From the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY BEN FONG-TORRES
I love guitars, and I’ve had a few sitting in my office for years, but it took hip surgery for me to begin playing one of them.
Actually, one of them wasn’t a real guitar, but a wall clock in the shape of one, with an illustration of Elvis, in ’68-comeback black leather, on the body. Another was a junior guitar that I got on eBay, certified to be the one used by the actor playing a ten-year old Elvis in a TV movie about him.
The only playable one was a shiny black Epiphone—an Elvis model. You’re getting the picture: I fell in love with the guitar around the time I—and millions of other kids in the 1950s— became a Presley fanatic.
As a music journalist, at Rolling Stone and elsewhere, I interviewed Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Jorma Kaukonen, Robert Cray, Stephen Stills, James Taylor, Ann Wilson, John Cipollina, Robby Krieger, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and Elvis’ first guy, Scotty Moore. And his second guy, James Burton.
I never met them, but I remember watching the Monterey Pop film and marveling at Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix; the windmill and the fire. I also dug Garcia, Kaukonen, and Michael Bloomfield. And I knew that I’d never learn to play guitar myself. As a kid in the ’50s and ’60s, I was trapped in my parents’ Chinese restaurants, juggling chores and homework, from grade school into college. “Do you play music?” someone would ask. “Yeah, I can play the radio.”
In recent decades, I thought about taking lessons, but never did. Visiting musician friends would pick up the Epiphone, get it in tune, and play it. Nice guitar, they’d say. Other than that, nothing, except one time when a couple of friends had a jam session at my house. One brought his guitar, another lugged in a portable keyboard; I would sing. But, wanting to do more, I fetched my guitar and sat in, trying to strum as lightly as I could, knowing that whatever sounds I made would be wrong ones. I was the not-so-great pretender.
And there was the time I appeared on a syndicated TV show called Your Big Break, featuring amateur singers impersonating music stars. After a tryout at a local club, I was called in to do . . . Bob Dylan. They assigned me “Like a Rolling Stone” and, on the set, gave me an electric guitar. This time, making sounds would be no problem; they’d be drowned out by the backing track and the noise of the rabid studio audience. My concern was the fingering of chords. I had no idea, so my fingers moved randomly up and down the frets, except when I had to concentrate to recall lyrics. Then they just stopped. Neither Dylan nor I won.
Flash forward to a few years ago, and to my hip surgery. I decided that, while recovering, I wouldn’t just watch TV and read, but would finally do something with that Epiphone. I told my plan to Todd Swenson, lead guitarist with a jam band I sing with, Los Train Wreck. Swenson teaches guitar when he’s not playing with the Train Wreck, the Soul Delights, or his own band, This Side Up. He’s taught students of all ages for 30 years. Any time, he said.
As it turned out, my recovery took far less time than expected, and I’d barely dug out my VHS tapes of guitar lessons when I was up and hobbling. But that shiny Epiphone seemed to look at me now and again, from its perch in the corner, saying, in an Elvis snarl, “You had your chance, man.”
I thought back to a saying I’d heard from Bob Neuwirth: If you don’t take a chance, you ain’t got a chance.
So I picked up the Elvis. Actually, the Epiphone felt too big, so I got a parlor guitar. Unwilling to spend a lot on what might well be a folly, I chose a Gretsch Jim Dandy and, in case I ever graduated from acoustic to amplified, an Accent, both purchased from Amazon, the first name in musical instrument stores.
I was too chicken to work with Swenson face to face right away, so I played my VHS lessons, grabbed a couple of DVDs, and checked out YouTube. It seems as though anybody who can play guitar teaches guitar. Some instructors were more interested in showing off than showing how; others ranged from high energy (Marty Schwartz of GuitarJamz) to Woodstock mellow (Happy Traum), with Keith Wyatt of the Blasters somewhere in-between. I learned how to tune my guitar and play basic chords. Just three or four, they all said, would let me play any number of tunes—yes, I learned about the oldies progressions, in C and G, and that Tom Petty tunes like “Free Fallin’” were easy to tackle.
I did, and soon felt ready for professor Swenson. He watched—and corrected—what I’d learned from my video lessons. “What you do with your left hand should be light,” he said. “Press only as hard as you have to press to get a clear note.” He supplemented the basic chords with a bunch more, including a wealth of two-finger chords. He taught me to go up and down an E string to play “Happy Birthday.” One song down, a thousand to go.
He told me to clip my fretting fingernails, but his primary instruction was to make it a habit to practice every day, even if only ten minutes. I did that for a while, building up not only the requisite calluses, but also a book of songs I could play. It was nothing short of thrilling to think of a song, look up its chords online and begin strumming and singing my way through it.
And it’s been great fun, learning to transpose chords to fit my vocal range. It’s never perfect, but I get close enough to get through songs like “So Sad” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Other go-to tunes include “I Still Miss Someone” and, of course, some Elvis, with “Love Me.”
But sitting on a sofa, late at night, strumming chords haltingly, is a festival grounds’ distance from performing in public.
It helps to not have any aspirations, unlike younger musicians, and even middle-aged ones still harboring dreams of stardom. So, no pressure.
Especially at the event I chose to make my guitar debut a couple of years ago. Over the years, I’ve sung with two guys—veteran pianist George Yamasaki and Kurt Huget, a guitarist who’s worked with a who’s who of Bay Area rock. We play senior centers and the holiday gathering of a social group, the Broadcast Legends. One day in 2015, I heard from a friend, Janet, whose father had died. She’d recently heard us and asked if we could perform at the memorial. It would be background music. For most musicians, an insult. For me: perfect. I strummed guitar on a few tunes; otherwise, I stuck to singing. Only a few people took note of us, and without exception, they were nice. But hey, it was a memorial.
The next opportunity was equally unintimidating. It was our annual pop-in at On Lok, a senior activity center. For an amateur, uncertain musician, seeing people asleep in the audience is a relief. With Huget playing stellar guitar and Yamasaki providing his usual supportive, flexible piano, I escaped notice for my plunkings. Huget, of course, heard every mistake.
Then it was the Broadcast Legends’ holiday luncheon, where the radio and TV vets have known me as a rock journalist, radio columnist (in the San Francisco Chronicle), and broadcaster. And, in recent years, as a singer of standards and holiday tunes. The first few times, hearing me break into Elvis or Sinatra was surprising enough. To strap on a guitar was to shock. Once again, with supple support, we got through our set, drawing laughter only for lyrics in my parody songs.
I even got the nerve to bring my Accent into El Rio for the monthly jam with Swenson’s band, Los Train Wreck. The jam draws pro-am singers and players of all sorts of instruments, from accordions to trombones. It’s a friendly crowd. Still, I got a few looks when I went up with a guitar for my song, “She Thinks I Still Care.” Fortunately, I was joined by a real player, Maurice Tani, and could hide my playing behind a music stand.
I shouldn’t hide, but, sadly, I don’t practice as often as I should. My days remain packed, and, among other things, I’m writing the book for a musical set around the Summer of Love.
The producers want me to be a central character. If so, I can rewrite history, so that in the finale, at Monterey Pop (which I didn’t attend), I’m onstage, ripping off a sizzling solo, with Townshend and Hendrix, the windmill and the fire, looking on in awe.
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I guess I am still dreaming.
Ben Fong-Torres, one of Rolling Stone’s first writers and editors, has contributed to many other publications and written books about Gram Parsons, the Eagles, and Little Feat. He is a DJ and program director of Moonalice Radio and radio columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is working on a musical, Summer of Love.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.