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 13. 91/365. LOTSA Time…

Multi-tasking is spectacularly over-rated. Have you ever talked to someone who was answering e-mail or Black-buried while (allegedly) listening? Can you (should you) multi-task while making love, meditating, reading or doing any of the most important things? Have you noticed how badly people (not you, of course) drive while they eat or plan or do their nails or change their clothes? Heck, I can’t even have an intelligent conversation with any of my passengers without forgetting where I’m taking them. I’m trying to learn to do dishes while I talk on the kitchen phone, but anything much beyond that is just doing several things poorly. 

Still, I’m learning to multi-task my way through the drudgery of practice and half-baked melody-making. (WHY? Because I’m on the road to Mid-Life Guitar Glory, that’s why! The story started back here, if you’re interested.) To avoid leaving practice until the end of a brain-dead day, and to build my endurance of endless repetition, I’m learning (slowly) to combine it with other things. Eldest son, the Itinerant Artist, renewed his nagging this past weekend. “Pick some song you like, and figure out something to play along with it. PLAY! It could be a guitar lead, or any lead. It could be some little bass riff that you can hit an octave higher on the acoustic. Doesn’t matter. Find a backing band!” Well, IA, I do like that “backing band” idea. James Howden and the Chicago Horns.  James Howden and the Radiohead Orchestra. James Howden and Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now. (Well, pretty soon, anyway.)

This past week, my backing bands were radio broadcasts: from ethicist Margaret Somerville giving the Massey Lectures, to the Ottawa Senators trying to remember how to win. Hockey play-by-play is a rhythm I’ve heard so many times that it goes down easy, without taking too many brain cells hostage. And I convinced myself not to worry about catching every nuance of Somerville’s The Ethical Imagination because I’m planning to read the book anyway. Still, I felt the stunned silence in her live audience in hearing some of the medical dilemmas that she threw at them. Cyborgs and chimeras and clones, oh my! What is a human being? Is that different than humans doing? But I was serene. Damn the ethical torpedos; I just played, and heard what I could. I couldn’t summarize the talk, and I didn’t learn anything new on the strings, but I did get some routine rehearsal done.

KW, the Guitar Guru, was in good form this week. For part of our lesson, he was out of the left-arm cast he’s been wearing since he severed tendons in his hand doing home renovations. (I’ll bet he was multi-tasking at the time.) He wears a removeable cast, and is beginning the slow business of learning to use his hand again. For a professional player and all-round GG like Kurt, it must be agonizing to be unable to play. (“It’s only, oh, 35 years since I’ve been away from the guitar for this long.”) And it’ll be a long road back to playing like he’s used to; gosh, he’ll have to start from tender-fingered scratch and rebuild his calluses, not to mention those knuckle-busting stretches and changes. Ouch. We’re roughly of an age, though, and I like his chances of getting his guitar chops back FAR more than mine of ever making a decent crossover dribble again! (Be careful with crossover dribbles — the ankles you break may be your own!) Still, those guitars and those dedicated hours are things he has loved and lived by, and it must be driving him nuts to be without them. (Beware of linoleum cutters.)

The GG was sharp this week. Hearing evidence of the one thing I’ve learned to do fairly well – some finger-picking sequences – he went into Radio Voice. “According to a British study, finger-picking guitar players have a 40% lower chance of dying from a heart attack…” Ah. Those famous Studies and what they Show. He didn’t go on too long, though, because there isn’t much time left. (He’s been loading us with content for the last couple of weeks.) I was pissed by my utter inability to make a chord change while pick-strumming a waltz beat (accompanying “On Top of Old Smokey”) or a dreary polka (behind “Skip to My Lou”.) And how many times has the GG had to listen to this lumbering collection of missed notes and half-breed chords? It’s goofiness that gets him (and us) through. While we plucked and strummed, he sang the lead in various voices and accents and alternative lyrics.  Any antidote to boredom (his, after 25 years of teaching) and frustration (ours, after nine weeks of inch-worm progress).

