Thursday, March 26, 2009

Channeling My Inner 11-Year-Old

The Beatles had a resurgence when I was a kid--as they seem to every few years since they broke up--and they were the first, em, "serious" pop band I listened to. I never listened to the radio--the cacophonous incidental sounds of radio (from AM/FM noise artifacts to commercials to DJs breaking in) made (and makes) it something I cannot tolerate for very long. I picked up some "Donny and Marie" and "Captain and Tenille", but that didn't really ignite any interest. (Can't imagine why.)

Most of the music I listened to was classical or noodling--whatever I could play. (I never have "gotten" piano, though, sadly.) I had a kind of culture shock when I went from piano to guitar because piano teachers generally tell you what to play and guitar teachers ask you what you want to play. So guitar lessons were not successful at that point. (What were they going to do? Teach me Bach and Beethoven? Not likely.)

Flash forward a few months or a year, and one of my classmates takes on a tour of Capitol Records (where her father worked) and they handed out promotional copies of the latest Beatles compilation album, Love Songs. (One of the advantages of going to school in L.A. Another student's father worked at ABC studios, so we toured there as well.)

Flash forward again, and I've got a few more albums and I teach myself a few chords and score a copy--I'm still not sure how--of the "Beatles Complete", a fairly comprehensive book of typographically convenient piano arrangements of all the Beatles' tunes. With some help from Peter, Paul and Mary for basic fingerings, I taught myself to play "Polythene Pam".

Why that song? Five chords, but four of them aren't bar chords, and when you play it actually sounds like the song on the album. (Because the book had been set up as a sort of fake book for piano--what else?--the music was often transposed into good piano keys, where the Beatles naturally played in good guitar keys. There was a later two-volume work that preserved the scores far better.)

And so I learned to play guitar. Ultimately, I learned fifty or sixty of their tunes, possibly more, though I had more success (as a guy alone with his guitar) emulating Simon & Garfunkel (hold the Garfunkel), ultimately learning all the songs of that duo with the exact or nearly exact fingerings (and quite a few post-breakup songs, too). Then, in the early MTV years, I'd play whatever came on which, to this day, gives me an odd selection of music to recall from that period. (It could've been huge on the radio, but if it wasn't on TV, I didn't hear it. Sounds strange, but MTV let the songs play all the way through without interrupting back then.)

During my Beatles period, I studied the music and learned about the phenomenon and hung out with other Beatles fans (there were about 50 kids altogether in my middle school, divided between Beatles fans and KISS fans, and ne'er the twain shall meet, except in my house where my sister was, predictably, a KISS fan).

This period ended for me when John Lennon was shot; I found it hard to listen to The Beatles after that for some time, and started listening to their solo albums. (Listening to "the latest" music has never been my thing, as you can see.) I cast about for other things to listen to, but I wouldn't get close to anything like my Beatles obsession (at least in "pop" music) for ten years (when I rediscovered Loudon Wainwright III).

My transition from the banging chords of the Beatles to Paul Simon-style fingerpickin' started with this blues song (which before this very moment I had never heard anyone else play 'cept for me and the guy who taught it to me), and ultimately led me back home to Bach and other Baroque and Renaissance music. (There is truly "Classical" music for the guitar but most of it is terribly boring. The late 18th century and the 19th century isn't a font of great guitar music. 20th century music and the guitar go gloriously well together, however.)

Anyway a couple years ago when I splurged and got myself a new classical guitar--and the best one I found was actually pretty old--the shopkeeper (sensing an easy mark, no doubt) also showed me a vintage 12-string Framus which I promptly bought, rationalizing that both old guitars together were cheaper and better sounding than the new ones I had sampled. (Random youtube of this kind of guitar in action, but you can hear it on a ton of the Beatles middle period stuff.)

Plucking out a few Beatles tunes on that thing does send me back--to a time before I was born, even. Heh. The sound is evocative.

But evocative in an entirely different way from this.

Although I've never quite understood the Guitar Hero attraction, I have to admit, this variant awakened my inner 11-year-old.


  1. Those Framus guitars looked decent and sounded all right, but they tended to come apart. If yours is still intact and functional, hooray for that.

    I like to play "Deep River Blues" fairly close in the set to "Deep Ellum [Elm] Blues" just because I'm overly literal minded about that kind of thing. Deep foo Blues, Deep bar Blues, I can do a whole set based on that, and no-one would want to listen to it.

  2. The best mass-produced 12-strings built around that time (1960's) were the Guilds. Solid construction, great sound.

    For really beautiful custom 12's, you want to look at Nick Apollonio, in Maine. Hard to do, as he's taken care to keep himself off the Web. But the instruments are wonderful.

  3. My understanding is that guitars in general don't age well. There's a sweet spot when the wood's dried out, but after that the stresses of the strings work against it.

    Still, there's no apparent damage on this Framus. And the classical I picked up was a vintage guitar, too. Oddly enough, I didn't find a new guitar at any price with a sound I liked.

    I'm not really a "guitar guy"; that is, I'm not well-versed in the makes and models. I just pick them up and listen to how they sound. So far, I've been pretty lucky.

    I like all kinds of strings, though, so that Nick Appolonio reference is pretty dangerous.

  4. Y'know, you've started something. Just thinking about 12-string guitars has caused me to get my old 12 out of the closet and start playing it. I had forgotten how much I like a 12-string guitar. Mine is a rough old early '60's Stella, much like this one. Beautifully decorated; I'll have to post a picture of it sometime. Not a serious antique, like the one my friend Paul is playing in this picture. That's the guitar he used for the "Love, Murder, and Mosquitos" record, on which I played mandolin on "This Morning She Was Gone."

    This one of mine has gone from decent to wrecked to carefully repaired to be real good, and back to halfway wrecked again. Well, I seem to be getting instruments repaired, lately. Maybe I'll take the 12 into the shop where they have been working on my mandolins, and see if the neck can be reset, again. Re-re-set, you might say. Although a slot-head 12-string is damn near more trouble than … not than it's worth, no. Than anything else you can think of, maybe. Changing strings on one of these is an all-day project. Well, most of an afternoon, anyway. The sound, though; the first post of mine that you linked to mentioned Theodore Sturgeon, who played a 12-string guitar, and mentioned it in more than one story, most famously perhaps in "The Education of Drusilla Strange." Remember? The passage where Dru says, "Chan, I can only sing one note at a time. You have twelve strings." So these things circle round, and come back to the beginning; with luck, to start again.

  5. Oh, I started plucking on that 12-string immediately.

    String it? I'm just happy I can tune it.

    That Sturgeon piece sounds familiar but I'm not really recalling it. On good days, I think his crap-to-not ratio was too high.

  6. I'm up too late and not making sense: I'm saying my post and this thread made me dust off the Framus....

    (Normally I deal with six strings. Sometimes five. On rare occasions, seven.)

  7. Now I want to play "The Circle Game" on the 12-string. You're lucky I don't have a webcam.


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