SavingCymbria Blog Serial: Before you can play the Guitar (Parts 1-14)

Summer 2008 Blog Serial in category: Musical Musings

Before you can play the guitar…

(The complete story – Parts 1 though 14 of this harrowing true tale)

On our last night together before she moved back East, my best writer friend played her guitar for me and sang. I usually find the awkward intimacy of one-on-one recitals unbearable, but this was different. It wasn’t like (when a certain ex) started strumming under the twinkle of his closet mounted strobing disco ball. No, this was definitely something new. She kept her sense of humour (turning Enrique Englacious Hero song into an ode to the sandwich) and her voice was great. She also made the guitar seem so accessible.

“I think you could be good at this,” she said, after teaching me a couple of chords. Her guitar settled comfortably in my lap. The posture felt natural, a bit like literal tree-hugging. I’ve played the flute for most of my life, but I’ve always wanted to know if the songs I write and sing while walking to and from work are any good. Traffic isn’t always the most harmonious accompanist!

My birthday came a few weeks after this rather one sided jam session. Perfect time to put my plan into action…

My birthday sucker punched me this year. Out of nowhere, blaaamo, right in the gut. What’s a girl to do in the middle of an age crisis? And don’t let the fact I can still get away with using “girl” as my descriptor put a damper on your sympathies. Lest we forget, wrinkles start in our twenties. I’ve given my husband a forehead full of them already, and it’s only a matter of time before he pays me back!

There’s only one place to go when you find yourself in full crisis mode, birthday or otherwise, and that’s to your friendly neighbourhood pawn shop. I was on a mission. I was buying a guitar, right there, right then, no matter what. It was so clear in my mind. I could be one of those chill myspace music chicks. That’s the fantasy, right? Perez would discover me and my talent would explode out of radios all over the world. Within weeks I’d be sitting at the mile long mahogany conference table at Interscope Records, pen poised over my million dollar contract. Ya, so clear in my head. But then the big boss would lean in, just before I could sign, and whisper: “I’m so sorry. You’re just too old for this” – groan.

Put yourself in the shoes of an “ancient”, desperate (yet desperately trying to play it cool), backpack wearing blond, who knows next to nothing about playing guitar, even less about buying one, and nothing at all about pawn shop etiquette.

Everything I did know about pawn shops, I’d learned from the movies. And sure enough, when I walked in, the first thing I saw was a sleazy looking scruffed up man behind the counter. He leered at me and I smiled back cheerfully. My plan was to play the naïve university student looking for my first guitar. You know, laid back, chill, financially wishywashy. I figured it would give me the edge if things got ugly on the bargaining table. I wanted my ruthlessness to catch him off guard. Just as long as he didn’t suspect the truth, that my backpack was disguising a woman in crisis, one who was leaving his shop with a guitar whether he (or she!) liked it or not.

Wouldn’t you know it, a pawn shop with a dozen acoustic guitar cases on display only had one of the actual instruments in stock! The man brought me fate’s “pick” from the back of the store and I was sold by the first strum. Ok, honestly, I was sold by the name Fender on the neck and the magical fit and balance of the guitar in my arms. The sound was miserable, completely out of tune and made worse by my hack strumming. But the guitar just felt, somehow, right. There was no doubt that before whatever tragic circumstances had brought it to the pawn shop, the guitar had been loved. Its worn blond wood body bore the scars of a thousand campfire sing-alongs, and I laughed when I found a Band-Aid stuck to its side to prove it!

I walked out of the pawn shop twenty minutes later carrying the guitar, a busker’s dream case with lush velvety green lining, a digital tuner, and an ipod with a case (don’t ask), all bought for a total $220 cdn. Halfway through our haggling, I’d started to feel a little guilty. I wasn’t used to the merciless back and forth and sneak plays. But after listening to my quarry whine to another customer about the cost of the oak banisters he was installing as part of his total home renovation, any trepidation I’d felt dissolved.

My proudest moment? I had the man down to $230. I knew he wasn’t moving, per say, but maybe I could get him to bend. “My personal budget was $200,” I said. “The highest I could possibly justify is $220, because I could keep telling myself it’s only one twenty dollar bill more.” Sure, he dropped the extra ten bucks, but something tells me I’ve got a long way to go before I should take on the New Delhi Market – sigh.