For the last two sessions, the GG has been showing signs of an archetypal teacher sentiment that I know by heart: how the hell am I going to get through everything I planned to cover? This is accompanied, unfailingly, by the ethical question: was the (slightly) slowed progress worth the laughs, the stories and the peeks inside this new world? It was for me; I was fascinated, always, to hear musician stories: the GG’s own, but also those about Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer (“it’s the BIBLE of percussion”); of Jaco Pastorius’s brilliant bass-playing and coke-addled end; of the Bulgarian Ivo Papasov, “the world’s greatest clarinet player”, and a reminder of the astonishing Bulgarian National Women’s Choir; and, this week, an urgent polemic on “the real inventors of rock ‘n’ roll [Louis Jordan and Mickey Baker], not Chuck Berry, the big goof”. I’m hungry to better know this world, and I don’t mind a story or three, especially when my fingers are all tangled up in blue anyway.

And this knocks me out: in the midst of eight rookies flailing away in a small room at a barely recognizable something-or-other, Kurt the GG reached over and gave a quick twist to the tuning peg for my low E string. He arched an eyebrow, I played the string, he nodded.

     “Holy cats! What an ear, Herr Walther!”
“Well,” he replied, “I only have one hand, so I guess I’d better be able to hear!”
“So, keep the knives away from your ears, then, Vincent!”

We’re all getting to know each other a little better, though I know only Glenn by name. We all laugh more and louder now, and feel more free to commiserate with each other and to admire the quiet woman in the back row who is playing all of us right off the island. A little ease was welcome, because I felt like adding Guitar Throw to the Olympic field event roster. Arggh. I hadn’t gotten ahead far enough to look at the new material, so I felt Dumb AND Dumber. I couldn’t even follow the very minimal (but rather hurried) instruction. I thought for sure that I’d be sent immediately to what was called, in my antiquated grade school days, the Opportunity Class.

I’m daunted by the material we’ve been given in this Beginner’s Guitar class, although the GG constantly reassures us (“Okay, there are relative degrees of success there!” he’ll smile after an utterly bungled sequence. “You are floating in a sea of calm,” he intoned this week when we muttered anxiously after a quick set of instructions. And then, as usual, he’d laugh. “That’s a sea of calm, not a sea of qualms.”) I found out this week that Beginner’s Guitar, Session Two (“Faster and Furiouser!”) will resume at the Ottawa Folklore Centre after we have a month off to digest Kurt the First. I think I’ll continue. “There will be more songs and cool stuff,” KW the GG assures us.

So I mostly feel good about my work on the most boring of exercises. I do, that is, until I do the math: last night, playing to the ebb and flow of another hockey game on the radio (Go, Sens, Go!), was my NINETY-SECOND STRAIGHT DAY of doing things to my guitar. (Stay, Gordon, Stay!) Working hard on chord changes, I am, but also working on the over-numerous but slightly-less-boring songs that use ‘em. Ah. Method to the GG’s madness. One night, though tired, I played for nearly an hour ‘cause I got seriously into “Skip to My Lou” and “Old Smokey”, yes, in four different keys! And I belatedly got to page 39 of the GG’s guitar manual, and realized that it won’t be all that mysterious once I spend an hour or so on it.


ODY: Week 9. Weak, Overwhelm, Werner.

In the landscape of a week’s weak learning, it was flatlands all the way to a horizon that seemed impossibly far for an Old Dog. (All filled up with dreams of competence, not a tree or a fire hydrant of achievement in sight.) There wouldn’t have been much to say, except that two conversations stood out like lonesome grain elevators on Saskatchewan prairie, outposts of interest in a flat but faithful week of practice.

First, let me tell you about the plain. I’m more comfortable admitting that I’m learning to play guitar and letting Gordie take my fingers for a walk where someone might actually hear us. Chord changes still freeze me, though at least once this week I hit the C chord without looking or hesitating. Or thinking. (Not thinking comes nearly as hard for me as thinking clearly. That grey gunk inside my skull is always quivering madly off in all directions.) Nearly halfway through the week, lesson night with KW the Guitar Guy brought four new finger-picking patterns for songs that also added 5 or 6 more chords with complicated names. More chords?!?

