If you work at a desk all day and can do it, keep your guitar right next to you so when you need to take a quick break from work, you can reach over and play a little guitar. It’s great for bouncing between brain hemispheres, if you do a lot of quant work, I’ve found and can take you to another place, even if momentarily, so you can dive back into work refreshed.
Something else that helps immensely, which I’ll discuss next, is keeping your equipment in tip-top shape. It’s no fun to want to play/practice and realize you only have 4 strings because you didn’t feel like replacing that string you broke. Or your strings are dead or even rusty because you don’t keep them fresh and clean. Even trying to keep your guitar in tune at all times is a good idea. It should always be in tune when you play, but it’s just a nice favor to do your future self to tune it up when you can.
Learning open-ended chords, then barre chords, then scales and how they create those chords is the usual way to learn. And it works. But make sure you’re learning the right thing. I learned lots of scales but never how they fit together or formed chords, so I had to go back and un-learn everything ad re-learn it correctly. Music theory is important as well. If you’re serious about being good at playing, I’d advise learning theory as you go and applying it to what you’re learning. And learn to listen to music differently. Pick out the guitar parts and really listen to what’s going on.
Learn to play in-time. There are metronome apps and backing tracks to help with this if you don’t have an actual metronome. But you have to be able to play in a groove or else you’re playing it wrong. Tapping your foot may look goofy to some people but there’s a good reason musicians do it.
Having a guitar you like is essential to learning to play one. I say that as someone who, as discussed in great length above, spent most of his life with the wrong ones. It’s exasperating. They don’t stay in tune, and no matter HOW good you are, you will never sound any good on an out-of-tune guitar. And even when in-tune, it’s not really fulfilling to play on one that just doesn’t sound good. No deep lows or bass you can feel in your chest. No mids at all. O high treble notes that don’t ring and sound tinny or buzzy or just hurt your ears. No good.
There are resources online and apps on your phone these days that do nothing but help pair you up with the right instrument. Price wise, size-wise, intonation-wise, and every other way. Use them. But also be realistic about what a good instrument might cost. While you don’t need a gold-top Les Paul or Taylor Grand Pacific to learn on, I’d plan on getting a guitar you not only can learn on, but will grow into for the intermediate times and beyond. You may find yourself learning pretty fast and wanting to upgrade faster than later. Just be sure to take very, very good care of your instrument, because they aren’t toys. A nice guitar was (mostly these days) handmade and inspected by professionals to provide a consistent, beautiful experience, to the ear, eye, and hand.
There are some pretty good acoustic guitars that can be found these days for $300-$500. $750 can get you a nice used one and $1000 will get you a very nice one indeed, used or new. Keeping it in a hard case is a good idea, and if you live in a humid or dry area, keeping a close eye on the humidity level is another good idea. You don’t want to be taking it from a very humid environment to a very dry one suddenly because it will damage it, no question. Keep your strings clean and wipe them down before and after playing, or even during if you’re really putting in some intense time.
Finger-Ease is a spray and wipe-on product I and many guitarists use for strings, despite the toilet-humor giggles the name often provides. I use Elixir strings because they live a lot longer than others. Keeping the fretboard clean and free from oil and dirt is essential. If you buy a used, or even a new guitar, having it set up by a professional luthier is a good idea. Most mid-size cities will have a couple. Be sure to vet them and know that they have a lot of experience. I use Bill Barney here in Louisville, and I have another guy I haven’t used but plan to in the future since I have the need. Frets become worn with use, and I recently had an electric pickup system installed in a Talyor 414 acoustic. Not a job for an amateur. Even though I’m great with my hands and a very competent woodworker with endless tools available, I resist the urge to work on my guitars myself because they are such delicate, precision, finely-tuned and made pieces of playable art. And I’ve learned the hard way grabbing a wrench and screwdriver and going to town on the truss rod and electronics or tuners of a guitar is the best way to ruin one. Again, the reason I’m writing this is that I’ve done the try-and-fail method so you don’t have to.
Having a travel or parlor-sized guitar to take on the road with you is also a good idea if you can swing it. Camping, or going on trips where you know you’ll have some downtime in the hotel room are great times to get some practice in. You can find nice travel guitars on Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Craigslist, Reverb, and elsewhere. They don’t really pass for the real thing in my experience, and a cheap travel guitar is asking for frustration. Get one of the better travel guitars, like Taylor’s Babys, Martin’s weird shaped travel thing, or one of the other better guitars. Expect to spend about $300-$400 for a new one, and a little less for a used one. Buying a used one with some cosmetic blemishes at a discount is no big deal since they tend to get banged up anyway. Just make sure it hasn’t had a real serious bang-up and has structural damage or is on the edge of falling apart or has been damaged and poorly repaired. I’d personally steer clear of one that’s been repaired at all at this price range since the cost to repair it usually would outweigh the cost of a new one, so it’s probably been done by a novice, rather than a qualified luthier.
I played acoustic guitar exclusively for a loooong time. I love woodworking and can appreciate the work that goes into making a guitar. And I like the organic sounds and simplicity that an acoustic guitar provides. I’ve always liked the sounds stringed instruments make like violins and cellos, and even woodwinds, over brass and percussion. I like the earthiness over the screeching spit-valve blurts, I guess. Personal preference, of course.
Some essential tools for changing strings is a soft piece of leather or cloth, some little wire clippers and a guitar string winder, with a built-in pin puller. The link I just provided is a three in one that goes for less than eight dollars.
Learn to change your strings properly. There’s little worse than excitedly putting new strings on a guitar, working your way up to the high b and e strings, and popping one, without a backup. The reason strings break usually is because there is something up at the nut where the string crosses to be wound that isn’t smooth. Keep the grooves that the strings rest in smooth, and even lubricated if necessary. Check the bridge at the saddle to make sure there’s nothing that might cause a string unnecessary wear down there as well. Then, when changing your strings, make sure you don’t crease them and be sure to insert them into the post and wind them correctly. Here’s a video that shows how. It’s simple but the devil is in the details.
