What You Learn From Playing A Musical Instrument, Especially If You Suck


[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RD1KqbDdmuE]

I’ve been playing guitar since I was 16 when I borrowed a friend’s and taught myself the chords to CSNY’s “Teach Your Children.” Since then, my frequency of playing has fluctuated from not touching a guitar for years to playing every day for months on end.

In any case, I suck. Really. That’s not humility or modesty. It’s reality. I am a bad guitar player. I can play the chords; I can wail a blues solo for hours (much to the chagrin of those around me). But I just don’t have musical sense. I can’t tell if a note goes up or down. I’m not sure if that means I’m tone deaf but I do know I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended on it. My rhythm is, uh, not terribly rhythmic. Or is it terribly rhythmic? Anyway, I have a poor sense of rhythm, to say the least.

I pick up my guitar and I play the same damn lick or I strum some (in my mind) Neil Youngish chords or Pixie-ish surf chords. Usually after that, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what the guitar wants from me. I can’t hear it and it can’t hear me. It’s pretty how much how I feel when I’m in Paris (which is not very often). I know enough to sound like a moron; I understand less; and once the conversation goes past the preliminary greetings and, perhaps, one carefully construed insight, I’m at a loss. I’m not even conversant in guitar.

But unlike French, I can’t learn the language of guitar by playing more. The fact is I hit a wall and it becomes a strange, unwieldy thing in my hands rather than an instrument. Still, I find my reckoning with the guitar, with making music, a constant education — and not just about the guitar.

There are times, usually when I’m feeling loose and good (ahem), that I begin writing these little ditties. I’ll feel a certain inspiration and some lick comes out of me (writing that here, I am suddenly quite taken with this word, lick — a reaching taste, tongue taking in a moment of the world). But even in these inspired moments, I hit that same wall. I don’t know what to do next.

But it’s not because there’s a lack of things to do. The canvas is not blank. It’s chock full, filled to the brim. I could do this Steven Stills thing; that VU type thingy; move into that down strum, two string new wave kinda thingy; bang away either punky or Sabbathy.

As Deleuze says in his great book on Francis Bacon, the artist doesn’t come to a blank canvas. He comes to a canvas overflowing with the already done, with cliché. The artist’s job is not to create something from nothing; it’s to create something new from the old. It’s to slice away, take away, tear away as much as it is to add.

I see the sign on the music store wall in “Wayne’s World”: No Stairway to Heaven. Because picking up a guitar, our instinct — or my instinct, at least — is to become Jimmy Page, Kurt Cobain, Johnny Marr. It’s to be the rock star, the punk rocker, the folk hero. It’s to be someone else, to be what’s already been — and to sound just like him or, you know, more soulful. This is one of the great lessons of playing an instrument, something you learn in your very fiber as you play: cliché looms, cliché abounds, waiting for us all at every turn.

So I try to put aside all those pre-packaged licks, those readymade riffs. I take to the fret like a pioneer and begin plucking here, bending there, strumming odd chords. I shift rhythms, change strum patterns, alter volume and speed. I try to break the cliché (without becoming one — after all, breaking form takes many forms that, at this point, are all too tired).

And where do I end up? In the chaos of noise. I keep noodling, changing, shifting, alternating until whatever coherence there was has long dissipated. This is what drives children and girlfriends away, and quickly.

It’s an incredible experience that puts me face to face with the cosmos. I’m reaching, licking, for sense, for song, and can’t find it. It — that elusive musical sense, a song, a score, a piece of music — refuses to come into existence. It’s not that I am trying to make form from the formless. It’s that I’m trying to steer all these possibilities — these notes and riffs, these songs, these histories from Beethoven to Beck — into some kind of something that won’t come.

And just when I think I have something, just when I feel there might be a there there, I realize I’m playing “Sweet Jane” only syncopated. Damn. 

I can write an ok moment now and again. But I never know what to do with that moment, where to go next, what to do next. I see nothing and I see everything and it’s all just a big old jumbled mess.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXTDaufFC60]

And so I try simply to lay it down. To grab onto a riff and repeat it, over and over. I want that delirium of repetition. I want to slip inside the secret beat of life, the cosmic rhythm, and be carried along its currents, grooving for eternity.

But I can’t. I try to repeat the riff. I really do. I tell myself, Just play that same stupid thing over and over. I go two, four, seven measures. And then I come in early or late; I add a beat, an upstroke, an accidental flourish that doesn’t fit. I get flustered, confused. I have no idea where I am anymore. Am I behind? Ahead? I don’t know. It’s humiliating.

So I try to take lead. Maybe if I sit on top of the groove, I can ride its wave, pushing and pulling with my mad minor blues scales. And for a moment there, I’m rocking! I’m at the very crest of cosmic becoming! I am the lizard king! And just as soon as I find it, it’s gone. I flub a note, screw the rhythm, get smothered by the wave. Once again, humiliation.

But trying to find it, to feel it, to ride it is an education. O, to find that groove of grooves, to slide on in, to be taken in by the pull of the universe itself! To ride that wave! If only I knew how to swim.

To play an instrument is to reckon the cosmos. As you try to make sense, to get in groove, you come up against the terrible tyranny of cliché on one hand and the terrifying abyss of chaos on the other. It is a humbling education that places your entire body and mind — your very being — in the thick and thin of it.

Of course, some people move well with music. My friend Eugene crafts crafty songs readily and has been doing so since he was five. No joke. He speaks music; he thinks in music. Me, I think in words. I can parry clichés or embrace them and feel comfortable. This is not to say that I write well; it’s only to say that I’m comfortable in the medium, with its way of operating, its set of demands. I can split infinitives, shift voice, make references and feel just fine.

But with music? Oy vey. How do I make my way amidst that torrential team of possibility, that storm of what is, what has been, what can be — all those songs, notes, moods, progressions? Can I catch a groove, if only for a spell? Can I spin the world fantastic, even if only once? How? What do I do? How do I position myself? What is my posture to be?

Even Eugene, that musical whiz, must turn and face the frenzy. Such is the task of life. We live inundated with cliché while chaos looms, relentless and merciless. Such is our fate. This is what we do as we dress, talk, kiss, write. Playing music amplifies the challenge, bringing the lesson to the fore — all the more because I suck.