My Nemesis, the Guitar

I should really be marking, of course.  Instead, I’ll offer a few thoughts on my struggle with the one musical instrument everyone and his dog can play:  the guitar.

Technically, I can play the guitar too.  I took lessons when I was eighteen or nineteen, and I learned enough to strum my way through most three- or four-chord songs.  I should clarify that I’ve taken lessons for relatively few of the instruments I play.  I took piano lessons when I was a little kid, but I got bored with the inane repetition.  Eventually, I taught myself how to play the piano on my own.  I had the guitar class and another class on the harmonica, and we learned the recorder in elementary school.  The only instrument I really studied classically was the flute.  The ukulele, accordion, mandolin, melodica, and tin whistle I picked up on my own.

The guitar has always been the one that has given me the most trouble.  Partly, it’s that my first love is the piano, meaning that I am more comfortable with keyboards than I am with fretboards.  However, that’s not entirely it; I can manage the mandolin, and I can do some crazy stuff on the ukulele.  The guitar is just too big for my hands.  My mum’s classical guitar has too wide a neck; my own acoustic guitar has a narrower one, but I still struggle to make bar chords.  My hands are pretty big for a woman’s, so I’m wondering if my fingers are just not thick or strong enough.  It seems pretty clear that guitars are made with guys in mind.  Ukuleles, mandolins, and even banjos have narrower necks than guitars, and I can play them more or less all right.  I do have problems with bar chords on any instrument, but never to the extent I do with the guitar.  I don’t understand how some players make bar chords look so effortless.  I really think there’s something wrong with my fingers.

At any rate, until recently, I’d just sort of accepted that guitars and I didn’t get along.  It’s always been a bit embarrassing.  People will express incredulity when I explain that I play everything but the guitar.  Some accuse me of joking or lying.  I’m not sure why this is.  Guitarists who play nothing but the guitar never seem to get met by accusations of lying when they confess they can’t play anything else.  I play the piano, accordion, ukulele, mandolin, flute (two different styles), piccolo, recorder, harmonica, melodica, and pennywhistle (numerous sizes), but there’s something wrong with me because I stay away from the guitar.

Summer is the time I am most prone to spend money on musical instruments.  This summer, I became a bit more aware than I had been before of the existence of the tenor guitar.  This instrument looks like a slightly smaller guitar but has only four strings; it is tuned CGDA, like a cello, tenor banjo, or mandola.  It isn’t a very common instrument, and it hasn’t been around for even a century; it was invented as a transitional instrument at about the time the tenor banjo began to go out of style and the six-string guitar gained in popularity.  Lately, it has been enjoying a small renaissance in the US, possibly related to the Rise of the Ukulele; this renaissance has not made it to Canada, and it is virtually impossible to find a tenor guitar here.  I therefore ordered one online.  It just struck me as the perfect instrument for me.  I’m already familiar with circle-of-fifths tuning from the mandolin, and though I am comfortable with my ukulele, I sometimes, when playing with a group, miss having access to notes that are not, well, really high.  The tenor doesn’t go as low as the six-string, but it’s strung with steel and works well as both a rhythm and a solo instrument.

My tenor arrived last Monday.  It has not disappointed me.  My girly fingers still find some of the chords a bit of a stretch, but at long last, I can play the guitar, or something resembling the guitar.  I do find I’m more comfortable with four strings (or eight strings in four courses, as on the mandolin) than I am with six.  I’m still loyal to all my other instruments, but it will be fun to play a stringed instrument that is more or less audible in a band and doesn’t sound as if it is being played by one of the Chipmunks.  I would highly recommend it if it were, in fact, possible to find tenors in Canada.  Oh well…perhaps someday.

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