Throughout my adult life people have asked from time to time if I would teach them how to play guitar. My answer has typically been “No,” with the explanation that the last time I endeavored to teach guitar was when I was seventeen years old and I found myself falling asleep during lessons. The student would finish playing his piece and look up for congratulation or reproof. Sometimes he would have to wait kind of a long time. When I finally came to, I tried to look as if his playing had put me into sort of a reverie. Then I spoke with gravity as if from a well of deeply reasoned thought. Typically I had been dreaming of taquitos.
This column is about healing. Not the healing of those wounded students—this is about the ongoing healing of their contrite teacher.
There was an episode, about mid-way between those days of dashing students’ dreams and the present hour, when I briefly taught guitar lessons to Mary Ann Maxwell down the street in trade for babysitting (I didn’t require babysitting, we had children that occasionally required babysitting). But here’s how it went: Mary Ann had all my albums (only five by then) and was perfectly happy to be taught how I played my own songs. So this teaching was easier and I didn’t fall asleep. This continued until we ran out of songs and the children became old enough to babysit themselves (this word “themselves” is always a problem for me—wouldn’t it be more appropriate to write “theirselves”? I mean, y’know?). …old enough to babysit their own selves. There.
The healing had begun.
By then, Mary Ann was confident enough as a player to buy a grown-up guitar, and deserved one—a Gibson J-50 that I’d been playing and recording with for several years. I loved letting that guitar go to a student who had won my genuine interest.
Suddenly guitarless, I bought a Martin D-28 whose previous owner was Bob Dylan. It’s likely the guitar he played on stage with George Harrison and Eric Clapton and other luminaries in the Concert for Bangladesh. (It was the day after a broadcast of that event that I located and bought the guitar. It’s a fun little story: Guy Randle and I were in Hollyweird seeing if anybody wanted to make superstars of us (they didn’t), and my Ford van broke down, so we were stuck there for an unplanned couple of days.
As we drove around the San Fernando Valley in his dad’s car, Guy said, “Hey, over in Reseda there’s this guitar shop with an interesting name that I’ve always wanted to check out but never did.” It was Norm’s Rare Guitars, and when we walked in we thought that, as a kind of special surprise from the Lord for us, our exaltations had been assured. Norm’s turned out to be a haunt of folks like Joni Mitchell (who had bought a Martin D-35 there the day before) and Robbie Robertson (of The Band, who was shortly to buy a big Gibson archtop guitar with an oval sound hole, just because it looked cool ((I eventually owned two of those—not at the same time)) ). Mr. Dylan had recently traded in my new (made in 1955 with Brazilian rosewood) guitar for a vintage white (very rare) mandolin. Guy bought a used Martin D-41 that day, heavy with mother-of-pearl.
(There’s some television footage of me with that guitar, but I can’t find a still photo. Bummer.)
The Dylan guitar was eaten by a baggage sorting machine at O’Hare Airport. They sent me the pieces in a shoebox. (I traded a couple hundred dollars worth of something for a tobacco colored Alvarez and didn’t look back.)
So then about 30 more years of not teaching anybody how to play guitar, except in the mid-eighties when my son Joshua wanted to learn. Here was a student who had not only my interest, but my heart. It would have been a joy to teach him for life, but it took him about two months to absorb everything I knew how to do. Then he went quickly through two actual teachers, plus Synthesis at BYU as a young high-schooler, then to Arizona to study with a nationally-respected jazz guy named Frank Vignola, then to New York, where on his second or third night in town he sat in with Les Paul at The Blue Note. This is what happens when your kid comes to you and points out with perfect accuracy that junior high school is a colossal waste of time and can he stay home and practice for six hours a day?
Forgive me. I got carried away with storytelling. This column is supposed to be a lot more random and goofy. I’ll try to get back onto random. To immerse us once again in goofiness, I’ll share the following graphic I posted on Facebook a short time ago:
Now I have a bunch of students again! And we love each other! And it’s fun! And my healing is nearly complete! Rather than putting me to sleep, thinking about how to grow them into joyful players keeps me awake at night.
My former father-in-law is a musical genius who, when he got tired of marching a high-school band around on football fields, joined the math department and simply stayed a day or two ahead of his students. I thought at first that might work with me, but it backfired on me rather spectacularly when 15-year-old Angela York answered my question about what she’d been doing during her practice time, knocked out Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” which I’ve always meant to learn but had only figured out the first two bars. I have since gone online and found it, and learned it. Angela, an excellent sport, has continued her lessons with me.
Often I’m learning as much as my students, as I merely figure out what I’ve been playing all these years so I can share how to do it. (I’m a little like the centipede who, when asked to explain how he coordinated all those legs, suddenly couldn’t walk. But I have fewer fingers than a centipede has legs, so it’s not insurmountable. Also I’m not as vulnerable to insecticides.)
