By Samir Shukla
This past September, while watching the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood interplay their guitars as Mick Jagger sang and strutted on the stage at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, the full majesty of rock, driven by guitars, was cut loose of its moorings. The sky wept in joy.
Practically every kid I knew in middle school and later high school dreamed of playing the guitar. Like a rock star, of course. It was the late 70's and early 80'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 heroes were Keith Richards and Pete Townsend. They were among the guitarists inspiring me to pick up a guitar. Townsend's 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 Townsend's “Behind Blue Eyes" and the opening notes of that song are still one of my favorites. There were also the requisite opening notes that every kid worth his weight in guitar strings learned or tried to play. “Stairway to Heaven."
There were rumors that several guitar shops banned people from playing “Stairway to Heaven" while testing out guitars as the guitar salesmen were driven mad by hearing that riff over and over every hour of every day. Mind you those were just rumors. The song, of course, remains a timeless guitar standard.
I set my guitar aside after a few years, well, more like abandoned it. 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 ever since my passion for learning to play music slowly waned.
Variations of guitar-like instruments have been around for centuries. 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 vast and 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 percussion or accompany all contemporary forms of music. When music gels, and the guitars do their magic, there's nothing better.
If you are able to close your eyes and melt into the music, become part of the soundwaves swirling around your entire being, then all is well in our chaotic world and time stands still, if only for a few moments.
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. Until 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.