Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I Never Learned to Play Lead as a Kid,
But I Sure Figured Out How to Destroy Guitars

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- As a guitarist, I readily admit that I suck serious ass.

Always have. Always will.

I've sucked serious ass, proudly, since my first band, since the Unus Marx (short for Unusual Marxist - I was 15) days, since I figured out that I really have no need for that bottom E string, gave up on trying to play glam rock, and learned to love the good ol' Power Chord.

* * * *

I was 14 when I tore apart my old starter electric, one of those suckers with a cheap, flat tremolo bar and an amplified speaker built right into the body. My parents paid a whopping $50 for a guitar with one working pickup and rust on the tuning pins.

First, I pitched the goddamn whammy bar, gutted that three-inch speaker and replaced it with the severed head of a teddy bear.

Yes, a teddy bear head was my first guitar accessory. It seemed logical at the time, almost abstract art.

And then came the ritualistic mutilation, the tagging. I stripped off the shiny black finish with a belt sander, painted the thing primer gray. With a blank canvas, I used industrial spray paint and black lacquer to add texture.

A skull and crossbones carved here and there, with a dull chisel. BLACK FLAG and SOCIAL DISTORTION and NIRVANA and MELVINS written on with Sharpies, a huge anarchy symbol carved into the neck with a pocket knife.

That guitar even survived this one night in high school when my friends and I, in our infinite need to prove our machismo, decided to hang the damned thing from a tree, use it for target practice.

I played my first gig ever, in front of an audience of three girls and a Dead Head stoner, with that Chinese-made Silvertone, the .22 rounds still buried in the plywood body. The sound was horrible and self-loathing and implosive, a barbaric YAWP! for the waning years of my teens.

I realized, a while back, that I was never asked to join bands because some group of guys need a rhythm guitarist or bassist anyway. I was asked, usually, because, well, I used to be a big dude and I liked to drink, do all sorts of nasty drugs, and fight.

But how I loved that damned, piece o' shit guitar. Bullet holes and all.

* * * *

Some guitarists are all about the finesse, about the rhythm and meter and form. Even the best solos are, to some degree, nothing more than formulaic and repetitive exercises in scale. I've never bothered to learn a lead or solo part in my life - that's for musicians.

Me? I maul at the fretboard like a retarded orangutan, with just about as much charisma and skill as one would find in your average drive-by shooting. Strictly a chord strummer, a rhythm hunter in the darkness, tone-deaf and uncoordinated.

That original electric is long gone, the teddy bear head and neck and body and pickups carried to Heaven, as smoke from a burn barrel. And the drugs are gone, the unchecked juvenile rage subsided.

Despite my ass-sucking levels of musicianship, I still enjoy playing every once and a while.

* * * *

As the rain came down a few nights ago, as it poured off the roof and the box fans rattled in the window sills, I picked up my old acoustic, this shitty Korean 3/4 size I've owned for more than a decade.

When that old Silvertone died, the Korean acoustic became the eldest son, left the farm with me, transversed the United States. Given what the acoustic's been through, I'd have to say that Koreans make some pretty durable cheap guitars.

It's been spit on by two fiancees, puked on and threatened by numerous women, borrowed by skinhead drug dealers and black strippers and roommates and recovering addicts, fondled by poets and former prostitutes and soldiers and migrant laborers, dropped in the Pacific from a fishing trawler.

I like durable guitars. They live forever and, well, tell better stories than I do.

* * * *

I sat on a stool in my apartment, that folding two-foot ladder I call a stool, and I played classic punk songs, rebellious American folk songs, outlaw country - unplugged and barely in tune.

The Misfits' Bullet. Social D.'s Bad Luck and Story of My Life. John Anderson's Seminole Wind. Hank Williams' Angel of Death and Lefty Frizzell's Long Black Veil. Even Tom Waits' Jockey Full of Bourbon.

Not exactly covers. More like abstract, interpretive art. The kind of art one makes in spite of their humanity, when they're all alone and can get away with it.

Spontaneous and humorous and askew and downright perverse. Like taking a shit and seeing the face of the Virgin Mary in a turd.

And I played like I always have, like a retarded orangutan, with just about as much charisma and skill as one would find in your average drive-by shooting. I tried to sing, in that old gravelly baritone, the one I used to use when, well, I thought I could actually sing like a rock star.

And the neighbors above me stomped on the floor. And someone yelled from outside in the rain.

And I just wished I still had that old bullet-ridden carcass of a guitar, just to plug it in, to just bang away with blunt force, just to piss off the neighbors.

- # # # -


coyotemike said...

I've owned 2 guitars in my life. Neither was more than about 50 bucks worth of cheap crap. I've never taken a lesson or really tried to learn to play, but I still enjoy plucking a string or two that really don't make much sense.

I've gotten rid of them, but I may have to get something again. Maybe one of those backpack accoustics. About the size of a violin and supposed to be nearly indestructable. With my rather clumsy hands, indestructable is a good thing.

I still have an old amp if you want to come get it . . . just to piss off the neighbors.

Woeful said...

After dealing with dumbasses @ the Library all day long, playing my acoustic really relaxes me.

xboxgirl said...

"like a retarded orangutan" ha ha ha, thats a good one.

