Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guitar Lessons

I come from a family of musicians. On my mother's side, anyway—the members of my father's side of the family have trouble enough playing the radio, let alone any musical instruments. My mother and aunt dabbled with the piano when they were young; their mother has been playing jazz and boogie woogie piano semi-professionally for years; her younger brother played blues guitar; their youngest brother plays the blues on the mighty Hammond B-3 professionally; and their father, my great-grandfather, Pa, played bluegrass and skiffle on the banjo almost his entire life. These years of musicianship were passed down through the generations and have landed with me—an acoustic guitarist by trade. It's my hope to continue passing down my family's ear for music to my children, should that day ever come.

I first picked up the guitar when I was eleven. Just like everyone else who picked up the guitar for the first time, I had big dreams: songwriting, playing in a band, record deals, world tours, changing the world, and the face of rock and roll forever. And girls. Of course, there were the girls to consider. Even in the sixth grade, girls were flocking to boys who wore Led Zeppelin t-shirts and played electric guitars. The boys in my school could only run a few scales and maybe even play three chords (which, if we are to learn anything from the punk rock scene, that's really all you need), but girls loved them nonetheless.

The boys even brought their guitars to school. Sat around in the choir room during study hall, said to each other, “Hey, dude, check this out,” and would strum out “Louie, Louie.” The girls swooned and another boy would smirk, then retort, “Yeah, well check this out,” play the three same exact chords and mumble the words to “Wild Thing” or “La Bamba.”

This went on for years—all through middle school, all through high school. Boys attempting to impress girls, and even each other, with their guitars. Some people even made careers out of it. Their scales and chords got more complicated, their sense of rhythm and strumming patterns evolved, they started writing their own songs and incorporating other musical influences into their repertoires. Then, of course, as soon as the girls they were attempting to impress became disinterested in their guitars, so did they.

I was one of the few that never really cared much for rock music. At that time in my life, I was far more interested in the music my family listened to—American folk, jazz, and blues. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, George Gershwin, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan. While my friends in high school sat on Napster, illegally downloading Metallica MP3's then learning the songs by printing guitar tablature by the ream, I was sitting cross-legged on Pa's living room floor, listening to his old vinyl records through a pair of my uncle's old studio headphones, circa 1973. I learned the old songs on the acoustic guitar by slowing the record speed down and picking around on the fretboard until I found the note that sounded the same as the one Robert Johnson was playing.

That guy sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of two dusty country roads in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi to learn blues guitar—my method seemed a much safer alternative.

My parents eventually enrolled me in guitar lessons. When I was 12 or so. Figured if I were going to become a serious guitarist, I should learn from a serious guitarist.

They enrolled me at a local guitar shop in Joliet and drove me there every Tuesday night for my lesson at 7pm; my teacher was Gustavo "Gus" Gutierrez, a sweet old Cuban man who was approaching his 70's. Every Tuesday night, he'd show up ten minutes late, wearing a white, V-neck undershirt, black slacks and sandals, his belly bulging over his waistband and his breath smelling of booze. Bursting through the door, semi-triumphantly, he'd stretch out his arms and proclaim, “Mi amigo! Que pasa, hombre?

I'd exclaim, equally as enthusiastically, “Gus! Oye como va, mi profesor?” and he laughed because he knew I was trying to be clever. All the Spanish I knew came from Santana song titles.

He'd sit down in his chair, pop the buckles of his guitar case open, pull out his beautiful semi-hollow body guitar, its sunburst finish and always freshly polished silver frets glistening in the low light of the practice room. He'd close his eyes, and effortlessly run a few jazz scales. “A quick calamiento. Need to clear the cobwebs,” then wink at me. It was like being with family, watching him play.

And every week, he'd forget what we were practicing the week before.

So, because I had a more enjoyable time just listening to him play, I would lie to him: "Well, last week we finished this song,”—I'd wave a piece of sheet music in front of him—“and you said you were going to play this song for me this week," then I'd pull any random song out of his rusty filing cabinet.

“Ah, yes. I remember very clearly now. Que bonita un canción .”

In the 1950's and 60's, he was a rhythm guitarist for a jazz combo in Chicago and they'd play the standards; songs like "Unforgettable," "San Antonio Rose" and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Loves You)." Every week, he'd introduce the new song to me by explaining the first time he'd heard it, the first time he'd played it and the audience's reaction. He'd tell me the stories for ten, fifteen minutes while absentmindedly strumming his guitar. Then, without any pause, he'd immediately transition into the song, singing his old Cuban heart out, his voice cracking and warbling under the strain of years of smoking cigarettes in dive nightclubs. It was almost magical to watch his old fingers weaving mellow tones into the air. Watching him lose himself in the music of his yesterdays. Before we knew it, it was 7:35 and the shop manager would knock on the glass window of the door and indicate that some other kid was waiting for his lesson.

