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Learning to play the guitar
How it all began
The first memories I have of a guitar, are the ones of my older brother Rick playing his. He had a little Gene Autry guitar, and he used to sing songs like “Working on the Railroad” to me. Then there were times I remember my father playing guitar, and my mother would sing. Her favorite song back then was “You are my Sunshine,” and she could really sing that song, but that was so long ago. At the time I was simply too young to have any real interest in the guitar, or music for that matter.
Years later, in 1968, my aunt and cousins came to visit us. I was thirteen years old at the time, and my cousin Ronnie was twelve. Even at that age, music did not play that much of a part in my life, but for my cousin it was a passion. I spent most of my time back then fishing, or exploring the forest that surrounded our home. Ronnie spent his time listening to music, and drooling over pictures of guitars in the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Naturally, he wanted to share his enthusiasm with me. He was persistent, and soon he had convinced me to help him write our first song. Today I can’t remember the verses of that song, but I do remember how that day changed my perspective about music. It was later that year when I heard Mason William’s “Classical Gas” for the first time, and that cemented the deal for me. Now, I also dreamed of owning my own guitar.
It was a year later before my cousin came to visit again, and this time he had brought with him a big game changer, a real guitar. Not only had he managed to get his own guitar, but an uncle of his had given him a second guitar, which he gave to me. Ronnie showed me a few chords, and promised to show me more the next time he came to visit. I practiced until my fingers were so sore, that I couldn’t practice. At that time I didn't think I would ever overcome the challenge of learning to play the guitar, but I kept trying. Then, just when I got to the point to where I could play a few simple songs, the guitar fell over one day, and the neck was broken. I was devastated. For a year I didn't know what to do with myself, then Christmas morning, I received a big surprise, a new guitar. The only time I stopped playing that day was to eat, and then I was back at it again. I played that evening until I finally fell asleep, still holding onto that guitar.
The song writer
When I was sixteen I got a new motorcycle and that machine captured most of my attention for a while. As I spent my days riding through the scenic hills, the lustre of my guitar began to fade. I might have completely lost interest in playing if not for a song that I heard on the radio, it was called "Operator." I loved that song, and still do. At the time I didn't know who performed the song, but later on heard another song that I really liked, "Time in a Bottle." The little town that I lived in was mostly geared for country and western music, so it was rare to hear rock and roll, folk, or pop music. I went searching for the songs in the few stores that actually sold music, but had no luck. Still, those songs inspired me enough to pick up my guitar again.
In the summer of 1973 I got a summer job doing construction work in Florida with two of my older brothers. It was there in Saint Petersburg Florida that I discovered the name of the artist that wrote and performed those songs that I had been searching for. His name was Jim Croce. As soon as I found one of his albums, I bought it. As a matter of fact, I bought every album he had out then. It was almost as if he was singing about my life at times. Jim Croce just had this way of touching you with his songs. He opened up his heart and sang about feelings we all have, but for the most part keep hidden. I believe that he was one of the best song writers of all time. What I really liked about his albums, was that I could put it on the turn-table and leave it. I didn't have to go searching for one song, and then remove the disc. Every song that he wrote meant something to him. Then just months after discovering Jim, that great voice became silent with a plane crash.
My next guitar
After finishing school, I moved back to Florida to get another construction job. I didn't have much money, so I had to travel by bus. Since I didn't have a case for my guitar, I had to leave it behind. All that I carried was a suitcase packed with clothes. After working for about six months, I decided that I would go looking for another guitar locally. There was a small music store a few blocks from where I lived, so I dropped in one day and tried out a few guitars. I found one that I really liked. It was a Cameo, dreadnought body, acoustic guitar, but the older couple that ran the store shook their heads. It was not for sale. There were some really bad drip marks in the dark finish on the top side, so they were returning it for another guitar of the same model. They offered to hold the replacement for me when it came in, but I wanted that one. I didn't care about the bad finish. I was willing to pay the full price of one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Instead, they gave me a discount, and sold it to me for one hundred dollars. Since that purchase, I have acquired many guitars, some costing much more, but it's usually that old guitar that I still reach for today.
