What Learning Guitar Did For Me
Is this a Medium-y enough article title? Is it? It feels it. If we’re in the game of open self analysis with a hat tip to self help then let me join in. This is an article about playing guitar.
Before I begin, so no one gets the wrong idea, I’m just an unsensational salary man who has been playing guitar on and off for 20 years. I’m not a highfalutin rock and roller with a sickening back catalogue of recording deals, nor a ludicrously talented axeman that surpassed all my peers and I definitely don’t have a list of who’s who that I’ve worked with in the music biz. In fact I’ve never worked in the music biz. That world has never touched me or my life, despite my efforts. I’m just an ordinary person like you. In fact, you’ve probably got more highfalutin stories than I do. You ambitious and motivated so and so.
Where to start? If I broke it down simply, almost all of the things in my life that I enjoy or I am personally proud of come from playing guitar. Almost all of the the things I dislike, that bore me or I actively detest (work looms large here folks) comes from when I move away from guitar.
Learning to play has opened doors to some profound experiences for me. And no, not the playing in a band on P Diddy’s yacht type of profound experiences; more the simple stuff. The meeting new people for one. The bonding with band mates you spend hours and hours in a room with so they eventually wind up becoming truly great friends. The experience of playing live, even if it is to a room of seven people. The discovery of new venues, hidden gems and utter shitholes that you would marvel at on the London toilet scene. The experience and unfathomable excitement of recording in an real studio and actually fucking making something that’s born out of your own efforts. It’s a spiritual high.
Then there are the rewards of actually playing, of tackling the guitar one on one. I’m the first to admit that I’m a mediocre guitarist at best. Any semblance of skill is only born from years and years of fret noodling in my bedroom. I’ve seen real talent and I’m not it.
Back when I was a teenager, when everyone started learning to play on a wave of Seattle grunge and Bay Area metal (other freaks apparently found Brit Pop to be their inspiration but whatever), one quiet Muslim guy I knew at school picked up the guitar and ran with it like Usain Bolt would run with it. Within six months he had surpassed all of us, within a year he was gigging with a beautiful vintage Strat, playing soaring solos like he was Jimi Hendrix, effortlessly making the guitar sing at his command. Within 18 months he’d been tapped up by the biggest local band we knew, playing small festivals and making a name for himself, and finally, within two and a half years, he’d given it all up for religious reasons. Damn.
Still, these Neo style anomalies aside, I chugged on. From nylon stringed cheapy to electric cheapy, shredding as best I could using the overdrive button on a fifteen watt amp, I joined a school punk band where “Molly’s Lips” was a favourite cover if only because it consisted of two chords. Then a real guitar, an SG, and a real band with real gigs. A pedal board, delay pedals, an EP, a messy break up, another band with more pedals and more recordings. Then a folk band with acoustic guitars and finger picking that I’d spent months learning in my room at university and was finally getting to show off years later. Then yet more bands. And it goes on. But no success. Ever.
Being in a band is an incredible challenge. That’s another article in itself but suffice to say it’s a hideous drain on time and money, let alone the fact that it’s like being in a big, dysfunctional relationship with three other people. But it is the playing that makes it worthwhile. A riff you come up with at home suddenly springing to life when the drummer starts playing along, or the true excitement of writing something way above your supposed abilities at 11pm on a Sunday night when you’d only picked up the thing out of habit for five minutes.
It’s a magical experience, song writing. Some bloke in ELO (they were a band your Dad might like) once said you don’t write a song, you chase it. Never a truer word spoken. The flow, the quickening felt when the stars align and ideas begin to pour out; catching a song is euphoric. But the universe is a funny thing and it demands balance. The euphoria is matched mostly by hours of playing the same shit thing over and over feeling like you’re the stupidest person to ever dare pretend they could create something of note. Even the man himself, Jimi, said “Sometimes you’ll want to give up the guitar, you’ll hate the guitar. But if you stick with it, you’re going to be rewarded.” At least an Internet meme says he said that and that’s good enough for me. If he struggled, then it’s ok for us to struggle also.
In the last few years, I’ve been experimenting with home recordings, making demo tracks and putting them on soundcloud (see below). They might not be spectacular but it’s not about that. It’s the learning curve and personal victories contained within each track that matters. I’ve been so intrigued with the idea of song writing that it led me to run an informal Christmas song competition for the last four years on infamous and uncool music forum Drowned in Sound. Everyone taking part writes and records an original, festive themed track for an end of year album (also see below). Such a tool as song writing can be, last year I was able to submit something that actually came close to conveying the sadness I felt at facing my first Christmas without my Dad.
Throughout all of this, the friends and the fallouts, the recordings and the expenditure, the deeply unglamorous gigs and the personal challenges, the guitar remains a comforting constant. When my mind is bullied by anxious thoughts or consumed by the menace of work responsibility, I can pick up my creaking wooden acoustic and play something, anything, and it reconnects me to who I am. Yeah, I know that sounds wanky but I really can’t put it another way. It might, on the face of it, look like guitar hasn't done much for me, but the reality is it’s given back in ways I can’t truly explain or measure. Like I've told you already, it’s a spiritual thing.