For Christmas, when I was maybe five years old, I received a small plastic guitar. Unlike most toy guitars, it operated on the basic guitar principle – strings and frets. I precociously learned to play Polly Wolly Doodle on that guitar and my life-long affection for the guitar began.
A few years later, my aunt lent me her 3/4 guitar and, after some heated negotiations with my parents, I began guitar lessons at the Toon Shop in Prairie Village with some old guy in the basement. I remember him asking my mother if she wanted me to learn the play rhythm or lead. She told him to teach me lead guitar, because it required that I learn to read music, a skill that was bound to come in handy. It did. The lessons lasted about two years, working through the Alfred Bay guitar course. At the end of every lesson, the dude would play a popular single – this was the early seventies, so I remember CCR and Tony Orlando. He would identify the chords of the song and wrote the chord progression down, so I could play rhythm guitar for all the current songs.
After a few months of these lessons, when I was ten, I asked for an electric guitar. I was told “no” emphatically, but at the last minute, as the result of some Christmas Eve scrambling, that “no” became a “yes.” In my Christmas stocking, I found a curled patch cord. After all the presents were opened, my Father asked me what the cord was for. I had no idea. Then he directed me to a small amplifier stashed somewhere. Encouraged by the labels on the amp, I realized there must be a guitar somewhere. Under a bed, I found a blue hollow-body guitar.
I think that’s where they got the idea for the reveal in Christmas Story. Fortunately, I didn’t put my eye out with my new axe.
We moved, putting an end to my lessons at the PV Toon Shop. For another year, I took lessons from a pretentious prick who played guitar for the KC philharmonic. I learned to five finger polyphonic tunes on my blue guitar. He complained that teaching didn’t leave him time for composition. I grew bored with the guitar and focused my energies on writing, although I never really stopped playing. I could jam Aquarius and I Think I Love You and Alfie and Classical Gas. Eventually, I sold the blue electric guitar, a decision I’ve regretted ever since.
College enjoyed a long stint as a rhythm guitarist but I didn’t have a decent instrument and my skills deteriorated.
After my first divorce, I stopped by the guitar store in Crystal City, Virginia, and bought a black humbucker Strat. I played excessively in those lonely years, working my way through the Beatles repertoire, composing endless variations on the La Bamba theme.
When my daughter was born, I bought a black Ibanez acoustic guitar. As an electric guitarist, I never really cared for the feel of an acoustic, but I eventually made the transition back from rhythm guitar to lead guitar, taking advantage of the portability of the acoustic to practice endless scales.
Three years ago, receiving my starting bonus from Microtransponder, my first serious position since the apocalyptic devastation that results from a child rich divorce, I went to Guitar Center and picked out a red and black Ibanez hollow body guitar. Nothing sounds as delciously rich as a big fat semi-acoustic with a pair of fat, warm humbuckers. I strung it with incredibly thin strings so I can bend from E to E. I have a pedalled processor and a sixty-five watt Peavey Bandit to enhance the noise.
Playing the guitar is a meditation for me. I don’t play to perform or entertain. Far from it. I play to soothe my thoughts. I never – almost never – play written pieces, but prefer to spend my energies improvising licks to accompany anything I hear. Every now and again, I’ll indulge in some rhythm guitar, to play and sing, but my real love is playing the luscious lines of a fat electric lead guitar. B. B. King is the performer I most want to emulate when I play. Wailing blues deep into the night.