That’s right… I’m gonna tell you a story! It’s not one about guitar history, a special guitar, or anything similar. No, this is one that I think needs to be told, ’cause the site has impacted quite a few people.
What do I mean by that?
Well, of those that I can disclose, this site has resulted in three people picking up the guitar to learn to play it. This site has resulted in five people who have picked the guitar back up and are now making an effort to learn to play it – because they’d given up before. This site, and some threads that I frequent or post, have also resulted in somewhere close to a dozen people who are now practicing and sharing their work.
And that’s just guitar.
And that’s just this one site.
Imagine if we all wrote about the things we’re passionate about, not just the guitar? Don’t tell me that you don’t have time to do that. I know how you spend your time! I know, ’cause I’ve been peaking in your windows!
Either way, it’s damned difficult to play a guitar well. It looks easy, but it’s not. Your fingers won’t want to behave and it’ll take a decade before you’re any good.
As near as I can tell, from personal observation – which is actually weighted to say the opposite – the vast majority of people who attempt to learn to play guitar end up quitting. As I run through my memory, I’d even go so far as to say that the vast majority quit within the first six months and finally admit they quit within the first year.
Keep in mind that my observations should be completely different. My observations are, as I said, weighted in favor of the opposite direction. After all, I’m a guitarist – and that means I’m more likely to meet people who have kept up with their learning. I’m also a good guitarist, which means people are more reluctant to tell me that they tried and quit. Ego makes it hard to admit those things.
So, I’d assume that I only learn about a small percentage of those who quit. Yet, they are the overwhelming majority of stories that I hear from people. It’s not easy. It requires dedication and effort. It requires discipline. It requires keeping your spirit up, even when you don’t think you’re getting any better and you can think of 1,000 things you’d rather be doing than practice those dumb scales over and over again.
For those of you readers who don’t play, there’s a reason I refer to what we do as “work.” There’s lots of reasons, including approaching it like a professional, but the primary reason is that we labor to get good. I don’t think there’s a single one of us that wouldn’t love a magic pill that’d make us instantaneously good – without the need to learn and practice.
Even after all these years and all this experience, I still practice every single day – with insanely few exceptions. Frankly, I’d be unable to present a good argument if you pointed out that my guitar playing was fiscally unwise, an objectively bad use of my time, and a mentally unhealthy obsession.
Today, I have practiced for two hours and I’ll rehearse (note that I keep those things mostly mentally separate) for another two hours. That’s an average day. That’s my schedule. That’s stupid.
My guitar student? She’s even worse. She’s practicing, on average, six hours a day – and then playing for another two or three hours per day. She already come downstairs and has been in my studio for an hour. She’s already asked a half-dozen questions. She’s already strung two guitars, giving one a complete cleaning and pulling out a light and mirror to inspect it.
I’m pretty sure a psychologist would point out the insanity of this and I’d be hard-pressed to argue with them. It’s not entirely unlike an addiction and we work obsessively hard to get good. It’s not easy and I can absolutely see why people would give up. Most people do…
So, I’m going to tell you a story – probably ’cause I want people to enjoy my addiction with me!
You’ve read about Django Reinhardt playing with just two fingers and a thumb and how he was set on fire by a malicious wagon and cellulose. Well, this is the story of a guy we’re going to call Mike.
TheBuddha wasn’t always retired(ish) and he’s lived for quite a few years. There was a time before he was married, had kids, his kids grew up, and that sort of thing! In fact, there was a time…
The year was 1980. Someone born in 1980 would be nearing their 40th birthday today. I was unmarried, fresh out of the military, and spending ungodly hours at the university.
The place was just across the river from Boston, in Cambridge, where I lived in a rented house along with some other students. Things were going pretty well and there was a famous college of music nearby, so I’d started playing again – even though I technically probably didn’t need the money that year.
If the location isn’t enough to give it away, I went to a pretty famous school and they’re not famous for being a party school. No… No, they don’t really have a lot of parties – but the ones that do party are pretty good at it. While terribly off-topic, I will point out that partying with gifted Organic Chem majors is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
I, however, liked to party…
Note: This is actually still Mike’s story – but it’s important to understand a few things.
