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Strings Attached

I’ve moved five times in my life. Through each move, I have tried to “down-size” my possessions. I had a yard sale, then I donated what didn’t sell, and I filled the curb with bags of shredded paper and junk. There are very few items that I still have from my move from the East Coast. The one main item that made all of the cuts was something for which I am now very grateful to still have – the shrunken head of my uncle. No, not really. All of my uncles are alive and well and have normal-sized heads, for the most part. What I am grateful to still have is my Fender acoustic guitar.

This guitar was a Christmas present from my mom back in 1996. I was completely surprised by it… Especially since I never asked for a guitar. I never really asked for anything for Christmas or my birthday because I never thought I truly needed anything; I didn’t think it was fair or necessary to be frivolous. My mom always felt that she needed to get me things though, and that is how I acquired some really unusual items:

  • Miniature musical carousel horses
  • A harmonica (I had braces at the time, so that was fun)
  • A large shoebox full of troll dolls
  • A 3D pin of the USS Enterprise (though I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek)
  • Mirrors that looked like John Lennon’s glasses
  • A mini globe made out of a monkey’s skull
  • A “freshwater cultured pearl” bracelet (to this day, I think the pearls are really babies’ teeth)
  • Talking fuzzy slippers that count each step… In Japanese!!

I think it goes without saying that I didn’t keep anything from that list, but I have always lugged around my guitar. After it was given to me, I briefly attempted to play it. I played one little riff that sounded like the chorus to White Wedding, and that was about it. I barely touched that guitar, other than to move it, until about a year ago.

I never really thought much of it, honestly. I had people tell me that it was a “low-end” guitar and that there were many better sounding guitars from which to choose. I figured it wasn’t worthy even for practice. Why would I want to devote time to something if it was going to sound crappy? One day though, my neighbor’s fourteen year-old son stopped by and mentioned that he played guitar. My husband took the guitar out from where it was stored, dusted it off, and handed it to him. This boy… less than half my age, proceeded to play a couple parts from songs I knew. My guitar didn’t sound too bad. Then I became friends with a guy that just happened to play, and he picked up my “cheapy” guitar and played several songs on it. It sounded great! Of course, it didn’t hurt that this man had several years of practice and was talented enough to have his own band, but at that moment I thought, Wait a second! My guitar is capable of being awesome!

Shortly after my little epiphany, I started practicing. I began by teaching myself the basics: a song using about six notes, and how to read tablature. I already knew how to read music, but I was rusty. I slowly started learning chords. I had the hardest time holding down the strings, but I pressed on – literally, I just kept pressing on the strings until I finally had the resemblance of a decent sound.

With all of my practice details aside, I’ll just say that over the last year, I have definitely improved. I can play two songs all the way through, and many “snippets” from other songs. There is something I didn’t give much thought to, however, and that is the fact that I cannot sing. Well, I can sing, but not very well. I understand enough about music to know when I sing off key or miss a note altogether. So why is my lack of singing a problem? I don’t like to finger pick the guitar, which means I strum – I play rhythm guitar. Rhythm guitar gets pretty monotonous when no one is singing. Plus, it’s hard to tell exactly what song is being played if the lyrics aren’t there.

Despite the fact that I can’t play very well or sing, I still enjoy coming home from work, plopping on the couch, and grabbing my guitar. I might just play a scale, or practice progressing from one chord to another smoothly and rhythmically, but it still helps me relax.

Having a musical instrument, especially one with strings, is a lot like having a relationship with a person, well, maybe more like having a pet. I’ve learned that I have to pay attention to my guitar, keep it out of extreme temperatures, keep it clean, and make sure its nose is cold and wet. Wait… What? Most importantly, I have to listen to it and be able to know when something is wrong. Just recently I decided it was time to change the strings;I had been in denial about it for months. I kept saying the strings sounded just fine and they had finally gotten “broken in” enough for me to hold down easily, but my guitar eventually just seemed sick. I did some research, placed an online order, and patiently waited for the strings that would “heal” my guitar.

