Crossroads

One of my guilty pleasures is guitar shopping. Not so much because I'm in the market to buy one (even though I would love to pick up something new) but because there's a certain atmosphere to the experience that I truly enjoy. Guitar stores are in a lot of ways like car lots, where everything's out on display and theoretically available for test driving -- which is a good thing because you never really want to buy a car without at least seeing how it drives first, but at the same time if there's a Ferrari dealership in town that's just letting any schmuck with a valid drivers license put in a few miles, why the hell wouldn't you go down there and act like you're thinking about buying one?
And for the record, Yes I have done that.
The unique part of the guitar store experience that makes it so addictive is not only the fact that you are in most cases allowed to play the instruments in the place, but that everyone else in the place also gets to hear you test driving -- which creates an entirely different set of rules.

In other words, the majority of people messing around on instruments at a guitar store have no intention whatsoever of buying anything. They're there to show off for the other people in the store. It's more prevalent on weekends, but almost any day of the week if you head into a Guitar Center or Georges Music you're guaranteed to hear a couple of guys noodling around.

When I was younger, Gristina and I used to make regular trips to this big guitar store in St. Nicholas to listen to the shredders play and gawk at the instruments we couldn’t afford to buy. Occasionally we'd pick up guitars ourselves and make noise -- but much like the pecking orders at local surf breaks, there are sort of a set of unwritten rules in place that tend to dictate who's able to paddle for the best waves first.

So if you were in there and some guy was just killing it -- you tended to lay back and listen, or even just go over and blatantly watch them play in an effort to steal riffs or at least get some new ideas that you could try to work into your own playing.

If the place is relatively empty or you were in there with other grommets like yourself it was totally acceptable to get in there and make awful noises of your own -- because the risk of your crappy version of the opening three chords of Stairway to Heaven polluting the sound of the guy who actually knows what he's doing playing real music a few seats down the aisle is inherently minimized.
Generally speaking, if you go into a guitar store on a busy day --
the guy you can hear playing the loudest is usually the best one there.
It's weird, because it's not like anyone ever told me that if I heard a guy who had great chops playing at the same time I should either turn down the amp I was playing through or wait until he stopped test driving to do my thing, but it was just something everybody inherently knew.

Anyone can learn to play guitar, but there are levels of skill involved -- plateaus that developing players reach and must rise above in order to progress as musicians. When you're at home practicing and you reach a point where you're able to play a particularly difficult song or reach a level of comfort with a particular technique it gives you a certain sense of victory, but like all performance arts you've got to prove it on the stage.
And for a lot of players, the guitar store is where that happens.
It's interesting now that I think about the similarities to this practice to the way lineups work in surfing, because much the same as kids learning to surf needing waves to practice on before they can compete for breaks -- one of the best things that happened to me as a young player was realizing that although I had confidence in my ability even at a young age, I wasn't yet ready to hang with the big boys at the St. Nicholas store (it's been closed for years -- I wish I could remember the name of it, Eagle Music or American Music Store, something like that), so as a result Gristina and I ended up spending a lot of our free time at a little hole in the wall place called Pro Music (there was also a place by Drew's house called Wagner Music -- but the guy who ran it [who was super cool] did more business building custom instruments than selling name brands, so there weren't always guitars available to try out in his shop).

Pro Music back in the day was in a strip mall next to a Bagel Shop. They did most of their business (like a lot of smaller stores do) renting out band instruments to high schools. But they stocked a wall of used equipment and never minded if anyone came in and played. There were times when Gristina and I would skip school and just hang out there for hours. The owner was laid back, the vibe in the place was casual -- it was a fun place to go.

They had a guy working there named Dustin who played guitar in one of the more popular cover bands in town at the time (I actually ended up doing roadie work for them a few years later). Dusty loved to jam, so whenever I'd go in there and play some riff he'd take a guitar off the wall and we'd sort of trade riffs. Then Drew would grab a bass and it would be on.

Even though I never thought of it as anything more than a good time, jamming with Dusty was an invaluable experience for me as a young player, especially because he was so much more advanced at the time. I had to push my technique to keep up with him, and although I would never tell him so -- I frequently made sure I had one or two licks practiced before I went in there to "try out a guitar."

Buy the time I started going to jam sessions with guys at my school, those days spent at Pro Music hacking through Ozzy tunes with Dusty proved to be just as helpful as the hours I spent running scales at home.

