Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

me-guitar-mexico (1)The physical demands of learning to play guitar follow a kind of double bell curve pattern:

Curve #1
There’s a steep incline right out of the gate, as fingers are contorted into the seemingly impossible configurations needed to form beginner chords on the fretboard. This curve peaks and flattens out as transitioning between these chords becomes easier, and the downslope back to the χ axis is a veritable joy ride, because hundreds and hundreds of songs can now be played as basic accompaniment to vocals and other instruments.

Curve #2
Then you realize that all of the chords you know are played only in the first 3-4 frets, and the first technique most guitar players try to learn next — barre chords — promises to allow you to move the chord shapes all the way up and down the fretboard. This sounds liberating…at first. Then you try to hold down all six strings against the frets with your pointer finger, while with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers you try to form the rest of the chord, in shapes similar to those beginner chords, but using different fingers, maintaining constant and even pressure with the pointer finger across all of the strings. Barre chords have beaten many a guitar player, causing them to quit the instrument altogether. But, for those who stick with it, just as they’ve finally built the hand strength to play barre chords with ease, they reach the curve’s apex and ironically discover partial barre chords that require much less strain, followed by even easier partial 3-4 note chord voicings that propel you back to the χ axis and into a whole new league of players.

IMG_4156Campfires and guitars. Like peanut butter and jelly, like a hammer and a nail, like pencil and paper.

As on so many nights before, the beer was flowing, the stories were being told, the flames were dancing, the smoke swirled and drifted up into the sky, and I held the instrument of wood and wire close. Looking down at the fretboard, where I attempted to place my fingers in those familiar formations, I hesitated a moment.

Wait! Can I do this?

Of course you can! You’ve been doing it for years!

Yeah, but what about that thing?

Before I could answer myself, I just started playing, effortlessly, nothing fancy, the first chord progression I’d ever learned: G-Em-C-D.

I stopped after 3-4 times through, wondering:

Do I dare try something more complicated?

Why bother! Those four chords are the DNA of a hundred songs!

So I resumed playing, even with an underlying awareness that the bubble might burst anytime, and I felt a soothing contentment in the simple structure of an old folk tune, something befitting the simple-yet-profound pleasure of gathering around a fire, where my friends and I sat in place of our forebears, who might have been coal miners and moonshiners, mariners and soldiers, poets and priests.

From night to night, the dream is always at least slightly different — setting, songs, singing or no singing — and sometimes it’s very different — by myself at home, with friends and/or family around a campfire, onstage in front of a large audience.

I could tell it was going to be one of those special nights before we even took the stage.

There was this deeply relaxed feeling in the air. All of the logistics had gone smoothly, without a hitch, the band members all arrived on time, setup and soundcheck were a breeze, and we had time for a few drinks before we were due to start playing.

Wait! Can I do this?

Of course you can! You’ve been doing it for years!

Yeah, but what about that thing?

I felt no jitters from any of the guys as we approached our instruments. We certainly had put in the work that builds confidence — three years we’d been together, three years of band practice one night per week. I strapped on my Paul Reed Smith semi-hollowbody, dual humbucker electric guitar, checked the tuning, tweaked a few strings, flipped the standby switch on my 40-watt Fender tube amplifier, and strummed my first chord of the evening. That lush, warm sound filled the stage and reverberated out into the room, mingling casually with the first notes from our lead guitarist, bassist, and keyboard player. The drummers took their seats.

Is this really happening?

I can play again?!

We knew what song we were going to start off with, we knew the song was in the key of E, but rather than counting off and jumping right into the familiar intro, I started to play the basic rhythm, comping around with various chords, always resolving back to the root of E. One by one, the others waded into the tune, listening for open spaces to play around in. The drummers gently took up the beat and tempo, freeing me up to syncopate.

With no cause to hurry, and not having arrived at the opening song yet, the five of us were in the zone of group improvisation — knowing the destination, but for now enjoying the ride. It was about listening more than playing. Whatever you added to the mix should be complementary to what the other members of the band were contributing. There’s discipline involved, but also exquisite freedom, and when the lead guitarist plays that signature opening lick you follow his lead and it’s back on-script.

Or, in this case, you wake up.

Dreams may sometimes come true…

Me, 2nd from right, dream come true.

…but there’s no guarantee how long they’ll last.


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