ODY: Weeks 14/15. Frantic Talk, Classic Rock.

My account of a mid-life guitar obsession continues. 105 straight days of terrorizing an innocent instrument, and counting. It started on August 21…

I rarely listen to Classic Rock radio stations anymore. It just gets old, quite apart from having to listen to the ads. (In the car, I always have at least two pre-set stations for any form of commercial radio so I can minimize the sell. Easier, of course, to keep locked on CBC/RadioCanada – always something I can listen to one of those four channels – or, occasionally, campus radio where there are wonderful little enclaves of ethnic music.) The classic rock that I want to hear generally doesn’t get played, but the occasional historic blast is fun to hear. Mostly, though, I’m with Watterson.

I still get Bill Watterson’s late lamented Calvin and Hobbes cartoons on-line, and here’s one of the latest. In the first three panels, Calvin is sitting on the floor listening to a portable radio. It bellows, “You’re listening to ‘Boomer 102’, Classic Rock – where we promise not to expose you to anything you haven’t heard a million times before! We’ll get right back to more hits from those high school days when your world stopped… But first, here’s our critic to review the latest movie based on a ‘60s or ‘70s TV show!” In the fourth panel, Calvin walks away from his father’s easy chair with an expression of, what, smouldering rage? Or maybe it’s terminal disappointment etched on his face. Dad: “What’s that look supposed to mean?

I will admit to dipping back into musical nostalgia and “comfort tunes” occasionally. Heck, I was playing my vinyl Chicago VII this morning. (Remember “Wishin’ You Were Here”? Embarrassingly sweet, but this was one of their last albums that still had some meaty rock and roaring, untamed horns.) I’d rather hand-pick my sentimentality than have it served up to me in a pre-digested, sell-the-ad-space format. (I also lecture on Mondays and Thursdays.)

All that is a prologue to this Old Dog’s Guitar Lesson the Last with Kurt, which took me to old Ottawa south in the middle of Week 14. For some reason, I flipped to “The Bear” and found myself listening to John Fogarty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band I’ve been thinking I should revisit. Some simple and good guitar lickin’ for ODY embellishment, and Fogarty is one of the great voices of rock ‘n’ roll. (I can’t play the song yet, but I patrolled Centre Field for major parts of my memory; I’m grateful for Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play…) It had been a pretty soggy month in my part of the world – It’s beginning to look a lot like Climate Change / Everywhere you go… – so no surprise that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” should be playing. It was just slightly spooky that this was one of the songs that Kurt the Guitar Guru skated through on our last evening. All I need to do is get the hang of the regular right-hand muting of every second or third strum, and from there it’s a breeze: it’s a two-chord alternation (G and C), with a turn to D at the end and a ringing E minor as the sonic cherry on the top. I can do that.

We also, in the midst of a quick glance at another muting technique, raced through little ditties that may raise my respect quotient with my own six-year-old Calvin: one of them is that little intro bass plunking of the TV Batman theme, and the other was “Shaken Not Stirred”, the brainless and archetypal Bond-on-the-run theme. What else? Daily Scale Studies, page 35 of the manual. (Do ‘em as much as you can stand!) More Scale Studies, 36. (Do more than you can stand!) Daily Non-Tonal Studies, 37. (These are even less musical than the previous ones, but they are a MUST for getting those fret fingers strong and independent. Go hard!) Blues, 38. (Don’t forget these guys. Memorize the 12-bar and 8-bar blues progressions. You’ll be glad you did!) Basic Chord Progressions, 39. (I know, you’ve had chord pages to work on before, but these are longer and more challenging ones. And look out, kids! Some of them are Actual Songs! See if you can identify ‘em.)

(At this point, I asked the GG how to do that “cheating F” chord, since the regular F is “such a bastard!” So he scribbled the diagram, noted that it was a moveable one – aha! – as is B-flat, by the way, oh, and B-flat minor which becomes C minor just by running up two frets, and take a look at the root note in an F minor and you’ll see that up one fret it’s an F-sharp…So remember, the basic movement through the chords is that changing from one letter to another, like A to B, is usually a two-fret movement, except between E and F and B and C, now, howya going to remember that? Okay, ‘Ernie farts’, ‘Bert collapses’! Okay? It was a bit fast for me, and of course there was way more than I could take in, but the encouraging thing was that it didn’t seem like Ancient Greek anymore. I can’t speak the language yet, but I can understand some of it, at least enough to go back later and teach myself what he said. Which is the GG’s modus guitarandi, anyhow, that and bubbling with enthusiasm for music and unrestrained goofiness.)

Campfire Songs #1, 40. (You’ll be able to figure these out. And I think I can!) Campfire Songs #2, 41. (Ditto.) Rhythmic Studies 1. (Okay, these exercises have every rhythmic figure you can strum, in 2/4 time, anyway. ‘Member the left-hand muting? Well, this is it. Spend a few hundred hours!) “And as for the rest of the pages we didn’t get to,” the GG grinned, “don’t bother with ‘em. They’re too hard!”

