Beginner Frustrations, Guitar Store Jitters, & A Guy Named Jan…

I was never comfortable picking up a guitar in a guitar store, plugging it in, and trying it out. I was too shy. Too awkward. Too worried that people would think my playing sucked. It did suck. It sucked for a while, even though I played every minute of every day, but I enjoyed the hell out of sucking at the guitar… because I got to play guitar. That was the goal, right? To play guitar? The fact that my playing sucked shouldn’t have taken away from the fact that I was doing what I had dreamed about for many years – I was playing the guitar… badly, but hey. There’s a lesson in there that I’m now realising. My goal was to play guitar – I was playing guitar. Sucking at it was irrelevant. I was playing guitar. What is your goal?

 One day my playing started to not suck, ever so slightly. And the next day? It ‘not sucked’ some more. And I thought I was the next Eddie Van Halen. I even cut insulation tape into little strips and stuck it across my guitar to make it look just like Eddie’s. I loved that guitar. My Mum bought me that guitar with a modest little inheritance she received when my Grandmother passed away. That thought made me want to be the best guitarist I could be, just to show my awesome wee Mum that it was money well spent. One day, around twenty years later, I was at my folk’s house for the usual Saturday morning breakfast. Dad and I were watching a documentary about great guitarists and Jimi Hendrix was on the screen in all his glory, making the guitar do things nobody knew it could do back then. While dad and I sat in awe at the majesty of Jimi, Mum casually announced “Sure you’re just as good a player as Jimi Hendrix.” I thought my Dad was going to die from laughing so hard. I wasn’t far behind him. The tears were blinding us. We still laugh about that famous line to this day. The thing is, she actually meant it, and believed it. That’s Mum’s for ya. The funny thing is, as ridiculous a statement as it was, it was the realization of another dream for me: “Show my awesome wee Mum that it was money well spent.” 

About 6 months into swinging the axe about my bedroom I realised that my playing was elevating to a listenable, semi-enjoyable quality. I still wouldn’t play a guitar in a store though. No sir. In those days I was mostly locked in my bedroom learning Metallica riffs. Then I would look back at the time when (I thought) my playing first started to not suck. The time when I was playing a 12-bar blues with all the panache of a wrecking ball. The only thing that sounded worse than my picking back then was the sound of Robert Johnson turning in his grave. The sound of the Hellhounds on his trail was sweet music compared to my teenage attempts at playing a 12 bar groove. And I had the realisation that my playing did suck back then compared to what it sounded like now. And I learned a lesson. And that lesson was: As Long As You Play You Will Always Be Learning.

And I learned some more…and I played some more. And those hours spent alone, with my guitar, my hands, and my attempt to make sense of life by plucking strings and creating something – those have been some of the best hours of my life. Why? Because sometimes you do the best playing when you’re sat on your own without an audience. Just you; no reservations; no critics to worry about; no cause for embarrassment. It’s a form of therapy and happiness akin to singing in the shower, but much more potent.

As I grew older, and as my playing grew much better I began to enjoy and embrace the thrill of playing to an audience and soaking in the energy of a live performance. It was like a high to end all highs. Even the most modest gig can be an uplifting experience if you’re giving it all you’ve got and one soul in the audience gets what you’re doing, and matches your energy. That’s a connection. That’s an enlightening experience – to connect with another being, without words or expectations…just a shared appreciation of a collection of musical notes. I still wouldn’t play guitar in a guitar store though. And I still felt that my best playing came late at night, alone, in my ‘bedroom’ which was now a different room, in a different house, and now the bedroom was a home recording studio.

And now? Present day? Well, now I’m sat in yet another room in yet another house, in yet another home recording studio. It’s a temporary setup in our new home while we await my attempts at building a more spacious, fully equipped studio downstairs, in the utility room… away from the neighbours. I’ve just spent a few hours playing some nice guitar. I also played some awful guitar tonight but that’s where having your own recording studio comes in handy. I can sit and get all the wrong notes out of my system without worrying that I’m on the clock. Then I can get into a nice flow and start creating something. It doesn’t matter if it gets heard, or noticed, or picked up by some influential ‘player’ in the music industry. All things are temporal and all things must pass. The moment you create ‘that’ song, ‘that’ melody, ‘that’ tune…that’s the best moment in the songs journey. That’s the magic moment when you learned to let go of the safety bars, spread your wings and allowed your music to breathe…

