The first guitar was not a gift. It belonged to my father. Apparently, he let me use it, although I don’t remember asking. I do remember my junior year — lugging the heavy, awkwardly-shaped Johnny Cash special to high school for guitar class.
Participation in the band program at our school met the requirement for a physical education elective. And I was among that portion of the high school population for whom avoidance of phys. ed was its own unofficial pass-or-fail course. Since my parents had already experienced the joys of band instrument rental to the point of expiration through my older brother and sister, if I were going to take up a band class, it was going to be Beginning Guitar.
The class itself was not at all terrible. It was liberatingly unstructured with only about five of us in the class. Five who showed up, anyway.There was Renee, a sweet stoner girl who sometimes played her instrument, but spent most of her time exploring the acoustical benefits of the band room by belting out numbers from West Side Story. Beneath flickering tube lights, she spent most classes roaming the rows of shabby desks, waving her arms expressively while singing all the parts to “A Boy Like That.”
There were a few boys who mostly kept to themselves, doing whatever it is high school boys who didn’t hate guitars and also probably wanted to avoid phys ed do. (I was not interested in such things at the time. I was a late bloomer when it came to boys.)
The instructor was there from time to time, teaching a lesson or giving a test from a glossy guitar primer containing an occasional Beatles cover. But like the rest of us, he seemed to enjoy the informal groove we established in Beginning Guitar, so none of us complained about our casual, independent learning.
That class is my fondest memory of playing guitar. It was clear I never really wanted to play the instrument. I learned the basics easily enough, but I didn’t have a passion for it. After high school, I thought the guitar and I parted ways on good terms. We’d have signed each others’ yearbooks if either one of us had gotten one. It was all good. But guitar after guitar kept showing up in my life for many years. And each one seemed to have a 7th string attached to a man.
A shiny red Peavey knock-off under a Christmas tree one year led me to guitar lessons in a townhouse with my boyfriend’s friend, a respected jazz guitar player and instructor in our area. I practiced diligently and grew very adept at scales and exercises. I could hammer-on and pull-off like lightning up and down that slick, narrow neck, but that was about it. The teacher was patient enough, but the instrument meant nothing to me and neither of us was disappointed when my lessons stopped.
A glittery silver Les Paul knock-off was next, but I never made it sing — never really wanted to.
I went furthest with a narrow-bodied Telecoustic. I wanted to please the gift giver, so I learned enough to rhythmically strum a few songs to accompany my vocals in public. But each apparent triumph was as hollow to me as that thin wooden body strapped against my front. It just wasn’t for me. And I guess that’s why we never became friends, guitars and me.
The gifts were well-meant, I’m sure, but I felt like a bird in a cage being given a hamster toy. And birds don’t want to spin on wheels. They want to fly.