Guitars, and first love
Friday was the first time I played guitar on stage in more than four years. I’d forgotten that guitar was my first love, until we kicked into the first riff of Let it Out and I remembered everything.
I’ve recorded guitar, and I’ve played keyboard on stage, but it’s not the same. With keyboards, or a piano. You move around the instrument, and any physicality in the way you play is all about pouring yourself into the thing. But it’s fixed, it doesn’t play you back.
Guitar is different. It moves with you. You dance with a guitar, and I’m a terrible dancer. Joan Jett said “My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself” and while I’m not by any stretch an excellent guitarist, I’ve been playing for long enough to see what she meant.
I got my first guitar when I was twelve, on the day we moved out of my childhood home. We were only moving a street away, but it was the only house I’d known so I was being moody about it. When you move, there’s this period between getting everything out, into the removal truck, and when you leave for the new place. Contracts are exchanged, people in ties talk about chains and completion. It can go on for hours. I was sitting on the floor off my old bedroom, in the rectangle of brighter carpet where my bed had been, when my dad came in and asked if I wanted to get the acoustic guitar I’d told him about in the music shop around the corner. I stopped being moody.
On that guitar, I learned how to play Time of Your Life, and Wonderwall, and all of those first guitar songs. We sat in my neighbours’ room and she showed me how to use a capo, how to use a pick.
Everything picked up when I got my first electric guitar. I had a few lessons to get the basics and in the last session my teacher sold me his unwanted guitar blue Charvel. It was a proper metal guitar with a floating tremolo, made for chugging and sweep-picking, but I played only power chords songs by Blink 182, Offspring and Foo Fighters. We started a band. I wrote my first song on it, which was awful, and so were the next twenty, but everybody starts somewhere.
In the years since, I got hold of a Tele Custom 1979, which I treated badly with what I thought of as tough-tour-love so now it’s scratched, with random assorted machine heads and held together with tape. Then came the SG Special I played last week. I’d learned my lesson and treated her better, but the way an SG is built - the neck is attached to the body rather than carved out of one piece of wood - means you can do more with pitch and tremolo just by pulling at the neck. You’re not just making notes with your fingers, but your entire body, and it’s even more like dancing than ever.
I’ve never sold a guitar, I’ve not had enough of them for it to feel anything except wrong. But that original acoustic, the present to a little boy sitting in a sulk on the floor of an empty room… Well, a few years back I noticed that somehow in another house move, the neck had cracked so badly the strings were pulling the whole body in on itself. She was gone.
So instead of letting her sit in storage somewhere, possibly to be taken out and looked at, but probably to be forgotten, I took off the strings, the machine heads, the strap lock, all the plastic pieces, and I cleaned her up.
A few days later, my mum was building a bonfire to burn branches cut from trees in the garden of the new house, not far from where I’d grown up. It was spring, not the same day or any kind of anniversary, but close enough to feel a little something when we put the guitar in the middle of the bonfire, lit it and watched her catch, flame, then settle to a glow. The next day, I went through the ashes to collect the remaining pieces - frets, the truss rod, pieces of board - and put them in a little bag, a more manageable memento.
A guitar is more than just wood, metal and plastic. You grow up with her, you dance with her, and if you don’t look after her, you eventually have to let her go.
To me, that sounds a lot like love.