We have one of the GG’s own pieces, “Study in E”. It suggests a pleasant little finger sequence – thumb on the low E, then fingers 1, 2 and 3 tickling down to the G string. T 1 2 3, T 1 2 3. Nice! I can do that! But the chords? They start easily enough with an E, but then we jump to an A 6-9 over E (a what?), then an E major 7th, then an E 7th, back to A 6-9/E, then to an A minor 6-9/E (are you kidding me?), back to a simple E and finish with something called an “E suspended 4th” (E sus 4). What the -? I scribbled down the chord diagrams that Kurt had chalked out for us, despairing that soon he’d be chalking my body outline on the floor. Then I breathed. Then I looked at the diagrams, and a dim bulb began to glow over my head. The dreaded A 6-9/E is the same basic shape as E, just spread out and a fret higher. The E major 7th that follows is precisely the same, except two more frets up. E7 and the doubly dreaded Am 6-9/E also have the same shape. And the last transition, from E to Esus4, is a one-fret finger-one adjustment. Hosanna! Weird and complex as they seem, they fit together more easily than I can go from G to C or A to D or, especially, B7 to or from friggin’ anything. (But I love the sound of B7, and can always tell when I’ve hit it right without checking my fingers. And when I get there, I don’t want to leave.) Not only that, but “Study in E” is written such that any picking pattern will sound good. You’ll be hearing it on your radio any day now.

So much for the lone prairie. The first silo, landmark number one, was a conversation with Pejman, who had just moved in to our part of the city. At a community meeting, he volunteered to put together a program for a holy day commemoration. (The birth of the Báb, if you’re keeping score at home.) Right away, he had a rough question for me. “So, who are the musicians in the room? I want some music for Thursday.” I thought, maybejustmaybe I could do some Travis picking as background to a reading, but those changes are so clumsy and it’s only three days away… Yikes. My answer? “Um, ah, well, you know about Daniel’s singing, and you heard Amir on the piano tonight, but other than that, well, can’t really think of anybody. Nope.” Well, I missed a perfect blushing opportunity there. Pej’s probing pulled Farzad and his guitar out of the bushes, though, and so Pachelbel’s “Canon” sweetened our celebration. (Can’t believe my Iranian brother beat me to the punch, but he is quite a way ahead of me. For now...) I was also abashed by young Sarah’s courage, wading through a difficult piece on an unfamiliar keyboard. Must. Embrace. Next. Chance.

Second conversational signpost? The Itinerant Artist, my number one son, phoned about mid-week, and the talk turned inevitably to the Old Dog Year of musical education. Change. Transformation. Transition. My struggles to get from one chord to another – and to resist making that change until I have the chord perfect – are obvious analogues to the bigger adjustments that you or I or anybody might be making. And so the IA had a suggestion. “Let me tell you about the triangle. Have I told you about the learning triangle? No? Well, it comes from Werner, and it goes like this. There are three aspects to mastering a song: being able to play it PERFECTLY, AT TEMPO and from BEGINNING TO END. The thing is, when you’re learning the thing, the best you can do is two out of three, and at first you probably can’t do any of them. So pick a section, and play it slowly ‘til it’s right. SLOWLY. This was a hard one for me to learn at McGill, but it’s so useful.” The IA was a jazz performance student at Montreal’s McGill University. Trombone. (He’s also a fine guitar and bass player, and a decent drummer.) He was referring to musical concepts in a book called Effortless Mastery by the great jazz pianist Kenny Werner. When the need is clear, the book will appear. Gotta get it.

Do a section as slowly as I need to do it well. Do it with a steady rhythm, even if it’s a laughably slow one. Do it until it’s right. Do it perfectly until it’s at a good tempo. Then do it together with the other chunks until I can complete the triangle: Perfectly. At tempo. Beginning to end. My whole life has been about learning, and now I’m learning more about how to learn. It’s all so new and all so familiar. 63 days and counting.

