Old Dog, New Trick

As a kid, like so many of my generation, I harbored dreams of becoming a rock star. And failing that, I wanted at least to become a musician. But for reasons lost to the mists of time, I went with piano as my instrument of choice. My dear parents were wary: neither of them could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, and they had no interest in filling the living room with a piece of furniture nobody would use. So while they agreed to pay for lessons, they told me that I’d have to find practice pianos elsewhere.

Luckily (at last in this respect) I attended Catholic school, so there was a church adjacent. And as churches often do, it had a basement that was home to a decent upright piano. So I attended my weekly lessons, and stole away to the church piano during lunch breaks, before and after classes to practice.

I improved, and eventually my parents saw that buying a piano would make sense. The found an early 1900s apartment grand (with a soundboard the size of a standard – not “baby” grand, positioned vertically to save space). It’s very much the kind one thinks of in old Western saloons. I still have it.

But as much as I developed skills on the keyboard, I still – on some level – wanted to be that rock star. And Elton John aside, in the 1970s and ’80s, keyboard players were rarely the focus of most rock’n’roll bands. So I decided I wanted to play guitar, too.

But clearly I didn’t want to badly enough to actually learn how. I picked up my first acoustic guitar at a garage sale, and used it mostly as a prop at home, pretending to play. It pains me to remember this – much less write about it – but one day while listening to The Who, I did a Pete Townshend jump with the guitar, managing in the process to kick it with the back of my heel, putting a huge hole in it as a result. That was pretty much the end of that.

Quite a few years later, around 1995 I think it was, a woman I knew asked me if I wanted to buy her husband’s left-handed acoustic (I am hopelessly left-handed). The price was right, so I bought my first proper lefty acoustic, a Fender F-210LH. It was a decent instrument, but still I never made any proper effort to learn how to play.

Fast forward again, this time almost twenty more years, to 2014. My kids have grown up, and I’m newly married. My bride has just endured with me the upheaval of moving to a new home, of combining our belongings into one household. And while I’m no pack rat (I’m actually tidy and organized to a near-compulsive degree), I do have a lot of stuff. So while I winnowed down my keyboard collection from about twenty instruments to less than a dozen, and even got rid of a few CDs and LPs (not many!), I still had massive amounts of…stuff.

And said stuff included not one, not two, but three stringed instruments. The Fender acoustic, a lefty Yamaha Pacifica electric I bought myself for my 35th birthday, and the Epiphone bass guitar I bought for my first wife before we got married. And I couldn’t play any of them. My new wife found this ever-so-slightly absurd. These instruments were more or less taking up space in our new home. She suggested that I either sell them or, y’know, learn how to play.

Those choices seemed reasonable. I chose the latter. Finally, nearly forty years after deciding that I’d like to play guitar, I’m finally doing something about it. I started weekly lessons last November, and I’m happy to say that I’m already a credible (though by no means skilled) rhythm guitarist. I have a long way to go, but I’m committed to going there. It won’t surprise me a bit if sometime before this year is out, I bring my new guitar onstage with one of my bands, and play a tune or two.

Oh yeah: the new guitar. When I started lessons and actually began to have some idea of what I was doing, I found that my big hands aren’t crazy about the thin neck on the Pacifica (basically a Stratocaster copy). And for whatever reason I’ve long had an affinity for the aesthetics of the semi-hollow body style of the Gibson ES-335 (think: Chuck Berry, BB King, Alvin Lee) and its cousin, the Epiphone Casino (think: John Lennon on the Apple rooftop). As it happened, a local left-handed guitarist was selling his Epiphone Dot for an exceedingly reasonable sum, so I bought it. It’s a beauty, and its high quality truly improved my ability to play.

I’m still not a rock star, and these days my desire to become one has long since faded. My life is filled with other rewards. But despite the old saw about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks, at 51 years of age, I’m finally becoming a guitarist.

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