I’ve Got A Lot To Learn

Today I had my first guitar lesson with John Carlini.  I got there early, traffic being much lighter than I had expected.  It felt a little intrusive, showing up early for an appointment at a guy’s home.  If it were an office I’d aim to be early, but at a person’s house … I dunno.  He seemed perfectly fine with it, so I guess that’s that.

Perhaps it was just another manifestation of the general nervousness I had about the whole situation, as I mentioned in a previous entry in this blog.  And that wasn’t the last of it.

John led me into his home studio. While we tuned our guitars and got set up, we talked in more detail about the things we had discussed in our phone conversation.  I was kind of settling in to the situation when he said, “Well, play me something.”

Of course I knew before I ever got there that I’d need to play something.  But now that it was actually happening I found myself looking around the room at all sorts of records, posters, and photos of all these great players.  Not the least of which, of course, is Tony Rice.  Pictures of Tony Rice with John.  By the time I finished flubbing my way through a few bars of St. Anne’s Reel, I could literally feel the sweat trickling down my back.

Either John didn’t notice or he’s accustomed to it, because he just went right on about the lesson at hand. Jumping off from another tune I played a little of, Jack Lawrence‘s “Ten Miles to Deep Gap,” we went into a discussion of the C scale, the chords based out of the scale, and a great exercise based out of it that can be used to work on tone, precision, quickness, and to acquaint myself with moving up the neck.  He told me more in that first 15 minutes than I could digest in a month.

But that wasn’t all.  He gave me a lead sheet for “All Of Me,” and wrote out a bunch of jazz chords for it. One of my goals in these lessons is to move away from the first position and learn the whole fingerboard. These chords are all over the place, and not an open string in the bunch.  This is step one on my journey up the neck.

Even having arrived early, I was 15 minutes late leaving.  It was great fun for me, regardless of the fact that I feel somewhat overwhelmed.  This is going to be a blast.

Man, What A Guitar Shop!

For weeks now I’ve been scouring the web trying to figure out where to go and what to look for in my new guitar search.  I’ve registered with two or three new (to me) online guitar communities, looked through old issues of Flatpicking Guitar magazine, etc., etc.  I’ve read up on guitar makers like Gallagher, Collings, Huss & Dalton, Froggy Bottom, and others. Time to go out into the world a strike a few chords on some actual instruments.

It happens that we live only about 20 miles away from Mandolin Brothers, one of the country’s most respected shops for acoustic guitars.  I’d never been, but I’d read about them for years.  With my wife, Suzy, navigating by my trusty MapQuest printout, we headed out for Staten Island.

The building is so nondescript we almost drove right past it.  This is probably a good thing for a place that routinely houses entire rooms full of guitars with price tags running up to $20k and higher, but I had my eye out for the usual storefront display you so often see, with guitars hanging in rows behind huge plate glass windows.  Just as we were about to pass it, Suzy saw the name on the building and I pulled in to the small gravel parking lot on the side.

Inside, past the front office desks piled with papers and books, is a guitar lover’s dream world. Room upon room filled floor to ceiling with guitars and other fretted instruments of every description.  I’ve been in a lot of guitar stores, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.  I didn’t even know where to start.

Of course there were people there to guide me.  One of the guys asked if I had anything specific in mind, or if I was just browsing.  After a fairly short back-and-forth, he put a new Martin D-35 in my hands.  The feel of the neck was outstanding, and it sounded like a cannon.  I think people here in Maplewood could probably hear it.  And the price tag was half what I had given him as my upper limit!  When was the last time a salesperson of any kind offered you a product that was half what they knew you were willing to spend?  I could learn to like this place.

After noodling around on that guitar for a bit and gazing at a few others while Suzy checked out the composite guitars, we made our way into the small-builders room.  I messed with a Gallagher Doc Watson model (too boxy-sounding), a couple of Santa Cruz models (not significantly different than my own D-28, to my ears), and a wonderful baritone guitar, the maker of which escapes my brain now.  I imagine I played 12 or 15 different guitars in that room, none better than the Collings D3.

I had never played a Collings, and didn’t much care for the first one I picked up.  But the D3 was out of this world.  Bass notes that rattled my chest, but at the same time very clear mids and crisp highs.  Great volume and responsiveness all up and down the neck.  This was quite clearly the best-sounding guitar I have ever personally played.

I could very easily have ended my search right then and there.  But I determined in my mind before leaving home that no matter how much I liked whatever I found today, I was not going to make a purchase.  I intend to play LOTS of guitars before I settle on one.  Perhaps that means this one will be gone my the time I’m ready to buy, but that’s a chance I have resolved to take.

