The first gig Charlie Dennis ever played on stage was with a Texas Bluesman called Johnny Clyde Copeland. Charlie was 12 years-old at the time and from the way he tells the story, he stood at the back of the stage, playing his guitar as timid as could be. Sometime during the set, Johnny Clyde came back there and grabbed that guitar right out of his hands and says, “Boy, that is not how you play the gi’tar. This here! This is how you play it.” And he commenced to pounding on the strings like he meant every stroke of it. When I asked Charlie what that felt like, playing with somebody like that, so young. Charlie said it was great, but it was so embarrassing to have his guitar pulled out of his hands like that. It was a lesson he’d never forget.
Charlie laughs when he tells the story. Pretty much the same as he laughs when he tells any story about his life in music. Like even a bad day playing is better than a good day not. Besides, is there any better baptism to playing blues guitar than that? Johnny Clyde taught him to trust his guitar. Taught him how to trust himself playing it. What better lessons to learn when you’re only 12 years old? And Johnny did it all without words.
I’m learning to trust me and my guitar a little bit, too, now that I’ve been playing and learning for a few weeks. I’m finally at a point where I don’t have to stare at the strings while I’m playing to make sure they’re where I expect them to be. It’s a damn good feeling, to realize that my fingers know right where to meet them (at least some of the time). It gives me a kind of confidence I never had until now.
Isn’t that the thing with trust? Every single time we learn a lesson about it – whether it’s a new way we trust ourselves, or an old friend we learn to trust in a new way – that feeling can’t help but add to who we are. It adds to the confidence we have in ourselves but also our confidence about where we fit in the world.
There’s something else about Johnny Clyde Copeland; I didn’t think to ask what he meant when he told Charlie, “This is how you play.” Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder if he meant to teach little Charlie Dennis that if you’re gonna do a thing, then DO it. Don’t mess around, just go on. Then once it’s done, so what if it wasn’t quite right? It’s already over, and you always have next to time to do it better.
Maybe those are just my imaginings after watching Johnny play this song called, Flying High. But I wished I’d had a chance to ask him – If you’re gonna do a thing, just go on about it, right Johnny?
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!