The Axe

My mother left me an electric guitar.

Well, not precisely. But when Mom died last year, I inherited the house; and after all the red tape with the probate court, I was able to sell it. After depositing the check, the first thing I bought myself was a solid-body Ibanez.

If you love Jimi Hendrix, PJ Harvey, the Rolling Stones, Heart, Boston, the Indigo Girls, Yes, Soundgarden, Bo Diddley, Joan Jett, REM, Joan Armatrading, Chuck Berry, the Psychedelic Furs, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, U2, Melissa Etheridge, Cream, Starcastle, Alice in Chains, and Joy Division, then you understand why I think the electric guitar is the most beautiful instrument in the world.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the guitar can be thin and rich and plaintive – like on Bob Seger’s “Main Street” – or rich and bold, like in “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots. The driving power of Heart’s “Barracuda”. The apocalyptic drama of the Indigo Girls’ “Touch Me Fall”.

It was 1974 (and I was eleven) when the prog-rock sextet Starcastle rocked my world with their debut single “Lady of the Lake”. People claimed Starcastle sounded like Yes, but in fact the Champaign-Urbana based group had a sound all their own. Yes were doing some of their best work around this time too; the riff from “Siberian Khatru” – especially the live version on the lavishly packaged album “Yessongs” – is burned in my brain forever.

Strange to say, I didn’t really appreciate Led Zeppelin while I was growing up in the 1970s. I didn’t understand what they were doing musically until I heard Robert Plant’s solo album “The Principle of Moments”. Those guys did the most amazing things with sound.

In my last year of high school, my friend Chuck made me a tape with Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” on one side and the Psychedelic Furs’ debut album on the other. Ian Curtis’ tormented vocals wandered down the industrial labyrinth of the Joy Division sound, while Richard Butler’s gravelly voice wound like a fiery thread around the Fur’s furious guitar and bass lines. To this day, my record collection is full of Joy Division and Psychedelic Furs.

I wore my Aerosmith concert jersey for my graduation photo. What more is there to say?

A few years ago I went to see a concert at the Rose Garden. It was just before tax day, and I still hadn’t turned in my 1040, and I had a million other things on my mind too, so I wasn’t really in much of a mood to see a concert. The headline act was some big-name rock band from Ireland. But the opening act ... well, that was something else! This tiny woman in a leather micro-skirt walks out on stage, picks up a guitar that’s almost bigger than she is, and starts blasting away. And doesn’t stop for an hour. That was my introduction to PJ Harvey. (And the main act? Some bunch of fat old guys that used to be a big deal ... think they called themselves “W-2”, or something like that ... )

It was Jimi, of course, who defined the electric guitar as an electronic instrument. A vibrating string has a base tone – defined as a function of half the string’s length and its linear density – but it also has a potentially infinite number of overtones, because there are also vibration nodes at thirds, quarters, fifths, and so on, of the length of the string. If you attach the string to a hollow object – say, a box, or the body of an instrument – more overtones will be produced by the instrument body. An acoustic guitar produces its rich sound because of the particular resonances of the string, and of the body of the instrument itself. With an electic guitar, though, you have one or more electromagnetic pickups placed at different points along the string: this means that you get to decide which overtones you want to bring out. Hendrix discovered the possibilities of using feedback, distortion, and higher harmonics to produce musical sounds no one had ever heard before.

But you know, the really cool thing about the electric guitar is that YOUR PARENTS WILL NEVER PRESSURE YOU TO LEARN THE INSTRUMENT. It’s true. Mom dragged my sister and me to piano lessons for years when we were kids, and I can still play, and I’m glad my mother forced me to learn ... I guess. But how many young people hear their mothers say, “Jonathan B. Goode, if I don’t hear some chord changes coming from your room RIGHT THIS MINUTE ...” ?

So it’s one thing you have to motivate yourself to learn. And that’s cool.

My guitar teacher has given me some finger exercises, some movable scales, and some chord changes to work on. I’m starting to learn “Chickenman”, the Indigo Girls classic (written by Amy Ray). The book calls for tuning the guitar DADGBD, but Guitar Guru showed me some fingerings I can use with standard tuning.

So now I’m on my way to being a participant and not merely a listener. One day, hopefully, I’ll really learn to play.

Mom wouldn’t be proud of me.