Only one thing separates guitar players from the non-playing public (hint: it’s not the guitar!). Only guitar players know how fantastically “cool” one feels walking down the street carrying a beat-up guitar case. There’s really nothing like it. I put on my best tortured musician pout and headed for home. I had no idea how quickly my sidewalk “suffering musician” act would became the real deal. I should really have checked under that Band-Aid!

I suppose I have to apologize for the title of this piece, “before you can play the guitar”, because I did “play the guitar” (technically speaking) at this point in our odyssey. I dimmed my bedroom lights to set the mood for my long awaited acoustic debut. It was to be a very intimate set, since any potential audience (consisting of one husband) had been banished to the living room.

After propping myself into position with pillows and finding the perfect balance of the guitar on my lap, I let loose. This abandon lasted all of 10 seconds, more than enough time to discover the importance of the tiny battery powered box that Mr. Pawn Shop had thrown in to sweeten the deal. Only, my second hand tuner didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind. My E string was flat on the first pluck, then sharp, then flat, then the little needle on the tuner started swaying, casually and unhurried, from one extreme to the other. I turned it off and on, and even replaced the batteries, but nothing helped. It eventually gave up on decision making altogether, and wouldn’t even commit on which note I was playing.

So the tuner was a dud. No problem. My musical background includes sitting through countless 7:30am high school band practices. Tuning up in a room full of groggy teenagers can’t help but give you an ear, if not for perfect pitch, then at least for knowing when you’re way off. So I cleared my mind, Jedi style, and got in tune with the vibrations of the universe. Pluck. Flat? Sure. Why not. I turned the key a full turn. Still flat? I kept turning. The note was slowly tightening into something familiar and–


The string snapped with the adrenalin loaded pop of a balloon! It caught me totally by surprise, just like the time my husband drove a golf ball through our kitchen window (from the inside!). You never believe these things will happen to you until you’re sitting there shaking from the shock of it. All I wanted to do was play the guitar, so much for that. Who cares about tune when you don’t even have all the strings!

So of course I burst out crying. What with the birthday crisis, the pawn shop wheeling and dealing, and the simple, brutal disappointment of a disappointment, I couldn’t help it. It was definitely time to make use of that audience in the living room. I dragged myself off the bed and trudged, in pure glorious misery, down the hall, sobbing all the way.

“What’s wrong?” asked my husband when he saw my red face come round the corner.

“I think I got ripped off,” I wailed.

He sighed and held out his arms. I ran headfirst into his hug and clung tight, sniffling.

“It’s too soon to know that,” he said.

A quest like this one is all about momentum, and I wasn’t about to let myself get stalled in my mission to play the guitar by the small fact that my guitar could not be played. There was only one thing to do, suck it up and endure the ubiquitous pawn shop guitar “walk of shame” to the closest music store. It’s like your first trip to the salon after a tragic at home Sun-in experience, brutal. They give you that same look too, that “here comes another sucker” smirk. When will we learn that cheap n’ easy never keeps its promises?

My only other trip to the music store had been for a pick the day before. After “picking” (sorry, couldn’t resist) through their vast selection, I asked one of the so-this-is-what-really-happened-to-Kurt-Cobain salespeople what thickness he would recommend for beginners. “Up to you,” he said, “personal preference.” Then he shrugged and walked off. Ya, big help. How was I supposed to have a “preference” at this stage of the game? So I did what every girl does in a pinch; I picked my favorite colour.

My “walk of shame” the next day brought me right up to the counter. Mr. Grunge wasn’t around, so I waited for someone else to come and rescue me. My knight in shining, um, piercings came up and introduced himself. He was carrying enough metal, in enough different places, that I had to fight the urge to grab him by the shoulders and jangle him like a tambourine! It’s sad, but I’m pretty sure he would have made better music than what had been coming out of my guitar. I told him my sob story and asked for his diagnosis.

“Don’t bother sugar coating it,” I said. “Tell it to me straight. Is there any hope?”

