When I was 14, I had an urge overcome me. It danced inside me and needed to come out. It was music, and it wanted to come out through the synchronized movement of my arms, through fretting and strumming, on a guitar.
No one in my family played guitar, no one that I know of anyway – not in my immediate family, nor in my extended family. I think it was the influence of Al and Amy Parker, and Rick Maxson – members of our church. They were consistent features at kids camp – Camp Olivet – every summer.
Rick would stand on the edge of that concrete slab, front and center of the campground gathering place. His arm would hammer up and down on his guitar, while he sang loud with a wide smile. He would bounce up and down at his knees, on beat with his song. He was bright with energy and joy. And Al and Amy Parker were talented with their guitars, too, but I remember them most during their main church ministrations. They sang in harmony together, and exuded songs and sounds of peace. Amy was especially talented with the guitar – combining finger-picking and strumming.
In all of these guitar players, there was just something about them when they cradled their instrument in their arms, holding it so close to themselves – like it was a part of them.
I suppose I told my parents I wanted a guitar for Christmas. I never did use words much then, so I don’t remember ever actually telling them I wanted a guitar. I was quiet. So, I imagine I told them quietly.
“I want a guitar for Christmas.”
“Are you sure, now? You really want a guitar?” my mom questioned me.
“Yes. I really want a guitar,” I replied, “I really, really want a guitar.”
I knew it beyond a doubt. It was a desire so strong, it could’ve jumped into my arms and flew at the collars of my parents’ shirts and pulled them close with desperate, in-their-face pleading.
A few days before Christmas that year, I noticed the large, wrapped box placed somewhere around all the other gifts under the tree. When no one was around, I went to the box and knocked on it. It vibrated with sound. My face lit up with wide eyes and a smile. A guitar!
Later, as my older brother and I were sitting around in the living room, close to the tree and admiring all the wrapped gifts, I confessed to him that I knew.
“I know what I got. You wanna know how?” I said to him, with mischievous pride.
He just looked at me and shook his head.
“I knocked on the box and I could hear it.” I said in a whisper, and smiled with smugness and satisfaction in my ingeniousness.
When Christmas morning finally came, with no surprise, I opened my large gift and found the guitar. Along with it were two books – a beginner’s method book and a chord book. I don’t remember if I started working on learning it that day, but I certainly remember the passion that drove me to my bedroom every day after school.
During the first week, I taught myself using the beginner’s method book. From it, I learned the notes of each string, how to hold and tune the guitar, and the names of the different parts of the guitar. I also learned about frets, where to place my fingers within the frets, and how holding down the string between different frets produced different notes. And lastly, in that first week, I learned how to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” by painfully and slowly playing one note at a time while sight reading until I eventually memorized it.
It didn’t take long before I got bored with single-note sight-reading, and soon I had, on a piece of notebook paper and written above the words, the chords of Mark Altrogge’s worship song, “Forever Grateful”. I vaguely remember acquiring this from Dennis, one of our church high school youth group mentors. I knew how to sing the song, so all I had to do was learn the chords and switch to them at the right time in the song. I acquired many other worship and praise songs and did the same with them, which was my ultimate gateway into learning chords and rhythm guitar. Fingerpicking was a natural skill to pick up as it mostly required chord knowledge and switching skills.
Last year, at 39 years old, unregretfully influenced by Jordan Raynor’s book Master of One, I went all-in with my guitar and decided that I really should become an expert, not just an amateur chord player, and so I signed up for lessons. My goal was to learn scales – for playing lead and improv – and sight playing. I’ve done pretty good at learning scales, and I was improving with sight reading and playing until Covid hit and I had to pause lessons.
It’s October of 2020 and I haven’t resumed, but I do want to get back to it soon. Honestly, since school started up again, I haven’t played my guitar much or thought much about music. And so my motivation has waned. But, I don’t think this is something I’m going to be able to run away from. It seems like when I get too comfortable away from my guitar and singing, that it forces itself back into my life in one way or another.
Besides that, there’s just something about the vibration of the guitar on my torso when I strum chords, and something about trickling my fingers up and down and side to side on the guitar neck. It feels somehow a part of me. It makes me feel… somehow complete.
About This Story
The above memoir is incomplete. I started writing this with my students at the beginning of the 2020 school year. They had to write a memoir, and I wanted to make sure I was able to do what I was asking them to do. (It’s usually easier to teach students to do something when I have experience with it and have done it myself. It’s also beneficial to write WITH the students in order to let them see that writing is a process and a struggle for everyone, even the most seasoned of writers.
This way, when they see me, the seasoned writer making mistakes and then going back and working on it and fixing it later, they will be encouraged to not be afraid to make mistakes and they will feel free to at least try.) It is actually my dream to do more teaching work like this with my students… to sort of be the master reader and writer while they are my “little” reading and writing apprentices. If I have it my way soon, this is exactly what I will be doing more of in my class every day.