All this semi-frantic run-through was just to get us to keep practising like fiends when there is no longer any urgent reason to do so: no more lessons for awhile, and Lord knows there is no outcry for me to play my chaotic rhythms and stumbling chord-changes in public. In another month or so, the GG will be doing Beginner’s Guitar for Adults II, which he promises will be more song-based, but until then we’re on our own again. “Okay,” he said, “thanks for trying, keep on trying, bye!” And off he ran to his next group lesson. I still don’t know any names – no, wait, there was Glenn – but some will be back for BG 2. It might be fun, next time, to actually try to get to know some of these strangers I’m sharing my insecure stabs at learning with…

ODY: Week 11. Cryin’ the Blues

Thanks and congrats to those of you who read all the way through last week’s long and sentimental entry. Even Old Dogs miss their Mums. (And their Dads, too, although that is not news for this wrinkled puppy.) It was another week of plugging along in the OD Year, and although some of my practices weren’t as inspired as I would like, I am fairly astonished to report that I’ve played guitar for 77 (and still counting) consecutive days. (May discipline be contagious: today’s Day 3 of my new stretch ‘n’ strength routine.) And PERISH all thoughts of what I can’t yet do…

I have been thinking about my peculiar way of going about learning to play, which is slow and inside-out. I haven’t been as interested in the quick score, the easy song that I can play and say “Whoo-hoo!”, as I have been with trying to really understand what I’m doing and develop a solid base of skill. I’d like to be more hungry to attempt and master new elements of guitaristry, but I want to win Tortoise Style. My old high school football mentor, Coach Woody, had a dismissive term for those who started fast, pedal-to-metal but couldn’t really sustain their interest and commitment. “Sprinters,” he’d snort. With ankles like mine, speed is no longer an option, so I’ll enjoy this ponderous pace and whatever milestones (hmmm, metre-stones?) I can reach. Eagerly. Son Ben, the IA, has some concerns about my GG’s group teaching method, with its emphasis on learning some of everything over our ten weeks together, giving us enough “so that you can teach yourselves the guitar after we’re done”. The IA is not a fan of this approach. He thinks there’s way too much material, and not enough short-term objectives to reach and be inspired by. I can see that point, and I want to get smarter about really mastering a few fun and recognizable tunes. Still, I like the depth of the foundation I’m getting, and I’m in this for 365. We’ll see.

I heard an interview last week with Dunstan Prial, an American journalist, talking about his 2006 book The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music. I was fascinated, especially by Prial’s description of a 73-year-old, nattily dressed Hammond shuffling to a Carnegie Hall microphone in 1984 to introduce Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. Vaughan, that blazing comet of the blues guitar, was only the most recent discovery and protégé of Hammond, a list that started back in the ‘30s with a black guitarist named Teddy Wilson and a white clarinettist named Benny Goodman. The list went on. Count Basie. Pete Seeger. Aretha Franklin. Bob Dylan. George Benson. Bruce Springsteen… For Prial, Hammond had a brilliant ear, not only for musical genius but for the great social milieu in which it might be heard. And in a business noted for bottom-line, flavour-of-the-month heartlessness, it was intriguing to hear of Springsteen’s gratitude for the warmth and inspiration of Hammond, and his lament that such a culture no longer exists for young artists.

Can’t tell you too much more about the book, but I picked up the Double Trouble recording from Carnegie Hall, and how would you explain this? (How do I?) Hammond introduces the band, bullied to shorten his remarks by an impatient audience. (Even Prial, who was there that night, wondered who IS this old guy?) Then Stevie and the lads launch into “Scuttle Buttin’”, which Prial described as “a lightning storm of circular blues scales played at earsplitting volume”. My throat tightened, my heart raced and my eyes leaked. OH, MY. On the Six Nations Reserve near where I grew up, there is a widespread embrace of the blues. (Aboriginal experience and an identification with the blues! Go figure, eh?) And among a lot of the young men I used to coach and teach, there was a near-worship of Vaughan. Though I’ve always liked the blues guitar, and am a particular fan of the great and tragic Roy Buchanan, I’d never gotten all the way into SRV. I knew about “Pride and Joy”, of course, but hadn’t really heard the licks in a hungry-eared way. But wow. Where’s all that weeping come from? I love the feeling in the blues, the plaintive longing that is so haunting in Roy Buchanan alongside his explosive, note-bending creativity and speed. And perhaps my own learning has helped me understand a little better what these guys are doing, and to know at an intestinal level how much they had to sacrifice, how fiercely they needed to love, in order to be able to Do That Thing. 

And maybe I was choked by the certain knowledge that I will never be able to play like that. I adore skill, dig virtuosity. The democratic note in punk-rock philosophy – hey, anybody can play, and everybody should! – is a fine thing, though it sometimes goes so far as to be perversely snobbish about skill. But I admire excellence and I WANT it, though it chills me blue to be so savagely reminded – but hey, thanks, Stevie Ray, and God bless — how far away I am from it.