ODY: Week 8 (56/365). The Whole Fam-Damily.

I began the week with reflections on a family reunion. We’d booked a room in the seniors’ home where my sweetly declining Mum is glowing out her days. I made a grander-than-usual entrance because I was carrying a guitar case, which got the attention of the nieces and nephews. Lots of questions. (Mine: “What, you’re not reading my site?! You obviously need to get rid of your life – of course I’m playing the guitar!”) And yes, eventually, flushed of face and nervous as a 16-year-old knocking at the door with a corsage in hand, I played a little where people I know and love could actually hear me. I played clumsily and it didn’t matter a bit.

There was never live music at family gatherings when I was a kid. There wasn’t music, period. Neither our parents nor any of the five kids played at all. The next generation has done better. My children are the fathers of this man’s music-making. My sister married a quiet and stubborn man who taught himself to play guitar, and their girls play piano and more. Now there’s a son-in-law in the mix, a live-wire entrepreneur, guitarist and sometime recording engineer, and Jer was all over me. (He was like Dave the TVPI, my son and first teacher, except with Mediterranean hairiness and more manic energy.) He was very encouraging, and had WAY too much stuff he wanted to show me. (I hadn’t known how well he played.) This all let me off the hook of actually having to play for him, which was way too fine with me, but I did learn some interesting little twists on the G and D chords, as well as other stuff that may resurface sometime down the road. (I’ve already forgotten. Indigestion of the mental kind.) I have so much to learn, and it was fun to learn with a newly-minted nephew.

Quietly, in the background as he so often is, was Silent Paul, my brother-in-law. It has sometimes seemed that we didn’t have a lot in common. Our professional collars are of a different colour and our world-views sometimes far apart. If I am words and ideas, he is hands and things. But as the years pass, we find each other more and more when the clan gathers. (I admit that he annoys me mightily with that flat belly of his, but he has good qualities, too.) Later that day, he sidled up to me as we were about to hit the homeward road. “Keep pickin’ and grinnin’,” he said. A noble, quiet man says a lot with a little, and among all the reasons for enjoying playing the guitar, here’s another. It’s sweet to share a common cause with a brother. We sometimes run together when I’m down home, and now we have another avenue of DOING that we can share. Paul’s friendly and kind, but not much for sitting around and talking. He runs a huge crane in a steel mill. He works on his own car, restores antiques, installs his own hardwood floors. He envies my letter-writing, but I would like to have built a house and home like he has. Now we have a new thing that we can do together. It’ll be fun to learn with him, too, and I have another motivational deadline. I want to be a lot better by the next family gathering.

Back home, my next lesson was a slap in the head. I felt out of it. I couldn’t keep up with the chord changes that every one of my eight fellow bumblers seemed to be doing far better than me. Guru Kurt said the kindest thing: “Chord changes are the WORST. Nothing will bring out the I SUCK! in you better than them.” The whole week was a real plateau time where I couldn’t see much sign of progress. Some of this, my occasionally rational mind tells me, is because of Kurt’s method, or at least my response to it. I’m trying to learn many chords and techniques and note reading and rhythm reading all at the same time. He says that he wants to give us, in this eight-week group lesson, everything that we need to know to teach ourselves the guitar. He gives us a lot, assuming that we won’t be able to absorb it or quite keep up, but the plan is that we’ll have habits and a strong set of materials to keep on plucking after the course is done. Beyond that, though, I also have to hammer away at the repetitive strain of going from G to C, C to D, D to A (and on and on) over and over and over again. (“But play songs! Make up stuff! Have fun!” insists the TVPI by phone. There’s a balance.)

