Guitars and Campfires
I have played around with guitars all my life but never got beyond learning a few basic chords. There was something about it that was so inviting. You could take one with you anywhere and at any time, with this one instrument, you could make any kind of music. I loved the idea of just hanging out with friends on a moonlit beach or next to a campfire and playing a few songs. I naturally had the rock & roll dreams of youth, but they were not to be. Part of my frustration with learning to play was simply trying to keep one in tune. I could tell when it was out of tune, but I just couldn’t seem to get it back in. I understood the principal for tuning, but I just couldn’t hear it. This always led to my putting it down for a while.
Several years ago, my interest in playing was once again rekindled while filming at an archaeological dig called the Kolb Site. My cousin, who is an archaeologist and professor at the University of South Carolina, was one of the leaders and had invited me to come down and film the dig. He also happens to play the guitar. A wonderful and diverse group of archaeologists both young and old, professional and amateur were working on the site. These folks worked hard all day and had a good time letting go in the evening.
For the two weeks of the annual dig we were housed on an old plantation in a two-story 50’s era farm house, now used as a hunting lodge. The quarter mile long dirt access road takes you through a farm field which serves as a very large front yard for the lodge. Spanish moss hangs loosely from the great oaks, and behind the old house the dark water of a good-sized lake beautifully reflects the mood of the sky. Surrounded by dilapidated Adirondack chairs, a backyard fire pit was the focal point each night after our communal dinner. Once dinner was wrapped up, the PBR’s (for the un-initiated that would be Pabst Blue Ribbon) were popped open and tales of the day’s finds were shared. The high point of the evening for me was when, one by one the guitars would come out. After a little tuning and noodling around, the music would start when one of the players would say “I got one” at which point he would launch into a tune with the others soon joining in. Sometimes loud and raucous, sometimes soft and sweet, the combined sound of the guitars with a banjo or harmonica thrown in from time to time was wonderful and great fun. There was never any judgement about anyone’s skill level with their instrument or for singing a bit off key. Missed notes or forgotten lyrics were all a part of it. This was making music for the sheer joy of it.
I find there is something magical about the acoustic guitar. It’s like a musical magnet with the power to bring people together. Captivated by its seeming simplicity, folks fall under its spell and let the cares of the day drift away with the song. Like moths to a flame the sound of a guitar drifting through any campground attracts campers, pulling them out of their chairs on a quest. Searching for its origins, they follow the music. Some will stop and listen for a bit, some invite themselves in for a friendly chat, while others go back for their own guitar and join in. Before you know it a group of what were strangers, just a short while before, are singing and laughing together, becoming friends.
The guitar itself is a wonderful example of craftsmanship and engineering coming together to produce a work of art on which you can create art. You don’t have to be a player to appreciate the beauty of the tone woods used in crafting a guitar. They are called tone-woods for a very good reason; each vibrates with its own unique quality. The beautiful blond of Sitka spruce with its wide range is one of the most common guitar tops. The bourbon brown, straight grained texture of mahogany foretells its denser tones, while rosewood’s variegated dark red almost purple and black whisper its warmth. There are many more including, maple with its bright punchiness, cedar, Koa and even laminates which make excellent options. Many luthiers incorporate more than one tone-wood, blending the complimenting tones and expanding the range of vibrations thus creating a different voice for each instrument to sing with.
When you hold a guitar in your hands what you have is a big sound box made of thin pieces of wood, the sides of which have been steamed into odd shapes and held together only by glue, with a long neck and headstock attached to it. Six steel strings are strung from bridge to tuning keys producing roughly 180-200 pounds of tension; it’s is a wonder they don’t simply blow apart.
The magic of their designs begins when you strike a single string and its vibration creates a sound wave. This pure little sound wave travels inward, interacting and resonating with the different tone-woods of the back, sides and top of the sound box. After all of this interacting and resonating what began as a single vibrating string is delivered through the sound hole as a beautiful, crisp and clear musical note. Press the same string against any of the frets on the neck and a new note is produced. Press down certain combinations of strings on the fretboard and you have chords. The six strings vibrating together blend their frequencies creating a voice that may be dramatic, cheery, light or dark. It all depends on the chord that’s played and the players intent.