In that sense, guitar stores are sort of the watering holes in the wilderness for guys like me. It's where we get to show off, where we get to talk guitar nerd stuff, debate the qualities of one instrument over another -- try out new riffs, play equipment we could never actually afford -- but it also provides a healthy opportunity for reality checks.
Because there's always someone better than you.
It's just sort of a fact in music. There's always someone more skilled, more soulful, more expressive, more experimental. It's part of what makes the guitar such an amazing instrument to play, because there's always something new to learn. A new style to try out, a new technique to master.

But honestly, there's few things more important for a young player who thinks he's hot shit than to be in the presence of someone who really knows what they're doing to help put them back in their place a little bit and send them home to work on the rough edges of their style and technique.

It's the kind of thing that’s supposed to happen at jam sessions in the corners of smoky bars late at night -- but when you're too young to get into those sorts of things, the guitar store becomes the next best choice.

It seems like these days YouTube is filling that space -- where suddenly you're able to sort of walk through an international guitar store with literally thousands of players in any style you can think of on display, but even so there's really no substitute for walking into a room full of players and seeing how your playing stacks up.
I'll admit it -- sometimes I go into those places to see how I stack up.
It's weird how it works though. If I feel I can hang with the other guys playing at the time, I'll sit down and throw in my hat. If there's a guy who's clearly head and shoulders above everyone -- I'll usually hang back and listen. There's always some kid in there making a mess of things doing the same three or four licks over and over -- but somehow when you're in there you're able to tune them out.

I remember one time about a year back -- I went in to the Guitar center just to kill some time, see if they had anything new to look at, and there was this bass player in the back just laying it down. Really intricate Jaco Pastorius sounding stuff, far above my level. There were two or three other bass players sitting there watching him -- and he was playing loud enough that the whole store could hear. Clearly the belle of the ball, you know?

Anyways, wanting to get a better chance to hear him, but not feeling as if I could just sit there in that little corner with all the other guys, I picked up a guitar and plugged it into an amp near where they all were, and started noodling around. I wish I could say it was just a lucky coincidence, but I knew exactly what I was doing when I started kinda playing the melody to Birdland.
Next thing I knew he was sitting next to me complimenting my playing.
I think a big part of it was the fact that there were a bunch of kids in there playing bad Metallica and Zepplin riffs, which made my playing stand apart a bit, but I'm not ashamed to say that when you get right down to it that dude had no real reason to say anything about my playing at all, so the fact that he actually did meant something.

We ended up jamming a little bit, but then he started telling me that before he moved to Jacksonville he was Eddie Van Halen's best friend and that he used to do blow with the guys in Jackyl, things that technically could have been true but were more likely total BS -- and I kinda backed off of him. Dude could play, but despite the fact that all musicians tend to brag and exaggerate -- you could just sorta tell that he was piling on for no good reason, which is usually my cue to leave.
Plus, on the off chance he was actually telling the truth hanging out with the guy would violate
my personal rule about associating with anybody who snorts cocaine with Jesse James Dupree.
This past weekend after my son's little league game I had some free time, so I went into the place again. There's a guitar in there I desperately want to buy but can't afford -- so I'm currently in the midst of a strategy that includes staring at it a lot in the hopes that it follows me home. It hasn't worked yet, but I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

Anyways, I get in there and the place is loaded. They're having some sort of huge clearance sale -- so there's actually people in there looking to buy things on top of the normal bunch of weekend wankers. There's a guy playing the drums in the back, keyboard noises coming from the adjoining room, and a mess of guitar noise all happening at once.

Walking around, the pecking order became pretty clear. There was a older man in the row with all the Telecasters doing country/blues riffs, there was a kid with baggy pants with chains attached to the pockets and black painted fingernails doing his best to kinda play some Slipknot with a 7-string, and then in the middle there were the loud guys.

One of them was a younger kid -- who made the rookie mistake of making his show off intentions obvious. He was playing guitar hero songs -- Black Sabbath's "Iron Man," Alice In Chain's "Man in the Box," that sort of thing. Passing by him I noticed he even had a tablature songbook open in front of him. He was flubbing the riffs badly, but charging ahead at high volume anyways.

The guy next to him was a little older. High school age. He had an expensive guitar taken from one of the high racks, and he was choosing his spots more wisely -- playing note-for-note renditions of deep cuts off the early Van Halen records. His fingers were quick, and he had a nice tone -- but you could tell he was at that middle stage where he was skilled enough to learn the songs note for note for note, but not savvy enough to improvise outside the lines.