My final family lesson of the week came from the six-year-old. Sam has adopted the old broken-necked Dégas as his own. He keeps it simple. He started by holding it upside-down and playing left-handed; I might’ve left him that way, but he’s very clearly a right-dominant boy. I showed him how to hold a pick, and where his left hand might go (he didn’t care for much detail), and then he whaled (and wailed) away. I listened furtively while he composed his first song, strumming the same non-chord and singing the same flat and sweet little melody for every line, no matter how long it was. I’m a Dad. I found it brilliant:

I was alive since 2000 / I was alive since 2000 / Most of my friends weren’t even born / Thomas wasn’t born ‘til October / But I was born on April 6th / And I didn’t know them when I was a baby / But I didn’t even care if they were babies in their mommies’ tummies / ‘Cause I didn’t even have friends yet / But we lived next door to McDonald’s / And we were pretty close to a play structure…”

The next song in his repertoire involved more aggressive punching of the strings, while the lyrics came from the latest number-one-with-a-bullet grade 1 schoolyard song. (The part I don’t get is that he goes to a French school. As Ottawa’s francophone parents say, we have to promote and protect le français. In a city like ours, even kids who speak only French at home can pick up English like they do a cold.) And here’s how it goes. It starts off with an echo of Queen’s ever-present “We Will Rock You”, and then wanders into the ancient rhythms of nearly all the chants that every kid learns on every playground.

We will, we will, you know what? Kick your butt!
All the way to Pizza Hut!
I don’t care if you dare,
But don’t forget your underwear!


Words to live by, and an I can do it spirit to learn by, too. Thanks, little buddy.

ODY: Week 7. Of Dogs and Six-Strings.

It’s a fun stage in the Old Dog Year, having now spent a first full week with my new guitar. The chords that have sounded so discouragingly now ring, when I can get my fingers organized, with an undeniable sweetness. When I bought the Walden, I also asked about how to get hold of the guru, KW. I’d missed the second lesson, and wanted to know what I should work on. Guitar Guy just laughed. “You can’t get hold of Kurt.” Oh. The Guy had some good words, too. The advice: repetition, repetition, repetition. “When you’re watching TV, listening to radio, talking to people, just play simple stuff. Over and over. Brainless. Just let your fingers learn by doing it over and over. That’s it.”

My old boss has a book out, and in it she talks about a life-long affection for opera. Radio 2 had an interview with her the next day, where the talk was all music. So I took up the Guy on his suggestion, flipped on my bedside radio, grabbed the Walden and played A Blues Riff and Travis Picking and a few quiet chords, which is how I found myself accompanying Maria Callas from a 1951 recording of La Traviata, as well as a really swell tenor (I forget) doing an aria from La Bohème. (I don’t understand the lyrics, but I was flushed with pride that I actually recognized the aria. Yay, me!) Then Cohen. Then Lightfoot. My noodling had sounded better beside operatic singing than it did as an accompaniment to Gordon’s guitar. Sigh.

Then the next day, in the midst of a long conversation with The Big Guy (son number 2, on a surprise visit, not to be confused with the Guy), I called time-out, thought Where’s Walden?, grabbed my new best friend from the basement, and noodled some more while we yacked and yacked. Who says I can’t multi-task? Normally, I can’t keep doing dishes while talking on the phone. I can’t eat and think at the same time. But this seemed to work okay. Gotta listen when young men decide it’s time to talk.

On lesson night, KW the guitar guru showed up with his left hand encased in plaster, having severed a finger tendon doing home repair. The anaesthetic was wearing off, the painkillers were kicking in, but he was there. His eyes were crossed by the end, but his humour was intact. His planned lesson was a little frayed around the edges, though. He has eyes and a mouth painted over the curved end where cast holds the fingers, so his left hand can gesture and cajole like a ventriloquist’s dummy. It can’t do chord changes, of course, but neither can THIS dummy. I felt lost. I am no star in this group of beginners. (Fabulous. Another vain imagining cast aside.) Most of the rest have music experience – piano, sax, trumpet – and so the theory and the reading must be as boring for them as it is nervous-making for me.

