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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Electric Guitar

I first began playing guitar around November of 1982; I remember vividly driving back from the Moorestown Mall having purchased (in the now defunct B. Dalton bookstore chain) The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer. Covering everything from the author’s favorite guitar heroes, to what to look for when buying a guitar, to an extensive and well-written main core of the book devoted to music theory, Denyer’s book certainly lives up to its name. I remember instantly thinking as I thumbed through it, “This is it! It’s all here!” Of course, what wasn’t there was much of an insight into rock guitar licks, but still, it was a book I referred to endlessly when I first began playing, to the point where I basically wore my copy out, using black electrical tape to keep its binding together. While Denyer released an updated version of the book in 1992, a few years ago, I bought a used copy of the original 1982 edition, just to remind myself of where things started.

You've got to start somewhere.

And they really did start from there.  Shortly afterward, I bought my first electric guitar, a Hondo (Korean- or Japanese-made) clone of a 1959 Les Paul. In March of this year, after my mom had passed away and we cleaned out her house in preparation of putting it on the market, I found the old Hondo in the basement and picked it up -- as was typical of Les Pauls of the early 1980s, both by Gibson and those selling knock-offs, it weighed a ton!

While I counted Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as my early guitar heroes, at the time, my biggest musical inspiration was Pete Townshend. And as journalist J.R Taylor wrote a few years ago, with both The Who’s popularity and his own as a solo artist at their apogee, the early 1980s “was a good time to be a Pete Townshend fan.” Certainly in my case that was true.

In 1983, Townshend released the first of his Scoop series of albums. These were the demo recordings of songs that would be recorded by The Who or professionally re-recorded by Townshend for his solo albums. In the liner notes, Townshend explained that he didn’t write his songs on staff paper; he recorded them on tape recorders, overdubbing a drum track -- either real drums or a drum machine -- then guitar, then bass, then vocals.

Concurrent with the release of Scoop, the first cassette four-track recorders began to appear in music stores,  building on punk rock’s DIY ethos, and I was quickly off and running. A cassette four-track isn’t one of those old eight-track machines that Homer Simpson had in his car as a teenager. They use ordinary cassettes, but instead of having flipping the tape over to play the other side, the four-track recorder only plays in one direction, to allow for overdubbing up to four tracks of music; perfect for cutting a demo, as mentioned above, with a drum machine (which was also a new development in the early 1980s), bass, guitar and vocals; one instrument per track.

While I was not very artistic as a teenager prior to picking up an instrument, once I realized I could write and produce my own music, I thought, what else can I do? Which lead to studying radio production, video production, and eventually, a certificate in filmmaking from NYU.

But it all began with guitar playing. And one of the elements that ties together so many early bloggers is DIY music. As Glenn Reynolds (who was producing his own MP3s before launching Instapundit) told C-Span’s Brian Lamb in 2006, paraphrasing the 2003 Dave Clarke song “Disgraceland” along the way, to him blogging was “like the old punk rock ethos. You know, ‘they were terrible; I wanted to be terrible too!’ But it wasn’t terrible. And that was actually what was really striking about [Mickey Kaus’s Kausfiles in 2001.] There were lots of sort of amateurish, not very good Web sites out there in 1996, or whenever this was, but this looked good and it read well and it was really interesting, and I just thought it was really cool.”

More or less concurrent with my own nascent blogging efforts beginning in early 2002, I returned to my eighties-era hobby of recording my own music. Only this time around, using a personal computer, Cakewalk’s Sonar multitrack recording program, and eventually, a couple of incarnations of the Roland Corporation’s guitar modeling rigs, which allow a guitarist to dial through an enormous variety of preset sounds in much the same way a keyboard synthesizer player is able to. (You can scroll through my articles at Blogcritics over the years; I’ve written all sorts of posts there on the topic of home recording.)

When I started producing PJM’s Sirius-XM radio show, which lasted from September of 2007 through the end of 2010, and my ongoing Silicon Graffiti video series, which began in earnest in January of 2008, my guitar playing went by the wayside a bit. I still picked it up almost every day to noodle, but rarely plugged it into an amplifier. And cranking out a weekly 55-minute MP3 filled with interviews and music -- occasionally my own -- and uploading it to the Sirius-XM server filled my home recording jones in spades.

But this past weekend, I dusted off my “Roland-Ready Strat,” a Fender Stratocaster electric equipped with a special pickup designed to plug into Roland’s guitar synthesizers and plugged it in my Roland VG-99 guitar modeling box.  Just dialing through the presets, and playing electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric sitar, and guitar synthesizer was a reminder of all of the possibilities inherent in the seemingly simple instrument that is the guitar.

And also a reminder of how comparatively easy it now is to both learn how to play guitar, and to get a decent sound out of it. Once you’ve learned a few basic chord shapes and the bare bones rudiments of musical theory and you’d like to learn to play a hit song, there’s likely tablature available for free on the Internet to learn its riffs and chord changes. With the fundamentals now so easy to learn, we should be hearing hours of fantastic new music on the radio every week, right?

No, of course not. Which brings us to the second part of this essay, starting on the next page.