After purchasing that Cameo, the music store owners and I became good friends. I used to drop in at least once a week to buy guitar strings, picks, or just to chat. One day I decided to check out a used electric guitar that had just come in. The lady told me that it didn't work. Someone had traded it in on a new electric guitar, and they took the customer's word that it played just fine. I asked her for a screwdriver and she got one for me. It only took me a few minutes to find a bad solder connection. I ran home, got my soldering iron, came back, and soon had the guitar working. The couple wanted to pay me, but I refused. I wasn't expecting to get paid, but the lady jammed thirty-five dollars into my shirt pocket. Now back in 1974, thirty-five dollars was a lot of money. At that time it would have taken me a full ten hours of work at my regular job just to gross that much. Also, I knew that they would never recoup that much money from the sale of that used guitar. I told them that it was just too much, but as it turned out they had other guitars, and amplifiers that needed repairing. So, I told them that the thirty-five dollars would have to be applied to other repairs, and they agreed with me.
On one of my trips to the music store, I noticed that they had just received a new banjo. It was loaded with mother of pearl inlay, and had a large gold eagle on the back. I had no idea how to play a banjo, but it was so beautiful that I wanted to try. I purchased it along with an instruction book of how to play the instrument. Most of the time I can learn how to do almost anything from reading, but this was one of the few times when a book just wasn't enough for me. My brother told me about a fellow who lived in the neighborhood, that gave banjo lessons. His place was called Yokely's Banjo Ranch, and he had played with some big time bluegrass bands. I went by and met the fellow, and he was quite a character. It was while taking lessons from him that he also taught me how to set up a guitar. For the most part this consists of increasing or decreasing the gap between the frets and the strings, or adjusting the action of the fretboard. I never left D.D Yokely's without learning something, or picking up a good story to share. Nothing lasts forever though, and when construction work became scarce, once again I moved to find work. It came in the form of a job at a printing company. It was during my free time then that I took what D.D. had taught me on the banjo and transferred it to the guitar. The chords of a five string banjo and a guitar are completely different, so it was no easy task, but I wanted to be able to play like my hero, Jim Croce. This also made it possible for me to learn how to play Classical Gas.
The pub scene
There was a bar down on the beach that some friends I frequented from time to time, and this one day there was a fellow there playing his guitar. He was a big jovial guy with long hair, sporting a full and lengthy beard. He looked a bit like a pirate to me, or maybe it was just the fact that the bar was on the beach. Anyway, a friend of mine suggested that I bring my guitar inside and join him. The big fellow that had been playing parroted my friend's request, so I got it out of the truck and we played. I don't drink at all today, and back then I hardly ever drank more than one beer, but that day was different. At one point we got a little tipsy, and at times I don't think that we were even playing the same song, but the bar tender didn't mind. As long as we were making some noise the patrons seemed to enjoy it, most likely because they were feeling good too. I went back to that bar several times after that, and I always brought my guitar with me, and I was always welcomed.
Later on, I played guitar in a number of local contests, sponsored by different taverns . I won second place quite often at this one little pub, but I could never claim first place. The odd thing was, at times it appeared to me that I was getting the most applause. I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. Then one night the pub owner confessed to me, "Randall, you will never win first place, because the guy that always wins first place, owns the PA equipment, and that's how we pay him." I remember getting a good chuckle out of that, but understood completely. The small pub had a tight budget, and that other guitar picker had to lug all of the equipment around and set it up, plus he had to pay for it. So, I was fine with that. I wasn't playing for money or trophies anyway. I just wanted a chance to share my songs with a few people, and hopefully brighten someone's day. After that, I never thought about those performances as being a contest. From then on, I think that I played better, and enjoyed it more.