Ay, ay, ay, chinga tu madre,” he'd say, and wave the manager away. “This kid that's coming in, Andres—he doesn't give a shit for the classics. He doesn't know how to make that guitar sing like we do. That's why the women will never sing for him. Am I right?” Another wink. “Now, you go home and practice this one,” and he'd gently place the sheet music for “Summertime” in my folder, hand it back to me. “You go home and play this canción and a beautiful woman will fall in love with you. Guaranteed.”


One week, he just stopped showing up for lessons and I had to start taking lessons from another teacher who wasn't nearly as talented and wasn't nearly as passionate about music as Gus was. So I quit taking lessons after about three more weeks, having never really learned anything after almost a full two years of taking them.

I saw Gus almost two years later, in a grocery store, with what appeared to be his personal caretaker. Gus was wearing the same white V-neck undershirt, with sweat and food stains all over it, his hair was greasy and completely disheveled. Instead of his characteristic black slacks and sandals, he was walking around in boxers and slippers, buying cheap frozen pizzas and Ramen noodles.

Pa, although he was never a fan of the music I started learning after I graduated from my own school of folk, was very encouraging and always eager to listen to whatever I learned. I suppose he got his patience from parenting three musicians who played music that he didn't like, and grandparenting two musicians who'd tinker on his upright piano's keyboard until they go so frustrated with it that they both just gave up. I like to think that he suffered through my playing because he would have much rathered I play music he couldn't stand than giving up on music all together.

Even though the banjo was his instrument of choice, he had dabbled with the guitar in the early days too; and, in the corner of his living room, resting against the wall was his prized possession—a Gibson acoustic guitar from the 1930's. He told me that during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, while living on a farm in Kentucky, he'd play that guitar to get through the day. It stayed with him his whole life—as far as I know, always resting in the corner of his living room.

He never let anyone touch it. His own children weren't hardly allowed to even look at it. When my cousins got anywhere near it, he'd shout “Scram!” and shake his cane at them. I, on the other hand, was given full access to it. I never knew why, but I never questioned it either.

At every family gathering—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas—, when all of the family was in town, we'd meet at Pa's house for a party and dinner. And, at every family gathering, every musician in the family would pull out their respective instruments and we'd all play music together well into the evening. Pa played too, but as his progressed into his late 70's, and into his 80's, he became weaker and weaker, to the point where he couldn't play with us anymore. So he sat in his easy chair and tapped his fingernail on the wooden armrest, keeping time.

I knew not being able to pick at the banjo anymore killed him more than his advancing years did. No matter how much joy the music we played brought him, there was always that part of his heart slowly dying with each note.

During the Christmas of 1998, I ambled over to him with his guitar, sat down on the edge of the coffee table across from his easy chair, set the guitar down in front of him, “Teach me something, Pa.”

He furrowed his eyebrows, wrinkled up his weathered face, and admitted, “Aw, hell, I couldn't even pick up that damned thing let alone play it.”

I shrugged. I knew he was flattered at my request. And I knew his response, no matter callous it sounded coming from him, was humble.

“Eh, fine. I can show you something. You ever hear of harmonics?”

I shook my head, no, I hadn't.

So he reached out his shaking, fragile hand to mine, grabbed a hold of it, spread my fingers slightly apart, and guided my middle finger to the twelfth fret. "Like this," he directed. "Now pluck that top string." I did, and the guitar made the most pathetic sound I'd ever heard. It was just a muted pluck. The sound of dead weight.

“Like that...?”

“No, no, no, not like that, goddammit.” If I hadn't known the man for 13 years, if he hadn't been Pa, that man would have terrified me. He was in 80's, but had a fierce snarl and a rough, raspy voice that inspired fear in anyone he scolded. But his bark was worse than his bite.

“Well, what am I doing wrong? I did everything you said.”

His eyes widened with surprise. “The hell you did,” he scoffed. “I didn't tell ya to strangle the damn guitar's neck. You've gotta learn to be more gentle, Andrew. Don't force it. Just let the note be the note. You're just guiding it along.”

He grabbed my wrist again, pulled it away from the neck, gave it a shake. “There ya go. Now, relax,” as he guided it back, reset my middle finger at the twelfth fret. “Now, just lightly rest it there. Don't press it. Don't force it. Just lean on it a little. 'Til you're hardly even touching it at all.”