Keep your guitar in tune. You can be the best guitarist in the world but if your instrument is out of tune, you’ll never sound any good. It can’t be overstated. A good guitar should stay in tune but getting it there and making sure it stays there is easy. If you have a good ear you can learn to tune it by ear and by using harmonics and as long as one string is in tune, you can tune the rest around it. But a cheap electronic tuner can save the day and you should have one.
Recently I bought some electric guitars for a diversion. I got a Les Paul, and two Telecasters. Two of my acoustic guitars have pickups installed, a Taylor 414 and a 1977 Guild Bluegrass Jubilee but that doesn’t make them electric guitars, of course. I don’t play gigs or in front of audiences, so I don’t need a lot of equipment, thankfully. I recall going to a friend’s apartment in college who played, and still plays, in a regionally popular band in the South, and nearly every square foot of his place was black boxes housing musical equipment. It was a maze to navigate.
I have a Yamaha THR10C which I’ve written about before on this website and is a great little personal amp. It’s just loud enough, with no buzz or hum, and emulates tube amps perfectly via technology, to use a vague term. It has a built in tuner, 5 memory buttons you can set your favorite settings to, and the ability to play using a number of vintage tube amps within a small box, with carrying case. It recreates the sounds of those amps perfectly and impressively. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a USB port that lets you pull up an interface to fine tune everything, with about 20 or so preset effects already built in and about 20 more spots where you can save your own. It’s really easy to use. Ports for headphones, an Aux jack for your phone to play along with backing tracks or music, and it even looks cool. My only very minor complaint is that Yamaha decided to put the settings indicators in a dark-colored typeface, on a dark background, so it’s nearly impossible to see where or what you’re doing in dim light. The knobs themselves are clearly marked, but what they point to is invisible. A good reason the THR Editor app is useful.
Another piece of equipment that’s useful is a looper. You can make backing tracks to play along with and entire compositions if you’re clever enough. I have a Boss RC-30, which is great, although I’d admit has a steep learning curve. But there are looping apps you can find on your smartphone and online.
When you begin to get into electric guitar playing, I’m seeing that there’s a rabbit hole to easily go down, which is labeled pedal effects. There are hundreds, if not thousands of pedals out there, and used in conjunction with one another, can absorb a lot of your time. Same with MIDI tinkering. This is where a musician who’s a gearhead is in heaven. There’s no end to the equipment you can try out to get that gnarly sound you’re after. Hopefully, your recording deal gave you a large advance to buy it, because you can also spend a fortune. And you have a lot of time, because this is where you never knew music could get so complicated and complex.
This clip from 1962’s The L-Shaped Room is a right bit of fun:
I don’t bless them
Farewell to this land’s cheerless marshes
Hemmed in like a boar between arches
Her very Lowness with a head in a sling
I’m truly sorry – but it sounds like a wonderful thing
I said Charles, don’t you ever crave
To appear on the front of the Daily Mail
Dressed in your Mother’s bridal veil?
And so, I checked all the registered historical facts
And I was shocked into shame to discover
How I’m the eighteenth pale descendant
Of some old queen or other
Oh, has the world changed, or have I changed?
Oh has the world changed, or have I changed?
Some nine-year-old tough who peddles drugs
I swear to God
I swear: I never even knew what drugs were
So, I broke into the palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said: “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing”
I said: “That’s nothing – you should hear me play piano”
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But when you’re tied to your Mother’s apron
No-one talks about castration
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
Like love and law and poverty
Oh, these are the things that kill me
We can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry
And talk about precious things
But the rain that flattens my hair…
Oh, these are the things that kill me
All their lies about make-up and long hair, are still there
Past the pub who saps your body
And the church who’ll snatch your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Past the pub that wrecks your body
And the church – all they want is your money
The Queen is dead, boys
And it’s so lonely on a limb
Life is very long, when you’re lonely
All great guitarists, and many not-so-great, name their guitars. B.B. King famously played his “Lucille” and Jerry Garcia had names for his custom masterpieces like “Wolf,” and “Tiger” since that’s what was inlaid in their headstocks. His guitars became incredible musical machines and works of art in his later years. Stevie Ray Vaughn even named his most famous Stratocaster, albeit unimaginatively: “Number 1.” And his red Strat “Lenny.” And what’s left of Willie Nelson’s acoustic is named “Trigger” although “Hunk of scrap wood” might be more appropriate.
So, in kind, I name mine, since my collection is getting to where it should be. Problem is, naming a guitar isn’t as easy as it might seem. It’s like naming anything you care about. It can’t conflict with names of people you’ve come to be, let’s say, indifferent about. And you have to name it something that has meaning. And isn’t lame. Or trendy. Or stupid. That begins to narrow the list considerably.
What I’ve found myself doing, after crossing off the low-hanging fruit like “Jessica,” “Red Molly,” and “Stella Blue” is naming them after girls I personally know. That way I can assign their characteristics to the instrument properly, and it fits. Disclaimer: I’m doing this in fun and with the utmost respect meant for the ladies herein mentioned. And their husbands and special “others.” I think they would agree with me about the positive shared traits between them.
So this guitar is “Hope.” She’s an all-American with a big attitude, bright sound and is perfectly shaped, with stars! She’s also a 2018 Recording King 000 limited edition Bakersfield, which I historically didn’t have any experience with, but couldn’t pass up. I mean, look at the vibrant colors, and the strap is made for it, plus it screams Evil Knevil! It’s one of my favorites and is a blast to play.