Sunday, February 6, 2011

They shall know us by our guitars

I’m quite sure it’s written somewhere that a Texan must be able to play guitar. More than likely it’s actually a part of the Texas Constitution, added sometime before statehood to help keep the riffraff out.

But don’t worry if you can’t strum a decent G chord or barre a respectable F. There’s a lot of folks who can’t, and none of them as of yet have been kicked out of the state. (And then there are some who can that should have never been allowed to stay as long as they have.)

Anyways, a guitar is a beautiful instrument to hear, but there’s a lot of quirkiness that goes along with playing one. First off, it has six strings but you’re expected to form chords with only four fingers. Sure, you could use your thumb on some of those chords, but that still leaves you behind 5 to 6. And the positions you have to get in to actually use your thumb make slipping a disc or tearing a hernia a great possibility.

I’ve heard of a man who tried to use his thumb on a major chord once, only to end up in the hospital with a broken collar bone, a herniated disk, torn ligaments in his right knee and a sprained wrist. He hiked up his thumb to the E string and fell right out of his chair into a nearby china cabinet. Fortunately, his thumb made it through without a scratch, which just proves that God has a wicked sense of humor.

Speaking of strings, guitars can either have steel strings or nylon strings. The nylon ones produce a mellow tone and are easier on your fingers. The steel ones rough up your fingers until they’re nothing more than bloody stumps, making it almost impossible to do simple things like snapping your fingers or picking your nose.

Most budding guitarists start off with steel strings because they don’t know any better, and when they do know better, stick with the steel because they don’t want to change to nylons and be seen as sissy. Besides, they figure if they change strings, they’ll lose their newly-formed super-callused fingertips which come in handy when pushing in tacks or roofing nails. It’s definitely a pride and ego thing.

Did you notice the hole in the center of the guitar? Most guitars have them. It’s not a mistake made at the factory that needs to be fixed with duct tape. It’s there to enhance the sound of the strings and to catch your pick when it slips out of your fingers. Guitar players are always dropping their picks. When I drop mine, the first place I look for it is in the hole. I currently have 27 picks inside my guitar. I’d dump them out, but they’d just end up back where they started. Better to leave well enough alone.

An electric guitar doesn’t have a hole in its middle, but it does have a lot of dials and switches, and a volume control. At first glance, that might seem a better design, but I’ve heard some being played that I wish had never been designed at all. I’m not sure if it was the guitar’s fault or the person who was playing it, but I guarantee I would have much preferred to listen to a chainsaw instead, and would have thought it a mite more musical.

I would like to now engage you in an intellectual and thoughtful discussion of why a guitar is shaped like a woman – but since I can’t, I won’t. Instead, let’s talk about banjos.

A banjo is not a guitar. It has just enough strings to match your fingers (and thumb). It does not have a hole in the front. You might could electrify one, but that would be just plain silly. It is not shaped like a woman, but more like an oar. If you’re caught in a flood with nothing but a banjo and a canoe, you’d probably be okay. A guitarist wouldn’t dare dip his instrument into a swollen stream to save his neck. A banjo player would and not think twice about it.

I’m pert near positive that there’s nothing written about banjos in the Texas Constitution, but I’m guessing that’s just an oversight. Given time, banjos will come into their own. Until then, I’m practicing my guitar like all good Texans should. How about you?

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