Saturday, July 28, 2007

Non-musical Family Produces Sucky Guitar Player (Blogathon 43)

JRTC (that's me, Jessica The Rock Chick) is proud to present another fabulous guest blogger! This post was written by JAM @ Least Significant Bits! Be sure to stop on over at his blog, too!

Here you go, JAM, the floor is all yours....

Totally shooting from the hip here folks, so bear with me.

I just thought, heck, I can write a post about music. Can't I? Music is a HUGE part of my life, like most people in modern America . Hmmm. Well, she needs it Saturday, so that means I need to write it Thursday night or Friday sometime. Ooo. That's kinda cutting it close for me.

But then I thought. No big deal, I can just ramble on for a while about music and J.T.R.C will at least have a short break before having to crank out another post, so here I am, doing my bit.

About me: I'm John M., a 44 year old, Christian, husband, father, electrical engineer, avid amateur photographer and sucky guitar player. (My blog is Least Significant Bits). I grew up in northeast Louisiana in a city of about 55,000 souls named Monroe , Louisiana . I'm a graduate of both University of Louisiana-Monroe , and my engineering degree is from Louisiana Tech University in nearby Ruston . (That's a pic of my Les Paul Studio over there to the right.)

I have no idea what J.T.R.C will be writing about, or what the other guest writers will be writing about exactly. I'm way too chicken to video myself playing guitar, so y'all will just have to read a bit.

I know that VH1 Save The Music Foundation is all about keeping music programs going in public schools, yet I was never in the band or anything, so at first I was kind of ambivalent about it.

But I gots ta thinkin'. (Which usually gets me in trouble, but here goes anyway.)

I didn't grow up in a musical family. No one that I knew in my family, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins, could play any instrument whatsoever.

When I was a little boy, I would sometimes sit out in the hall of our house, outside my Big Sis's closed door, and listen to the records that she was listening to.

I'll make the math easy for y'all, since I'm 44, that means that I'm talking about the late 1960s.

I always hoped that she would play Paperback Writer by the Beatles. That song starts out with a simple, cool, little guitar riff, and is actually a two chord song to play beyond that.

But something about the sound of that guitar at the beginning of that song touched something deep within me.

From that time until even today, most all of my favorite music has some really tasty guitar in it. And like most folks, I like what I like, I dislike what I dislike when it comes to music. Everyone has their own taste, but I love a whole range of music from smooth jazz, Norman Brown's CDs are a favorite of mine, he's a world-class jazz guitarist, all the way to and including Christian Heavy Metal, if you can believe there is such a thing, where the group Disciple is my favorite, and their guitarist, Brad Noah has monster tone with his Les Paul - Wah pedal - Marshall half stack setup.

Despite coming from a non-musical family, they all loved music and the house was filled with either my parent's music on their console stereo that was a big ol' piece of furniture, or my Big Brother and Big Sis's stereos and music, and eventually my own record and CD collections.

As a kid of about 12, I begged and begged my mother to buy me a guitar, and she finally relented and used her S&H Green Stamps to buy me one.

It was a cheap little acoustic guitar, and the action (how high the strings are above the fretboard) was what I now refer to as Mount Everest action. The Incredible Hulk couldn't have made chords on this guitar. I tried to learn from the book that came with it. That didn't work.

My parents, bless their hearts, paid for a few lessons, but that didn't work out either. I just decided that if playing guitar was that hard, and hurt my fingers so bad, then, well, I'd just have to love guitar by listening to others tougher than me.

Now, as an adult, I realize that my instructor, who would sometimes tune my guitar for me, and the folks in the music shop where I took lessons and had their hands on my guitar too, should have told me that there was such a thing as having a guitar adjusted (usually called a set up). I know now that a 20 minute operation by a competent guitar technician can adjust the angle of the neck just a tad, and file the nut slots the strings fit into just a bit deeper, resulting in strings nice and close to the fretboard, rendering the guitar easy, or at least easier, to play. But, no one took the time to help me out, I thought I was a wimp, so I acted like a wimp, and quit even trying.

Twenty years go by, I'm in my early thirties and finishing up my engineering degree. My wife and I talked about getting me a college graduation ring to celebrate my achievement.

I thought long and hard about it, and decided that, if I could learn calculus and differential equations for my engineering degree, then I could by-golly learn to play the guitar. So instead of a class ring, I bought an Epiphone Les Paul and a small amplifier and began to learn chords and songs.

Having a playable instrument was a revelation. And although I have long since realized that I don't have the natural musical gifts of an Eddie Van Halen, or a Dweezil Zappa, I have learned to play the guitar.

I tell people I'm a sucky player, which to me is mostly true, but I'm actually a decent strummer and played in my church's worship band for a few years and even played some in the youth group's band because they didn't have a teen that could play guitar. I'll probably consider myself a sucky player until I can wail on some leads.

