“A Day in the Life”
I arrived at ensemble before the rest of the group. Mike, the drum instructor, was there. We chatted for a bit as I got my bass ready to go and started warming up.
“How long have you been playing bass,” Mike asked.
“Not very long. Almost two years? My younger brother plays bass, and I used to dabble on it.”
“You’ve come a long way quickly. Do you like playing it?”
“Yeah. It’s a fun instrument. It’s similar enough to the guitar, so switching over to help out both groups made for an easier-than-expected transition. I still have a lot to learn about bass, though.”
“Sure, but if you’re home, which instrument do you pick up first?”
“Oh, guitar, without a doubt.”
Ever since the first electric guitar was plugged into an amplifier, it has fascinated millions of people for generations. What is it about this instrument? What is its allure? Is it the rich, warm tones that resonate in the wood and pickups and travel through the amplifier, enhanced by a masterful selection of effects? Is it the bold power chords that have rocked arenas for decades? It’s a combination of all of this and more. I have been seduced into playing this instrument for more than half of my life. This post takes a look into how and why I became a guitarist.
What is Autoethnography?
I am writing this blog for two reasons: it is the guitar-themed post I’ve been promising myself I’d write ever since I started blogging; it is the latest assignment for my summer graduate class that asks me to use a research method called autoethnography.
Autoethnography is “…an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno),” (Ellis, “Autoethnography: An Overview“).
Another source adds the following to this definition:
…it is a method that blends the purposes, techniques, and theories of social research—primarily ethnography—with the purposes, techniques, and theories associated with genres of life writing, especially autobiography, memoir, and personal essay.
Autoethnography is an introspective and subjective research method that values memories and personal experiences while emphasizing storytelling (Manning, p.189). Storytelling is an important and essential part of autoethnography:
…stories were complex, constitutive, meaningful phenomena that taught morals and ethics, introduced unique ways of thinking and feeling, and helped people make sense of themselves and others.” (Ellis, “Autoethnography: An Overview“)
There are four common orientations, or styles, of autoethnography: social-scientific, interpretive-humanistic, critical, and creative-artistic (Manning, p.191). The style that most appeals to me is the creative-artistic, “…creative-artistic autoethnographers are more concerned with the life writing side of the social research-life writing
continuum, (Manning, p.193). I feel this method suits me best as I feel my strongest writing comes in the form of narratives.
Autoethnographers tend to write about personal epiphanies (Manning, p.190). While I am not a professional musician, music and the guitar have had a profound impact on my life. In this blog, I will attempt to tell the story of how I found the guitar.
“All We Need is Music”
Growing up, there was always music in my house. In the morning and during the day, my mom would have the radio on in the kitchen. My dad enjoyed German “oompa” music. There’s nothing quite like being woken up early on a Saturday morning to “Eins, zwei, drei!” followed by German band music blasting from our home stereo system. My middle brother was in the school band and I was in the school chorus.
The first album that I owned was the soundtrack to the movie version of Grease. If memory serves me well, I got the album as a First Communion gift, which is ironic because the movie, like the 1971 musical, has a lot of sexual innuendo in it, which is not lost in the soundtrack’s lyrics. This was also long before when Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) demanded warning labels be placed on records with explicit lyrics.
Pop music caught my attention in the early 1980’s. The Police had a monster hit single in 1983 with “Every Breath You Take” that received heavy play on radio and MTV. I received the album, Synchronicity, as a birthday gift, and soon declared The Police as my favorite band. Their edgy, dark lyrics and moody melodies sold me.
I also had a small AM/FM radio/tape player in my room. I listened to pop radio, but also tuned into the rock stations. My musical foundation was rocked (pun intended) in 1984 when I first heard “Round and Round” by Ratt. From the initial snap on the snare drum, to the chugging guitar and the snarling vocals, I was hooked! Ratt opened the door to a whole new genre of music. Throughout the ’80s, I listened to bands such as AC/DC, Dokken, Metallica, Motley Crue, and Twisted Sister. I also listened to bands from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Aerosmith, Jimi Hendrix, KISS, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, and Van Halen.
“I Got My First Real Six String”
By the mid-80s, some of my neighborhood friends were starting to learn how to play guitar and drums. Not wanting to be left out, I pestered my parents for guitar lessons. In 1986, my wish was granted. I started lessons with the same instructor who was teaching one of my friends out of his small music store. He offered a rental option in order to gauge how serious the student would be and to not stick parents with a guitar that would sit in a closet or under a bed. To me, that was not a concern. I was committed.
When it was time to trade in the rental for my own guitar, my teacher showed me his inventory. I tried several, but kept coming back to the same one: a mock Stratocaster made by Austin Guitars.
My guitars as of 2015: Austin mock Strat in front, blue Fender Strat behind, Yamaha acoustic-electric to the right
Throughout high school, I took lessons, learned chords, scales, and some music theory. I jammed with friends, tried to learn some songs, and tinkered with some original material. I had found my passion. I brought my guitar with me to college, but I realized that I needed to focus on my studies. Playing guitar was now something I did in my limited spare time.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
By the late 1990’s, I had gotten a job, gotten married, bought a house, and was starting a family. Free time was non-existent as I ventured into adulthood. Where was my guitar? In its case in the attic where it endured too many brutally cold winters and hot, muggy summers.
I simply didn’t play anymore. I tried to rationalize it by telling myself that I wasn’t very good anyway. I gave it a try, it was fun, but it didn’t work out. Heck, a lot of my friends gave up on their instruments. What made me any different? I had more important things to tend to.
My subconscious wouldn’t let it go. I often dreamed I was jamming with an icon like Eddie Van Halen, or I was whipping off some jaw-dropping lick in front of stunned friends. I’d remember the dream upon waking, feel the tug of regret, and then I’d bury it. As I said, I had more important things to do.
