Making more music means a lot fewer problems

— Photo from Frank Palmeri

Frank Palmeri plays his ‘Natick Nelly’ every night.

If you read my last column, you know I'm now playing guitar for the first time in my life. Here’s an update on my new-found musical proclivities.

Turns out I really like playing guitar. Even at this early stage, after only a few group lessons, I know enough to get enjoyment from just strumming a few chords and practicing.

So I decided to give my borrowed guitar back to my wife and buy one for myself. I did some research and found a perfect guitar that would work for me, both in my price range and beautiful to look at.

Yet, when I went to the local guitar store, picked it up and started playing it, the magic just wasn't there. There was nothing wrong with it — it was brand new after all — but I just wasn't “feeling” it. Hard for a computer guy like me to be so subjective about something, but it is what it is. That guitar just didn't “light my fire.”

Then we went to visit my daughter who lives near Boston. Just on a whim, I decided to visit another location of the same guitar store chain that was located there. Sure enough, they had the exact same model guitar on the floor that I had tried in Albany yet, when I picked it up and started playing it, there was an entirely different feel.

This one fit me perfectly, and when I strummed it, the tone was so pure and clear I couldn't believe it was the same model that I hadn’t liked in the other store. Stupidly, I left the store without buying it. That night, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and after trying out a few more guitars I realized that “the one that got away” was without doubt the guitar for me.

I didn’t want to drive all the way back to Boston again so I called the store and they said it would be no problem shipping it for free to the Albany store, and that it would only take a day or two. Great, so I paid on the phone and then waited.

And waited.

And then I waited some more. To make a really long story short, a “computer problem” caused me to have to wait two weeks to get my guitar, but it was worth the wait. Why something simple like shipping a guitar should turn out to be such a big deal is a mystery, but it all worked out in the end, and now I get to play “Natick Nelly” every night so there’s that.

Stranger is why two identical versions of the exact same guitar should be so different. At my price level, we’re talking about mostly machine-made items so there should be a lot of consistency.

Reminds me of the time me and my buddy bought the exact same model of motorcycle. Mine was hard to start but got good gas mileage. His was easy to start but got worse gas mileage.

Maybe my guitar has wood from a tree that aged better, who knows. Guitar players I’ve told this story to all tell me the same thing, though: once you find “your” guitar, you will know it and you should just get it. So there you go.

As far as learning to play, my second group class has just ended, so now I have all different types of guitar instruction going on: YouTube videos, books, a separate web-based instructional class, and friends who play.

Of course, the number-one thing they all agree on is practice, practice, and more practice, but the sheer variety of beginning guitar suggestions and techniques is quite extraordinary. For example, I have a friend who plays in a band, yet his fingers, especially his pinkies, are really crooked. Doesn’t seem to matter at all, as he just gets the job done one way or another.

Other friends do things their own way as well, yet they all play well enough to play with other people on a regular basis. I’m still new enough that going “by the book” is what I'm trying to do, but it’s all good. Just to be playing anything after going my whole life without is fine with me.

Learning guitar, like learning anything — typing, motorcycle riding, dancing, etc. — follows a definite pattern. When you start out, you have to think about everything and progress is slow, slow, slow.

Then, over time, if you stick with it, all of a sudden what you had to think about just happens and then you’re finally doing it without thinking. That’s progress, what we call developing a skill, and it’s a great feeling when it happens.

I like to think of it this way: Every time I practice, I get a tenth of a millimeter better. Someday that will add up to a meter, and then watch out!

Another thing I notice about playing music is that you can’t be in a bad mood when you do it. In fact, if you are in a bad mood or feeling negative, it just makes you feel better.

It’s like a feedback loop develops, where you play and hear sounds (hopefully good sounds) and then that inspires you to play some more. In fact, playing music makes you feel so good I’m thinking a lot more music making in the world would mean a lot fewer problems in the world. You just can’t be angry when you’re making music, it’s as simple as that.

Here’s a funny thing about guitar stores: When you go into one, nine out of 10 times, someone, either a customer trying out a guitar or an employee demonstrating a guitar, will be playing “Smoke on the Water,” the classic rock staple by Deep Purple. Turns out the main “riff” is only four notes, and even I can play it:

da da DAH

da da DAH da

da da DAH

da da

It happens so often, it’s just amazing. I mean, it’s a great song with an ultra-catchy tune, but imagine if you worked there. Listening to that all day must get old quick.

Let me leave you with a true story. I’ve been watching “Saturday Night Live” my entire life. They used to do a sketch called “Wayne’s World,” where Mike Myers and Dana Carvey played these lovable stoner types who hung out in a basement and had all kinds of crazy things going on.

What interested me was how the sketch always started, with Wayne “shredding” a distorted electric guitar at high volume. I always loved that, so one day, maybe 20 years ago at this point, I went into a local music store:

“Hi, I’d like to buy a cheap electric guitar and an amp.”

“Do you know how to play guitar?”

“No, I don’t; I just want to do that Wayne’s World thing and have a little fun.”

“OK, in that case, I’m going to suggest you get an acoustic guitar first. It will be much easier to learn on and you can get an electric on later when you learn how to play.”

“Um, look, I don't even really want to play guitar. I just want a cheap electric guitar and an amp so, you know, after a long stressful day at work I can just go in the basement, yell out ‘Frank's World,’ and make a lot of noise.”

“I understand, but really, you need to start on an acoustic guitar so you can learn to play properly first.”

This went on for about 10 minutes when I finally decided to just leave. The guy would not sell me an electric guitar.

Fundamentally he was right I’m sure — playing an acoustic guitar first, as I am now, is certainly a good idea . But, if he had sold me that damn cheap electric guitar, knowing how I am, I most certainly would have, at a minimum, taken out “Guitar for Dummies” from the library and would have been playing much, much sooner than now.

Whatever happened to “the customer is always right,” anyway? By the way, that store went out of business not long after. I’m not surprised.

Oh well, I’m finally playing a musical instrument after all this time, and that’s just great. Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!