Playin’ the Gi’tar

Roadmap

You might think that starting guitar lessons at age 50 is a little frivolous. Like, maybe I sound like someone who has way too much time on her hands. But you would be wrong.

I haven’t played a musical instrument since I was seven years-old. My instrument of choice was a violin back then. I wasn’t very good at it and I have no recollection as to why, at age seven, I chose to play the violin. It seems like an odd choice, but there it is. I suppose I’ve always been a little weird.

I can’t say that I missed playing an instrument all those years, but now that I have a new one in my hands every day? I’m loving the experience. And as I always do, I’m (re)learning a few life lessons that are good to remember.

Let me start out by saying, I met the man who’s teaching me to play guitar at a club here in Las Vegas called the E-String Bar and Grille. He plays there every Thursday night. The crowd is usually pretty thin, but any crowd would be after playing, like he did, to stadium crowds all over the world with B. B. King.

My teacher is Charlie (Tuna) Dennis, and he’s been playing guitar for almost 60 years. His pinkie finger knows more about playing blues guitar than some blues guitar players will learn in a lifetime. Let me tell you what, he’s got the callouses to prove it. Long story short, I’m pretty thrilled about learning from a master.

But back to those life lessons. It’s pretty interesting, how that part is happening, because it’s totally by accident. Whether Charlie spouts out an amazing one liner, or something occurs to me while I’m practicing every morning, the lessons come. I thought you might like to know them, too:

Lesson #1: The simple things in life are most difficult.

I started off my first lesson with thirty minutes of strumming the low E string. Just strumming it with my thumb. Trying to hit it consistently hard and in time with the tapping of Charlie’s shoe. It seems like a simple thing to do, but that’s the thing. Simple is usually the hardest way to do something; anything. That’s probably why we tend to complicate everything – to hide the flaws. And if you don’t believe that simple is hardest? Go get a piece of paper and a pencil out of the drawer, then try to draw a perfectly round circle. Go ahead, I’ll wait…….. (tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-). See? It’s really hard, right?

Lesson learned? Even though simple is hardest, it’s definitely worth the effort. There’s nothing more elegant and satisfying on a deep and soulful level.

Lesson #2: It’s all about the timing.

Timing in guitar playing isn’t just about striking the string with one hand. You also have to mash it down (Charlie’s term) with the other. If you mash the string down too early, you get this dull thud of a sound instead of the beautiful vibration you’re wanting out of the string. That sound feels embarrassing, or it does to me, anyway. Take your time, Charlie says, over and over. And I try hard not to rush, but that’s harder than it sounds, too. You got to get that timing right.

My fiance? I’ve known him since we were in junior high school together. We’re 50 now and finally our timing is right. It’s funny, though, when we talk about how things used to be, in the decades we spent apart. It’s downright jarring how different our lives were. And I always come back to the same thought – If we had been together years ago, we never would have made it as a couple. Our relationship would have ended in a big, dull thud. And just for the record, I’m incredibly glad that didn’t happen.

Lesson #3: Perfect comes later.

Or, at least, as perfect as you’re ever gonna get. Charlie sat listening to me strum out the notes to a very simple tune, meant to strengthen and coordinate my fingers properly, for a whole hour that first lesson. He never once got frustrated with me. Though, when he played alongside me, I heard just how clumsy I was. He kept saying Right or Perfect any time I would hit a single, nice-sounding note. Why is that? Because perfect never comes right away. Practicing over and over, that’s how you get to perfect.

This is a lesson I feel like we’re forgetting here in the 21st Century. We expect our politicians, our parents, our children, school students, doctors, engineers – we expect all of us to be perfect every single day, all the time. But we’ll never be that. We can only keep trying to reach closer and closer towards it. Baby steps, or giant leaps, or single guitar strokes at a time, one after the other, practiced every day.

Who wants to be perfect the first time anyway? I mean, sure, that would be much less frustrating, but eww. How boring! Imperfection is where innovation comes from. It’s where real meaning and beauty lies. Mistakes are the place where we can all come together and say, YES, I’ve been there. I feel your pain. And we could all do with a little compassion every now and again, now couldn’t we?

Lesson #4: There should always be more than one way to get where you’re going.

Charlie’s great for one-liners. During our first lesson, we were talking about how some musicians only know how to play by ear. You know the ones; they never learned how to read sheet music. Sure enough they’re talented – B.B. King played by ear, and so did Eddie Van Halen, right? But Charlie’s point was, if you can only play by ear, you only have one way to play. A song is like driving from Point A to Point B. If you can’t read a sheet of music, you only have one road to travel on. But if you can read music, well, you can go all different ways! Charlie says, Music is a roadmap. If you know how to read the map, then there are almost an infinite number of ways to get from one place to another, right?

The catch is, you gotta do your homework. You got to put in your time. You need to make a commitment. To learn. To do.

And to think! I learned all that in just my first week as a guitar player.

What’s coming next for me with these lessons? Who knows, except for sure some callouses on my fingertips, hours with Charlie Dennis and his patient encouragement, and hopefully one of these days I will strum that low E string and it’ll sound pretty good. To end this thing, though, this mini literary jaunt, I have just one more thing to add: Whatever it is that’s coming next, I’m ready for it!

4 Comments

  1. Reply
    Steve Grodkiewicz February 5, 2016

    It makes me incredibly happy that this is all taking place. I obviously love Becky and I do so love my man Charlie Tuna. It is the best possible scenario for these two to have this relationship. A great writer learning wonderful music from a great storyteller, two beautiful spirits collaborating. Charlies life story will be written as it deserves to be and Becky will learn far more that she bargained for while gaining a great friend for life.

    • Reply
      Becky February 5, 2016

      And none of it would have happened without you, Steve. I am so darn lucky <3

  2. Reply
    Tammy Ramsey February 5, 2016

    That was so beautiful! It makes me long to be on your shoes as well as pick up the guitar again. I love the deeper meaning throughout! You are a wonderful writer who seems to grow with each story.

    • Reply
      Becky February 5, 2016

      Thanks, Tammy! I know how fortunate I am and I can only hope my playing and my writing both continue to improve. Thanks for your friendship <3

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