“That sounded great, man. You were just right there with us. You really know your rhythm.”
So said Doug, one of the guitarists for my friend Tom’s band Tavern Tan.
Boy, was that nice.
I took up drums when I was ten. For decades, I played. I wasn’t great, but I was good; I kept the beat, and was fortunate enough to play with a lot of talented people.
I always wanted to play a stringed instrument, though, and for several years, I struggled mightily with the guitar. Just didn’t work out. No matter how much I played, things just didn’t come into focus.
Then, about ten years ago, I saw The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain on YouTube, playing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Like millions of other people, I became hooked. I picked up a ukulele, and started playing.
What wasn’t working on the guitar worked on the ukulele. Once I got the hang of it, though, I really wanted to venture beyond the basic instrument. What I wanted was to play something that really sounded like a guitar.
Then, about four years ago, I saw the Kingston Trio on YouTube. Nick Reynolds was playing a four string guitar, and that was introduction to the tenor guitar. I read about how the tenor guitar was originally manufactured for plectrum (four string) banjo players who wanted a guitar sound, and was therefore tuned like a banjo.
Reading on, though, I found out that it was possible, as Reynolds (who played ukulele) and many other musicians had done, to tune the tenor guitar like a baritone ukulele. Without getting into any more technical aspects about how these things are tuned, let’s leave it at this: if you can play a small ukulele (called a soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele), you can play a baritone ukulele, which means that you can play a tenor guitar tuned like a baritone ukulele. Eager to finally play an actual guitar, I bought one, and started playing real guitar for the first time in my life.
Then I found out that the Eastwood Guitar company manufactured an electric tenor guitar specifically for Warren Ellis, the guitarist for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The stings on this electric are just a bit farther apart to accommodate Ellis’s style of playing, but it’s also worth nothing that the strings on a ukulele are a bit farther apart than the strings of a guitar. Finally, after hoping that I could really and truly play an electric guitar, the good folks at Eastwood guitars granted my wish.
So, at my friend Tom’s urging, I brought my guitar with me to his band’s gig up here in Emmaus at The Funk Brewing Company.
“You can sit in on a song or two,” he said.
And I did.
“So,” said Kevin, who was playing bass that evening, and may be one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met, “what key?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “what key do you guys want to play?”
“How about A?” Kevin said.
“Okay,” I said, “I think I can do that.”
So, for the next four minutes or so, I played the basic chords of a twelve bar blues in A (which, for the uninitiated, are A, D, and E). I made sure to follow Kevin and Dave, who plays drums. The fact that I was playing the most basic of rhythm guitar phrases gave Doug—who was mostly playing rhythm so that Andrew could play lead—a chance to stretch his wings a bit.
My friend Tom, meanwhile, has become a known blues harp player here in the Lehigh Valley, and he didn’t disappoint. Boy, I thought, Tom’s gotten good.
The song ended, I shook hands with everyone, and people high fived me as I went back to my table. A while later, during the band’s second set, Tom invited me back up, and once again, I played, but this time in E (which meant that I played E, A, and B a whole lot). I shook everyone’s hand again, and Doug gave me that complement that began this blog post. It was the first time in my life that I had played guitar in a band.
“That was really nice what Doug said to me,” I said to Tom afterward.
“You should be proud of yourself,” Tom said. “He doesn’t give complements lightly. There have been plenty of times we’ve had someone sit in with us, and Doug would be, like, ‘who is this guy…get him off the stage.’”
Tom was actually a bit more colorful with his language in his discussion of Doug’s dismissals, but I like to keep my posts clean.
“Oh,” I said, “that’s really nice.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “You were really good yesterday. Totally in the pocket. You sort of have that Buddy Holly sound when you play.”
So there you have it. For the first time in my life, I played guitar with a group of seriously good musicians, and they deemed me worthy.
And I sound like Buddy Holly. It doesn’t get any better than that.