Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I Miss My Guitar

There, I've said it.

Since the stroke I've tried to maintain an at least partially philosophical attitude towards the lack of fine muscle control in my left hand. As artifacts of the stroke go, it's pretty minor. I had to lose something or else the lesson wouldn't have stuck. If I were given the choice on October 2nd to take this very outcome or roll the dice, I'd take this outcome and be grateful. I've heard them all. I've said them all. At one point or another, and to one degree or another, I've believed them all.

But goddammit, I miss playing the guitar.

I've had a guitar in my hands since I was 12. And I was terrible for years, but that didn't stop me from playing. I played little three-section three-chord pieces and slowly stretched my musical knowledge, my library of chords and which go together euphoniously, my technique, my ear, and my voice (the biggest challenge of all).

Lo and behold, one day I found myself playing for the sheer entertainment value of playing, and I knew I had taken a step. One day I figured out my first song by ear (Livin' After Midnight - I didn't say it was a difficult song) and I knew I had taken another step.

Poker night chez the Very Josie's was enhanced by the fact that there was a left-handed guitar on the premises - so I could for once pick up someone else's guitar and entertain people. You right-handed people have no idea how lucky you are in this regard, by the way.

I practiced even harder after that because even though I was little more than noodling around after I got knocked out of the tournament, I was playing for an audience, and I wanted to be good for them as well as me. Most weeks I would make sure I had a new number for them, so they could hear something fresh from me.

One day after playing "Things We Said Today," by the Beatles (of course), every person in the room I was in started clapping. For me and my mediocre playing and sub-mediocre singing. And I knew I had taken yet another, quite big, step.

I was a guitar player, more than 30 years invested in my hands, my ear, and my throat, and though I certainly wasn't great, and maybe not even good, I was solidly mediocre, and that made me happy.

I liked acoustic pieces, and I was good at songs where you had to pluck the melody along with the chord changes (like Norwegian Wood, by You Know Who, and for which a recording exists of my performance). I developed a quirky little number of my own invention that was born of a strumming-hand exercise, whose chording could be done with one finger - my name for it was Single Digit because of that. My next project, a song that was well within my grasp as a player, was the transcendent Allman Brothers song Little Martha, a tune that pulls at the heartstrings of every guitar player around the world:

(It's not as difficult as it sounds; it's in an open tuning which really does a lot of the work for you)

I was a guitar player, more than 30 years invested in my hands, my ear, and my voice.

And it's all gone now.

I tried to get it back. I would keep my guitar in my hands all day - fall asleep with it - forever trying to regain that elusive control of my left hand, my strumming hand, my picking hand - and never making an iota of progress.

It's all gone now.

It's gone and I am in that category of people who used to play something. Not so much due to any exercise of free will, but because of the 10,000 small yet catastrophically bad decisions I believe I've already discussed to death on this forum and elsewhere.

So here it is: it's 4:00 in the morning and I'm going to fill you in on a secret.

Yes - I have my health. Yes - I have my independence.  Nobody needs to do anything to me or for me, to live my life. Yes - the story has, on balance, a happy ending. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

But god dammit, I used to be a guitar player. Was part of my identity. Was something that I was proud of.

And I miss that. I miss that a great deal.  And some days the platitudes that I tell myself to salve the pain of that loss ring a little hollow.

Thanks for listening. Go see a doctor if you haven't recently.


  1. This struck really close to home for me, Gary. A huge part of my own identity is my musical ability. In the old "would you rather" game I will always choose the option that doesn't involve losing the use of either of my hands because I just plain can't imagine a world in which I can't play the piano like I can now.

    I sincerely hope that through time, persistence, and force of will that you're able to rebuild those neural pathways and regain your guitar playing proficiency.

    1. Thanks, Piano Man. I figured a fellow musician would know a little more acutely what I was feeling.

  2. Great post Gary! While you may have lost your guitar, one thing you didn't lose is your way with words.

    1. Nice of you to say - I'm certainly glad I didn't lose that. I might not be a musician any longer but if I weren't glib, why, I don't know what I'd do. I'd certainly do it with less élan.

  3. Oy, this sucks. I was going to suggest you look at slide or new electronic guitars, but they're just not the same. It's a loss of part of your identity and, again, that just sucks.

    1. Crankola - thanks for checking in. Yeah, slide guitars need a lot of strum-hand proficiency, so they wouldn't help. And electronic guitars? Heresy.

  4. Well Baby, you've got two options:

    A.)"...I was terrible for years, but that didn't stop me from playing." If it didn't stop you before, don't let it stop you now. Keep playing - so what if you suck. You won't always suck.

    2.) Too fucking bad. I saw you when you could barely talk and not move your left arm AT ALL.


    1. Awww, Auntie Jo - you always know just the right thing to say.

      Thanks for the perspective.

  5. I was solidly mediocre, and that made me happy.