Two Ears and a Tale

I hate my left big toe. If I were going to shell out the dough to have one part of my body surgically “corrected,” that little piggy would win. As a result of botched podiatric surgery in my childhood, I essentially have no toenail on that digit. I find only small consolation in the knowledge that if I ever lose a thumb in a tragic accident, they could graft my toe on in its place, and nobody would be the wiser.

But now I have a new body part to despise: my fingers. They may appear normal to the untrained eye, but I know better. My fingertips are fleshy and fat, and their accuracy is woefully inadequate. And these shortcomings are hindering my progress toward become a guitar virtuoso. Or just a guitar player, period.

Learning to play guitar had never been a priority for me. I’m a singer; other people accompany me. But since forming the wholesome folk group the Two Lads, it’s become apparent that I need to know how. Because, as Behind the Music has shown, inevitably our band will start having “artistic differences,” and one fateful night at the Owl ‘n’ Thistle the saw player and I will come to blows, and I’ll be forced to go solo.

Thirty-three feels a bit old to be picking up a new instrument, but how hard could it be? I’ve known lots of guitarists, and they weren’t all Nobel Prize contenders. Besides, surely I’d excel at any activity where fretting is encouraged.

Knowing virtually nothing about the mechanics of the guitar, purchasing my first instrument was a daunting task. Obviously I couldn’t tip my hand to my bandmates by asking for their assistance, so I recruited another friend who’s played in numerous combos and even worked in a music store for a spell.

As I waited for my guide to meet me at Guitar Center, I perused the dizzying selection of instruments, trying to ward off sales people by looking nonchalant: “Ho hum, another checkerboard Les Paul flying V. . . . I have one of those in a closet somewhere. . . .” I felt vulnerable, like any second some Eddie Van Halen-look-alike would come up and convince me to trade my proverbial cow for a handful of magic beans.

My friend arrived and led me to the acoustic guitar showroom. As he rattled off confusing details about wood types and solid bodies, he picked up one instrument after another and strummed. Finally he thrust one at me: “Try this baby.” I set it on my knee, as I’d seen countless other players do before, and waited for instruction.

Play something,” prompted my friend. I looked at him helplessly. That’s why I’m buying a guitar, I reminded him—so I can learn how. He showed me the fingering for a C chord, and I strummed. Not bad. I tried my new trick out on a few different models, horribly conscious that everyone else in the room was testing their prospective purchases with a transposed Mozart cantata or a ditty from the Joe Satriani songbook. But eventually, I found one I liked.

I’ve just about mastered that C chord in the past two weeks. A, E, and D are coming along nicely, too. But don’t get me started on G. I curl my hand into a painful claw and try to form the correct shape, but my fat digits refuse to settle on a single string apiece. I meditate on visions of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, praying for long, slender fingers, but to little avail. Worse yet, after just 45 minutes of practice a night, my tender fingertips are too sore to go on.

After a week of playing the same basic chords ad infinitum, I decided to tackle a song. My unconventional instruction text, however, eschews such silliness. Beginning guitar books simply waste practice time with hoary old chestnuts, the author complains. “Who wants to learn ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ in this day and age?” Well, I do—I’m in a wholesome folk group.

I go down to the basement and root around for the material from my old cabaret act, hoping some of the sheet music features guitar notation. Alas, “Hard Hearted Hannah” and “Autumn Leaves” involve complicated chords and changes that bear a startling resemblance to trigonometry equations.

So I keep practicing my five rudimentary chords, praying that someday G will come as easily as C and I can progress to page two in my instruction manual. I wear rubber gloves to wash the dishes so my fingers will build up protective calluses faster. I never imagined my life could come to this, going to such extremes just in the vain hope that someday I’d be able to fumble through “Scotch and Soda” without drawing blood or looking at the frets.

Maybe I should just spend more time being nice to our saw player.