My musical education came largely in Mr. Danton’s class on rotary in grades 5 and 6. I didn’t pay much attention, though my eyes got wide when he played “Sweet Georgia Brown” on the piano. He was a painfully shy man, but his mild, Clark Kent exterior sprung holes when he got at the keyboard. (He tried to contain himself, but really couldn’t. Loved that.). Oh, yes, and there was a month, way back when, with a grade 1 piano book. One lonely year of renewed bachelorhood, I lived in a small apartment off my sister’s house, where there was a grandmother’s piano and a bench full of conservatory books. I attacked it solo. I played for nobody. I lasted for a hardworking while, and so staffs and clefs and quarter notes look vaguely familiar to me. But I have so much to (re)learn. Chord changes. Chord changes. Cripes, I’ve always been a bit resistant to change, but this is ridiculous. I tend to labour away at one chord ‘til it’s clean. Then I stop. Then I do it again, on that or another chord. The transition between them, though, is so friggin’ awkward and muddy. I hate that pause, that waiting zone, “for people just waiting”, as Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) once wrote. 

After my lesson, I was down to the International Writers Festival, where the last session of the evening featured three songwriters, playing and talking and laughing about their work. (Jim Bryson is an odd, interesting and very witty performer I’d never heard of; Lynn Miles has a dark and soulful groove that she mines; and oh my, Oh Susanna  – not her real name – was a revelation to me, a great big voice and a quirky but substantial way of writing. I had fun.) I watch musicians a little differently now that I have a little clearer idea of what a guitarist does. Afterward, there was a particular treat.

I’d heard of Six String Nation  before. It’s one man’s quest to unite his country through the instrumentality of a guitar built from sea to sea to sea. Actually, it was built in Nova Scotia, but its materials come from a representative sample of the Canadian dream. Its wood comes from a Haida-Gwaii albino spruce, a Wayne Gretzky hockey stick and the schooner Bluenose. It contains copper from the roof of Parliament, a piece of Rocket Richard’s 1956 Stanley Cup ring, and a chunk of mammoth ivory, 60 bits of our history and geography. Jowi Taylor, the crazy guy behind this sweetly insane idea, has toured all over with the (as yet unnamed) Six String Nation guitar, and it has been played by all the great Canucks – Colin James, Bryan Adams, dozens of others. It has now also had a silly little blues line played more than awkwardly by Yours Truly. (I’ve never played standing up before.) A bunch of us lined up after the songwriters’ show to be photographed with this lovely little machine, and to make our suggestions for its name. (I’ve selected the archetypal Canadian name GORDON: think Gordie Howe, yes, but especially think Gordon Lightfoot, and maybe Gord Downie from The Tragically Hip, or even the name of the Barenaked Ladies’ breakout album, but don’t think about that goofy beaver in the Bell ads. GORDON isn’t as bicultural as I’d like, but it ain’t bad.). I got home very late, but I felt inspired to play ‘til much later in my own wee six-string neighbourhood.)

I began to notice, over the next couple of nights, that the Walden was wildly out of tune, but I couldn’t be bothered learning how to use my new electronic tuner because I was getting to the practice chair so darned late at night, and the Old Dog needs more beauty rest than you can imagine. The E and G chords were especially bad because my remarkable ear had begun to register that the low E string was brutally off. Travis Picking sounded terrible, but the movement and the rhythm are coming along. Nice!

On the road for weekend family visits, I released Wally from captivity in the forenoon. (It may be a “morning guitar”. And after my earlier vaguely erotic writing about my first moments with “her”, it may turn out to be a guy. Oops!) Looking out over a perfect little lake at Mother Margery’s, I figured out first how to use the tuner. (It works best with the batteries in it.) I twisted my very own machine heads for the first time! (Machine Head. Wasn’t that the name of a testosterone-friendly band in the 70s? Gosh, men are funny. What, didja think we were gonna call ourselves The Tuning Knobs?!) And MAN did the chords sound sweet. Read some rhythms (need to spend lots of time on the reading), played for over an hour. This is what I need this is what I need this is what I need… 49 days in a row. Only 316 to go in the daily company of my as-yet unnamed friend. Um, Walden? Waldo? Wally? (Wanda?) Or maybe even Gordon…