I waited about a week before I had enough nerve to go through with the replacement. I had read and heard about the many dos and don’ts of changing the strings, especially strings that had never been changed… Ever. First, I removed the neck strap, decorated in green and purple lizards, that my mom had put on it before she gave it to me. I really didn’t have to remove it for this process, but it was hideous. Then, when there was nothing else I could do to stall, I slowly unwound each string, and removed them one by one. I won’t lie, it was scary. It was risky to remove all of the strings at once rather than remove one and immediately replace it with a new string, but that was a chance I had to take. Along with the muted moaning, my poor guitar even looked ill. Its fretboard (the area on the neck under the strings) was very dry and needed moisturizer. Yes, you read that correctly… Moisturizer! Along with the new strings, I bought a spray that would restore the finish of the dried-out fretboard.

I used that spray; it was called “Guitar Honey” – a very sensual and exotic name for something that smells like petroleum and rat butt. Well, I honey’d the hell out of the neck of that guitar. I reapplied the stuff at least three times. When I was done, the hoary wood looked like newly cut and polished rosewood. Yes, that’s right… My guitar was hoary with curves in all the right places, that’s why I named her Roxanne. Just kidding. I actually haven’t found a suitable name yet, but I bet you are singing in your head right now, “Roooooxanne! You don’t have to turn on the red light…” Or maybe that’s just me.

It was time to put on the new strings, and these aren’t just any generic cheap strings one can buy at a local store. They are the Champagne of guitar strings… The bacon-wrapped filet mignon of strings… The donuts that have the icing AND rainbow sprinkles, of strings – Elixir 80/20 bronze strings with Nanoweb coating! Yes, straight up Nanoweb coating! How badass does that sound? This special coating keeps the dead skin cells and natural oils from fingers from getting down into the coils of the strings all without changing the sound. Two years ago, I would not have thought that guitar strings could be cool, but my appreciation for strings, picks, and guitars in general, has developed and grown into a huge mass of wonderment. In fact, this is the first time in my entire life I have ever used the word “wonderment” and it was while writing about guitars, so there, a perfect example of how awesome I think guitars are now.

Back to the changing of the strings. If you have never changed guitar strings before, let me tell you this… It involves cutting, or at least it should. Fact one- Cutting a string is permanent. Fact B- If I had cut any of the strings too short, we get the third and final fact- I would have been screwed because I only had one set of these very awesome strings. So after consulting the tutorial on my laptop for the third time, I cut the string, turned the tuning key to take the slack out of the string, turned the tuning key, turned the key, kept turning, and then finally it was time to actually make sure the string was in tune. It took me a minute to get the low E to sound the way it should, but I did it! I repeated those steps with the other five strings. As I worked my way to the last string, I was like a little kid waiting for her dad to cut all of the zip ties off of a new toy to release it from its box. I couldn’t wait to play!!

Once the last string was tuned, I quickly sat the guitar in my lap and strummed a G chord. Wow… That was different! Almost too much so. I was a little put off by its new sound, but I just reminded myself that I had become accustomed to 15-year old strings. I continued to play, and tune, and play, and tune, since I was still in the process of stretching out the new strings. I must say after completing the whole process of reviving my decade and a half old guitar all by myself, I felt very accomplished. I also felt that the guitar was truly mine after all of these years.

Rather than being packed away in its case, my guitar is now almost always sitting on my couch.I might never be a great musician, or singer, but hopefully playing guitar will always bring me happiness and take some of the stress out of my day. It’s funny how something I never asked for or even thought I wanted has become something that I can’t imagine living without. Somewhere someone is admiring his Enterprise pin, someone is lovingly brushing the hair of her many many troll dolls, and someone is questioning the origin of her pearl bracelet, but I’m sitting next to my guitar, and that’s better than talking slippers, any day.

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