February 2016 – Why Do You Play Guitar?

posted in: Observations | 0

I am assuming that if you are reading this, you are quite likely to play guitar as well as look at them. You may know from previous posts that guitars are meant to be used for their intended purpose, making music. However good or bad you are at it isn’t important, the fact that you do it at all is what matters.

Anyway, let’s get to the point – why do you – or I – play the guitar? A straightforward question I thought at first. However, when I tried to break it down into a few sensible key points, it’s actually quite a difficult question to answer with any sort of clarity and objectivity. I have been playing (badly) for about 40 years. So exactly what is it that has kept me picking up a guitar throughout 4 decades and trying to make vaguely musical sounds from it? It doesn’t make me any money (quite the contrary) and it takes up valuable discretionary ‘me’ time that I can never reclaim. Why, why, why?

1977 Fender Stratocaster

When I first started, it was something new and different for me. Progress led to a sense of personal achievement in a way that I didn’t have in other aspects of my life. No‑one told me to do it; it was entirely my choice and therefore something over which I had control. There were no external incentives and little encouragement from parents or peers. I hadn’t really discovered girls at the time, so there was little distraction from the long hours of practice needed to climb that initial learning curve.

Then, I wanted to emulate the image portrayed by many great guitarists of the time – I don’t have heroes or role models but there was something about the grandiose strutting of many artists from the ‘golden age’ of guitar playing that appealed to my ego. However, I never felt the motivation to seek fame for its own sake. I didn’t knowingly copy other guitarists’ styles or their songs, and have always strived to be ‘creative’ in my own way. I also didn’t have to own a guitar used by famous artists, so I wasn’t wedded to any particular brand or model. I wasn’t obsessed with a particular ‘sound’ or genre, so the world was my proverbial oyster.

Yes, guitars are lovely to look at and they undoubtedly carry a heavyweight aesthetic appeal. All I knew was that guitars were so cool, with a presence that transcends physicality, perhaps almost a sensual experience. So… if it wasn’t the artists, the songs, the image or the sounds, what was it? Pinning down that enduring enthusiasm to a single cause remains elusive.

Musical success often comes from the combination of technical ability and innate talent. To be truly proficient at the former requires dedication, commitment and a great deal of determination. Having technical ability without talent, however, guitar playing can become a clinical, academic activity that doesn’t genuinely engage anyone. It is the extension of emotion and soul into the outside world that guitars can provide, a release if you will. Talent, on the other hand, is indefinable and cannot be learnt or purchased; it is an amalgam of many subjective elements. It comes from within and, yes, just for once, I am envious. Those that have ‘it’, tend to have it in bucket loads, and those that don’t, like me, can only stare in bewilderment and a little awe. Many of us might be able to get away with hard work but it isn’t an easy ride. Like many guitarists, my ego and arrogance deludes me into believing that I excel in both ability and talent, however, tangible evidence suggests otherwise.

The guitar (and bass) is, I believe, unique in its ability to be infinitely expressive and dynamic to the touch and mood – when ‘in the zone’, the instrument feels like it almost comes alive in your hands in a unique way. Only the guitar can sound so different in so many diverse genres. Overdrive a valve amp and feel what happens, then apply any number of effects and you have extraordinary flexibility that few other instruments can achieve. The guitar is at the same time relatively accessible and easy to learn while truly impossible to master (like chess), although a very few come close.

Playing in a band was exhilarating and communicating with fellow musicians at an instinctive, almost telepathic level was fascinating. The fact that a few people actually wanted to listen to the sounds we were making was intriguing. The culmination of these elements leads to an almost existential outcome that is definitely more than the sum of its parts, I hate the word ‘synergy’ but it seems to apply in this context. Dealing with creative personalities is, of course, a source of potential tension as well as a driver of productivity. Ultimately, it went nowhere but I am still so glad I gave it a go. Since then, it has become a solo pastime. If I had the time, energy and inclination, I would like to play in a band again, the rewards of cumulative and collective learning makes it worthwhile and enjoyable.

Perhaps it’s the instrument itself? Not only are they beautiful artefacts, they actually ‘do’ something. The type of guitar is, I suspect, irrelevant. Brilliant guitarists are brilliant, whatever instrument they play. Bad guitarists would be bad, even on a ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard. I am fortunate to own a number of vintage guitars, this doesn’t make me a better player but it does enhance my playing experience and, usually, puts a smile on my face. It may even add a little bit of inspiration now and then. I will probably never own a ’59 Gibson Les Paul Standard, sadly. However, even if I did, it wouldn’t instantly turn me into a Jimmy Page, Peter Green or Paul Kossoff, also sadly. However, I would enjoy every minute. One can aspire!

1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard

Now, after having said all that, I play purely for fun and for cathartic stress relief. Coming home from the day job and playing can be very therapeutic (and sometimes very frustrating when it ‘just ain’t happening’). On casual reflection, I suspect that these are the common themes that have run through the many years of my enduring love affair with the electric guitar. I suspect that the overwhelming sense of ‘fun’ (defined as a mood for finding enjoyment and amusement) and ‘joy’ (a feeling of great happiness) has always been a quintessential part of the equation. That addictive ‘fix’ of elation and exhilaration when something comes together is a powerful drug that one wants to recapture again and again, and hopefully improve upon. The anticipation of squeezing something new out of those 6 strings over nearly 4 octaves today, tomorrow and the day after remains beguiling. In the end, perhaps it is as simple as, because I want to.

In conclusion, trying to articulate why I play the guitar is as difficult as why I like ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ Guitars. I suggest that the word ‘crave’ (to yearn for or to want greatly) applies equally to playing as well as owning guitars. Perhaps not being able to make sense of it is part of the mystique and enduring attraction. Why do you play guitar? Think about it. I hope you find the answer. Most of all have FUN. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Musicians are by nature narcissistic, egomaniacal and completely delusional. Successful musicians are just better at it than the rest of us.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

← Return to ‘Musings’ page

Like it? Why not share it?