These last couple of days I’ve really had the desire to play guitar. It’s a desire I had all the time since about the age of 12 til around a few years ago. I think about guitar everyday, but the time to slip away downstairs for an hour or so to plug in has dwindled. And up until a couple years ago I was still writing songs on a semi-regular basis. That need to write has kind of subsided, but not the need to just play. I had that desire before I ever owned a guitar, and it continues to, well, right now.
But with the passing of Eddie Van Halen on Tuesday I’ve really been thinking about guitar. A lot. I’ve sat and gone down the Youtube rabbit hole of EVH videos. One of my favorites is of Eddie on Late Night With David Letterman. He sat in with the band, and at every commercial break he’d play songs with Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band. It was infectious, watching EVH play “Pretty Woman” and “Jump” with those guys. Then I moved to something called The Guitar Show. It’s a seven minute video filmed in September of 1985 where Eddie is interviewed about his partnership with Kramer Guitars, and his new guitar built by them. It was kind of cringe-worthy as Eddie was obviously a little drunk/stoned/under the influence of a controlled substance. He’d answer a question, then kind of go off on something else and forget what the original question was. Some of it was quite entertaining, like him talking about when Quincy Jones called him to ask if he’d play on “Beat It”. He sits there holding this blue Kramer electric guitar, and the way he held it just made me want to be in the basement playing my guitar.
It reminded me of when I first started playing, holding my first electric guitar in my hands. That blue Squier Stratocaster I received for my 14th birthday; the feel of the neck, the shimmer of the clear coat finish, and the smell of the hardshell case it came in comes rushing back to me. I felt like I was on top of the world when I held that guitar. I can remember sitting in the living room watching TV and holding that Strat, strumming and playing scales as I haphazardly watched whatever was on the Zenith console. I’d plug into the little practice amp my parents bought for me with the guitar and attempt to dial in a great tone. It was weird, as some days that thing sounded great while other days it just wasn’t cutting it. My uncle gave me his old DOD Flanger pedal, which would give me this amazing space-y sound that I dubbed as sounding like “butterflies on fire”.
Within a year or two of getting that Squier my older brother bought a solid state Randall head with a single 12″ cabinet from someone our guitar teacher hooked us up with. The cabinet was quite unique, as it was a homemade speaker box covered in shag carpet and chicken wire over the front of it to protect the speaker. It was something, but the head itself sounded pretty good and since it was solid state it was extremely loud. It was a two-channel head as well, so we could get the clean/dirty Metallica thing pretty well.
My first guitar was an old acoustic guitar that my grandma bought me at a garage sale by her house. I loved that thing, but I didn’t know what I was doing with it. I kept tuning it higher and higher until the neck snapped off. I got a plastic guitar for Christmas as well, which I played with all the time until my mom sat on it and broke it. I left it on the couch, so I suppose it was my fault.
I had three uncles that all played guitar, and my mom’s cousin was a guitarist in The Rivieras(“California Sun” was their big hit.) I can remember him showing up at the house with guitar case in hand and I thought that Johnny Cash had shown up. My uncle was in a Midwest rock band in the 70s called Magi. They were pretty big in the Indiana/Michigan area, and at one point moved to California to pursue their career. They played at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, then the drummer quit and that was it. My uncle ended up moving back and got into religion. I do remember lots of guitars at family get-togethers, though. They made an impression.
The guitar has been an obsession since I was a little brat. The feel of them, the look of them, and of course the sounds they make. There’s something about having a “thing” that you’re passionate about. Whether it’s playing an instrument, painting, drawing, writing stories, or even working on cars. Something you do with your hands and manipulate in order to make something that didn’t exist before. That thing for me is playing guitar, and I suppose writing.
But guitar came first.
The passion to play the guitar has been in me since I was caught humming “Black Dog” in Kindergarten. Or since I’d get chills hearing “Last Child” spinning on the family turntable. The guitar was the machine from which my creative fire was born. I was probably the best player I’d ever be at age 19. The age I started wanting to write songs. Not instrumental jams with slippery solos and chunky riffs, but songs that said something. My need to continue to get better as a soloist dwindled when the desire to play “Hot For Teacher” was overtaken by wanting to write songs like John Lennon and Ray Davies.
But now, at age 46 and with the passing of an absolute legend I find myself drawn to playing in a much deeper, connective way. I pine for the weight of that carved-out wood slung over my shoulders. I geek out over tone, dynamics, and dexterous, typewriter snaps of notes. I’ve been feeling the draw of playing more viscerally over the last couple years, but this week it’s been obsessive. I’m not getting any younger, while my kids are getting older leaving me more time in a day to just play. At this point nothing is stopping me except myself.
Time to tune up and rock out. You’re never too old, man.