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VOL. 45 | NO. 27 | Friday, July 2, 2021

One chord and the truth: Learning guitar late is hard

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Despite being profoundly unmusical, with compromised dexterity, I’ve decided to buy a guitar and try to learn to play.

Given those shortcomings, one might well ask: Why?

For starters, it would improve my Music City cred. And it would help me answer the question I’ve been getting for the past five years or so: So, now that you’re retired, how do you spend your time?

No response I’ve given so far has appeared to satisfy inquisitors who seem to think I should be helping build clinics in Haiti or teaching creative writing to prison inmates. Neither of which I am qualified to do.

“I’m learning to play the guitar” has an aspirational quality. It speaks of hope, without making any promises.

Also, as Jane Brody recently noted in a New York Times health column, among the ways to stave off mental decline as the years pile up is “doing things that are cognitively new and challenging to the brain, like learning a new language or a musical instrument.”

I’ve tried the new language bit, Spanish, off and on since college. Fifty years. Can I speak it? Un poco. A little.

And then there’s ego. At times, it seems like nine out of every 10 guys I know play the guitar, to one level of competence or another. How complicated could it be? I’ve read that just a few chords will see you through a lot of songs. My wife did caution me on that, though:

“You have to play them in order,” she says.

In choosing the guitar I passed on other stringed instruments like banjo, mandolin and ukulele. The first two seemed to offer limited range; it’s hard to imagine playing “Imagine” on one. And the uke, well, it looks like a toy guitar. No offense, toy guitar players.

Still, there remained the choice of what type of guitar to buy. For advice on that, and learning to play in general, I turned to my profoundly musical friend Tommy Goldsmith, who has built twin careers out of journalism and music. He was very encouraging about the guitar.

“I heartily recommend it. There’s just nothing like it,” he says.

He was less encouraging about the specific guitar I asked him about. I never considered an electric model, figuring that would be like starting with a motorcycle when you can’t even ride a bike. Plus, I suspect the sounds I might produce would not benefit from amplification.

Still, the acoustic model I’d focused on had steel strings. Those strings, particularly for a beginner, pose finger pain issues, Tommy explains. That’s why a lot of people start with a nylon string version. He advised a folk, or classical, guitar.

“It’s not a manly man’s or a womanly woman’s guitar, particularly,” he adds, but I can live with that to save my fingers.

He went on to describe his own long history with the guitar, going back to age 12 or so, spending hours alone or with similarly devoted friends in those early times, playing the same four or five songs over and over and over again.

It’s a matter of finger memory, he says. Learning not only how to play chords, but also how to change chords. How to strike a string with a finger or pick. Proper timing. (He suggests a metronome.) Being in tune. (He suggests a tuner.)

And, of course, it involves practice, practice, practice, if the goal is to achieve some measure of success down the road.

“I guess it could take you a year, maybe, but after some not too awful period you could, like, play the lick to ‘Daytripper,’ which is not super easy, but it’s not super hard, either.”

He also reinforces the notion that it doesn’t take a mastery of all the chords to play. Good thing, since I’ve read that there are thousands possible.

“There’s a number of Bob Dylan songs you can play with three or four chords,” he says. “Endless numbers of Hank Williams and great country and bluegrass songs you could play with three or four chords.”

That simplicity is the sort of thing that attracts a lot of people to the guitar, Tommy says. “I mean, you can’t really do that on a French horn or oboe.”

(My wife, by the way, played the French horn in high school. She has not kept up the practice.)

Tommy, who has been playing before audiences for decades, was more ambitious than I am about what I might be able to accomplish. He raised the possibility of working up to playing for folks at a church fellowship hall, say, or around the proverbial campfire. Singing, even.

Tommy has never heard me sing. In any event, my aim is not that high. I’d be happy being able to strum along to “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” The notion of plucking out single notes gives me pause.

And even if it all proves a dismal failure – if my mastery stalls at two chords, with 10 seconds needed to get from one to the other – a guitar still has inherent functions it performs even in silence: It’s an excellent conversation piece and item of room decor.

“Oh, do you play?” a visitor seeing it might ask.

“Un poco,” I could respond, suggesting a Clapton-like humility.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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