Diary of a Player (4 page)

Maybe someday when I'm older and have spent enough of my time playing and singing for anybody who will listen, I might just give a few of my own guitars away. Like my grandfather before me, maybe I'll hand over a bunch of my axes
to someone who can put them to better use while still keeping them all in the family. Maybe one or both of my boys will ask to take the old paisley Tele for a spin sometime. Or if my future grandchildren—I hear they're
kids, and I can't wait to meet them—show any interest
in making music, I'll probably be ready to hand the keys to my entire guitar stable over to them.

But my two sons are currently just four and two years old, so the chances are pretty good that this peaceful transition of guitar power is a considerable ways off in the future. And for the time being, race cars and superheroes beckon.

That's how I was as a kid too. Like a lot of other things in life, playing guitar is actually kind of fun once you get halfway decent at it, but boy, it sucks at first. Now, as a grown-up, I can barely remember not knowing how to play or even struggling to learn the basics. I have gone from awkward beginner to completely at a loss without the instrument around.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time in my young life when playing guitar
seem like a waste of time.

But I was very lucky that my grandfather handed me the gift of making music without pushing it on me in a heavy-handed way. I'm not a great believer in pushing an instrument—or for that matter, much of anything else—too
hard on a kid. Besides, I got to do what I wanted in my life. I am not someone who's looking to live vicariously through these little guys. They can be whoever they want to be. I got to do just that. Thank God. And Papaw.

rowing up in my parents' house, I still had enough room to find my own way to music on my own terms. My hardworking parents weren't especially musical. My mother sang in the choir and played a little piano, and my dad had all of the musical ability of a block of granite. Like most of the people of their generation, they enjoyed Bill Haley and His Comets, Chuck Berry, and Glen Campbell, but music was more like something in the background of Mom's and Dad's busy lives than a driving passion.

My papaw, on the other hand, was extremely passionate, maybe even rabid, when it came to music. He was also pretty specific in his tastes—he absolutely
instrumental country music and great vocal country records when the playing and picking were featured prominently. Papaw's absolute favorites were Buck Owens, Chet Atkins, Roy Clark, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash—all people I aspire to imitate to
this day. It's really quite amazing when I look at how much his tastes rubbed off on me. I am my grandfather's grandson, that's for sure. Thank goodness he wasn't pushing the Captain and Tenille or Tiny Tim. 'Cause if he had, today I would no doubt wear a captain's hat or sing songs about tulips in a strange falsetto.

Along with the free guitar on Christmas morning, my grampa generously offered to spring for a few lessons to get me started. He knew enough to know it's not a very good idea to try to teach your own kid (or grandkid) something like this, so he went down to a local music store and signed me up.

My first guitar teacher was a guy who was probably in his early twenties. Now, this young man shall remain nameless because he was a terrible teacher. And also because I can't remember his name. My only real memory of him now is the way that he would talk on the telephone for the first fifteen minutes or so of my supposed thirty-minute guitar lesson with his girlfriend: “What, snookums? What? No,
perfect . . . no . . .
are. No,
Shmoopee, I love you too . . . Mmm-hmm . . . oh well, gotta go, some snot-nosed kid is here for his lesson. I miss you. I miss you more. No, you. You.” During the other fifteen minutes of this total waste of money, this goofball would seem distracted and mostly keep
asking me something out of the guitar teacher handbook, like, “So, do you have any questions?” Or, “Did you learn what I told you to learn last time?” The answer was usually “Um, not really” or, at best, “Kinda.” Then as soon as he could, he would go back to talking on the phone. This guy clearly wasn't the teacher to show me anything. Including how to be debonair.

He did end up having one bright idea—working in a guitar shop, this guy had enough insight into the instrument to tell my grandfather that I probably needed an acoustic guitar to learn on, in addition to that Silvertone electric. I'm sure that was a required sales pitch for music store workers, but still, it was a good idea.

As a result, the time had come for me to get my first acoustic. There was a cheaply made Gremlin acoustic guitar hanging up there in the store, and it was priced accordingly. It was an absolutely horrendous instrument. And who names a product a Gremlin? I guess someone interested in truth in labeling. I can only imagine how much I would have loved a better instrument. The action was too high, and it wouldn't stay in tune. I've heard better sounding guitar
. As bad as it was though, that Gremlin was the very beginning of what would become a lifelong love affair between the acoustic guitar and me.

