The event that led to my lifelong passion for guitars occurred on New Years Eve in 1958. I would be ten in a few months. My dad was a professor at Northwestern University and my parents were attending a New Years eve party at a faculty member’s house in one of those nice suburbs on the North Shore of Chicago – probably Winnetka or Wilmette. My parents weren’t the only guests without a sitter, so a small group of children were relegated to the den where it was hoped that the television would entertain us while our parents partied. The big movie being shown that night was “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo”.
The hostess and our parents checked in on us occasionally and eventually the hostess noticed some of the older children were getting bored, my brother and myself among them. She showed us to their basement where they had some games, a dart board and a table tennis table. She said we were free to play with anything we found. The house owners had older children who no longer lived at home. I don’t remember the details but I think there was only one table tennis ball which we lost under the washing machine. The children who had come downstairs eventually drifted back to the TV room. Except for me. I found an old, cheap acoustic guitar on a shelf.
I was mesmerized, dazzled and awed. I had always loved music, but here was an instrument which I just didn’t understand. I got that you did something with your left hand to change the notes played and something with your right hand to make the notes sound. But the number of strings just didn’t fit the number of fingers on either hand. Six strings, but only four fingers for fretting and four or five fingers (with thumb) for plucking. How did that work?
There was an instruction book with the guitar and I worked out how to get the guitar into relative tune with itself. I spent the rest of the evening experimenting with sounds I could get out of the instrument. Although I didn’t know the names at the time, I discovered how to play the chords Am, Am7, A, Asus4, G6 and probably a few others. By the time I was forced to leave the basement so we could return home, I had composed my first tune. Or at least a basic version of something I still play from time to time.
More importantly I was obsessed. The instrument was a challenge and I was determined to conquer it. But the allure just wasn’t the challenge but the way I could create sounds which moved me.
That New Years Eve party was more than fifty years ago. I’m still attempting to conquer the challenge of the guitar. I still am moved by guitarists and guitar music, and sometimes by my own playing.
How did you get the guitar playing bug?
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