He had a pained expression on his face. I guess it’s tough telling anyone their loved one might not make it. He took me through the symptoms: warped neck, loose tuners, broken nut, dead strings, battered body, and that Band-Aid. Do you want to know what it was covering up? Nothing. As in empty space. As in a hole! He stared down at the instrument and shook his head. I had to agree with him. It didn’t look good.

“But it’s a Fender,” I said.

He shrugged and gave me directions (centering around a yellow awning) to a technician, conveniently located on the exact opposite side of the city. “Steve can fix it for you. It’ll cost you about 40 bucks,” he said. He told me that I’d still be stuck with a cheap laminated guitar, but fixing it would be a lot cheaper than throwing in the towel and buying a new one. “And if you’re just learning…” he reasoned, tapping his silver chin stud thoughtfully.

I asked him if he could at least re-string it for me so I could fool around with it. He said that he could not, in good conscience, replace even one string. “It’ll just make it worse,” he said. And I, of course, believed him.

I had two choices, and the one involving quitting was not an option after I’d come so far. The afternoon’s weather forecast called for rain, “scattered showers” if we’re quoting verbatim. There was nothing for it but to take the guitar home to suit it up for its coming adventure.

Two garbage bags did the trick, their overlaps secured with a twist around the plastic handle. As for myself, I took a red nylon shell for the afor mentioned rain, and my infamous green tweed newsboy for some serious street cred to take with me to the next guitar store. I was sick of being spotted as a newbie. With that funky cap on my head, I looked like I was ready to rattle off “Me and Bobby McGee” at a moment’s notice. So what if my guitar might be earmarked for the campfire!

If walking down the street with a beat-up guitar case is the pinnacle of coolness, carrying said case obscured by billowing garbage bags while wearing a homeless styled tweed hat is the valley – the dark, dark valley. Add rain, not “scattered showers” (as if the weather is ever verbatim, sigh), but a solid sheeting two hour downpour, and you have quite a pathetic figure. Oh, I almost forgot; there’s one more ingredient to set the scene…remember those street directions from the human tambourine? All I’m going to say is nobody is that colourblind!

This wasn’t rain. There was no quantization involved, no individual droplets spread evenly throughout a supporting medium. This was an unbroken deluge sent straight from the heavens. If you ask me, whenever the world soaks through and turns gray and heavy, a person should take themselves off to the nearest bed and curl up with a good book and a bowl of maple syrup drizzled cottage cheese yum… but enough daydreaming. Let’s get back to the action!

There I am, soaked, trudging along beside some forsaken highway on the other side of town (after riding a bus and a city train for over an hour!), in all my tweed capped bag lady glory. You can imagine how delighted I was to discover there were ZERO giant yellow music store awnings on the route mr tambourine man had prescribed. None the first time I walked it, not the second back and forth, and wouldn’t chaknow it, not even on my third pass after getting more faulty instructions from a Cowboy Hat store. Here in Calgary, you’d figure asking anyone wearing plaid would be a safe bet for gettin’ the lay of the land. Not so much. Drenched and exhausted, I finally hauled my five ton guitar case into a Second Cup and called the music store.

I remember hearing a far away voice on the phone saying, “You’re almost here”. But almost isn’t good enough when every muscle in your body is aching from carrying an impossibly slippery, garbage bagged, hand held harpsichord, and I was all out of new ergonomic body/guitar case configurations to help spread the weight. There was only one way I was going to manage the next five blocks…

…I had to go on rage. The rain squirreled in under my jacket’s cuffs and collar. It crept up my shirt sleeves and mixed with sweat to dribble down my back. Just lovely, I know. It seeped in through my ears and splashed up off spinning car tires, drenching my pant-legs. My sneakers squelched deeper into the mud with every step, but I was too wet and mad to care about any of it.

Why can’t it ever be easy?! All I wanted was to play a guitar! Was I asking too much of the universe! Why did it have to be raining? And if it had to rain, why did it have to be raining so bloody hard? And why, oh why, didn’t anyone seem to know that the fabled “yellow awning” I was supposed to be looking for was, in actual fact, a flat BLACK sign!