Reality always wins
When I was twenty-six years old, I got married and life changed for me. I had to be responsible now, and focus on a career. So, I decided to go to school for electronics, and this left very little time for my guitar. Along with work and school, I was taking on every side job that came my way. Then later, as my skills progressed in electronics, I began repairing old stereos, television sets, and whatever anyone would throw at me for free. I just wanted the hands on experience. Soon, there was no time for playing my guitar at all. So, back in 1983, I packed up my guitar and put it away. It was a bittersweet moment, but I knew that it would always be there waiting for me.
A tune for Squirt
In the spring of 2003, I found an orphaned squirrel that I named Squirt. I took him home and raised him, and in return he made us happy. He was extremely smart, and when it came time for him to go out on his own, it was hard, but that's what he wanted. I built him a house and put it high up in a tree, and then placed a wet tea bag in the door, as he loved to rip them apart. He moved right into the house without a problem, and I always made sure to leave food for him to find. Then in the fall of that year he was ran over by a speeding car.
A lot of people will say that he was just a squirrel, but he was so much more, he was my friend. I've lost my share of loved ones over the years, but the death of that little squirrel really tore me apart. You see when it comes to friends, size is irrelevant, and we don't have the option of choosing how much pain you feel for the loss of one.
In honor of Squirt I decided to write a song for him, so I got out my old guitar. I hadn't considered the fact that over twenty years had passed by since the last time I played, and playing again wasn't quite as easy as I thought it would be. On top of that, my voice was completely shot now, so I decided that it would have to be an instrumental piece. I did the best that I could for my little friend, but I knew that it was rough. Afterward, I put away my guitar once more, as I felt my playing days were over.
A year later I was asked to make a video for the printing company that I worked for at the time. The purpose of the video was to promote a new multimillion dollar printing press our plant had just acquired. I used Squirt's music during one of the illustrations for the printing press, and the president of the company really liked it. He in turn showed the video to the company that made the printing press, and they asked me if they could use it as well.
Nothing to do
In 2008 I was at work getting an area cleaned out for a new piece of equipment that was coming in, when I began to feel strange. It was all so sudden. At first my vision blurred,and then I became really ill. I floundered to the right, and then to the left as I tried to walk the short distance to my office. As the nausea set in, I thought that I must have picked up some type of really bad virus. I ended up locking myself up in a restroom, and four hours later I was almost too weak to stand. As it turned out, I was having a stroke.
Four days later, after the clot cleared, I was feeling much better, but I was still very disoriented. I also had a hard time keeping my balance when I stood up. As long as I sat still I was okay, but when I tried to walk, it was as if I became sloppy drunk. For each step I took forward, I took three sideways. It ended up taking me three months before I could walk well enough to return to work. During that time I was stuck at home, and alone most of the time. So, once again I turned to my guitar, and it became my best friend again. There's not many days that go by now, that I don't play, but the stroke took it's toll. I will never be as good as I once was, but the music is mostly for me, if someone else does enjoy it, even better.
Voices from the past
In 2009, my sister in law, Anke, passed away from ALS. I went back home for the funeral, and there met up with my cousin Danny, Ronnie's older brother. Over the years we had somehow lost our contact information. Ronnie couldn't make it up, but he wanted to get my email address, so I gave it to Danny.
It was a short time after returning home that I received an email from Ronnie. He had something he wanted to send me. It wasn't much he said, but to him it was invaluable. He wouldn't tell me what it was. I kept my eye open for the mail until I finally received the small box. I opened it to find a cassette tape inside. The only cassette player that I now owned was in my truck, so I went outside and popped it inside. A few seconds later I heard the squeaky voices of two teenagers, and then the guitar music. It was an old recording that we had made back in 1972. Ronnie had managed to hang onto it for all those years. For a moment I was transported back in time.
It's interesting the way a small occurrence in time can continue to follow you throughout life. For me the guitar has been a threshold to opportunities that would have not likely come about otherwise.
I have plans for adding a video to this hub within the next few days.