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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2004/05/29
by John Zinkand

I Suck at Guitar

Nothing better on a lazy Sunday afternoon than a shot and a beer after doing some work around the house. I’m just about halfway through my Rogue Dead Guy Ale and that shot of Cuervo went down nice and easy. After quite a few good shows coming through town in the not-so-distant past, there seems to be a slight jamband drought approaching in the coming weeks. So what’s a live music lover to do besides keep himself moistened with beer and liquor? Well, yesterday I drove over to a buddy’s house and scored multiple Grateful Dead DVD’s that he had burned off the internet for me. Today while I was cruising archive.org for new live music to burn, I noticed that quite a few shows are in FLAC format these days (I just noticed, yes I am a very slow person). I downloaded the FLAC converter and I’m all ready to download FLAC files in addition to the SHN file format I’ve come to know and love so dearly. I’m still a bit torrent virgin, however. Some day soon, though, I’m sure I will experiment with that seductive form of tune snagging, as well.

Hiking, yard work, exercise, and watching movies are usually enough to fill in the blank spaces of my mundane day to day existence when live music is not available, but I often think that there must be something more. That’s when I remember the trusty old acoustic guitar. Unfortunately, when I dust off those rusty strings just one more time, they rarely shine. More often, they twang and go out of tune after just a few strums. Then I fuck around for ages trying to get the stupid thing back in tune. But when I strum that first chord, eager with anticipation and expecting to hear the beautiful angelic cadence of a sweetly played A minor, I get a reality check instead. Quickly I realize my ear is not so trained. So I go back at it again until I finally get the strings close enough to being in tune that it doesn’t sound awfully discordant, only slightly stupid. And since slightly stupid is what I’ve been about for most of my life, I roll with it.
OK, ready to jam as hard a 31 year old man with little time to practice and even less musical ability can expect to jam. The first thing I notice is how downright filthy my git-fiddle is. Christ, it’s gnarly. Obviously, I’m no musician because I hear they actually have respect for their instrument. Me, I’ve no respect whatsoever. There are nicks and scratches by the pick guard from having bonked it into many walls. There’s a large slice of wood missing near the head from when I set it up against the wall only to hear it come crashing down onto the floor seconds later. I don’t think anyone can really comprehend how filthy an acoustic guitar can get until they’ve seen mine. The fret board has little globules of tar-like hand dirt that has congealed and fastened itself there for good. It’s all up and down the entire guitar. About the only way to get it off is to scratch it off with a fingernail or a guitar pick. Little scraps of guitar boogies fall to the ground as I try to work off the goop. And the strings are pretty well blackened. They no longer have the golden hue of fresh strings, but are literally black with years of finger dirt build up. Did I mention the guitar strings actually smell bad? That’s how freaking dirty they are. They are brittle and make a deadened sound, but at least they still make some sort of a sound. And unless one of the brittle, black bitches breaks, I’m not restringing it. Period.
So I pick up this thing that used to be a fine Washburn guitar, expecting to make some sort of incredible music with it. I should know I’m only kidding myself. After running through my oldest material of Dead tunes, I realize the tender pads on my fingers are throbbing. The action is pretty high on my guitar and unless I play on a daily basis, my fingers lack the calluses needed to play a pain free song. So I look down at the deep red lines that are now embedded in my office worker fingertips. Typing mindless drivel on the keyboard for eight hours a day at work doesn’t even compare to the abuse of playing five minutes of guitar. I belt out a few Dead tunes, which makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Or is that the jack-n-ginger? Probably both. Then I move onto Phish tunes and, as the alcohol fuses with my body, I begin to groove out. My playing at this point probably sounds much like a dying yak fumbling through the forest, but I’m enjoying myself.
Slowly, I work my way through all the Dead, Phish, and Pink Floyd I can remember. Then it’s time for the Johnny Z originals, a mutant batch of tunes that can barely be labeled "songs." Most of them are unpleasant to the ears or lyrically make no sense; the others are three chord ditties that are depressingly sad and silly. I may try to solo a little at this point, which cements in my mind the fact that I have no inherent ability on the guitar whatsoever. My fingers go back to playing the same old tired scale patterns I learned back in 1991 while my face assumes a white man’s overbite (that face soulless folks like myself get while some really funky music is playing). Sadly enough, I pretend in my mind’s eye that I’m on stage with Jerry or Trey.
All this may sound depressing but for some reason it satisfies my soul. I know I suck. I know anyone who hears me playing thinks, "Whoa, that guy really sucks at guitar." But strangely enough, I don’t give a shit what anyone else thinks. I like to play all the little licks that I, and thousands of other jamband guitar hacks, have learned over the years: like the Birdsong intro, the Fluffhead chords, and the Divided Sky chords. Can we play the in between challenging bits that only a true musical virtuoso could play? Hell no! Ah, but we don’t care. There’s something about playing anything on the guitar that is satisfying. And while I will never be on stage jamming it out face to face with Warren Haynes, Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio, or Jimmy Herring, I can always pretend. It’s a creative and imaginative release. And that’s what matters most about any art. Sure, it would be nice to have businessmen give me wads of cash and have girls throw their panties at me after I play a terrible version of "Rocky Raccoon," but I know it’s never going to happen. Instead I use my acoustic guitar as a way to relax and let the creative juices flow. And while my juices may not be as delicious and pleasing as a real musician’s, they are my juices and I like them just fine. So while my wife probably wishes I had rented just one more movie to watch instead of picking up my trusty old acoustic guitar, I am happy that I chose to play the guitar. My playing may not soothe many souls, but it soothes mine. And when it comes down to it, that’s all that really matters.

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