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Tuesday, January 30, 2007


In high school, I took guitar lessons for a few years. After school, I would walk behind the tennis courts, up a hidden path, emerge on a larger street and walk a few more blocks to my teacher's house. His house had a small loquat tree in front and was musty and dark inside. He only wore purple jump suits, and had almost nothing in his refrigerator. He would play the guitar with a pencil in his hand, writing out the tablature for me after finding the right note. He would only eat food that didn't involve killing anything, including plants. He was working on a science fiction novel, of which he already written over 1000 pages. The story involved the last guitar player in the world (he assured me the character was not based on himself).

Telling him that I liked math,I found out that he was a victim of the phenomenon of "new math". This was the brilliant concept inspired by Sputnik in which students would learn set theory before addition. I suppose the idea was to teach math in a "logical" way in which concepts precede application. Unfortunately, my guitar teacher got stuck on the distributive law (a*(b+c)=a*b+a*c) and so never learned much else, being put into the stupid track for not being able to master this concept. I showed him how it worked and gave him a few examples, and he seemed supremely grateful to realize it wasn't as hard as it had seemed at the time.

At my dad's house, I had a nylon string Gibson guitar that probably sounded wonderful when my dad had first bought it (advised by my uncle), but it had a crack in the main board and certain tones caused odd vibrations or didn't project much at all. But I spent hours and hours playing around with simple picking patterns. I'd play a lot of minor chords and play the same things over and over. I also painted a lot at that time in my room, in a somewhat similar vein, taking simple acrylics and painting abstraction after abstraction. The guitar was quiet and the paint didn't smell or make too much of a mess. It was pretty great how much I could do in the small space without making much of an impact.

I started lessons again recently and my new guitar teacher gave me a DVD of Elizabeth Cotten to watch, and I was amazed to find out how much of what my earlier guitar teacher had taught me had come from her. Of course there was Freight Train, but even the picking patterns for Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan songs all had a similarity to Cotten's (she did influence those musicians). Cotten was pretty amazing.
She would sneak into her brother's room and play his guitar, first learning with it flat on her lap. She was left-handed, so when she did turn the guitar on its side, she played upside down. She invented her own tunings and overall her own style.
In the interviews, I saw a similarity to myself. Not that my finger picking blues is anywhere near hers, or have invented any new forms of music, but the slow plugging away, the insistence on doing things in her own way without making a show of it, I could relate to.

I can't quite say that I'm "on fire" with my guitar playing and enthusiasm, but I'm getting some of the basics of music reading I never got the first time around. At the moment I'm working on a piece written for the fiddle called "After the Battle of Aughrim"


Nani said...

A story nicely written.
Good luck with the guitar lessons.

Anonymous said...

Did he have just one purple jump suit that he always wore, or a closet full?

I miss loquats.

Sarah Silbert said...

I remember you telling me about the jumpsuit-clad guitar teacher!

Glad you're taking lessons again. I know how happy playing the guitar makes my dad--it seems like a great release.

Boaz said...

Hi Nani, Corie, Sarah. thanks for comments.

I'm not sure how many jumpsuits he had, Corie. Actually Joe's brother Max also took lessons from him and we were reminiscing about him recently. It wasn't exactly a jumpsuit, it was more like sweat pants, and several sweat shirts of varying shades of purple. He must have had a variety of purple clothes.

Boaz said...

Also, Sarah- it was your dad who I mention who originally helped my dad pick out the Gibson guitar... I love listening to him play.. I wish I could sing and play as well as he does.