By Samir Shukla
Practically every kid I knew in middle school and later high school dreamed of playing the guitar. Like a rock star. Nothing less. It was the 70’s and rock ‘n’ roll ruled the radio airwaves. The lead guitarists of rock bands were our idols. Their guitar strings spewed mighty sounds, from subtle to loud, melodic to feedback. In an era before music videos, the Internet, and social media, their mystique added to their legends. My guitar hero was Pete Townsend. His riffs awoke a primal sense of belonging to something bigger while his words spoke to me, a scrawny immigrant kid trying to fit in.
Like many of my friends, I bought a guitar, a small amp and signed up for lessons. I spent hours trying to figure out the chords and riffs of favorite songs. I learned to play “Behind Blue Eyes” and the opening chords of that song, or more like the song that is requisite for every kid that has picked up a guitar since the mid 70’s. “Stairway to Heaven.”
I set my guitar aside after a few years. I found it easier to work with words and sentences than chords and riffs. Writing is a lazy man’s passion and I found it perfectly suitable for my restless and constantly evolving frame of mind. I also lacked the discipline required to master musical instruments. I have written about music since the days my passion for learning to play music slowly waned.
Variations of guitar-like instruments have been around for centuries, millennia, really. The acoustic complexities of a classical guitar, the sensuous strumming of a flamenco player, the signature windmill playing style of Townsend, Jimi Hendrix coaxing previously unimagined, ungodly sounds out of his guitar, these are some of the cultural markers, musical ethos and histories created by guitarists.
It is the quintessential rock instrument and the most widely played musical instrument around the world. One imagines a lonesome cowboy in the wide open American West playing for himself and maybe his horse, wishing for that pretty woman to sing to; or the young rocker flailing his hair and his instrument playing in front of tens of thousands of people, making them sway to his vibes. That’s the soul of the guitar. The connection between varied styles and generations separated by decades.
A guitar can be reconfigured in myriad variations and tuned to the player’s choice. One of my favorite bands made a glorious blast of sound using detuned or weirdly tuned guitars. Sonic Youth’s dual guitar interplay and experimentation is like discovering the spaces between the possible, the unexplored vibrations in the ether. The guitar is pervasive in all genres of music. It can tag along to ancient rhythms and percussions or accompany any contemporary forms of music.
One of these days, I’ll dust off the ole electric guitar still lurking in my basement and make some noise. Return to that primal teenage urge to imitate but also create original sounds. Till then, well, I’ve got my words. They keep me fine company while I’m listening to the masters of metal or nylon strings animate the air.
For those interested in all things guitar, there’s an informative traveling guitar exhibit currently on display at the Discovery Place in Charlotte. “Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World” is installed for a limited engagement now through September 7, 2015. Subtitled “The science, history and cultural impact of the world’s most popular instrument,” this is a touring exhibition on loan from the National Guitar Museum.
The exhibit includes over 60 rare and funky instruments including early Fender, Gibson, Ovation, and Martin guitars (from circa 1835 to present), the Rock Ock, the only playable guitar with 8 necks and many other instruments that were the predecessors of the guitar. For more details visit www.DiscoveryPlace.org.