I’ve learned a lot from playing guitar. I’ve learned to listen more – to other musicians and to myself. I’ve learned to trust myself more. I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of my playing. What does matter is that I appreciate and enjoy every minute I get to play that guitar. I’ve learned that it is impossible to master the guitar. As long as you’re playing you’ll always be learning. I’ve learned that I can’t measure my playing against anyone else’s and they can’t measure theirs against mine. I’m on my path and they’re on their path. I’ve learned that music can be beautiful and can also be frustrating as hell. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s near impossible to get your spirit, your mind, and your fingers all up to the same speed and synchronicity to enable you to play what you hear in your head. I’ve learned that the ability to match up the aforementioned faculties at will is one of the things that sets apart guys like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen. Finally I’ve learned to leave it all on the studio floor or on the stage. There is no fame or fortune or glory. There is only you and a guitar. 

Life is so much like playing guitar. Don’t waste it worried about what other people think about you. Don’t let your frustrations, and your inability to tie up all your emotions together in a split second ruin your enjoyment of learning an instrument, or a new hobby, or a new relationship. Go with the flow of every moment. Enjoy every present moment. Listen more. Learn more. Trust yourself more. Give yourself a break. Enjoy the shit out of everything you do. Stop and smell the roses. You are right where you are supposed to be in this moment. As Wim Hoff would say: “breathe muthafucka!” If you’re breathing you’re alive. If you’re alive then you have a purpose.

You are so much more than the sum of your parts. You are a world of infinite possibilities. Sometimes the things we struggle with in the beginning are the things that yield the most fruit. You gotta climb through brimstone and slay a dragon if you want to bag a princess. You gotta sail a ship in all weathers to call yourself a great Captain. You gotta throw a thousand punches at home, against a punchbag, before you throw a single punch in a professional arena. If you want to be the best version of YOU that you can be then you gotta learn to enjoy those times when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing; when you suck at what you’re doing; and when you think it’s all a waste of time. Learn to be still in those times. Learn to smile at perceived disaster. Learn to laugh when you fall flat on your ass. Learn to get up again. Never quit. No excuses. Never pull the plug on a show that has the potential to light up an audience of one or more people.

If you’re still reading let me finish with a story about a little known musician named Jan. He was quite the talent and quite the player. He played on cruise ships and whatever other events he could muster his way into. Whatever paid enough money to support his wife and children was good enough for Jan. He had two sons, Eddie and Alex, who loved watching him play. Jan’s surname is Van Halen. His son Eddie became one of the most influential guitarist of his generation. His other son Alex played the drums (like a boss) with Eddie, in one of the biggest rock bands of their generation. Let’s all be grateful for Jan.

We weren’t all born to be the next Eddie Van Halen but we were all born to play. We are all born to inspire. A little known musician inspired his sons, and through that inspiration thus sparked a force that would inspire people all over the world to learn to play the guitar. It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence Eddie Van Halen had on anyone who ever picked up a guitar in the last 40 years. Do you think Jan knew that his playing would lead to that? I can’t say for sure. I can make an educated guess though. I’d say Jan just loved to play. I’d say he loved to see the joy on his son’s faces when they were making their first noises on their first musical instruments, with wide eyed wonder. I’d guess that it wasn’t his playing that inspired his sons but rather the joy he exuded when he played that caught their attention. Never minimise or take for granted the influence you have on your kids… 

Back when I started playing I was a 15 year old kid, playing a brand new guitar, with brand new strings. Tonight I’m 42, and the guitar I’ve spent the last few hours playing is a 15 year old guitar with 15 year old strings. That’s kinda poetic. Back then I played Eddie Van Halen licks. Tonight I played a Delta Blues Version of Amazing Grace with an old slide guitar. I once heard a guitarist say “you gotta have some miles on the clock to really play the blues.” I guess I’m starting to gather the miles. Or maybe I’ll look back at this recording in ten years time and realise it sucked.

My audience of a Beagle and a wife are sleeping in the next room…lulled to sleep by my insomnia-fuelled creativity drifting through the walls. I like that audience and I still like playing the guitar. I still jump around my ‘bedroom’ playing Van Halen riffs… But I’m still not comfortable playing a guitar in a guitar store.

“Goodnight Springton. There will be no encore.”

*insert smiley face/Simpson’s pun emoji*

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