As I listened to the music the archaeologist/musicians were creating and saw the smiles on their faces as they were strumming and singing the night away, I had an overwhelming desire to pick up a guitar and join in. Armed only with my limited three chord knowledge I was too timid to give it a try. Inspired by this experience I was determined to become a part of it.
Well aware of my lifelong struggle to learn, I was a bit daunted by the thought of trying it again. But the fortuitous Christmas gift from my wife of a ukulele that year changed everything for me, musically at least. The little rosewood Lanikai gem was great fun and very easy to learn. It seemed like in no time at all I was picking up songs with the little beauty. (A major part of my success was the electronic tuner that came as a part of the gift.) I spent countless hours happily sitting on my front porch, in my kilt with a good scotch, strumming away at “Ain’t She Sweet” and other tunes that seemed to beg for a ukulele. I still don’t know what the neighbors thought about this, though they always waved and said hello to the crazy guy in a kilt as they strolled by.
With my new-found musical confidence, I brought my little ukulele to the next year’s dig. A bit sheepishly I sat around the fire strumming a few tunes only to find, much to my dismay, when the guitars came out it simply couldn’t compete. The uke’s little sound box was completely overwhelmed by the full voices of the big acoustic dreadnought guitars. What was I thinking? Not to be deterred I explored my options. It was then that two things dawned on me: if I can learn chords, strumming patterns and songs on my little four stringed uke, picking up a guitar and adding two more strings shouldn’t be that big of a deal, right? And with the electronic tuner, I would be able to keep the thing in tune – problem solved. A new journey had begun.
I did a little research and after shopping around, I settled on a Yamaha fg730. This model is on the lower end of what you can pay for one, but it was good guitar for the money. The yellow-gold of the solid Sitka spruce top with its interesting grain looked great contrasted with its rosewood back and sides. It was a wonderful instrument that played and sounded as good as it looked. With my new Yamaha in hand I ventured to the world of YouTube for help in expanding my three-chord knowledge. I quickly found that I didn’t need expensive lessons or subscription websites. There is so much available for free. All I needed was a little patience with myself and a good bit of practice.
Somewhere along the line my best friend, Bob, picked up a guitar as well. Having someone to practice and share the journey with has made all the difference. Bob had played a bit as a teen so before you knew it, we were sitting around campfires belting out “Wagon Wheel” and “Country Roads” like we knew what we were doing. Bob, though I’m told he has a very good voice, refused to sing, so the task fell to me. I like to say that the only things worse than my guitar playing is my singing, so getting over my inhibitions about singing has been more of a challenge than learning some of the convoluted chords that seem to have your fingers wrapped around each other. It has taken me a while, but I have finally reached the point that if you don’t like the way I’m singing you had better join in and sing a bit louder to drown me out. All voices are welcome.
Learning to play the guitar in my mid-fifties has been a joy. It has proven to me, once again, that life is a wondrous journey and no matter how far you have come down that long and winding road there is still much to learn, experience and share. Whether I’m by myself or with others, playing music has the wonderful trans-formative effect of changing my mood. It takes me to that other place inside and it is joyous. With the back of that big sound box vibrating against my chest I not only hear every note and chord I play, I feel them as well. Singing and playing quickly transports me from all of the worries and minutiae of the day to a calm creative place inside. This wonderful shift centers me and revitalizes my spirit.
It seems there is no better way to build friendship and camaraderie than playing music and singing together. I have been so pleasantly surprised by the power of it. Once folks are hooked and the toes start tapping, the glowing screens are put down and people join in, community and sharing happens. I will never be a virtuoso and play the guitar like George Harrison or sing as true as Paul McCartney. That’s ok. I’m sure they won’t mind if I sing as Ringo once did, “lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song and I’ll try not to sing out of key”.
William C. Judge 2018