Learning to play the guitar at 60: Miracles really do happen if you let them

Musically, I came of age during the so-called “British Invasion,” when groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who redefined what pop music could be.

I listened to these groups and others like them, often late at night on headphones so as not to disturb anyone else in our tiny Brooklyn apartment, leaving an indelible mark on me.

In fact, it took me decades to even allow myself to finally get to know and love other forms of music, such as classical, reggae, and even opera. Better late than never as the saying goes.

The one thing all the seminal ’60s and ’70s rock-and-roll bands had in common was prolific use of the electric guitar. While it had been around earlier, it was only during the mid- to late-’60s and beyond when it became the defining instrument for a generation of Baby Boomers like myself.

Guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and many, many others created such a cult of personality around the guitar that other once-common popular band instruments, like the banjo and accordion, got relegated to niche music like bluegrass and polkas. Such is the allure of the electric guitar that you can even bid on “air guitars” on eBay (case not included).

You would think that, loving the electric guitar so much, I would maybe have learned how to play at some point. Sadly, my parents either did not know about or couldn't afford music lessons for any of their three sons.

In addition, the Catholic grade school I went to was severely limited in funding for anything but the basics. I think in the fourth grade I got one week with a plastic toy called a Flutophone, and that was the extent of my musical education. Sad, really, when you think about it, as study and enjoyment of the arts truly helps makes life worth living.

Things changed for the better when I married my lovely wife, Charlotte. I really lucked out, as she’s been a paid musician since she was 14 years old.

I actually studied piano with her for about four months one winter but, when spring came and all the yard and other outside work needed to be done, I dropped it and never continued. Still, it was an enjoyable experience, at least for me.

I say “for me” because that very hard piano bench, believe it or not, gave me gas. Don’t ask me why but it did. Curiously, my wife says none of the hundreds of other piano and organ students she has taught has ever had this problem but me. I guess I was just (un)lucky, haha.

So, when I got the Guilderland Continuing Education flier in the mail and saw a Beginning Guitar course, I thought, what the heck, let me register and see what happens. The price was great and I was free when the four classes would be, so there you go; my first guitar lessons at the age of 60!

The classes would be taught at Guilderland High School by Don Warren, a professional guitar player, technician, and teacher, and also quite a character in general (just mention any guitar player to him and he either taught him, knows him, or knows someone who knows him and has a story about every one of them).

For the first session, Don had all nine of us sit around him in a semicircle. We were so close that the neck of my borrowed guitar (my wife lent it to me) was hitting the guy to the left of me in the shoulder.

But right away we got introduced to two chords and then had a week to practice them. You know when you seen a right-handed guitarist pressing strings all up and down the neck of the guitar with his or her left hand? Those are chords, and the G and E-minor I made that night and in the following week were the first guitar chords I've ever made in my life (hint: the G with four fingers is tough, E-minor with only two fingers is much easier).

The second lesson introduced us to two more chords, but it wasn’t until the third lesson that the real magic happened. Don had half of us played one chord on the “one and three” beat, and the other half of us play another chord on the “two and four” beat.

This doesn't sound like much, I know, but for me, to actually be playing music in any form with other people was simply amazing. It was transcendental in a way, almost like another level of consciousness.

I’m not kidding here: If you’re a musician, I’m sure you know what I mean. My wife says singing together in the choir is like that as well.

We had so much fun that Don apologized for not being able to provide a drummer and bassist for us to “jam” with. Holy cow, I can’t even imagine what that must be like.

When we started the course, Don said he would bet each of us $100 to a cup of coffee that, after the last lesson, we’d each be playing a dozen songs. So now we’re half-way through the last lesson and all we’ve done for four weeks was play the same four chords over and over.

All of a sudden, Don pulls out a sheet with the names of classic songs on them like “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Fun. Fun. Fun,” and “Old-Time Rock and Roll.” Then he had us play those same four chords in succession while he played melody and, just like that, we’re actually playing all these songs.

Again, for a lifelong music lover yet non-musician like me, the whole experience was just incredible.

Now, just to be clear, I can’t play all those songs on my own. Heck, if after four lessons I could play the classic tunes by myself I’d be headlining at Caffe Lena in Saratoga.

But the point is, with only four chords, there are hundreds if not thousands of songs that can be played. All it takes is desire, practice — and a good teacher like Don Warren.

I was so enamored of the whole beginning-guitar experience that I’ve signed up for another class with Don. I hope my fat fingers will loosen up and I’ll me able to make my chords sound clear and crisp like they should.

Here’s one thing that gives me hope: My son-in-law plays violin in a professional orchestra, and he also plays piano, guitar, and drums. When he heard me practicing, he said I was way better than he was when he first started. Now a compliment like that, coming from such an experienced and versatile musician, really makes my day.

Who would have guessed, at this late point in my life, music would finally come to me. Miracles really do happen, if only you let them.