I have no formal music training. I have virtually no informal music training, either. I’ve picked up a few things here & there from watching my friends and relatives play. I have a handful of guitar books that I’m slowly working my way through since I feel strongly compelled to play an instrument. In fact, if someone was to ask me what I would do if I hit the lottery tomorrow and was set for life, I would consider the question for precisely three nanoseconds and then say “Build myself a kick-ass music studio, learn to play every musical instrument known to humankind, and get busy writing songs”. Drums, keyboards, guitars, marimbas, rainstick, accordion, hurdy-gurdy, whatever. Perhaps I’ll expand on this little fantasy in a future blog. Let’s just say I’ve given it a lot of thought.
For now, my musical knowledge is very limited. After listening to so much music over the years, I think my ears are very well trained to pick up melodies, including the little nuances and irregularities and surprises that make them so much fun. But put a sheet of music in front of me and it would be like asking a first grader to read Chaucer. I can sort of read guitar tablature and chord charts, but take it further than the basic cowboy chords (G, C, A, D, and subtle variations thereof) and things go egg-shaped pretty quickly. I’m trying to learn, though. I’d like to take an introductory musical theory course at a community college to at least catch up with all those pesky seven-year-old kids that got coerced into taking piano lessons. Music in all its variations (melody, rhythm, and especially the dynamics of composition) is so fascinating.
Peter Buck from R.E.M. is one of my favourite guitarists because he does so much with so little. He gave an interview once where he said that he was endlessly amused by the guys who attended R.E.M. shows and watched his hands to unlock his secrets about playing guitar. “Sorry guys, it’s just G, C, and D!” So I can play a passable imitiation of quite a few R.E.M. songs, at least enough of the rhythm guitar to make it recognizable.
The trickiest thing I can play on guitar is probably “Unguided”, from the New Pornographers’ album Challengers. Barre chords are the bane of my existence (I inherited fingers that could accurately be described as crooked cocktail weiners), but with enough practice and a little ‘liquid courage’ I can fake my way through this song. The verses are D, C# minor, E, and B minor, then D and A to circle back to D. It’s a cool little sequence with a neat rhythm and forces you to switch in and out of barre chords, at least the way I play it. I love the way the C# minor chord just kind of hangs there, waiting to fall but defying gravity.
The bridge of “Unguided” has a pretty progression as well, E into F# minor and then C# minor back to D. It makes you form the E as a barre chord instead of an open chord, which I’m told is an important tool to have in my toolbox. I like the lyrics and vocal melody a lot, too, especially the alliterative “heatwave humming in the house of cards”. No idea what the song is really about, but it’s fun to play while sitting around a campfire, watching the first stars of the evening pop out of the cobalt sky.