Summer rolled around and, strangely enough, none of my fellow housemates wanted to return in the fall. For some reason, they didn’t want to keep staying at the house with me. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to why they’d not want to stay at the house with me – but it’s probably a good idea to point out that I’d already developed my love for amplifiers, Les Paul guitar models, various intoxicating substances, women in various states of undress, and a variety of other traits that make me an excellent roommate!
Not one of the nerds wanted to return in the fall! None of them!
Well, the GI Bill didn’t actually pay me much money and I mostly drank what they did pay me. The rent was something like $700 per month (which was a lot of money back then) and I knew that I’d have to do something. After all, word had gotten out and nobody was going to come split the rent with me. The Internet, as you know it today, hadn’t been invented, so I couldn’t con freshmen into coming to live with me in the fall.
So, having already started playing in a band, I made the very wise decision to find some other musicians to come live with me. Sadly, this was a failure and I was only able to find one musician, a crazy junkie lady, some dude who liked to paint naked chicks – pretty much exclusively, and a few others that’d sometimes spend a month or two before they ran out of rent money.
That one other musician was Mike. Mike was many things and was pretty damned good at them. Mike also fancied himself a cartoonist and could rip out fantastic cartoons in just a few minutes, and they’d even be amusing.
Which means Mike was exceptionally poor. Graphic artists, specifically unknown cartoonists, make even less money than musicians!
Still, it was pretty awesome and Mike and I got along famously. Of all the people that’d live in the house, Mike was probably my favorite. I have no idea where he is today, but I assume he’s dead. My guess is that he died of hunger!
Trust me, I have a point to this story! It’s hard to believe, but I do!
Now, back in ye olden days, many people gave zero fucks about the environment. In a town, not too distant from Cambridge, one non-fuck-giving, but very enterprising soul, had made his own landfill.
This landfill was almost entirely comprised of tires. I don’t mean a few tires, I mean many acres of tires – piled as high as 120′ in the air. They estimated the tires at 10,000,000 in number. Even though few people had cared about the environment previously, there was not a damned thing legal about this tire dump.
But, because we were still sorting things out with regards to environmental law and because he gave zero fucks, he’d just kept amassing tires – and he’d even been fined a few times for continuing to increase his tire collection. People would drive across the country in semis with trailers full of tires and put them into this illegal tire dump. They’d pay him some money and he’d let them dump all sorts of stuff, but mostly tires. Seriously, it was more tires than you can probably imagine.
By 1980, some people did give a fuck. Some of those fuck-giving people weren’t very bright and didn’t want to wait for the wheels of justice to turn. So, being not very bright, they went to the tire dump and set it on fire.
Yup. They torched it.
I think the only polite name to call them is, “fucking idiots.”
The blaze was pretty glorious, but the firemen came and spent like a week battling the blaze before they were finally able to get the fire out.
Someone was going to be in a whole heap of trouble. Like, more than scolding type of trouble. Like, go to jail levels of trouble.
In fact, people did go to jail. Quite a few people went to jail, including the person who’d amassed the giant collection of tires.
And, it turned out he was pretty broke – having spent his money on other junk which he’d felt would someday be valuable. He had no money for fines and that meant he had no money to clean up his pile of tires.
Which meant the government got involved and something had to be done. Someone had to clean up this giant mess of tires – parts of which had been set on fire.
Except the government was also exceptionally poor.
The federal government was going to step in but, for reasons that aren’t clear to me, this was considered a Very Bad Thing. So, the local and state governments decided they’d clear this out themselves.
In comes the National Guard with heavy equipment!
And they pretty much did nothing… At least it wasn’t being done very quickly and the feds were threatening to intervene. I’m still not sure why that was considered a bad thing.
So, they (and I shit you not) decided that the next strategy would be to hire humans to move these tires by hand.
More importantly, they were paying the large sum of like $12.50/hour – with all the overtime you wanted! That was like winning the lottery, as far as Mike was concerned – and off he went to get himself a job lugging tires around and putting the tires on trucks so that they could move the tires to another pile of tires.
By all accounts, this was a horrible job – but $12.50 an hour was a ton of money in 1980. So, he was at work for like 60 hours a week and was usually pretty clean when he returned home – which makes me think he didn’t actually move many tires. In his defense, these weren’t just car tires – but some were very, very large tires. I’d have not wanted to lug ’em either.
