Strumming Again

Posted on Mon 30 March 2015 in Dispatches • 6 min read

Let’s talk about regrets, shall we?

They tend to haunt us through the years. Sometimes they are the things we wish we had said (or could be unsaid), and sometimes they are bigger than that, a path you didn’t take, or one you abandoned only a few steps along the way. It’s the second type I’d like to focus on today, and I’d like to start with one of mine.

Blues for Guitar

I have always had a fascination with the guitar. From an early age, I remember my father’s subscription to Guitar Magazine and our annual trips to the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival to see live performances. My father had played off and on for much of his youth, and I remember staring at his Ovation acoustic as a child.

When I was in middle school, I started taking guitar lessons, and was very excited. I was having fun learning melodies to Beatles songs, and learning the fretboard, but there was a problem. Having been a clever child, I was not accustomed to having to work at something in order to be good at it. Seeing the relative skill of other peers that had started playing earlier in life was discouraging, and I was frustrated at how slowly I was progressing.

So, I quit. I sold my guitar and amp to a friend, and quickly began crafting an identity for myself as the non-musical guy. I was the only one in my group of friends who did not play an instrument, and I tried to embrace that. Ultimately, it worked for me, but as an adult I have regretted that for a long time.

I often thought about how I wished I still played, but reasoned I did not have time to take on another hobby, and after all, I was the non-musical guy. It didn’t make sense, and I didn’t even know how I’d begin if I decided to circle back to it.

Finding The Sheet Music

Eventually, I came across this post from Zed Shaw about learning guitar. Now, you can say what you like about Shaw, as he’s not one to shy away from controversial views, but one thing that I’ve always respected about him is his passion for learning, and how he clearly dedicates himself to each new skill he sets out to learn. Much like his programming books, he advocates a strict “do it the hard way” style of learning because it is easier in the long run. Here’s the thing about this approach: it works.

[You have to] take it slow and play around. Everyone completely sucks for years when they start something difficult like learning an instrument. I keep running into people who are really great at programming or math but get frustrated after a week of totally sucking at the guitar. Expecting yourself to be a virtuoso after a week is just idiotic. This is a life long endeavor and could take a year or two to get to where you don’t feel like a poser turd when you touch the guitar. Just keep going, practice, be objective (not negative or positive) about your playing, keep notes on how well you’re doing, and you’ll be happy with your playing in a while.

Zed Shaw, So You Want To Play Guitar

The article has a wealth of practical advice both on learning the instrument as well as which hardware to purchase. It’s well worth the read even if you’re only idly considering picking up the guitar.

Finding the Beat to Move the Music

While certainly my own interest was the primary motivator, it certainly wasn’t the only one. If it had only been a personal regret, I likely wouldn’t have invested time into it, as that comes at a premium for any parent. Of course, being a father was also an important part of my desire to play.

My daughter has shown a love of music her whole life, much as I’m sure all toddlers do. I want to feed that love so that music will be a big part of her life. I hope that when she is old enough she might also take up an instrument. However, I want to make sure she intrinsically understands the work involved, and sees that it’s worthwhile. That is something I didn’t understand when I was younger, which is why I quit playing so early. I wanted to find a way to prepare her for that.

These are the things we tell our children, but it is not how they learn them. You cannot teach a value simply through verbal repetition. Rather, they learn from seeing their parents demonstrate that value, and then eventually from doing it themselves.

With that in mind, I began shopping for guitars. I didn’t want to spend too much to start, just as a precaution if I didn’t stick with it. However, I wanted to make sure I had a good sound, because I knew that would frustrate me otherwise. In the end, despite good advice to the contrary, I elected to get an acoustic to start. While an electric would give me the option to practice through headphones without disturbing others, I didn’t want to be dependent on other equipment to hear myself play. I did ensure the guitar had an electric option for plugging into an amplifier/computer. After reading a lot of reviews, and checking out several models, I settled on a Fender T-Bucket 300CE. I am really pleased with it. It sounds great and is fun to play.

The strings dig into my fingers as I form an F# chord. I gently strum the strings with my other hand and wince at the fret buzz. I’ve been trying to get this quick transition from Em to go smoothly for the last hour. I’m getting better, but I’m still only hitting the target about 75% of the time. I’ll get there…

Personal Journal, September 23, 2014

My travel schedule often disrupts my learning and slows me down, but I try to stay focused on the point of this endeavor, which is about the joy of practice and honing a skill, not an end goal. After six months of deliberate exercises and monkeying around with various songs I’m having a blast learning. I still suck at it, but that’s okay, because I still suck less than when I started. And it matters even less when I see my daughter’s eyes light up when I start a practice session.

She assists with guitar practice

Sometimes, she assists.
(Photo credit: Adriane Brown-Andrlik)

The Solo is Important

I didn’t share the fact that I was playing guitar again with anyone for quite some time. Certainly, my family knew, but I didn’t tell friends at all, and certainly didn’t post anything to social networks. I wanted to make sure that I was willing to stick with it, and that I wasn’t using it as an excuse to do a performance. In this age of social sharing, self-reflection often takes the form of self-acclamation. People cry, “look at me!” and hope for validation.

That’s not how you get at the truth of things though. I didn’t want to validate my interest in guitar that way. Instead, I wanted to focus my time on practice, learning, and quiet self reflection, which would give me a more accurate view of whether the pursuit was worthwhile. I’m now confident that it is, and I’m thrilled that my daughter shares my delight in it.

Kill Your Regrets

Of course, here I am writing this for you to read. However, I didn’t write this to seek validation, but rather to encourage you to think back to your greatest regrets. What do you wish you had learned better? What’s the skill you’ve always wanted to train? Find a way to do that thing. Just start, and tell no one you are doing it. Work hard at it and reflect on it often in your journal.

Then, when you’ve worked at it, and learned that your passion is not just infatuation with an idea, but a true love for it, only then share it with the world. And if I’ve helped you find your way to it, please let me know, but only after you’ve found your own purpose within it.

Life is too short for regrets, and it can be so much richer than we often let it be. Reach for your passions, experience them, and grasp the ones you keep tight to your chest and never let them go.