Latest Obsession: Guitar

So a week ago, I decided to make a change, hobby-wise, and do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: learn to play guitar.

I’ve been playing bass for about two and a half years now, after a recess of a few decades. And bass has been fun, but I’d hit a plateau, and thought I’d try something new. I’ve never really played guitar, although my stepdad had an ancient acoustic when I was a kid, and I learned like maybe two riffs, and used to mess with it a little. And I’d tried to resuscitate a few unplayable garage sale guitars when I was a teen, with no real success. (I remember getting a department store Les Paul clone with a snapped neck and trying to fashion a makeshift one from a piece of dimensional lumber, which didn’t work at all.)

So, I ordered a cheap guitar from Amazon. I got the lowest-end Squier Affinity Stratocaster, in the “beginner” pack, which included a tiny shoebox-sized amp I’ll never use, plus other paraphernalia like a bag, a tuner, some picks, and a strap. I also started scouring the web for any lessons or videos that would be helpful. I also have a copy of Rocksmith, which I used for bass, but which works for guitar, too.

The guitar: well, it was DOA out of the box. The jack screws were loose, hand-tight.  I took it apart, futzed with it, and it’s fine now. It looks very nice: a transparent blue, with a white pick guard. It’s a Strat, same size and design, with the three single-coil pickups, and same curves and lines as the more expensive cousin. The neck isn’t too bad, with a couple of sharp frets, but it was playable out of the box with no adjustment. It’s amazing to me that in the day of CNC machines and overseas factories, a hundred-dollar guitar is much more playable than what I’d find in a pawn shop for $100 back in high school or college.

Physically, it’s taking some time to get used to it. It’s much lighter and shorter than a bass, which is nice. The strings are much thinner, and closer together, which makes it feel much different to me. And playing chords is an alien process, as is using a pick. After a week, I am starting to be able to play some chords without my fat fingers dragging across other strings, but it’s going to take much more practice to move around and get used to it.

I’m having a lot of fun with it, though. There’s a complete different psychology to guitar, and it’s the reason I wanted to try it. I like and appreciate the bass, but it’s a different mindset, and I wanted to shift gears. I am not at the point where I can sit down and play complicated things yet, but it’s easy to turn on the distortion and Iommi away on some power chords.

Anyway, here’s the short list of what I’ve found useful for learning guitar:

  • – a great source of free lessons for beginners.
  • – a fun game with a guided learning path and lessons. I’m just trying the free option, which is time-limited per day.
  • I got the Dummies book, but I’d only say it is half-useful. I don’t like the dead humor tone in it, and I think they burn a hundred pages on useless stuff before they really get going. Plus I don’t want to learn to play “On Top of Old Smokey” – I’m not seven.
  • This book is only four bucks in paperback, and is short (50 pages) but has good info. For that price, the back cover’s chord chart is worth it.

Obsession cycle is not a Calvin Klein-themed Harley

When I was maybe ten, I became obsessed with the Elephant Man.  I think the movie came out around then, or maybe it was the play, and Mark Hamill was playing the role of Merrick in the Broadway version, and because I was so infatuated with Star Wars at the time, I absolutely had to read everything about it, which was pretty much nothing, given that we had exactly five TV channels, and the closest thing to Google around was a Sears version of the Pong game we got that Christmas, which was so cheap it had the paddle wheels actually mounted on the top panel of the game unit, and didn’t even have wired controllers, so two people had to sit right next to each other to play.  (And I also thought that maybe there was some hidden easter egg in the game – which is odd, considering the very first easter egg in a commercial video game was probably the hidden room in Adventure for the 2600, and I never played that – so I would spend hours trying to drive up the score in the practice mode, thinking maybe if I got the score up to 99 or something a magical message would appear, like a “good job!” or a phone number you called for a free t-shirt, or something.  No luck.)

I never got to see the movie back then, the David Lynch thing, because HBO only played it once that I could remember (although they played that horrible Flash Gordon remake pretty much every other hour) and this was twenty years before the DVR and at least ten years before we got a VCR that could record, and it was at the same exact time I had to go to my stupid CCD class on a Sunday for church, and I was so pissed off and tried to talk my way out of it, but couldn’t.  I did manage to borrow the book version from someone, and it had maybe six photos in it, but that wasn’t enough.  Sometimes I wonder if these frantic obsession cycles I have got burned into my head result from a lack of media back then.  I mean, if I would’ve heard about the Elephant Man, and then jumped in a web browser and spent four hours poring over wikipedia articles, instead of just getting a tiny taste of it and then not seeing a single thing for years, maybe I would be placated and not spend inordinate amounts of time researching these memes from childhood, reading old Apple II history or 1970s fighter jets or non-Apollo 11 moon landings, because my school library had only a single book on the subject, and I probably checked that single book out 20 times and memorized every damn page.

This still happens.  Like last night, I saw that movie Benjaman Button (or whatever it’s called – Curious Case of…?) and it had a brief appearance by a fictionalized Ota Benga, who was this pygmy from Congo, who was brought over to the US and became an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, running around a cage in a loincloth throwing spears and playing with monkeys.  (Obviously the political climate was slightly different in 1906, given that now those primates he shared a cage with can now legally drive cars and vote in 22 countries, and would probably be allowed to apply for home mortgages, had Countrywide not gone under.)  So I throw that in google, and Ota Benga links to the movie Freaks, which links to the Lobster Boy, which links to Grady Stiles, the lobster boy who was a horrible alcoholic and was killed by a (poorly) planned hit by his abused family, which brought me to some other article, which brought me to Chang and Eng Bunker, and now I’m spending my valuable day off combing the web for articles about conjoined twins, half wondering if there is either a medication I can take for this, or a way I can make enough money off of it that I can just harness this compulsion into a six-digit career.  (And no, I’m not going to start an ad-sponsored site about freaks or about Soviet attempts at Venus landings or whatever else.  I know in an hour, I will be busy googling for a new desk again.)

Some strange facts about Chang and Eng Bunker:

  • They owned slaves.
  • They lost part of their plantation in the Civil War and were extremely anti-government after that; they also had a son who fought for the Confederate Army.
  • They met a pair of sisters and fought over which of the two they wanted – they both wanted the same one, but Eng won and Chang got second pick.
  • They had 22 children between the two of them, which raises a bunch of obvious questions about how one performs the required acts to conceive a child when your brother-in-law is sitting right next to your husband as you complete said act, repeat 22 times.
  • The kids were all double first cousins with each other.  Double first cousins are technically half-siblings from a genetics standpoint, but since identical twins have the same DNA, they were more than half-siblings, but not full siblings.
  • The sisters ended up on bad terms, so they had to set up two households, and the twins would rotate between the two of them, spending three days at each house.
  • Chang had a stroke four years before they died, and he was the one that controlled their legs, so they were pretty much screwed after that.
  • Chang died in his sleep; Eng woke up one morning, connected to his dead brother.
  • A doctor offered to perform an emergency separation of them after Chang died, but Eng refused to be separated from his brother.
  • Their grandson was General Caleb Haynes, who was a prominent pilot in the Army Air Corps in WWI and WWII.  He was later a freemason, for those of you who are keeping score on how the freemasons are connected to everything.

Great, now I’m going to spend the afternoon googling how many of the people who walked on the moon were freemasons.