But here’s a legitimate dilemma that I didn’t have with Mary Ann Maxwell, who knew my songs: What songs do I use to teach these people? In the past forty years I’ve performed (outside of musical plays) about twelve songs that I didn’t write. I don’t know any songs! This afternoon I went online and googled something like “songs everybody knows.” One site promised me twenty-five. Of what I found there, I had heard of (not “heard,” but “heard of”) six. Of the six, I hate three.
I’ve been using “If You’re Happy and You Know It” as a working example of how the principal chords in various keys relate, but when an adult student, who had worked with me for a good while (long enough to graduate from his too-narrow college guitar to a gorgeous Martin D-18), wondered aloud…
(THIS IS A SUDDEN AND LENGTHY PASSIONATE DEPARTURE: One of my favorite things about this whole enterprise has been helping people into playable and rewarding guitars ((not necessarily expensive guitars, but guitars that were built to be played, rather than built to be sold)). Scott’s D-18 was one I’d played many times at the Best in Music store, and when Scott returned from a funeral in California and told me he’d inherited a modest legacy and wanted a Martin, we were in that store that afternoon. He hardly ever puts it down. Elegant to look at, but no bling whatsoever—this relatively plain-jane guitar is all about “easy to play, and what you plays sounds so good.”
A couple nights ago Brenda Hoskins began her lessons, bringing in an old nylon string guitar that I tried to tune for about ten minutes. The tuning pegs required pliers to turn, and the strings resided so far above the fingerboard that when you pressed them down it pulled them hopelessly out of tune again. I timidly suggested that this guitar she’d stored faithfully for forty years was more or less utterly unplayable. Remember, it was her first lesson—I was worried she might burst into tears. Or hit me.
But no, she brightened right up and said she’d been hoping for an excuse to get a new guitar, and had always dreamed of owning a Martin! I called Best in Music to see if by any off-chance they might have a new D-18 ((this model, which reverted to pre-WWII specs in 2012, is the biggest home run that C. F. Martin has hit in several (((I’d say about nine))) decades)). They did, they had a D-18. She had to drive to Spanish Fork to keep an appointment with her ailing uncle, so I drove alone to Orem to check out the guitar. We got on a three-way phone call and twelve hours later Brenda was a breathless new Martin owner.
I got the biggest bang out of watching Callie Lawton haul out her new Seagull ((solid, honest, affordable Canadian guitar)) that I suggested she look for, and when little Mackenzie Pierce slid onto her lap the sweet little Chinese Teton that her mom bought, with me on the phone at home and her on the phone down at The Great Salt Lake Guitar Company in Provo.
Young Jacob Young ((that’s chiasmus—when you’re writing the truth chiasmuses just pop up)) brought this brand-new and not stellar guitar to his first few lessons. Then one evening we had a make-up lesson at his house up the canyon from us. In a corner stood a pretty sunburst Washburn with the autographs of Diamond Rio all over its face. The band had given it to Jacob’s dad, Gary, who may have hired them for a great deal of money, or given them some essential oils or something ((Gary has an essential oils company—also he jousts, armor and everything—don’t mess with Gary)).
I tuned it up and fire filled Jacob’s eyes. It was the fire of realizing that his efforts might actually make sounds that would please the ear and heart, that he was doing all he could and was being held back by an instrument that was built to be sold, when what he needed was an instrument that was built to be played. I whispered, “Get your dad to let you play this guitar.” That’s the one Jacob brings now. These things make me happy. Where were we?)
…when an adult student, who had worked with me for a good while (long enough to graduate from his too-narrow college guitar to a gorgeous Martin D-18), wondered aloud and with a certain bravely-contained frustration in his voice, “When will we get past ‘Happy and You Know It’?” I didn’t have a ready answer.
(I had told other students just to pick up the Primary Song Book and find some simple songs we can work on together. Wrong. From a harmonic standpoint, nearly all those songs would be easy for, say, Igor Stravinsky, because they were written by people who had clearly been influenced by The Rite of Spring and tunes of similar ilk. Primary pianists, when the music tells them to shift suddenly to a chord full of “accidentals,” merely move a couple of fingers three-quarters of an inch to the west and maybe one finger three-quarters of an inch to the east.
Primary guitarists, on the other hands, would at that same place in the music have to plant the index finger of one hand all the way across the neck at the sixth fret, then with the other hand slam their thumb onto the bass string four frets above that and their pinky onto the high string seven frets higher, stretch their naked right toe yoga-like to press the two middle strings four frets higher than that, and affect a strum with their chin. These antics would occasion much joy among the children, but not among the bishopric. There are reasons, you see, why guitars are used sparingly in church.)
To become a totally healed guitar teacher I welcome your help. There must be life after “Happy and You Know It.” I’ve sent for a book of twelve hundred folk-style songs that will be a good resource, and of course I’m a songwriter and have begun creating custom songs for students to work on. But what are your favorite songs, songs that make you breathe a little deeper, think a little longer, feel a little more sharply, joggle you into some laughter, songs that are also easy as pie and likely to have been hummed in the shower by people of all ages? (I’m suddenly picturing people of all ages in the same shower, humming—it’s a funny picture. I won’t link to it here, though.)