Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My Guitar Journey

What is it about the Guitar?  My Mother made sure we were exposed plenty to music.  For me, that meant, a few years of Piano lessons, Clarinet in school, and quite alot of Marimba, even in High School, when Piano and Clarinet had pretty much fallen off the edge of the world.  Of course, I would always love to pound on the Piano.   We always had a bunch of music around the house.  From toys to aging instruments someone picked up along the way---none of us, to my knowledge, ever took up the zither or mandolin that we had around.  

Truman Eugene Davis, Sr., my grandfather was a musician of some skill.  He played a few songs for us (I don't remember him playing the guitar, but I could not swear under oathwheter he played  Clementine or some of those other traditional songs on his banjo, or a guitar).  He had "sweet potatoes" (also called Ocarina) around the house.  I don't know how many of us ever saw him play the saw, as I did at the Christmas parties of the Exchange Club, to which he took me some years.  He bought a pretty nice Baldwin organ later on, and played on it, maybe even took lessons.  Mom, who was an excellent organist, played it, even to the point she was often accused of shirking the dishwashing responsibilities after family holiday dinners---I would say unfairly, because her playing was so fine, and, in my mind, an important element of those celebrations.  

What is Perfect Pitch?

Grandfather gifted me a ukelele.  I don't know which birthday or Christmas; there is a photograph around that would settle that.  We were at our house on Kenwood Road. He taught me to tune it: you know the drill, "My dog has fleas."  Recently I wondered whether I had those pitches down.  In other words, do I have any claim to perfect pitch, which has gone undeveloped in me, I fear. 

So I got out a tuning app on my android phone and sang the pitches: "My Dog Has Fleas."  Wow!   They were dead on.  I think to get the full effect of this training, I have to trick myself, though.  Some times I have been way off.  That one time, now I am in my 60s, was dead on.

Oliver Sachs, in _Musicophilia_, refers to that a large percentage of Chinese, speakers of a tone language, have perfect pitch.  He also refers to absolutely perfect pitch that has driven composers mad when they lost it, later in life.

I learned a few chords on the Uke, and could play a few songs.  I never took it very seriously, though.  I have recently read an interesting book on the history of the Ukelele: Jim Tranquada and John King. 2012. The Ukelele: A history. Honolulu: U Hawaii Press. There is a good deal of information in this book, as well as several articles available as pdfs online by these authors. 

My Guitar

 With all the music around me, and various instruments at my disposal, why I took to the Guitar with such keen enthusiasm, I will never know.  It is with me.  I bought my first guitar with money I earned at the family bakery.  This would have been in Junior High or early High School.  It was a crude plywood guitar, with strings that tortured the fingers.  But I fell at it.  My dream guitar would have been a two necked Carvin electric guitar. 

At that time, all I wanted, in terms of instruction, was a chord chart.  My friend Bill Coker did teach me two songs I learned, though:  _A Soulin_, by Peter, Paul and Mary, and _Baby Let Me Follow You Down_, by Bob Dylan.  

Later, when finally I bought a guitar from a friend, it was a classical guitar with nylon strings.  It was at this time, during my second year in College, while living at Grandmother's house, that I determined I started playing songs.  All I can say about that is that eventually I determined that my hands were unsuited for the guitar, but I would persevere anyway.  I determined that my fingers were too short, and their reach was too limited to enable me to perform the contortions required for truly interesting chords.  I saw the guitar as an instrument of chords; I still do, to a great extent.

On Saipan, cousin Mike Davis (since deceased) sent me a surprize in the mail.  We had hardly seen one another over the years.  He said I taught him some of the first riffs that got him started on the guitar.  I don't remember it much, unfortunately.  One day, on my 60th Birthday, he sent an email telling me that I had a package waiting at the Post Office.  He had just made a CD, and I hoped it was a copy of that.  But when Bob, the Post Office guy, went out to the back to retrieve my parcel, he rolled it out on a cart: and what do you think it was?!   A guitar!  

It was a Martin.  A "Little Martin."  I still have it, and will continue to do so until someone prys it out of my dead hands.  I had mentioned to Mike and Alicia that Fe has small hands, that I would have liked Fe to have a small guitar like Alicia's so we could play together.  Wow!  It was made of High Pressure Laminate, like some of Martin's guitars are today.  Mike felt that in the humidity of the tropics, it would stand up better.  The neck was the thing, though.  It was made of ripped strips of two kinds of wood, laminated together.  The fretwork was what made it great for me: I finally had a guitar that I could play a complicated chord and it sounded like that chord! 

Guitar Lessons

When William started taking Piano lessons, Fe wanted to take guitar lessons, something I definitely encouraged.  Within a month, she was reading music.  I don't think I had ever made that connection---that guitar music would necessarily be represented on a staff!   I was, frankly, jealous.  All those years, I never learned to read a single note.  I don't think I even realized that the strings were tuned to EADGBE.   I was having a great time tuning the Martin, and even the old Fender acoustic that Fe was using for the lessons. 

I signed up too.  That was something I had to learn.

At my first lesson,I told Ryan, our teacher, that I could never be a good guitar player, because of my small hands and stubby fingers.  He said, "Let's match hands!"  My Gawd, his hands were a near match to my own, and he plays guitar fantastically.  This was an eye opener for me, probably the most important thing I learned from taking lessons.  I learned some modicum of music reading skills, of course.  But this was when I started challenging myself to play complicated chords.  Ryan emphasized the need to learn the names of the chords, and to some extent I did.  To me, though, the Guitar continues in some way to transcend theory, note names, and written forms.  Of course I know this is untrue.  Not only that, I am somewhat obcessed now with Guitar theory.  Maybe because I don't understand it.

If only I had paid attention to the theory workbooks I was forced to do for Mr. Molay's piano lessons. 

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