I am putting a new set of strings on my guitar. I’ve cleaned the old girl up a bit with spit and polish. The hope is that all this effort will make me sound better, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that this is a false hope. I am at best a mediocre guitarist. But a clean guitar with new strings makes me feel better.
This is the same feeling I had when I was sixteen after washing and waxing my Mom’s Oldsmobile Delta 88. Dark green with a black landau roof. 455 Rocket under the hood. I spend hours with that car in the front yard rubbing on Turtle Wax. A little hot breath on the chrome. An extra wipe with a clean cloth. She drove better when she was clean. My spirits lifted behind the wheel of all that shine.
But I was never a Cale Yarborough. And I will never be a Chet Atkins or an Eric Clapton.
My grandfather Still played the banjo and the violin. He was born in 1901. I heard stories of him and friends playing for the local dance back in the day. A little Bluegrass on a Saturday night in Social Circle, GA.
When I was a young teenager, I was digging through one of his closets and found his banjo. “Can you play it for me,” I asked. The strings were rusty. The head dirty and stained. He plucked at it for a few minutes and handed it back to me. “It’s been too long, boy. My hands don’t work like they used to.”
Mama always said that if I had any music in me, I got it from him. She wanted to play the piano so badly, but never really learned. She made my sister and me take piano lessons when we were young, but that didn’t last. I picked up my first guitar when I was 14. A Sears and Roebuck acoustic that my cousin Gary gave me. I learned G, C and D on those rusty strings. And I have been playing ever since.
The first time I ever played in front of anybody was at the high school talent show my senior year. I was too chicken to sing, so my buddy Scott got up on stage with me to carry the tune. I had a Lyle Dove, a Gibson-wanna-be. I was a huge Harry Chapin fan at the time, so we did “Any Old Kind of Day”, which, unless you are into Chapin, you’ve likely never heard of it.
The cars outside are coughing
And it’s kind of hard to sleep
There’s neon out my window, not the moon.
And it was just an any old kind of day
The kind that comes and slips away
The kind that fills up easy my life’s time.
I tried playing in front of people a few times, but I was always so darn scared of messing up. I tried a song at summer camp one year. I knew it like I knew my own name. But when I got through the little intro, my mind went blank. I couldn’t think of the words. I stopped and started over. Still no words. I tried a third time. Same results. If I could have opened a trap door and disappeared from the face of the earth, I would have pulled the lever right then and there. I just walked off stage and hid for the next 20 years.
I really loved that Lyle guitar, though. It had a great sound. But in 1979 it got stolen. I left it overnight up at the church and some local thugs broke into the building that night. Busted up some doors. Took some petty cash. And they took my guitar.
I replaced it with a Yamaha, which I played for the next 30 years. By the time I got rid of it, the fret board was worn. The sound hole looked like a mouse had chewed on the lower edge. The tuning wasn’t as true as it used to be. I picked up a low-end Taylor for a while that I never really liked. And now I’m in love with my Guild.
I’ve been playing guitar for almost fifty years. I pluck and pick and strum to the best of my ability. My phobias of playing in front of people don’t show up as much as they used to, but they still lurk in the shadows. If I sing, which I seldom do, I make sure I have the printed words right there in front of me. I still don’t trust my memory when it comes to lyrics.
Somebody will say to me, “Play us something on your guitar.” My stomach gets twisted up in knots. “I’ll play it if you’ll sing it,” is my way of trying to dodge the request.
I am completely in awe of people who can really play. My wife and I went to see Tommy Emmanuel a few years back. He doesn’t sing much, but he doesn’t have to sing. His playing is magical. His fingers find their way around that fret board like they were born to play. He’s so relaxed at it, too. I’m sure he has put in the hours and the years to get that good. That man is one with his guitar and his music in a way that I could never achieve in a million years.
My good friend is a killer talent on the piano. He was sitting next to me at the show. I told him, “That guy inspires the heck out of me, but he also makes me want to hang it up. I should never even hold a guitar in my hands again after seeing this. I’m an insult to the instrument.”
I’ll never forget what he said. “Don’t be stupid.” He has played music with some really great talents over the years. “There is always somebody out there better than you. You just gotta play your music, because there’s a whole lotta people out there who wish they could play at all. If I quit the first time I heard somebody better than me, I would have quit a long time ago. You gotta keep playing. No matter what.”
The new strings sound good to my ear. Crisp. Bright. So clear they ring out for a long minute. The fretboard is clean, and the frets polished. An old guitar feels like new in my hands. I run through a few bars of Mr. Bojangles. It doesn’t sound like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but that’s okay. Max is the only one listening. He has never criticized my playing.
If I’m lucky, my fingers will remember what they’re supposed to do for a few more years, yet. Me and this old guitar will keep on keeping on, I guess. Throw in an E-minor with that G, C and D, and you’ve got an easy hundred songs right at the end of your fingers. Familiar melodies. Great rhythms. The songs of my youth.
If only I could remember the lyrics.