To Play or not to Play

I remember the first guitar I ever bought. It was 18 years ago, I was an up and coming rock star who happened to be studying business at university while away on a year long exchange program in England. Feeling like the time was right to master the instrument and start recruiting members for my as yet unnamed band, I laid down $70 of my hard-borrowed drinking money for a classic hollow body 6-string acoustic that may or may not have been made of real wood. In hindsight, an irresponsible purchase to say the least considering it meant I would have to go without food for 2 weeks, but it felt like an absolutely necessary purchase at the time. Rock stardom waited for no one.

I played that guitar like clock work….for about 3 weeks.  Then it sat in the corner of my dorm room, only coming out late at night after much heckling from my roommates who apparently couldn’t wait any longer to hear my much-ballyhooed intro to the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s 1999 classic “Scar Tissue”. Or rather, my roommates couldn’t wait any longer to hear my attempt to play the intro to the Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s 1999 Classic “Scar Tissue”.  After a pathetic 3 weeks worth of practising, I couldn’t play that song, or any other mildly recognizable tune for that matter. It was live entertainment at it’s finest.

That guitar did not come back with me to Canada.  It would seem rock stardom did indeed wait for a select few.

My second guitar was purchased a couple years later after finishing university. Gone were the troubling memories of my botched Scar Tissue intros, which had now been replaced with the same fresh enthusiasm that led me to purchase that first $70 guitar in England.  Once again, I was going to be a guitar god and the band was getting back together (admittedly, the band had never formed – but these were just minor details).  This time I went to a local guitar shop and picked up something with a bit more flash, something that I could be proud of for many years, something that was suitable for my pathetic level of play but also suitable for the global arena rock tours that beckoned. So this time, I laid down something closer to $500 for a guitar that most accomplished musicians would be proud of.  I, on the other hand, had yet to learn a chord other than the not so well known “C Shit”.  It was much like a C Major, but with a bit of unintended twang.

When buying a guitar of this quality, it is entirely normal for the guitar salesperson to expect some informed questioning coupled with a perfectly natural (dare I say normal) desire for the prospective buyer to test-drive/play a variety of guitars before making a decision. I, of course, would disappoint on both fronts.

Salesperson: Welcome to Guitar Land, take a look around, if you see something you like just let me know. We’ll plug it in and let you give’r a rip.

Me: How much is that bright shiny blue one?

Salesperson: You mean the Takamine 650DL Deluxe Super Pro?

Me: Yeah, that one, the one with the cool looking dark blue/light blue shading on the front it.

Salesperson: Let me get it down so you can take’r for a ….

Me: NO NO, that won’t be, uh, necessary.  I’m sure it plays perfectly well.  Just how much is it?

Salesperson: $550

Me: Wrap it up

The fact that I left that store with a brand new $550 guitar and neglected to ask for an amplifier to plug it into, or the necessary chords to do so was not lost on the salesperson.  I picked those up about 2 weeks later after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to head back to the store while not running into the same salesperson that sold me the Takamine 650DL Deluxe Super Pro, which took 3 trips.

That same guitar sits by me as I write this.  It looks brand new, because for all intents and purposes it is.  I’ve had that same youthful excitement of getting back into guitar playing a number of times over the years, but each is short lived and each leaves me equally unable to play a single damn song that anyone would recognize.  I’ve never taken a lesson, always attempted to self teach….I had a pretty rocking rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb going for a period of time, but even that song I have now long since forgot.

The third guitar I purchased was relatively recently, only a couple years ago.  Once again overcome with a deep inner desire to play this damn instrument like my last name was Hendrix, I took the plunge with a new purchase.  This time there was no messing about. This time, I was going to buy my dream guitar, I was going to spend so much damn money on a new guitar that I would be financially obliged to play it every day for hours on end.  This was the same logic I used when signing up for a $200/month gym membership, and it’s the only reason why the Vitamix Company is in business.

