WALLACE COLUMN: A different kind of string theory
At three score plus four years I picked up a musical instrument to learn to play for the first time. What a humbling experience.
I have admired those who can pick up musical hardware and make melodious sounds come forth. When I was a middle school teacher, I marveled at seeing seventh graders begin their band experience. A few months later I listened to the music they made at the end of their first year. Remarkable.
Joyful sounds came from their clarinets, trombones and flutes. After nearly four months of working with the guitar, I am able to make sounds, but they are far from joyful and don’t really count as music yet.
Initially I picked up a book that professed to teach one the guitar. I was able to learn a few chords, even though fingers were never meant to be contorted in the ways needed to form some of them. For instance the G chord.
The book taught that the G chord is formed with the ring finger on the top string below the third fret. The middle finger goes one fret higher on the next to top string. The pinky finger goes below the third fret but on the bottom string.
I don’t know about your use of pinky fingers, but mine has been sparse for the past six decades. Initially I had to use my right hand to place the pinky of the left hand on the appropriate string. Even then it did not want to stay. I thought about using Super Glue until I realized that at some point that pinky would have to move.
After a month of working on a few chords and trying my best to change from one to the next, I decided that I am the kind of learner who needs to be shown what to do. Reading it from a book was not helping me make progress. It’s hard to ask a book questions and get a straight answer.
So I started going to see Shawn, a wonderful teacher whose patience puts him up there with the most saintly of educators. My lessons have been as much about music theory as about playing the guitar. I need both.
The last music class I took was in eighth grade at Minnie B. Kennedy Junior High School. There Mrs. Jones taught us about the lines and spaces on the staff. E(very) G (ood) B (oy) D (oes) F (ine) for the lines and FACE for the spaces. (See, I did pay attention.)
There was something about the clefs – treble and bass – and the time signature 4/4 or 6/8, but I don’t think Mrs. Jones told us anything about that. (OK, she did. See, I didn’t pay attention.) There were whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes. (See, I did pay attention.)
That was the gist of my formal music education. The rest I picked up on my own. You know, the normal way. I watched “The Sound of Music” and listened as Julie Andrews sang the do, re, mi song.
When it came to the initiation on guitar, my tender fingertips had a hard time. They are used to the delicate placement on a keyboard and dashing from one key to the next. The keyboard requires deft, subtle strokes, not the hard mashing on metal strings needed for a guitar.
For the first few weeks, the fingers hurt. Then they went through a phase in which they tingled. And they would do that at no particular time. Middle of the night – tingle, tingle. Driving the car – tingle, tingle. Keying in a letter on the computer – tingle, tingle.
The last phase before something of normalcy returned was the can’t-feel-a-thing phase. It was as if I were wearing gloves and couldn’t feel the things I touched with the fingers on my left hand. Have you ever tried to pick up a dime when you can’t feel it?
Finally normal sensation returned to those much abused digits. They have calluses but somehow the nerve endings have repaired or rerouted themselves so feeling has been restored.
As I mentioned earlier, changing chords has been a challenge. The switch from G to D to C is not as automatic as I would like. I still have to think about the placement of the fingers, and if I am trying to play along to a song, I have to call time out while I change chords. Time in, play the new chord. Time out, switch fingers. Time in, play the next chord. It really interrupts the flow of the song, and I have yet to see in music a symbol that means time out.
While chords are nice, I also wanted to learn to pick out a melody. With great effort and many stumbles, I have been able to pick the tunes to “Tom Dooley” and “Ode to Joy.” I hope that sounds impressive. If it does, please skip the next two sentences. Neither one is really hard. “Tom Dooley” uses just two strings and a total of four notes. “Ode to Joy” requires just two strings and six notes.
Now I am trying to prepare to get a song and run through it using its tablature. Tablature, or tabs, show the music with the appropriate chords for guitar playing. It would be much easier if the song had just one chord, but I don’t think a song like that would be well received. So the one I am looking at has four chords used primarily and a fifth used occasionally.
I am not ready to divulge the name of the song – just in case someone hears me practice and says, “That doesn’t sound anything like that song.” If the song I’m playing is unknown, no one can say I’m playing it wrong. Unless I call too many time outs.
Jeff Wallace is the retired editor of the Aiken Standard.