Column: [Can't Make A Living] – How I Learned to Play Guitar, or Music and Authenticity
In my opinion, music is magic. It is the only worldly thing that acts as a gateway to transcendence. It is my passion and my therapy. It is part of who I am.
In researching The Big Why, I asked a few musician friends why they do what they do. I got a lot of different answers: for some people it’s mostly a social thing (they enjoy the company), for others it’s about self expression (they like to “rock out”). Most people say they do it “because they love it”. But what does that mean? I think all these feelings/intuitions are closely related.
In the previous six installments I have expressed my personal opinion about why I make music. It’s taken this many installments because my answer is multifaceted. For me there are three major projects in music: A) finding your audience B) creating your message and C) finding yourself. This installment is about the last bit – “finding yourself” – or to be fancy: personal authenticity.
This is my last (and most personal) installment concerning The Big Why – at least for a while. Future columns will deal with less lofty things, but I thought it important for you to know where I’m coming from generally – and what better way to convey that than by justifying why I even do this in the first place?
When I was a kid I used to get high. I didn’t know it then, but life experience has taught me that that’s what it was. Music was my drug. I would lay in bed, with the stereo down low or the headphones on, listening to the FM radio and I would drift away – not to sleep, but somewhere else. If the tune were right I would get chills down my spine. Sometimes I would imagine scenarios to accompany the music – like mental music videos.
To this day music still moves me in ways that other stimulants just can’t – and I’m grateful for that. While I can be moved by merely listening to music, nothing compares to actually performing. When I’m on stage and things are going “right” it’s like I’m not even there: I become less aware of my surroundings, I become less aware of my own self, yet I feel connected to the audience – this feeling is the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had. It doesn’t always happen and it took me a long time to discover.
How I Learned to Play Guitar in One Weekend:
Like most young males, my first motivation for getting into music was more carnal than transcendental. You see, in grade eight there was this girl (let’s call her “M”) who was pretty cute and played guitar in the church choir (this was Catholic School). I wanted to spend more time around M so I volunteered to be “second guitarist”, thus allowing me to sit next to her in rehearsals. The only problem: I really didn’t know how to play guitar! Yes, I owned a guitar because I pestered my parents into getting me one years before, but I failed miserably at the instrument and quit after a month of lessons.
Our choir master, knowing something was up, gave me the music to study over the weekend. I pulled the guitar out of the closet and dusted it off. I didn’t even know how to read music, but the charts she gave me had these weird “box” things over the chord names. I quickly figured out that these boxes were chord tabs, showing me the fingering positions (right-handed) for each chord in a song. Nothing motivates a young lad more than a pretty girl and so I found myself mastering enough of these box patterns (D, C, F and G) to get by for Monday’s rehearsal. Within a week I was as good as M and we had something in common to talk about.
Throughout high school I found that playing in rock bands made me a little less nerdy than all the other scrawny guys who were unfit for sports. You can say my motivations were mostly “social”, and not really “artistic” and for the most part it worked wonders. Around this time I started honing my “chops” through hours and hours of practice (just me and my Led Zeppelin records) and a second round of pro guitar lessons.
I was beginning to enjoy the mental/physical challenge of playing my instrument, so you can say my motivations went from purely social to slightly more academic. But the real change happened years later – almost a decade after meeting M. One night, after years of practice, playing gigs and battling stage fright, I got “the chills” while performing. I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since.
Over the years I’ve discovered that if a song means something on a personal level it’s more likely to give me “the chills” while performing – so this has affected my craft, lyrically speaking. I’ve also learned that certain harmonic structures and melodies work to “get me there” faster, so I’ve honed that aspect of my craft as well.
I have discovered that when I’m experiencing strong emotions (positive or negative) I’m more likely to “be inspired” and come up with a new song idea. I find this “spontaneous expression” to be quite therapeutic. Over the years, I have come to terms with and internalized these processes: I am what I play.