I'm not knocking the kid. He was really good in his own way -- but the idea is that once you learn how to play songs perfectly is to take that knowledge and use it to expand your own style.
He was at a certain plateau -- working to get to that next level, but not there yet.
I felt pretty good about the lineup, so I grabbed the guitar I've been lusting after and plugged it in. Where the kid a row over showed himself to be the note-for-note "hey I know that song" guy -- I'm more on the other end of the spectrum, where I tend to do one or two chords from something familiar and then just sort of noodle around in my own way.
Equally annoying, but in a different way.
Two minutes later, Van Halen kid was sitting next to me.
I sort of had two choices. I could get into a head cutting contest with him (which was clearly what he was looking for) or I could just do my own thing. I love me some old Van Halen, but I don't practice those songs 10 times a day anymore. It didn't seem worth it to me, so instead of squaring off -- I just sorta jammed on with what I was doing and engaged the guy in conversation. If he went metal I went jazz, if he went jazz I went blues.
I wasn't gonna let him show me up, but I had no
interest in getting into a two-handed tapping fight.
So we ended up somewhere in the middle, talking about guitar players we liked -- accenting those conversations with riffs we knew by the guys we were talking about. Instead of competing, we started looking for common ground.
It was a cool experience, but to be honest -- it made me feel sorta old.
The guy was maybe 17. Full of fire to prove himself, and the skills to back it up. He was all about buying this gear and that, trying to find a band to get with. You could see in his eyes that he was at that all or nothing point -- where little things like going to college or whatever didn't matter as much as trying to be the next big name in shredding.
I was that kid once.
I still want those same things, but I can't approach them the same way he can anymore. I have other priorities that have to come first. Like that guitar I really want to buy -- which is relatively cheap for the brand name it carries and the shape it's in, but is just expensive enough that it would conflict with bills I have to pay and debts I have to honor.
Part of me hates having to say things like that, but it is what it is.
You grow up, and you have to balance the things you want with the things you have to do. Sometimes it's a harder pill to swallow than others. Maybe it's because I was still riding high on the experience of seeing my son playing in his first little league game after a month of practice and doing well -- but what normally would have been a sobering experience looking into that sort of mirror on your past actually came off sorta cool.

I've been playing a lot of guitar lately. I don't know why I occasionally lose track and get away from it for weeks at a time, but like my writing I go through phases where it just isn't there. The inspiration and drive never go away, but the desire to keep pushing that rock up the hill when it seems like there's never going to be a summit sometimes falters.
I wish it didn't, but sometimes it just does.
You make choices, and then you incur consequences. Some of them are good, some ..not so much. I've always had dreams and goals in mind tied to my music and my writing, but despite all that it seems sometimes like the decisions I've made or passed on in my years have ended up leading me away from those things more often than they've helped them.

It's frustrating to trace the lines and realize I'm not so much a victim of bad luck or unfortunate circumstance as much as I've sometimes laid back and listened when I should have been plugging in and drawing my own crowd.
More and more lately I feel like I need to find a way to change that chord progression.

[Listening To:  David Lee Roth"Ladies Night in Buffalo?" ]

Comments

Satorical said…
What happened with the Ferrari test drive (even if they didn't let you)? That sounds interesting.
Heff said…
That whole story reminds me of my days in music stores so many years ago. What I find amazing is that the kids in those places these days, more times than not, are STILL playing the SAME STUFF that we played.
Adam said…
That shop was Music City, I think. That's where I got my first bass guitar.
Hex said…
Satorical -- This was back near the end of my days at Altell. There was a used Testerossa on the Tom Bush lot. I was actually in the market for a car at the time (I ended up buying a P.O.S. Kia) and the combination of business dress code clothes and serious questions about financing got me to the point where the salesman had to go ask his manager if the Ferrari was "ready" for test driving. After a few minutes he came back and said something about the mechanics not having inspected it yet.

I knew they were lying, but they knew I was too.

I also had a student a few years ago who's dad sold Lamborghinis. I asked him for a business card, and might have joked about helping his child's grades out if he could hook me up with a deal.

Heff -- It's like a right of passage or something. You have to spend a certain amount of time trying to play 'Eruption' in a music store before you can gradutate to the next level.

Adam -- Yes, thank you!! It was driving me nuts that I couldn't think of it.
Werdna said…
Ladies night in Buffalo? What made you bring that out?

I've never been any good with the head cutting. But I do love to troll music stores and I have a couple really difficult licks for just such an occasion. ;)

I really like the parallel with surfing line up. It really works about the same.
Hex said…
Werdna -- I've been re-learning a bunch of that old DLR stuff. The solo on that track is a beast.
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