My neighbors must hate me. If not to my face, then they surely do when the mass of sonic energy rolls across the yard, crossing the boundary into their territory and rattling their walls as rapid tremors run through the ground, causing glass vases to tremble precariously and shaking pictures on the wall so they hang slightly off kilter. But I can’t help it. I need my guitar like children need to eat an entire bucket of candy on Halloween night. It’s an insatiable itch that can only be satisfied by scratching until the skin bleeds raw.
Those who have never laid their hands against cool steel strings and let them dance — hammer-on, pull-off, tap — up and down the neck and across the frets will not understand how emotions can pour from calloused fingertips and be transferred to pure sonic energy that sends vibrations throughout the wooden body of a guitar, which molds to me like any of my body parts, my fifth limb. Through this extension, the vibrations originating from all of my frustrations, my passions, my fears, my ambitions, my sorrows, and my thoughts, return to me without bias, just as energy. I wonder if there is scientific evidence that might prove that this is why playing music keeps me awake at night.
Music is also methodical. Streaming emotional vibrations are the product of a carefully calculated and charted system of interweaving scale patterns. Majors overlap minors and pentatonics over diatonics. Patterns one, two, three, four, five over two, three, four, five, one. Collectively, notes form shapes, which form chords, which can have more notes added to them to create even more complex chords. Scales are simply arrangements of repeating patterns: short, short, short, long, long, short, (next scale) short, short, long, long, short, short (next scale)… Trying to dance before learning the steps will result in tripping, tumbling, falling, face planting, and breaking the eardrums of those nearby when a sour note is hit. Knowledge is power. Know that lydian modes yield slightly off, jazzy sounds that end in a question, or that nearly all blues and rock songs are in the pentatonics.
But rules are simply guidelines — boundaries meant to be tested, stretched, and coiled into new shapes to produce sounds that no one has ever heard before. Systems and theories make up the trunk and freedom of creativity branches off of it and blossoms. Rules tell how to make a guitar sound proper, technically correct — a sound that has been deemed “pleasing” by generations of listeners. But they can’t tell you how to create long, lazy lines that painstakingly drag themselves across the frets, making a slow roll halfway between a cry and a sigh, like the train that passes by the dehydrated, overheated hitchhiker standing in a Georgia cotton field on a dank, humid day as he waits for the next rusty pickup truck to rattle on by. Nor can they tell how to emulate the scream of a socially detached, tortured soul huddled in the darkest corner of the hotel bathroom as he retreats into a self-critical mindscape of isolation by bending the E string up a full step and holding it in a prolonged screech of anguish until being slowly brought back down, a release like the slow shuddering breaths that follow violent and passionate weeping. The ability to tell a story without using a single word and to deliver it with utmost conviction and credibility can not be learned by simply knowing your scales.
Even if a player has a story to tell and the skill to tell it, nobody will want to listen unless they can feel the music. It is not just the player’s technical ability and what they have to say that draws the audience in, but also the way the left corner of their mouth tilts upward when they bend a string, or how they might rock back and forth, gently swaying to the rhythm of a couple chords and a tapping foot. This is just the physical reaction that serves as proof that a person has a real emotional connection to their music. There’s an otherworldly, electric magnetism that comes from emotionally impacting music, the kind of attraction that I would imagine a junkie feels when going cold turkey — except that it’s without guilt and it’s free. When I feel the itch for music, I don’t want to stuff myself into a dark corner and hide it, I want to run through the streets screaming with my arms waving in the air, and then spin around and around until all of the stars in the sky look like streaky comets, and then get so dizzy that I throw up and laugh at myself like a diagnosed lunatic. It’s a combination of the release and bliss of the heat that runs through your veins with the first sip of hot coffee in the morning and the jittery, exciting explosions in your chest when you look over the edge of the Grand Canyon and wonder if maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn to fly if you just go for it and jump. Music is a possessive spirit, pouring into the soul through shuddering vibrations that give the player the impassioned fervor of an enlightened Evangelist, or the sinful, hypnotic, entrancing air of a witch doctor communing with the devil, or the humble, unassuming, wisdom of an introspective, simple monk.
Calculating, descriptive, and expressive all at once, the guitar softly whispers into the subconscious, giving subtle instruction to the fingers to hammer onto fret eight from five and then slide back down to seven before pulling off back to five, effectively utilizing the brain’s knowledge of scales, majors,and minors — all of these rigid, erudite, lifeless facts — and breathing life into them, giving them the effortless fluidity to flow from the fingers to the strings to the ears of the world. The guitar does all this and more, but all it asks for in return is that the player offer emotions from the deepest parts of the heart and soul to fuel the music, so that it may sing, weep, howl, and shriek for all the world to hear in a thunderous roar of trembling, quaking vibrations that run beneath the earth, into its foundations, and shake the very structures that hold our world together. Whether they want them or not, my neighbors will be receiving some good vibrations.