Turn back, you ask? When I was so close? Never. And it was with great sopping triumph that I finally laid my guitar case down in the middle of the music store. My jeans had undergone the incredibly economical, but indescribably uncomfortable, transformation from medium wash to dark. Claustrophobia, anyone? Water from my green too-cool-for-school newsboy was dripping into my eyes and I could feel my core temperature starting to plummet. Do you think any of the half dozen wandering/chatting employees noticed any of this? Of course not. Apparently, it takes more than a funky hat to get any attention from this class of hardcore music buff.

When the puddle around my sneakers became too big too ignore (ok, ok, I’ll admit to slight hyperbole on that one, but ever so slight), a large bouncer-at-a-metal-concert man asked me what I was waiting for. I could feel his eyes judging me. I knew he saw the yuppy North Face jacket, the industrial designy eyeglasses under the brim of my scruffy hat. But I used my most confident laid back music chick voice and explained the situation. Needless to say, the man did not look overly impressed when I pointed to the bulky garbage bags that were slowly saturating his floor mat.

You know, in reading this, I’m thinking that most of this “acting cool” and “acting the part” ends up setting me up to look like an idiot. But I enjoy it. Ya, life is more fun when you let yourself really get into a situation. Act the part. Wear the clothes. You might not be up for an Oscar next March, but I guarantee you’ll have some stories to tell!

So I left my guitar for “Steve” the technician, who’d gone home early (of course), with a note listing everything that I’d been told needed fixing. I started to get that knowing itchy feeling in my gut while writing out the list. You know the one, when you begin to realize you’re going to be spending a whole lot more money than you were planning on.

The call from Steve came through to my office the next day. He gave me my long awaited second (or is it third or forth by now?) opinion and I promised to head over right after work. My second trip to the music store was entirely different. I was greeted, by that very same bouncer, as a minor celebrity. I was pointed to a narrow set of stairs in “the back” and told to wait for Steve in his workshop.

The intimate room smelled of shellac and wood dust. One wall held a rack of freshly polished guitars, hung close and friendly. The opposite wall was organized to hold hundreds of tools and parts. He kept his pliers and screwdrivers in a long row of brown Tim Hortons paper cups. Now that’s what I call recycling! The workbench was covered with a soft green felt, the same colour as the divine plush in my case. The atmosphere was close, but not stuffy, like I’d walked into a hobbit hole and Bilbo would be home any minute.

And there, resting quietly on the felt, almost unrecognizable in it’s new incarnation, was my Fender guitar…

It was glistening, and that’s not word I use lightly (or often, or at all if I can help it – don’t ask). Freshly patched, sanded, shellacked, restrung, tuned, it was an incredible surprise – like asking the quiet boy to a movie and finding out he’s a great…. So anyways, my guitar was gorgeous, but what about the sound?

Steve, delightfully Bilbo-esque and wonderfully passionate about his craft, came in behind me. He lifted my guitar, ever so gently, off the workbench and cradled it in playing position. “Do you know what this is,” he asked. I shook my head. “It’s a solid body Fender from the 70s, made in Japan. It’s a beautiful guitar. You just can’t go out and buy one of these. Where did you get it?” I told him my story – the much abbreviated version.

“Listen to this…” he said.

He strummed his pick across the strings and the small room was instantly filled with richness and warmth. Wow. The lush sound resonated all the way into my bones. It had character, was mellow but strong, and had a real layered depth. I wondered how many hands had played it around how many campfires, how many bus trips it had taken over how many miles. I felt a thrill. Now it was mine.

“Now listen to this…” He picked a shiny black Johnny Cash special off the wall. Its sound was weak, too high, and empty. Like a four year old trying to sing the national anthem – just cute. “And this one sell for $4000,” he said. He went back to mine and played us a blues song. The guitar came alive. The room reverberated with music and feeling. I couldn’t stop saying “Thank You”.

When I left the store, $190 dollars later ($40-my b*t, mr. tambourine man!), it was with a digital tuner, a blues song book, and an extraordinary guitar. Best birthday present I ever bought myself! “Before you can play the guitar” has been such a journey, that now the “after” part should be a breeze. That pawn shop ipod stopped working weeks ago, but I don’t care. It’s time for the real music to start.



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