So here's a suggestion for all the parents of would-be guitar gods out there: Sometimes starting out with a better guitar can seem like a risky investment for a kid, but if you want them to love it, it's got to play well. It's worth the risk to spend a little more money on your little Eddie Van Halen or Bonnie Raitt in training. They may just put you in a nicer nursing home someday if it pays off.

Parents often ask me how old their kids should be before they start playing the guitar. I don't really know. Every kid is different, that's for sure. I'll usually say, “Well, eight years old worked for me,” but that's not totally true. I was just buying time on the guitar until I was ten or so and could hear myself getting somewhere. These things take time.

No matter what kind of guitar kids hold in their hands, mastering the guitar is no easy matter for most of us. The unfortunate truth here is that the first things you play on the guitar sound
like what you are trying to play.

The understandable desire to be an instant pro on the guitar comes across loud and clear on the record I did with my friend Keith Urban called “Start a Band.” Written by Dallas Davidson, Ashley Gorley, and Kelley Lovelace, the concept suits us both so well. Keith and I could both instantly relate to a song about that timeless dream of all wannabe rock stars
and country stars, going directly from that first guitar lesson to full superstar status, as well as the premise of someone who's never really been all that good at anything else before. I think the two of us were both bitten by the bug early in life and never had a prayer of taking an interest in anything else. Like the song says, “When you're living in a world that you don't understand, find a few good buddies, start a band.”

Both Keith and I started out trying to play guitar as little kids—me in my small town in West Virginia and Keith way over on the other side of the world down under in a small town in Australia. And our very different paths led us to the same small city, our li'l hillbilly mecca. As two modern country guitar heroes who frequently collaborate, I am always asked who would win in an all-out duel between the two of us. The answer is obvious: the audience.

I am in awe of Keith's talent; his style and chops are so unique. I think he has more natural ability than anyone I have ever met. He is truly inspiring to watch.








I truly believe Brad is from another planet—not sure where, but he is otherworldly gifted. His dexterity, fluidity,
and precision are extraordinary—and in addition to these shaving techniques, he's also not a bad guitar player. Just for the record, Brad has
actually asked me to start a band, and frankly that hurts!


here are artists in music who are some equivalent of Super-man or Supergirl. Born stars. I'm a fan of a lot of these artists. People who would be popular and famous almost no matter what they did. Born that way. So absolutely destined for popularity that anyone could see their trajectory. I have never felt like one of those.

I am more like Batman. Flawed, human, lacking that superpower that guarantees a career as a superhero. I'll explain. I have talent as a guitar player, for sure . . . but it is not what I would count as considerable or extraordinary. I am better than I probably ought to be, honestly. But I have had to work very, very hard to get to whatever level player I am. And the same would go as a singer or songwriter. I don't think I've ever
been what you would call awful, but at the core, I truly feel like I would be at best mediocre if not for ingenuity and sweat. Extreme sweat.

While some people can spit out hit songs like bullets to the chart, or sing like birds as effortlessly as breathing, or take to an instrument like Rain Man to blackjack, that's not me. And I'm not someone who walks into a room and changes the energy, or the life of any party (without being the musical guest). Even the guitar took me years to get proficient enough to enjoy at all, let alone impress anyone else. Then there's singing. Singing is something that accompanies songwriting and playing for me, and while I take it very seriously, my style is not meant to shock or awe. It is meant to convey emotion. And songwriting is something I have sculpted like clay. Thanks to Chris DuBois, the pal I have bounced almost every completed or half-finished fragment idea off of, I feel like I figured out something people want to listen to. But all of these have been a process. And some artists seem to find or write the right songs effortlessly and then ascend to the top of the music world like the space shuttle blasting into orbit, people on a rendezvous with destiny. Meanwhile, I have always felt like an underdog that way, honestly. I'm this weird combination of funny guy/sensitive balladeer who no one knew quite
what to make of for a while there. I would see another artist put out a song and fly right by just as my engines were starting to warm up. And then I would have to think my way out of the pigeonhole I was headed into. Whether by making some fancy video to get folks' attention or performing a song that's shocking, impactful, or unique, I feel I have reached superstar status the hard way. It has definitely not been easy. No Kryptonian birthright, no radioactive spider bite. That's right, I'm Batman. I've always liked his story best anyway. He worked for his share of the comic-book universe. I can appreciate that.

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