Hope lives (as the internal struggles of a guitar hobbyist continue)

I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent posts that I’m playing the guitar more often.

2010 was largely a dead year for me and my guitar playing. I played in spurts, which is par for the course, but the big difference this year was the staggering* amount of time that I didn’t play.

*I can’t actually show you how staggering it was, because I didn’t keep a log. Trust me, though: it was probably my least-disciplined year in a long, long time.

Why didn’t I play very much? Well, I won’t get into too many specifics, but there are several factors that go into disciplining one’s self to engage in a hobby on a regular basis, and thus, several bad habits that can be inhibitors to that. The biggest contributor was a lack of inspiration or interest. It’s something that’s difficult to explain… but it generally stems from my ever-present lack of confidence in my abilities to improve and create, my internal self-censoring mechanism, and, well, just being stuck in a rut.

My view of myself as a player goes something like this: “Unpracticed, slow, undisciplined. Unfocused. Unoriginal. One-dimensional. Over-uses open/droning strings, sliding chord shapes, chord bends. Strums weird (at the wrist) – open strings/chords sound muddy as a result. Can’t bend single notes to proper pitch. Often misses notes, particularly when trying to ‘solo.’ Poor finger-style player.” Etc. There’s more, but those are the most pertinent points for me.

(Yes, I also suck at learning and playing the works of others. I’m extremely poor at learning different styles: jazz, classical and blues guitar feel inauthentic to me – that is, me as a guitarist. I love jazz, classical, blues, and many other styles of guitar playing, but I feel like a total imposter when I try to play them, so instead I try to incorporate elements of those styles into my playing when I can.)

Anyway… now that I’ve typed all of that out, if I step back and look at that list I can see some constructive points there. Making a list of areas of weakness doesn’t mean that I have to wallow in it (I’m telling myself this, mind you…).

  1. For one thing, open strings, drones and pedals, sliding chords, chord bends and vibrato, etc. are all things that I’m interested in. I enjoy them, and I like using them – they help to define my playing style. That’s a positive thing, and so using them is ok.
  2. My strumming style (and, to a lesser extent, my picking style) is evolving. To be more descriptive about it, I tend to strum at a slight angle to the strings – that is, my pick doesn’t hit the strings straight on. I hold my guitar so that the neck is a bit higher than the body, but I strum relatively perpendicular to the floor. I’ve tried different things – the most radical two options being a) eliminating “strumming” from my style entirely and b) holding my guitar like the Beatles did (neither was remotely satisfying) – and I’ve shortened my guitar strap a bit to give it better balance. As a result of some experimentation, this issue is actually improving.
  3. Several of the other areas are chronic issues for me, and are technical issues that I have to dedicate myself to overcoming. So, that’s on me – I can’t let my confidence be completely trampled by issues that I’ve not taken the time to practice through and/or fix.

* * * * *

While I certainly have issues as a musician, one thing that I don’t have is very many issues with my instrument setup.

Currently, the guitar that I play the most is my Fender American Deluxe Stratocaster. It has noiseless pickups, which is great for playing in an apartment. It also has a switch that, when engaged, allows for double the amount of pickup combinations of a normal Strat. I don’t mess with those configurations, though – the sounds are funky, I guess, but I’m not a funky guitar player. I just leave the switch disengaged and the pickups at the neck (mainly) or middle positions, and go from there.

I don’t use any effects right now. As far as amps go, I was using a Peavy Basic 60 bass amp, which, when adjusted quite a bit, produced a nice, warm, bass-y sound. However, while I like the sound to some extent, it’s a little too bottom-heavy for an apartment, so recently I have been using my Crate Palomino V8, which is a little tube amp that I picked up on eBay a few years ago. It’s a simple little amp, and it isn’t perfect… but right now it’s music to my ears.

With the Strat at the neck position, and the Crate at low volume with moderate gain, I can get some warm tones and nice, subtle dynamics. More than ever, I feel like I can control the amount of distortion that I get by playing more/less intensely or by rolling back slightly on the guitar’s volume knob.

In the liner notes for his CD Perfect Night: Live in London, Lou Reed wrote about his experience with a new pickup that had been developed – it enabled him to plug his acoustic guitar into an electric guitar amp and play it loud without it sounding like crap and/or distorting. He said that it “sounded like diamonds.” That’s how I feel about this simple setup. Of course, it sounds very different from Lou’s version of diamonds, but… my point is this: to me, it sounds great. It’s inspiring and satisfying to pick up the guitar, play one note, and smile a big smile inside. It’s about as close as I’ll ever get to some of Sonic Youth’s various guitar sounds, so I’m grateful for that.

* * * * *

The guitar sound moves me right now. I find that, more than I have in a long time, I am drawn to the guitar as a source of diversion. This gives me hope, because, amazingly, over the past year I’ve often thought to myself that perhaps my days of even playing sporadically were drawing to a close. As it stands right now, that already seems like a thought from the distant past – I feel good about where I am: even though my playing has many faults, it’s enjoyable, and that allows some contentment to balance out my awareness of the steep road to betterment that lies before me .

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