Guitar playing: a tale of evolution

This was partly inspired by my missing the annual UK gathering of the RMMGA newsgroup and partly by reading Duck Baker’s notes on Facebook. I had a lesson and concert with Duck back in Luxembourg and his mentioning in his notes that he could do with a few more students got me thinking about how much I would enjoy becoming one student!

I started getting serious in 2002 when I got my first nice acoustic (a Lakewood M14). It was round about that time that I started posting on the Acoustic Guitar forum, and then on a variety of other forums. Eventually I even started my own, Celtic Guitar Talk, which is still going well on its own with very little input from me.

Through the Internet I met Doug Jones (Little Brother) and flew to Atlanta to attend his annual acoustic jam in Conyers. There I got to meet some of my online acquaintances and formed some of the most meaningful friendships I’ve ever formed in such a short space of time.  Since I was already in the US, I took the opportunity to fly to El McMeen’s place in Sparta NJ for an extended lesson with him. [El McMeen]

I also met another bunch on the RMMGA newsgroup and started going to the annual UK gathering at Hargate Hall. It was similar to Little Brother’s jam in the way that great friendships were formed in a very short space of time. There’s just something about getting together with a bunch of like-minded players and escaping the humdrum with them for a few days. It’s the most wonderful thing.

At the first Little Brother jam I met Dave Skowron of Red Bear Trading (maker of the fabled Tortis Picks) and he suggested that I attend Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp and I could sell his picks in Europe to help pay my way. So I agreed and spent a fantastic two weeks at Maryland College in Tennessee playing, studying and listening with some of the greatest players. I even played on stage with one of my heroes, Tony McManus.

Learning wise I was sitting at home with tab books, online videos and DVDs. I even got to the stage where I was doing Celtic workshops at the Little Brother jam and teaching the daughter of a friend of mine.

In short, my playing was progressing at a reasonable clip; I was enthusiastic to play, to learn, to teach and to chat online about guitars with my friends all day long.

My daughter was born a few months before the first Little Brother jam and I was pleased that fatherhood didn’t seem to be curbing my enthusiasm as seems to be the case with so many people I’ve met on my travels. Even after my son was born in 2006 I was still going to the US once a year and to the UK gathering.

We left Luxembourg in January 2008 and here I sit over one year later feeling the need to write about my playing now and how it has changed.

It wasn’t the kids that curbed my enthusiasm, it was my new job. I don’t even log in to my own forum these days and that seems to be a sign of the deeper malaise. I tell myself that I’d rather be playing that ‘chatting’ so I don’t bother logging in, but the truth is that one feeds the other. I know that from experience. I’m hardly in touch with my guitar-playing friends at all and have just missed the second UK gathering in a row (I also missed the LB jam for the first time in 5 years last year).

I didn’t play at all for the first six months of being in Arran. The job was just too tiring and overwhelming. When I did get the guitar out its case, it sounded so sweet and, much to my surprise, my chops were not actually all that rusty. I spent a few evenings in front of the coal fire with lights dimmed getting to know my instruments again and it was wonderful.

Soon after that, I began going to the weekly folk nights at one of the hotels on the island and enjoyed playing there. I’m still doing that now and thankfully have just found a few tunes from my back catalogue that I haven’t played there a thousand times, but that’s partly why I’m writing now: I haven’t learned anything new since I got here. I haven’t sat with my theory books, I haven’t opened a tab book, I haven’t done much of anything new. It’s all I can do to maintain my level and not let it slip too far.

There are some things on the horizon. I’ve met a lot of good players here and there are murmurings about getting a bluegrass band together, something I’ve wanted to do since I first heard the garage sessions at the first Little Brother jam. The Catacol sessions have also given birth to the Pirnmill sessions and I’m going to that as well and having fun. The scene on Arran is actually very healthy and it’s exciting.

What I miss is sitting with a tricky tune in tab and learning it to a performable level. I don’t record or do videos now and I miss that too. I miss travelling to play with my friends. I miss the hunger to learn the theory and to sight-read and to fly across the world for a lesson – okay, so I couldn’t afford that now anyway but it would be nice still to want to do it! I’m sure that if there were a good teacher nearby that I would sign up and attend lessons. I find that I need homework or something to work towards, but more than that, I need the energy and that’s what I guess I miss the most. The job I’m doing now is not physical but it’s mentally draining and bringing in very little money, and I find being skint also mentally draining in its own way. I miss all my online friends too.

I suppose I’m not really in a bad place over all. Firstly, I am playing at least once a fortnight. I need to try harder to get the guitar out its case between sessions though. And although I’m not learning new stuff of my own, I am accompanying others a lot more and learning more about how that works.

I suppose what is happening is that my playing is evolving to fit naturally around the environment and my own commitments and there isn’t really a whole lot more I could ask for. I’m determined not to become one of those players who give up until the kids fly the roost, although I now understand why that is so common, so in that sense I guess I do have something to be pleased about: we’re through the hardest part of moving and taking on the new business, and I managed to keep playing, even just enough.