Tuesday, February 06, 2007
A quick plugBy the way, I do want to take a moment and put in a good word for South Pasadena Music, the store where I bought my guitar. The place is the best of a small local business: personalized customer service, excellent selection of eclectic (and useful) high-quality instruments, extremely competitive prices... can't say too much about them. I have a couple of rather fat Guitar Center gift cards wasting away in my wallet because I'd rather patronize these guys than the corporate giant.
If you are in the neighborhood, stop by. Tell Walter that Kathy sent you ... maybe he'll give me another free pick.
(Still can't use one to save my soul, but just having a guitar pick in your pocket takes 10 years off your chronological age. Perhaps 15.)
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 10:53 PM 0 comments
Friday, February 02, 2007
The Rock 'n' Roll, baby
You know, it's not all about serenity and shit. Sometimes it really is about just cutting loose.
For Christmas, I bought Chris a bass guitar and lessons. I signed him up for lessons, and found out that for five dollars more, a second person could join him.
Mmmm. Who could that be, I wonder?
Two days later, I buy myself my own Chirstmas present.
Like Gollum and his birthday present, this piece of exquisite machinery is immediately my precious. I stroke it when I'm not playing it. I look at it on its stand in the corner of my room and I memorize its curves and the way it displaces space in a way I've never memorized any man, any car, or any piece of personal adornment.
I remember once, when Jack was still very much an infant, during some sleep-deprived somewhat hallucinogenic pre-dawn feeding, I looked down at his face, his fat pink cheeks and his tiny tender clenched fists. I had a sudden pang of awareness that this sweet child, almost certainly the last baby I would ever bear, would be grown up before I knew it. I held his warm little hand against my mouth and memorized how his fingers felt against my lips, the exact shape of them, their temperature, the bumps of his knuckles, the softness of the flesh on the back. That same ravenous desire to consume is close to how I look upon my new bass guitar.
Closer than I'll ever admit.
I have no clue how to play it. The beauty I see in it and the love I have for it no way remotely matches the sounds that I produce from it. When I play, the strings buzz like little chain saws, my fingers clutch at the strings like they are made of loopy strands of silly putty. My left hand reaches up to press on the strings with a painful contortion that immediately makes every muscle in my arm spasm and cramp.
I am unsure how to put the strap on. I am unsure how high it should be. I secretly want it to be up near my neck so I can hunch over it, like Tiny Tim and his ukulele. I want to have arms that are 16 inches longer, with gumby-like joints instead of old elbows and shoulders. My inner right thigh starts bruising from where the bass jams into my leg as I sit cross-legged on my bed, straining to find that right angle of leverage and attack.
There is so much to learn. My god -- the complexity of four strings and a stick of wood! There are so many ways to pluck the strings, press down on the strings, intonate the strings. Where to put my thumb, where to position my right fingers, how to tweak up my left hand to best reach all the notes, what part of my finger pads to press the strings down with, whether to press right on the frets, right behind the frets, or in the middle of the frets. I know there is a huge difference in how different things sound, but my untrained ears are still staggering around like clumsy oafs, unable to understand any but the most gross refinements.
I so love being at the beginning of the learning curve that I can barely sleep.
Our first lesson, the teacher starts us off with a C Major scale. I watch my fingers try to bend to the various notes with the fascination of watching a slow car accident. Nooooo, my brain goes…. Nooooooo… noootttttt theeeerrrrreeee…. but the slo-mo thoughts are never fast or imperative enough to get to the fingers before they spasmodically slap down on the wrong fret, or flop over the string so that the sound is closer to the wet thumping of an Orca's tail against an oil drum than to anything remotely similar to music.
No, music is the last thing on my mind. I am so completely taken aback at my level of incompetence, I instantly revert to my old school-day strategies: I use my brain. I tackle this thing on an intellectual level. I may be physically retarded and my old body may be unwilling to bend to my will, but by god, I can still analyze things into complete submission.
So the first thing I do is play the C-Major scale until it becomes less like a hostile menacing stranger and more like a distant relative that I might smile at at a huge family reunion.
The next day I wake up and instead of lolling around, dreading the day's list, I am up and sitting with the guitar before I'm even fully conscious. I play the scale and realize that, miraculously, overnight that distant relative has become kind of a conversant new friend. I play it over and over until I start getting sloppy. Then I stop.
The next time I play it (perhaps a few minutes after I’m actually supposed to be out the door for work), it's an old friend.
That night, it's mine.
I start losing one and two hour chunks of my life to this endeavor. In a few days I've memorized all the major scales and play them up and down the first five frets until they are as natural as brushing my teeth. I then write them down and notice that there are distinct patterns emerging. I study the patterns until I see the deep beauty of how they work, like suddenly understanding the golden mean in a flower blossom, or getting with a flash of intuition exactly how the angles in a triangle work together.
It's poetry, all this elegance. It’s math with juice.... the juice of communication and emotion and a profound physical alteration of reality. It's math with soul. I go online and intoxicate myself with research, reading about shape note singing and the way an octave is divided up into 1200 "cents," with each interval nicely allocated its own 100 cents (would that be a dollar?). There are theories of music that include words like "propriety" and "coherence." Not only does music have this deep structural elegance, it's also a seething wet orgy of metaphor. I feel flushed after a session of Wikipdedia, like I need to take a slightly cold shower or smoke a cigarette.
In our third lesson, the teacher shows up a pentatonic minor scale, with the added "blue note" – the addition of a note that just exquisitely takes this scale and makes it into jazz, into the blues, into... music. It's such an achingly perfect note that I am in a lather to deconstruct it, figure out why it works so well, determine how the intervals work in a pentatonic scale so that I can find this intensely perfect note in every key. This note is like the scale's clitoris... you press it and the whole thing shudders into life, crying and laughing at the same time.
I draw pictures of keyboards and fretboards on all blank surfaces in my life and use them to count out intervals. I figure out the 2-1-2-2-1-2-2 pattern of the minor scale and the 3-2-2-3-2 pentatonic. I know right where that sexy little blue note goes. I say the names of the keys out loud I drive, try to start visualizing the music that I start listening to repeatedly . I give myself pop quizzes before I go to sleep, and pretty soon I am almost sure of the names of all the keys on the first five frets.
The underlying patterns are a heady narcotic. For me, the mistress of extrapolation, finding all the patterns is addictive, like playing a juicy game. The more I delve, the more it opens up.
Where it's going, I don't know. But in the meantime let me give you a little hint: give yourself a treat and crank up a bit of Clapton or Deep Purple at your earliest convenience. Yes, it's reverting a bit but, come ON -- if you don't deserve some good old fashioned rock 'n' roll, who does?
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 10:41 AM 1 comments