“Hey, Dad,” comes the interrogative from my middle child, Hannah?
“Did you ever think you’d be doing this when I was really little?
“This” is playing the guitar, together, in our living room.
For years I was an electric guitar guy. I lived off one acoustic instrument, a Dobro . . . which is basically an acoustic guitar but instead of that little hole in the middle of the guitar’s body there’s a big aluminum cone. When I say cone, it’s just like a speaker cone. The idea is that the sound from the strings is just like a regular acoustic guitar except the cone amplifies it louder. It was supposed to be for Hawaiian music or big band sounds but the tone was so metallic, so mid-range sounding that the instrument basically became an afterthought…until blues musicians picked it up.
When I learned to play slide I bought the Dobro and I’ve lived off it ever since. But when you write songs and hear one thing . . . then play it on another instrument . . . it doesn’t work quite the same. The time had come to buckle down and get an acoustic guitar.
Over this weekend I got one . . . I had planned on spending quite a bit more than I did but it’s amazing how when you play instruments you learn to trust the feel and the tone, not the price. I loved the tone and the feel and just bought it after quite awhile in the store.
That entire night I sat with my daughter, Hannah, and played the guitar. Her brother, Noah, came into the room and asked if I could teach him some stuff. I did. A little, anyway. His tiny fingers barely reached around the neck to touch the frets but he tried, desperately, to learn what I was showing him.
So here’s what you need to know about my household, though. Most people see acoustic guitars and people who say “I’m a musician” and the first thing that goes through their heads is either “Koombaya” or worse yet teaching little kids to play “Drunken Sailor” and leave it at that. I, however, spent years playing and this isn’t my idiom. Hannah looks at me and asks if I can teach her Bell Bottom Blues from the album Layla and I oblige her. It’s always been my favorite record and though I go sharp on the falsetto part in the chorus I play and sing it anyway.
We play it 3 or 4 times and Hannah looks at me and asks the question this whole post started with: “did you ever think you’d be doing this when I was really little?”
“I’d hoped I would,” I told her, when she’d shown a propensity toward playing guitar. It’s true, too. This isn’t playing campfire songs or looking at the old Mel Bay books and hoping you can learn to twist your fingers to play the chord correctly. Hannah is good enough now and writing her own material that we play like a couple of musicians in a green room waiting to hit the stage. When the chords work and I play a lead on top of her chord work we smile and laugh. It’s a connection, not just learning but discovering. We’ve both found the instrument for different reasons but it still has that emotional connection. We trod our way through the Allman Brothers’ Melissa and head to Zeppelin’s Gallows Pole. I play Muddy Waters and move to Clapton and then an instrumental I wrote years ago.
Part of the issue with a new guitar is teaching the guitar itself…helping it learn it’s not just a plank of wood any more. It has to loosen up and breathe and move with the music. As I sit with Hannah that lesson is being absorbed by the wood on a nightly basis.
And it’s so much better than I ever expected.