Many years since my last visit, I once again entered Guitar Land and gravitated towards my holy grail – the wall of Fender Stratocaster guitars. An instantly recognizable, iconic guitar revered and played by some of the most famous of guitarists in history – Eric Clapton, Jimmy Hendrix, The Edge, and now Mark Howells. The beauty of these guitars had captivated me ever since rocking the plastic version while playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox, which by the way is some of the best guitar I have ever played in my life.  The only issue was that while a Nintendo Wii costs about $300, a Fender Stratocaster could cost about 10+ times that.  But my faulty logic was at play here, and it was high time for the mother of all upgrades.  If my $550 purchasing experience so many years earlier was awkward to be a part of, this one was pure cringe inducing.  Nobody, or at least nobody that my latest salesperson had ever dealt with in all his 20 years of selling guitars, buys a $3,000 guitar without so much as holding the damn thing. But there was no way in hell I was going to strap this legendary instrument on, plug it in to an amp, awkwardly strum an ill-sounding C Shit chord a few times and say “Plays great, I’ll take it”. Instead, I went with “I’ll take the red one”.

At this point the Salesperson felt so bad he actually tried to sell me a much cheaper replica version, almost begging me to reunite myself with my own common sense.

“You know, Fender offers this exact same guitar under their Squier line. Identical looking, but made in China. For 99.99999% of guitarists (i.e. YOU)  it’s perfectly adequate, if not preferred. Would cost you $450, all-in”. Unfortunately, what this well-meaning salesperson did not know was that there was no way in hell I was leaving that store without nearly bankrupting myself.

“Not interested in the Squier, it has to be the Fender.”

The Squier would of course saved me $2,500. Not to mention the fact that a C Shit chord sounds just the same on an Squier as it does on a Fender.  A C Shit chord actually sounds identical on a $70 faux wooden guitar for that matter.

“You’re the boss…” said my dejected salesperson, who’d presumably just made a commission he and his family could be proud of.  And with that, I was out the door, this time with an amplifier, destined to play the guitar once more.

The final step in my guitar playing journey came when I signed up for in-person lessons with a guitar instructor – the first time ever having done so in my 18 year guitar playing journey. I did so shortly after acquiring my new red beauty. No more Google or YouTube, I had a $3,000 guitar on my hands and it was not going to sit in any corner collecting dust like all the rest. Arriving for my first lesson, my new instructor and me had the usual introductory small talk.  I explained that I had been playing guitar off and on for 18 years, we talked about what kind of music I liked, and what I was hoping to accomplish from the lessons. Then it came time to get down to business.

Each getting our guitars out of their respective cases, I unveiled my $3,000 shimmering white Fender Stratocaster while the professional instructor sitting across from me unveiled his well used standard tan colour no name acoustic – presumably worth a few hundred dollars back when it was purchased some 20 years prior.

“Whoa! That is quite the instrument you have there Mark, a good many professional musicians would give their right arm for one of those!”

This much I knew all too well and I suddenly found myself being haunted by the memory of that salesperson pleading with me to go for the Chinese knock off and not flush my money down the toilet.

“Yeah, always wanted one of these, treated myself”.  There was simply no rationale way to justify why I owned this guitar to someone I had just met who happened to be in the music business.

“That you did!” It was not completely obvious, but his head was definitely shaking as he said those words.

Recalling my comment about playing on and off for the last 18 years and seeing my $3,000 guitar strapped around my neck, my instructor offered to do some jamming with me to get things started. He was eager to hear the tone of my solid Ash artfully crafted ultra high-end guitar.  Before strumming a C-Shit, it was now necessary for me to clarify my comments and attempt to explain the difference between “owning” a guitar for 18 years vs. “playing” a guitar for 18 years.  The follow up question “So why the hell do you have a $3,000 Stratocaster?” was left unsaid.

So rather than “jam”, I broke out a couple of my favourite chords for my instructor to enjoy making sure he was crystal clear about where exactly the bar was to be set for this first lesson, despite the abundance of high end equipment surrounding us. And there we sat, my instructor making beautiful music with his run of the mill banged up guitar, and me fumbling through dull, off-pitch dead sounds with my Strat.   Packing up his gear, my instructor left me with my homework for the week – to practise a number of his prescribed chords other than my famous C Shit. It was kind of like a driving instructor telling his new 16-year old client how to buckle his seat belt, who happens to be behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

18 years, 3 guitars, and a grand total spent of $3,620, the question becomes what have I learned? Well one thing we know that I have not learned, is how to play the guitar. But as I sit here, staring at my $200/month health club membership card and thinking I could definitely use an $800 Vitamix smoothie maker, the answer is obvious.  I need a better amplifier.

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