By the late ’00s, I was mired in serious problems with my marriage. I needed a distraction. I pulled the Austin out of the attic, changed its strings, and tried to revive life into it. Unfortunately, its neck was badly warped from years of improper care. It limped along, but I knew I needed to replace it. I had a limited budget to work with, so I looked only at used guitars.
Craigslist could be a crap shoot, but I included it as a potential source to buy. Many guitars were overpriced and didn’t appeal to me. Then I saw it: a 2006 blue Fender Stratocaster. The price was very reasonable. I had to inquire. I lucked out! The seller was a meticulous guitar nut. All of his guitars and gear were in immaculate condition. We talked for over an hour and he let me play the Strat and a couple other guitars. We jammed a little. He was an excellent musician from a family of musicians. I asked him why he was selling the Strat. He said he thought it was intriguing. However, he needed some quick cash and he hadn’t had the guitar for long (he bought it used as well), and he wasn’t as attached to it as he was to his other guitars. I bought it and finally had a dream come true: I owned a genuine Fender Stratocaster! The same guitar that legends like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughn played.
Around this time, my tastes in music had changed. Many of my friends and my brothers were into blues. My youngest studied jazz guitar in college and was quite an accomplished player. I had always liked the sound of the blues – rock is a derivative of the blues and it influenced many of the bands I was listening to at this time. I decided I would devote myself to learning this genre. I immersed myself in websites, YouTube videos, books, and DVDs to learn this style. I felt like I was making solid progress. I felt like I actually sounded like a guitar player. Something was missing, though. Playing by myself to backing tracks and songs was getting stale. I needed something different.
“Hey Man! Is that Freedom Rock?”
The missing ingredient was jamming with other people. My middle brother, who lives in Colorado, came home to visit in 2012, and he brought his bass with him. I took some time off and I jammed with my brothers for two straight days. It was raw, there were a lot of bad notes, but it was magnificent!
I realized that what I needed was more playing time with other people. So, I decided to resume lessons. I shopped around and ultimately took lessons at Andy Babiuk’s Fab Gear in Fairport, NY. What set this store apart from others in the area? The store and music school were owned and operated by members of Rochester’s own The Chesterfield Kings, including founder Andy Babiuk. Known as a retro ’60’s garage band with a flair for punk, the Kings had recorded albums and videos, toured the world, and even made a movie. They were well-connected in the music industry. Babiuk has authored several highly-acclaimed books on music gear used by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He even authenticated Bob Dylan’s long-lost Stratocaster – the one used at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went “electric.”
Even though I was learning from rock stars, what struck me most was how ordinary and regular these guys were. All of them were devoted family men. All loved their jobs. They were really just like me and my friends. In fact, my instructor, Jeff, graduated from the same high school as my cousins did. And Mike, the drum instructor, used to work for a company that serviced vending machines where I used to work. He said he remembered me from that company as a friendly guy who didn’t mind chit-chatting now and then. I was stunned! Wow!! This guy who was in a rock band remembered me??
Jeff eventually moved me to his ensemble lessons, where he takes groups of students who play different instruments, and teaches them how to play together. The goal was to learn enough songs to put a set list together and perform out. I started out playing guitar and occasionally singing in two ensembles: one that focused on punk/alternative rock (one guy in this group worked in IT/technical support, and he named us Malicious Code) and the other that focused on blues/classic rock (we jokingly called ourselves Freedom Rock after the classic rock compilation album). I had finally made it! I was jamming with others and really learning how to play. We struggled to find a bass player for both groups. Since we had a plethora of guitarists, I offered to switch (hence the intro). We also struggled to find reliable drummers. Mike and Jeff sat in for both groups, but the goal was to form a group from students and perform. That, unfortunately, was the undoing of both groups. We toiled for 3 years trying to find adult student drummers. They are extremely rare! Members came and went, and I, sadly, had to step away in February.
“Where Words Fail, Music Speaks”
The title of this section is a quote from Danish author Hans Christian Anderson about the power of music. I think it speaks volumes. When I struggled in my youth, I turned to music. Same when I became an adult. One of the articles I referenced about autoethnography talks about how some authors have written about their relationship with music, and how it has assisted in the “creation of self,” (Manning, p.197). So true. I may not take the stage and wow audiences with my playing, but I am a guitarist for better or worse.
What do I do now? I tinker with a free program called Audacity and I record myself playing over backing tracks. I’m currently building a new page on SoundCloud called Freijammer. Below is a jazz backing track that I recorded over. Lately I’ve started dabbling in jazz guitar. I enjoy the free-floating feel of jazz. Let me know what you think. If you like it, please follow me. I’ll be doing this while I wait for the next opportunity to jam with others.
Adams, Bryan. I got my first real six-string. “Summer of ’69.” Reckless. A&M Records.
Anderson, Hans Christian. “Where words fail, music speaks.” Goodreads. Quotable Quote. N.d. Retrieved 1 July 2017.
Ellis, Carolyn; Adams, Tony E. & Bochner, Arthur P. (2010). “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10.
Harrison, George. While my guitar gently weeps. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The Beatles. Apple Records.
“Hey Man! Is That Freedom Rock?” Freedom Rock. Warner-Sessions. 1987.
Lennon, John. Paul McCartney. “A Day in the Life.” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Parlophone, Capitol.
Manning, Jimmie. Tony E. Adams. “Popular Culture Studies and Autoethnography: An Essay on Method.” The Popular Culture Studies Journal. Vol. 3, No. 1 & 2, pp.187-222. 2015.
Martha and the Vandellas. All we need is music. “Dancing in the Street.” Dance Party. Mowtown Record Company, L.P.
Scorpions. “Six String Sting.” World Wide Live. Harvest/EMI, Mercury.