If you recall correctly, I said it was mostly tires and that the owner had purchased other junk. That’s called foreshadowing…
On this same property was assorted other junk – including a number of cranes, old military vehicles, and quite a few firetrucks. The list of other junk is long but the only one that matters was a school bus.
Someone had taken the body, just the body, off a school bus. They’d removed the windows and doors – and the floor. It was just a U-shaped body of a school bus, without a frame. You know, a giant chunk of metal.
For whatever reason, the National Guard refused to move it with their heavy equipment. No… That would have made sense and very little of this story makes sense. Instead, they lined up like 20 guys on a side and used human power to move this chunk of bus.
Which is where all hell broke loose.
The list of excuses is long and unimportant, but they dropped the bus chunk and, remarkably, only a few people were seriously injured. One of those people was Mike.
Mike was not someone I’d say had a whole lot of common sense. He was reasonably intelligent and very artistically talented, but he really didn’t have a lot of common sense.
Mike would hold onto the bus and try to hold it up – even though the other people had let go and run the hell away. The bus was heavy and Mike was not strong. Down came the bus, as gravity is a harsh mistress.
Mike would crush his fingers. Well, technically the bus would crush Mike’s fingers – but you get the idea.
They weren’t just a little crunched. No, they were crushed – with bits of bone and liquid now on the outside of his fingers when they’d previously been, and presumably were supposed to remain, on the inside of his fingers. He’d crush all of them on his left hand and several on his right hand.
By the sheer will of the medical professionals and with the aid of modern medicine, he miraculously was able to keep his fingers.
Except, now his fingers were pretty huge. Also, they were surrounded by a screen-like material and had wires that went down through the tips of his fingers and stuck out the tops of his fingers. Mike would be in this condition for quite a while.
Fortunately, they gave Mike a fuck-ton of drugs and worker’s compensation! We had a pretty glorious time and bordered on celebrating Mike’s injuries – to the point where several of my housemates seriously considered going to get themselves a job lugging tires! (Need I remind you that the smart people had moved out?)
After some time, Mike’s bandages sort of came off. Again, there was still this screen stuff affixed to his fingers and he had bits of metal poking out the tops. The metal ran down through the bone. There were metal things that went around his fingers – but he would often take those off.
Which was when Mike decided he’d resume practicing and relearning how to play guitar. With tears streaming down his face ’cause we’d eaten all of his pain medication, he’d plunk and pick – making god awful sounds.
No, there was nothing impressive about the sounds that came from him or the guitar. Not a damned thing was impressive about his music. It was pretty horrible. Like, truly awful.
But, he would bend his fingers as much as he could and fret the strings as well as he could. It took a very long time, but he was eventually able to play the chords for Uncle John’s Band, more or less.
I’d practice with him for a little bit of time, pretty much every day. I’d listen to the absolutely abysmal noises he’d make with the guitar and we’d celebrate each small victory with copious amounts of alcohol and whatever other pain medication our junkie roommate could score for us.
By the time he got his settlement from workers comp insurance, he was able to play a few songs and even able to draw reasonably well. He’d played through the pain, sometimes with tears streaming down his face, and kept up with the guitar – even though he’d never be the player he once was.
Which gets me to my point…
If he can play through that, you can damned well go back to practicing when you’d rather be watching television. If he can keep playing though that, your wrist cramp is pretty insignificant.
In other words, if he can do it then you too can do it.
Not only that, I’ll listen and encourage you – even when you still can only make absolutely horrendous noises with your guitar. What matters is you’re practicing, learning, improving, and having fun. It’s pretty hard, but it’s not as hard for you as it was for Mike.
See? I told you that I had a damned point to my story! That’s just it, really. Even when life conspires to make it difficult, you will get better so long as you’re putting your hours in. In Mike’s case, he got better than he was immediately after the accident, but he probably never played as well as he used to.
We’d eventually part company and I’d never see him again. In the many years since, there have been countless times when I wanted to quit and didn’t want to practice. I’ve often had something I’d rather be doing. But, the mental image of him practicing with tears streaming down his face is a reminder that it can be done and that there’s a reward for putting my hours in.
If he could still practice throughout that, I guess I can put the computer away and play for a little while. So can you. Until next time…
Shut up and play us a song!