I've never played a guitar (I can play the violin pretty well though), but my older sister can and she has some skill that enables her to play just about any song/tune on even unfamiliar musical instruments, and she's never had music lessons of any sort.

Yup, she is good at music and math (she rather thoroughly taught herself calculus, I know that because I gave her a good quizzing over, before she graduated high school).

Anonymous said...


Man u are perverse! great essay btw. kinda more you i think.

hey some chick in my ims class says youre creepy. don't worry. i think your creepy in a cool way. :-)

Sarah said...

HEY!!! Do you hang out at Mac and Joes??? In the alley???

OMG! I was at CJs across the street and my friend Meghan swears that she sees you there all the time. ou were smoking and talking to the bouncer and this drunk skinny girl was hanging on you.

Wanted to just chime in here. My sister reads your blog at OSU and told me I should say something.

Nice shoulders. Very sexy guy too :P

The ZenFo Pro said...

You know what's funny? I just love me some cheap guitars. I've owned some pricey suckers, but they just end up stolen (hell, I still have a Crate amp that accounts for about 1/2 of my undergrad student non-school related debt.)

I have an electric that I bought through Rondo Music - great company for the dicker-arounder of guitar players.

Lol, found a new way to piss off the neighbors. Drop C tuning, Celtic Frost-style death metal. Through that amp. No pedals. Just aggression. Sure beats hearing students playing Foreigner.

BTW...The kids have found Winger and Warrant again. Heard three students discussing it last night.

May God have mercy on our immortal souls.

Lol, yeah, my acoustic's for the patron-heavy days. The electric's for the bureaucratic-heavy days :)

Lmao, it's very true. I looked at myself playing yesterday. I have this weird tendency to play while standing on one foot, too. Fucking odd.

You know...I maintained a perfect A average through 24 undergrad units of Calculus, Math Theory, etc. Honestly, if I'd laid off the drugs, I'd probably be working at some think tank.

Probably'd be a better guitar player too.

Well, howdy! First "Anon" of the new year. Thanks for the text to let me know who you were, too...

Good luck, stay clean, and take as much time as you need. Staying alive and healthy is more important than school. There are a lot of folks very proud of you, chica.

And, btw, if that one prof ever, EVER tells you what you say he told you last week again, file a complaint with his department - a formal, documented complaint, and copy the Big Boss Man in Lewis Place.

[Sorry everybody for the cryptic stuff. Sorta promised I wouldn't post specifics.]

The ZenFo Pro said...

Caught me red-handed :)

Trying to help keep the drunk skinny girl outta trouble, if you're talking about last night.

And, lol, hi OSU Sis.

coyotemike said...

Winger and Warrent? Add to that the Van Halen reunion with David Lee Roth and we are one step away from the Apocalypse. I'm convinced that all of the Four Horsemen of the Bible will come in the guise of hair-bands.

Smurf said...

you are so funny jason w! You say you suck... and well, hmm... being somebody to spent countless nights listening to you, I beg to differ with the assessment you have given yourself. I have to admit some of the songs were quite... um... unconventional... (ie Quasi-homo-nechrophiliac...) ;P But... J, you are actually very good... believe it or not, I keep running into that one book of yours. If you email me your address, I will mail it to you if you want it back. Sheesh.. you let me borrow that 9 years ago... (For the Cat in the Cradle song that you were gonna play for me...) I also have to say this has nothing to do with your guitar playing, but I do have to say that you can freestyle with the best of them... and yeah, I remember a lot of your talents very vividly. So you may be punk and enjoy the show and the excitement with playing punk, but come to suck and be full fledge just punk and bad or whatever you call it, I say you are wrong. ;)

EsotericWombat said...


Reading this post I couldn't help but think of this clip

Should be noted though that you don't need to be a musician to play lead parts. Just barre the twelve fret and tap away with your other hand =P

I was allegedly a musician once and intend to be again but my time on my guitar is pretty much split 50/50 between trying to learn technique and just dicking around, as you said, retarded-orangutan-style

awesome post.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Yeah, rather see Van Hagar. At least Sammy was, well, less of a ham...but without Anthony?

Brett Michaels from Poison has a reality show. That IS in the Book of Revelation...somewhere.

Lol, that spiral-bound thing? It's YOURS hon!!!! It's been, what, 10 years!

:) And gracias, chica for the sweet comment!!!

That is one of my all-time favorite songs.

And ain't nothin' wrong with the Retarded Orangutan method. One day, I'll have to publish one of those silly teach-yourself rock star guides they sell in mall record stores...



dr. wigglebutt said...

i come from a family of drummers, so playing guitar meant that i was something of a rebel. but like you, i never bothered with all the lead crap and the flash and the glam rock. (i was, in fact, disturbed with the general androgyny of my favorite 80's rock stars.) i guess rhythm is too much in my genes (plus i'm too lazy for that other stuff).

playing my acoustic (a beat-up fender taken as severance pay for putting up with an ex-girlfriend way longer than i should have) while waiting for the rain to begin is one of my favorite things in the entire world to do. and, if you're into this kind of thing, it's usually way better if you put the guitar into some kind of alternate tuning. i don't know why, but it is.

glad to read that you're instinct is still to turn it up instead of turning it off. turn the philistines deaf! i say.

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