Striking a Chord

Posted on June 27, 2015 under Storytelling with 4 comments

dad hands  (1 of 1)

” Dis Chord”

( Peter MacDonald photo )



“Played it ‘til my fingers bled…”

Summer of ‘69 – Bryan Adams

We recently sold our house and moved into a two bedroom apartment.  This required some serious purging.   We had accumulated “stuff” during 33 years of marriage, along with possessions acquired before tying the knot.   What does one keep and what does one recycle to family, friends and thrift shops?

Each of us tends to hold on to things near and dear, most of it rooted in sentimentality.  But eventually everything must find its final resting plate.  I had no trouble giving up the cast that I wore on my left knee back in 1980.  Ditto for some very old t-shirts and other memorabilia.  My wife decided to donate our iron to a worthy cause.  It was in “like new” condition.  We ended up keeping essentially what we needed and casting off just about every other worldly possession.

Except my guitar.  Guitars, actually.

Music has been a central focus of my life.   I grew up in a home full of music.  I sang in a band as a teenager, but didn’t pick up a guitar till I was in my 20’s.  And a very old guitar it was … and cheap.  I was teaching in Northern Alberta at the time and one of my buddies gave me one of his.  You had to apply a great deal of force to depress the strings.  You know what I mean.  And the strings seemed more like razor blades.

I was a Lightfoot fan at the time (still am, though Gord’s voice sometimes sounds like an aging grackle these days).  I purchased an anthology of his greatest hits complete with chords.  And so my guitar journey began in earnest.  And like Bryan Adams and thousands of other aspiring players, I practiced until my fingers blistered and bled.  I aspired to greatness and settled for mediocrity.

I had the audacity to teach guitar to a group of grade six students a mere months after I had learned exactly four chords: G, C, D and E minor.  Talk about the blind leading the blind.  I agreed to teach them a few basics during lunch hour.  This was in January of 1979 and, if you go back and check the forecast, the temperature in Whitelaw, Alberta hovered between -40 and -50 for the entire month.  Most of the students had guitars that were purchased at K-Mart.  Keeping them in tune was nearly impossible.  The students would arrive at school in the morning with the guitars in green garbage bags.  The first 30 minutes of the lesson was spent de-icing and tuning these gems.

I told them about the three P s of learning how to play the guitar: practice, patience and pain.

Kenny Rogers was big at the time and the first song they learned was “The Gambler”.   Whenever I hear this song I get the flashback.  A couple of years ago, Betty and I attended a reunion in Fairview, Alberta.  One of my protégées, Trevor, a student from that very class 35 years ago, showed up … guitar in hand. We jammed and he sang a few tunes that he had written.

When I decided to move back East, I took my accumulated pension contributions of $979 and went directly to the Halifax Folklore Center and purchased a 1972 D-18 Martin.  I was not worthy of such a fine instrument but I was taking the long view.  Maybe someday I would actually be able to make it sound like it was being played by a real musician.  That day eventually came but it wasn’t me who made the Martin sing; it was our son, Peter.  I did the honorable thing and swapped guitars with him.

One day I received a call from one distraught young man.  After a gig the previous night, some young thugs had broken into the band vehicle and taken all of their equipment. The police were able to recover many of the stolen articles but the Martin was found smashed to pieces.  A senseless crime for sure.  Peter salvaged what remained of his precious instrument and someday the guitar will be rebuilt.

Over the years, I have played in every imaginable place and have “trunks of memories still to come” (Long May You Run – Neil Young).  I have played at some epic singsongs, including the night Melvin was buried, when I played for 4 hours without a break while the floor at 39 heaved.  Strength from above sustained me that day.

One of my fondest memories was the afternoon that my dear and late friend, Siobhan and I did a stint as street musicians in Vancouver.  She played the flute and I played guitar.  As any true Maritimer would (!), we played until we made enough to buy a pitcher of draft at a nearby pub.

After all these years, I still haven’t mastered bar chords.  I don’t know if it’s my small hands or an equally small brain but I continue to fumble when I need a b minor.  I have, however, mastered playing chords in a bar.  These are bar chords of a much different variety.

I don’t play much these days but a guitar is still a great way to bring a diverse group of people together … even when you only know 4 chords.

“I look at the world and I notice it’s turning While my guitar gently weeps. With every mistake we must surely be learning Still my guitar gently weeps.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – George Harrison

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