The Opposite May Also Be True

Went back to buy the guitar today.  As I passed through the main room there was a quiet vibe in the electric guitar section.  A young woman played quietly with a phone propped on her thigh, maybe jotting down a song idea.   A guy, who looked, with tattoos and serious Scottie Pippen profile, like a possibly dangerous gang member, was playing some meditative lines that brought Jerry to mind.  A few other people played, thoughtfully, none of them too loudly.  I reproached myself mildly, perhaps I’d been too harsh the day before about those exhibitionist wankers I pictured driving themselves into dividers.

Into the acoustic guitar room where a guy was checking out a booming electric acoustic bass. I took the guitar into the other room, with the acoustic amps, and slid the glass door closed.  An introverted kid with dark hair dyed blonde on top sat facing the wall, a big acoustic/electric guitar plugged in.   The kid played some interesting open chords, paused as I got in tune.  I played for a moment and the kid started again, an open chord the young guitarist could not have spelled.  The raga bass note was D and it was not hard to find things to play that complimented the kid’s strange chord changes.

The notes you finger on the strings form harmonies, chords.  Some are basic ones every beginner learns, G, A, D, Dm, E, Am.   You can spell these chords by naming the notes you finger:  G-B-D-G-B-G forms a simple G major chord, spelled 1-3-5-1-3-5, the places of these notes on the G major scale.  You can make the harmonies fancier, and weirder, by changing a note or two of a familiar harmony.  You can also change the voicing, the order of the notes.  A G chord can be played with a B, its third (a strong harmonic partner) on the low string. Lower that B one fret to a Bb and you have a cool fingering of a G minor chord, with the minor third in the bass.   You can add notes to harmonies, subtract notes, play open strings that give unusual sounds — there are many possibilities.  Jazz guitarists can tell you that you have fingered an inversion of a C6-9 chord, called that because the notes added are the sixth and ninth degrees of the C major scale, but many guitarists, particularly young ones, just find cool sounding chords and mess around with them up and down the neck.

These odd chords and eccentric invented voicings are among the first amazing things creative young guitarists discover, and this young player was working with these ideas as I was checking out the guitar I was going to buy.   The young guitarist was not insistent, in fact was somewhat reticent, but from time to time some of those odd chords would flower into the air from the amp, a rhythm would be tapped out. I’d catch a chord and bend a bass note along to it, let it shimmer, then play a little run ending with the flavorful riff from Norwegian Wood.  It sounded good to me, this interplay, and it felt good, too.  There could not have been a greater contrast between this interactive guitar player and the showy jacked up masturbator of a few days earlier.    

I lingered, checking out the guitar, listening to this kid’s ideas, adding notes and ideas of my own.  The guitarist was making musical sense, there was logic to the choices and a sensibility, a poetry, that made it easy to follow.  Most importantly, he left generous patches of silence among what he was playing, inviting oxygen-rich spaces where music can breathe and grow.

It put me back in time to when I was first learning the guitar, the magic feeling when something accidentally turned musical.  I thought of my friend Paul, a young man who couldn’t spell even a simple chord to save his life (and once, when his life literally might have depended on it, he couldn’t be bothered to learn to spell) but who is probably the most intuitively brilliant and inventive guitarist I’ve ever met.  He’d stumble on a chord shape he loved the sound of and would soon fashion a song out of it, then another, then five variations on that.  I remember his beautiful solo arrangement of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, a song that caught his fancy, though he couldn’t have told you the key or the names of any of the chords he was playing.

This kid in the acoustic guitar room was no virtuoso, but he played with great taste.  The way he lovingly took a sound and played with it reminded me of Paul, of my own early experiments with guitars.   I could have played there until the store closed, the guitar was nice to play, the room was air-conditioned, the amp had a great reverb, our levels were perfectly adjusted so we could hear the nuances of what each of us was playing.  I suppose we played for about an hour.  

I got up, unplugged my new guitar and bought it.  As this was going on the kid left, head down, eyes avoiding everyone else’s.  I wanted to say “hey, you sounded good.  It was a pleasure playing with you.”  It would have meant a lot to the kid, I think.  My reflexes were too slow.  I said nothing to the kid, but I note here; things may be horrible sometimes, but without warning, the opposite may also be true.  Be alert for the small miracles that make the rest of this worthwhile.

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