But right now I’m hoping it stays there for awhile.

Getting Up Off My Butt

Yesterday morning I spoke to John Carlini on the phone.  At the suggestion of Rolly Brown, I had emailed John to inquire about taking guitar lessons.  I got a reply on Monday saying to call on a weekday morning to talk it over.

I was a little bit surprised to find that I was nervous.  I’m not generally intimidated by people, but I suppose I had thought about this long enough for the realization to settle in that I was speaking to a man who had worked with not just one, but several of the musicians I had most respected in my life.  All of the discomfort was completely in my own head, of course.  John couldn’t possibly have been more pleasant, down-to-earth, and normal.

He asked how long I had been playing, what kinds of music I was interested in, all the questions a teacher might ask a prospective student.  Nothing out of the ordinary, and all pretty matter-of-fact.  I would guess the entire conversation lasted 15 or 20 minutes, and despite my nervousness and inability to articulate much in the way of a specific goal I’m aiming to achieve with these lessons, when I hung up I found myself with directions to his home and an appointment to begin bi-weekly lessons on June 17.

That gives me two weeks.  I’ve got to get some serious practice time in between now and then.  I haven’t played in months, and I am sure the rust has settled in nice and thick at this point.  All the talk and speculation is over now.  I gotta get to work.

A Tale of The Unexpected

Shortly before 10:00 this morning I posted a message to FLATPICK-L, an email list of acoustic guitar enthusiasts, in which I mentioned that I had been kicking around a notion to take some classical guitar lessons.

As mentioned in the By Way Of Introduction… page elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been playing guitar for a long time without ever having more than the most rudimentary instruction.  I’ve arrived at a point where I’m curious to apply some good solid theory to what it is I’ve been doing all these years.  And more importantly, I’d like to know the fretboard better than I do.  Less importantly, but still of some interest, I think it would be nice to know how to read music for guitar.  Not just tablature, but actual notes on the staff.

I’ve never played classical music, but I got it into my head that classical lessons would be a way to learn these things.  And surely whatever I learned that was pertinent would transfer to whatever music I wanted to play at any given time.

Anyway, before 3:30 rolled around this afternoon, National Fingerpicking Champion Rolly Brown had read my post and responded to me with a suggestion.  Given that I live in Maplewood, NJ, Rolly’s speculation was that I must be within relatively close proximity to John Carlini, who would likely take me on as a student.

John is an excellent guy to study with for sightreading and fingerboard skills, and also understands bluegrass,” Rolly wrote.

John, whose musical resumé is wide and deep, is well-known in the acoustic guitar community, especially in bluegrass and folk music circles, as the former musical director for the David Grisman Quintet, and also for River Suite For Two Guitars, an album of guitar duets he recorded with legendary bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice. Additionally, John writes a regular column for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, the only guitar magazine I have ever subscribed to.  I had no idea that he lives near me, nor that he gave private lessons.

Pretty exciting.

And So It Begins

Bless my wife’s heart.  One evening this week I turned and said to her that I’ve decided to search for my dream guitar.  I told her right up front that this was going to take a lot of time and effort, and that it will very likely end up costing us a bundle.  Her only response was, “OK.”

I don’t really even know what the phrase “dream guitar” means to me, truth be told, but I guess defining it will be part of the process.

Musically speaking, I’m not much of a gear guy.  I currently own four guitars: an Alvarez, which was the first “real” guitar I ever owned and which is covered in the signatures of various musicians I have met and or played with in my life; a Yamaha classical guitar given to me buy an aunt who had used it for lessons she took years ago; a Martin Alternative X that I often use for recording because it has onboard electronics that facilitate the process; and a Martin D-28.

I suppose the reason I haven’t yearned for guitars the way many players do is because my main instrument for the past 27 years has been the D-28.  I bought it new in 1981, knowing even then that, barring anything unexpected or catastrophic, I would never need another acoustic guitar.  Indeed, there are some people who think of a D-28 as the Holy Grail of acoustic guitars.  These instruments are almost ubiquitous in bluegrass, which is the music I know best and have played the most over the years.  By far, the most highly-coveted Martins are those built in the “pre-war” years, but even though mine falls well outside that category it is a fine guitar and I have loved it since the day I brought it home.

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to hit the streets in search of something more.  I want to explore the higher-end, small-shop builders, and maybe even some individual luthiers.  Along the way, I’m going to need to learn about all sorts of things like tonewoods and other materials, different building techniques and how they compare, and ultimately, exactly what it is I’m looking for.

Here we go….