RECORD STORE TALES #912: My First Guitar
Bob had a blue and yellow BMX bike, so I had to have a blue and yellow BMX bike.
Bob had a leather jacket, and so I had to have a leather jacket.
Bob had an electric guitar…so I had to have an electric guitar.
Early in 1988, Bob bought his first and only guitar. It was a jagged, black Stinger with a whammy bar. It had two double coil pickups. He had strap locks so he could twirl his guitar over his shoulder if he wanted. And I had to have all these things too.
Bob bought his guitar second-hand from a guy who said “it used to belong to the guy from Helix”. Of course there was no way to verify this so we never treated it as fact. The first weekend he had it, he invited me over to check it out. How hard could a guitar be to play? They used to teach sheet music in grade school, so I thought “piece of cake, I can play guitar”.
I told my parents that I was getting a guitar, and to them it was just another thing that Bob had, that I had to have too. And since Bob was two years older and had a part-time job, they’d be paying for this guitar that I insisted I was getting. Bob and I went out on our own one afternoon, to East End Music in downtown Kitchener. We browsed, got the help of the man working (probably the owner) and I picked out a generic white guitar. It had what I needed — the humbucking pickups and whammy bar like Bob had.
“The black and white guitars will be a cool contrast,” we both thought.
I really wanted that guitar. I thought it was just meant to be. Bob and I were going to form a band. This was the first step. We already had a few band names picked out.
“We’ll be back,” I told the guy as we left. I was really excited. Upon arriving at home, I proceeded with begging my parents for the guitar. My dad wasn’t happy, especially when I explained to him that we already told the guy that I was coming back for it.
“Oh no,” he moaned. But they agreed, as long as I took music lessons. That seemed like a pretty sweet deal! My dad got out his cheque book, asked the man, “What can you do for me here?” and bought me the white generic instrument that I couldn’t live without, at a slightly reduced price! I was the only one who was happy with the outcome.
It was at this point that I discovered that guitar was really hard.
Sure, I could pick out the first six or seven notes of the “Detroit Rock City” solo, but not in time. Bob and I figured out how to do a simple version of the “Wasted Years” intro, but couldn’t play the song any further than that. I saw a kid at school playing acoustic guitar, and he did something with his fingers that I couldn’t. He laid his index finger on the fretboard, and played multiple strings at once — the skill of chording that I had yet to learn.
My mom found a teacher that did housecalls. It was perfect — my sister was learning keyboards from him. Gary Mertz was his name, a keyboard player by nature but also able to teach guitar. Bob would come over on Saturday mornings, and take his lesson after Kathryn and I had finished. Gary could teach three lessons in one stop, and I believe there was a fourth kid in the neighborhood that he taught as well. After lessons, sometimes Bob and I would hang out and listen to music, or go to the mall.
The first lesson I really learned about guitar is why you don’t want a whammy bar. I spent most of my time tuning that thing, and replacing a set of strings was a nightmare. “I’ll never buy another guitar with a whammy bar,” I said after buying a second guitar with a whammy bar.
The reason I bought that second guitar was due to an accident with the first. I left it lying upright, leaning on a bench. It got tangled in a cable, and when my sister got her keyboard out to practice, the cable yanked on the whammy bar. The guitar hit the bench and the headstock broke in two. It was made clear to me by both Gary and my parents that this accident was my fault. But Gary found a guy who would fix it.
A broken guitar is never as good as it was brand new. A couple years later I bought my Kramer flying V, which became my preferred instrument. It too was a white guitar, and so I said to Bob: “My gimmick is that every guitar I own will be a white guitar.” He thought that was cool, because two of my favourite players, Adrian Smith and Phil Collen, frequently played white guitars.
The fact of the matter is, some people can play instruments, and some people can’t. I went the full distance before admitting that I can’t. I modified my first axe with some cool stickers. Bob and I both bought “super slinky” guitar strings thinking it would help us play fast. For my guitar strap, I chose a cool faux-snakeskin thing. (I didn’t want animal print — too 1984.) I had an electronic tuner, a suitably heavy ancient tube amp with a reverb pedal, and a collection of different picks. Gary tried to make my mom feel better about my difficulty. “It’s not as easy as the keyboard,” he explained. “If I dropped an ashtray on this key, it’s still going to make the right note. A guitar won’t.” But eventually, I called it quits. It turns out that my sister got all the talent.
Bob didn’t think he was learning anything from Gary, and he quit several months before I did. He had a new interest now: sailboarding.
“Oh I suppose you’re going to want a sailboard now!” said my mom with a warning tone in her voice.
But I didn’t follow Bob this time. Sailboarding was the first thing Bob was into, that I had no interest in. I toiled away at guitar a little longer, thinking now I could be a solo artist. I wrote some lyrics and recorded some ideas on cassette. Half of my ideas were played on the keyboard using the “guitar” voice, because I just couldn’t play guitar.
My first guitar, the one bought in February 1988 at East End Music in downtown Kitchener, with the repaired headstock, was sold to an older lady that Gary was teaching. I’m sure she was able to get more music out of it than I did.