Saturday, December 5, 2009

Full-Circle Guitar

I got my first guitar when I was nine years old. It was a $25 acoustic cheapie, made with with woody-looking plastic. Or maybe it was plasticy-looking wood.

The instruction book tutored by way of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” and “The Streets of Laredo.” I later found that the fingerings the book demonstrated were needlessly difficult for a beginner, like a G chord that required splitting one’s ring finger and pinky across five strings. At the time, I had grave concerns about the physical impossibility of such things. But I persisted, driven by an urge to somehow make sounds like I heard on KISS Alive.

A few years earlier, a babysitter inadvertently introduced me to KISS Alive. It was a two-record set of bombast that I didn’t understand but instinctively liked. I didn’t realize the band had the makeup-wearing, fire-breathing shtick until later. I just remember being drawn to the big, distorted guitar sound.

The closest thing my parents’ record collection had to the KISS guitar sound was the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the first few seconds of which dangled a morsel of that distorted guitar. I played it again and again, not bothering with the rest of the song.

At some later point, my parents reluctantly sanctioned the purchase of KISS Alive, on sale for $4.99. And yet later came the cheapie guitar.

Somehow I taught myself to play the cheapie well enough that my parents indulged me what I really wanted, an electric guitar. It was a no-name Les Paul copy, a budget knock-off of the legendary model used by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and The Who’s Pete Townshend, not to mention KISS’s Ace Frehely. It came with an amplifier modestly larger than a loaf of Wonder bread. Turned all the way up, helped along by a distortion pedal, the dwarf amp—its brand name was in fact Dwarf—could achieve a junior version of that big guitar sound.

I and some like-minded sixth-graders were in a band that went by many names. A parade of names was inevitable because we spent at least as much time contemplating band names and logos as we did playing music. The name that stuck longest was Zodiac. The logo projected the bottom of the Z under the rest of the letters, terminating with an arrow. It was a classic kid thing, that logo: We took forever creating it, only to end up with a minor variation of The Who’s logo circa 1965.

Our one gig was a Halloween party in 1979. As aspiring crowd-pleasers, we attempted the hit of the moment, The Knack’s “My Sharona.” It was an easy song to play except for the guitar solo, which was almost two minutes long. I could only play the first 15 seconds, so I just repeated that snippet with increasing fervor. The audience, fellow sixth-graders plus siblings, gave it a polite A for effort.

By this time I had gone beyond KISS, graduating to what today would be called classic rock: The Stones, The Beatles, The Who. Although less of the big-guitar sound was required, we’d nevertheless find occasions for heavy power chords, as with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”: Imagine a prepubescent singer yelping about “teenage wasteland” while guitar and drums rendered the song’s signature riff in rickety blasts. Despite wreaking havoc on the details, it got an essential something right.

Thinking back, I don’t remember anyone wanting to be a rock star. There was no master plan for fame and fortune. The planning horizon was more like, “Let’s play ‘Barbara Ann’ for thirty minutes, then the last one to the swimming pool has to be Marco in Marco Polo!” There ensued much duck-walking, jumping off chairs, and other theatrics to accompany thirty minutes’ worth of the same three chords.

Through junior high and high school, such jam sessions continued in a slightly more mature manner, with an evolving group of friends. Along the way I ended up with a real electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, and a decent amp. I got good enough that most people would come away impressed with my chops. However, I had enough encounters with real musicians that I knew I wasn’t in their league. Those guys loved music, but it was also their job, and I didn’t want that. So music remained a hobby for me.

In college my interests evolved from band jams to electronic music and studio recording. Although I still used the guitar, the center of gravity had migrated to computers and the studio itself as instruments. For variety, I rotated through a few obscure guitar species like an electric 12-string, a fretless bass, and a guitar synthesizer. I also contributed goofball guitar licks to a series of home-recording adventures undertaken by my college housemates and me, wherein various styles of music were plundered for laughs.

But after joining the working world, and especially the start-up world, time for making music evaporated. My gear found its way to friends or was sold. These days, all I have is a single acoustic guitar, a better version of the long-gone cheapie. I’ll occasionally pull it out if I can think of something that might make my three-year-old daughter smile. Usually, that’s something closer to “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” than anything I later played. It’s an oddly fulfilling way to come full circle. Maybe as she gets older, there will be another loop around.

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