Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Guitar Follies

Q: How many guitar players does it take to change a light bulb ?
A: Five hundred and one. One to change the bulb and five hundred to tell you how they could have done it better.

True story:

I have this student who's a total beginner. Last night, I was trying to teach him a simple Tom Petty song. We get through it OK, and as is often the case during lessons, many ideas begin to rush though my head. I forget that I'm teaching and begin a series of variations of these simple changes. I also want to show the kid that I can play. Evidently, I failed to impress him.

"Impossible guitar," comes a quip out of the blue.
"What?" My student has gone all non sequitor on me.
"You know YouTube?"
"Yeah." Methinks my student believes I am positively medieval in techno matters.
"Go on there and type in impossible guitar."
"There's this guy who plays this nine string guitar. It's amazing."

Was my student trying to take me down a peg or two? Was he saying not so subtlety, "Your variations in the first position on A minor, G and D are not nearly as impressive as you think." Keep in mind that this guy can barely fret a note, yet here he is directing me to what he perceives as a higher authority of geetar playing. Should I be offended? Nope. Only a fool would get cranky from such a comment, but it does remind me of the folly of being a guitarist (and a teacher of one as well). Perhaps I should have used the zen teaching method and struck him hard with a cane and then left the room without a word.

Guitarists, as a whole, are a gnarly bunch. Precious, ridiculous, divisive, egomanical, prone to OCD-like rituals, a tendency to fetishize, fiercely competitive, equipment crazy, and territorial. There is also a communal feeling among guitarists because we all realize how goddam hard the thing is to play and how humble it can make us at times. I can say these things with equal love and disdain for my brethren and sistren because "For I have known them all already, known them all."

Scan the web or read dreaded music magazines and young players love to expound about their guitar heroes in hierarchical terms until it starts to sound like a weight lifting contest.

"Satriani can shred at 310 bpm!"

"Oh yeah? Malmsteen can rake arpeggios at 435, man!"

When a student puts forth a name from the hallowed halls of greats, I suppose they expect a rebuttal-demonstration of my great prowess and superiority. How silly. That stuff doesn't even bother me anymore. I am honest: "I can't play that." Nonplussed, they move on to another topic. They have failed to point out my shortcoming. As if I have never had the nerve to look upon my own abilities with a penetrative gaze.

When we enter the field of competition, we encounter envy and then the inevitable feeling of somehow being "less than." Best to watch, learn and be as humble as possible. "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless." No one guitarist can do it all. Not going to happen my friends. You playing reflects who you are as a person. We tend to forget that. We also tend to think only in terms of hands and use speed as the sole measure of a great guitarist. Expression? Forget it. That's too subtle a concept.

When I see such videos, such as the "impossible" one, there is no longer a seismic paradigmatic shift as would have happened many years ago. I can watch someone and dig what they do and not get depressed. And I don't have to follow someone else's approach.
If you watch the "impossible video" closely, you can easily figure out what he's doing. And in creative terms, it's nothing new. It's well executed and played, but the influences are as transparent as rice paper. I like it, but don't expect me to copy. I am following another tradition right now-one that, in the right time, I will blog about.
Post scriptus: the above mentioned student has been absent for no less than two lessons since.
Perhaps my student shall return. I hope so. He has to learn that the road to being a musician is a rough one and the ego cracks and shatters many times, but in the end, it is love that brings us back to joy. Love of music. Love bears all things.
Even impossible guitar.

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