I did as he instructed, carefully eying the way the fleshy round of my finger sat on the E-string, making sure the skin didn't fold itself around it. When I plucked the string, the guitar sang out like a bell. The sound of overtones rising and falling, building and collapsing over themselves, the beautiful note's song wafting in the air between us. The wavelengths of the string, in half-time, stretching far back into his youth and far ahead into my unknown and momentarily tying the two of us together in a fleeting moment of mutual understanding.

He closed his eyes, grinned his toothless grin, sat back in his chair. I wanted to play the harmonic again, but didn't dare disturb the calm.

“Good. Good,” he finally affirmed. “Now ain't that the damned prettiest thing you've ever heard?”

It was.

“I don't expect you to understand this now. But someday you will. It's good and well to show off your strength and really press into these frets. The strings will discipline you. You'll build up callouses like this one here” and he tapped my fingertip. “Those callouses will help you. Makes you tough. Gives you hands like mine. Hell. He lifted his hand, worn and weathered, calloused and hardened by the years and scratched at his scraggly white beard. “But sometimes you need a more gentle touch.” He paused, possibly to consider what he was saying. “A more gentle touch, Andrew. That's when you really hear the beauty.” He looked past my shoulder at his wife of 60-plus years, Gwen; his wife who would pass a mere five months later.

“You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.”

The next Christmas was the last we spent at Pa's house. His wife passed in May of that year and Pa was slowly dying of heartache. I used to have my dad drive me over to his house for chats. We spent most of our time together talking about old music, old times, and his wife. I went there to spend time with him, to help him clean up, to help him haul firewood from the backyard to the fireplace in the dining room.
And I went for the occasional guitar lesson.

That Christmas, after dinner was drawing to a close, Pa hoisted himself up with his cane and excused himself from the table. My grandmother got up to help him to his feet and he protested, “Get the hell off, goddammit. I've been able to stand up on my own two goddamn feet for 80 years, I certainly don't need any help now,” then shuffled his way back into the living room. The family stayed at the table, gave each other exasperated glances of worry for dear old Pa. “He's not well,” “His heart is broken,” “I don't think he has much longer.”

I excused myself and followed him into the living room, found him sitting in his easy chair. He was hunched over a TV tray, examining a newspaper with a magnifying glass.

“Heya, Pa.”

He looked up, saw me squinting at the newspaper, trying to figure out what he was reading.

“What the hell's the matter with ya?” His customary greeting.

“Nothing, Pa. Full from dinner. Whatcha reading there?”

“Obituaries. I've outlasted all these poor bastards. Just look at me. I'm in the prime of my life!”

I laughed. “Yeah, I should say so. Hey, so I learned a new song I wanted to play for you. Want to hear it?”

“Aw, hell, can't you let me read for a minute?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, that's fine,” and started rifling through his old records, pulling out some of them and turning them over in my hands. “Oh! Pa! It's this one!” I held up an old Hank Williams record. One of his favorites.

“Aw, hell, go ahead and play yer damned song then.”

I knew he would say that.

So I made my way over to his guitar, picked it up, and assumed my regular position on the edge of the coffee table. Sat directly across from him, so he could see the chords. Gently and slowly I strummed a C, first the root, then the bass—an old country and western strumming pattern he had taught me. Switched to the F, to the G, then back to the C. First the root, then the bass, in ¾ time:

I heard the lonesome whippoorwill
he sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I sang the song, sweet and low, with my eyes closed, then ended it with a harmonic on the twelfth fret of the G-string. For good measure.

And as the overtone rose up and swelled in mid-air, I opened my eyes and looked up at Pa to see if my song had gotten his approval. I was surprised to see that his eyes were still closed—closed eyes and a blank, expressionless face. One tear streaked down his wrinkled face and was lost in his beard.

I had never seen Pa cry before. Not even at his wife's funeral, not even when we drove away from her grave. I was surprised at how little it bothered me. How little it bothered me to see this 84 year old man, who had always stood out to me as a pillar of manhood, who always kept his strength, who never showed weakness, sitting across from me and shedding his brazen exterior to reveal the man underneath it all. I was surprised, in the low light of his living room, with just the two of us—the oldest and the youngest man of the family—and his guitar in my lap, the only thing between us, at how beautiful it was. How beautiful it was to see this gentle spirit that I had never seen before, and in a month's time, never see again.

You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.

I'm still learning.