I don't make a living at music. I just basically play for my own benefit now, and let me tell you, sitting in mine and Lovely Wife's bedroom, on the side of the bed like a 14 year old instead of a 44 year old, and playing my guitar, as limited as my talent is, is one of the greatest ways I know to decompress from a hard day of slaving over electrical schematics and broken circuit cards in need of repair.

Sitting there and playing some simple, beautiful tunes from say our worship songs at church, or old songs by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, or even making my first attempts at the struggle to learn the leads from a favorite song, or even to construct a neat sounding little riff of my own, takes me out of the realm of the here and now and puts me in that timeless place where magic can happen.

The word, inspired, means to be "in spirit" and I believe that music is a way to take and place ourselves in a spiritual place. It sooths our spirits, calms our souls, and relaxes even the body itself.

I've taken the long, long route to playing my own music in my life. As a kid, I was much too shy to try to be in the band. I'm a world-class loner at heart.

But if I could go back to my childhood, knowing what I know today, I would join the band in a heartbeat. In the schools I grew up in, this opportunity started in the seventh grade.

I wouldn't care which instrument the put me on, because learning to read music is a mixture of learning a new language, and learning new mathematics. I would just get in there and try to soak up what they had to teach me and learn an instrument.

And this is why I would do that…

I have a friend here in Florida , a fellow engineer, extremely brilliant radio frequency engineer, who decided to take up classical guitar.

He had taken band all through junior high and high school. Hadn't touched or played his saxophone in 15 years since getting out of high school.

He re-learned to read music in a very short time, and within months, was accomplished enough to play performances for his teacher as music teachers sometimes do, have a recital to show what "the kids" had learned in the previous year. Only my engineer friend had only been playing about six months, but his past knowledge of reading music which came back to him quickly with practice, and the music patterning from years before in his mind had conspired to create a musician just waiting to blossom.

So here's this 33 year old guy, hadn't touched an instrument in years, decided to learn another instrument, and his past experience came back swiftly to help him learn much faster than the rest of us mortals.

Too bad for me, I cannot go back in time. All I can do is to continue to play what I can at the level I'm at now, and to strive to learn more and dedicate myself to more ability on the guitar.

I'm still quite shy, and don't like to play in front of people, heck, I even stop practicing when Lovely Wife walks into the room, but my time playing with the worship band at church helped me to learn at a great pace, and in that time, it was easily one of my life's most anticipated events, playing at church on Sundays and Wednesdays.

But even when time is short and I don’t have a nice chunk of time to practice, I'll pull out one of my guitars and play without even plugging into an amp. The guitars are resonant enough for me to hear and also feel, and just 10 minutes of practicing chords and scales and a couple of songs goes a long way to making me feel better about myself, that I've learned something that not many people bother to learn, or, like me, thought they couldn't learn.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that any person can learn to play a musical instrument. Not everybody has the natural talent that results in a musical genius, but I'm quite happy just plunking out some basic tunes on my own guitars. It's something that I do for me, yet something I've also been blessed to share with others through my church.

It's a sad fact that the prices of goods and services in this world rise over time. With that comes the usual budget crunches, and it's hardest in the public school realm.

The reality is, that when tax dollars are short, and something needs to be cut, music programs are jettisoned, as are many arts and theater programs.

And that's exactly where the VH1 Save The Music Foundation Program comes in. Music is a juggernaut of an industry in this country. It generates many billions of dollars annually. So VH1 set up their foundation to help get folks like you and me, who either directly benefited from a school music program, or wish they had, to help them try to fill in the tax dollar gap. Save The Music is one of those charities that can mean the difference between a flourishing school music program or no music program at all.

As they say on the Foundation's web site: Since its inception in 1997, VH1 Save The Music has donated nearly $34 million worth of musical instruments to 1,400 public schools in 80 cities, improving the lives of more than 800,000 children.

That says it a lot better than all my yappin' anyway.

I'll shut up now.

Help support the VH1 Save The Music Foundation by clicking here!

COMING UP NEXT: If YouTube cooperates...A little Christmas in July! If not, we'll do another Q and A, I think!


Jessica Morris said...

Ohhhh I love it!! How cool to know you learned to play when you were 30!! Your introduction to music is SO similar to mine - in fact I even took guitar lessons at school and then with a private tutor but gave it up because I was a wimp (and my hands were too small for my dads guitar!) I would love to learn to play for real though - your post really truly did inspire me!! I want to learn to play!

The Rock Chick said...

I've always wanted to play the guitar, too, but just never have even tried. I don't know why!!

I would think they are a lot easier to carry around than pianos, too :)

JAM said...

Yeah, Jessica M., I guess it's never too late. The dreams of standing on a stage as a rock star die hard, but just being able to play what I'm able to play is great fun and a nice way to chill out after stressful work.

J.T.R.C., you could always get a keytar. There's probably lots of them for sale cheap since the 80s are over. That would be easy to carry.

The Rock Chick said...

Ohhhhhh, I totally FORGOT about those! What's the matter with me? I must be getting old or something...

OK, now I want one of those!