Coming out as a guitar player

August 8, 2010

I’ve heard that it’s common for men who turn fifty to go out and buy themselves a drum set. Some call it a midlife crisis. I say it’s never too late to rock n roll. And I prefer to call it it a midlife exuberance, in fact I’ve had several so far and am having another one this summer.

A few weeks ago we went to the Hollywood Bowl and heard three different groups that featured acoustic guitars and a male-female singer-songwriter duos (Swell Season, She and Him, The Bird and the Bee). I was amazed that I liked all three groups and their songs as well. But most resonant with me that evening was the thrilling and vibrant sounds of the acoustic guitars.

As I’ve mentioned below, my parents bought me my first guitar in 1965. My second one was an Eko acoustic 12-string guitar that I bought with money from my paper route (delivering the Milwaukee Journal in Green Bay, Wisconsin). In high school, my various rock bands brought in some income, and I put whatever money I made back into getting new guitars. I purchased my last guitar in 1970–a Gibson Dove. I have had it ever since. In 1973, I stopped playing the guitar a spent all my energy learning to play the piano. I wanted more notes. And, after too many nights of playing music in bars, and too many nights of playing manic Bluegrass rhythm guitar (using only four chords), I realized that that kind of musician path was not one I was interested in. After falling in love with Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, I turned my back on the instrument I played between 13 and 21.

I suddenly realized that people would kill to have the guitar technique that I do, and know the songs that I know. And I had decided to let that skill and knowledge go to sleep. Until a few weeks ago.

HD28I decided to buy a new guitar. As musicians all know, when you get a new instrument, it brings out the musician in you, and you play and play and play. Music just pours out. Well, that’s what I’ve been doing. All the technique that I haven’t used since the early 1970s came back. That’s amazing. My callouses have slowly come back. Last week, Kenny Burrell, who was thrilled to hear that I had taken up the guitar again, gave me advice on building up callouses: “When your fingers hurt, stop playing.” A wise man.

So although I am revisiting all the old songs I knew from the 60s and 70s, I’m learning a lot of new songs as well. I’ve put together a huge playlist that I’ll play along with and I’ll just play along with whatever Daniel is listening to, or what is being watched on TV or on a movie. Having to do lightning-quick retuning in between songs is a technique I’d forgotten, but my ear is good as ever.

This experience has been a familiar one, almost like “coming out.” I’ve come out as a tonal composer; I’ve come out as a gay man; and now I’ve come out as a guitar player.

I never knew that I was in the closet as a guitarist until I found that no matter who I told that I’d just bought a new guitar, they ALL had no idea I ever played the guitar. Was I embarrassed to be a guitar player? As a CLASSICAL COMPOSER/guitarist? Jeepers, only Berlioz was that. But lo and behold, I found an embarrassment in the closet (literally) and it is now out and ready to be seen and played.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mark Carlson August 8, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Wonderful! I always knew you had played guitar, but I never understood until you bought your new one that you had stopped playing so absolutely for all of these years. I’m so glad you have reconnected with it!

It’s interesting to me that your chops are coming back so easily. I wonder if things we learn as teenagers just stick with us more easily than things learned later. When I was in Germany a few years ago, though I couldn’t converse with people, certain words and phrases just came back as if out of thin air, though I had only studied German in high school and college. Similarly, when I was preparing to play the Griffes Poem in 1999, a piece I had never performed but had learned while in high school in about 1967 (and never played since), it just came back! Amazing how we work.

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