His First Guitar
He’s said something about a guitar, a couple of visits earlier. We’d talked about his singing, his passion for music, his ability to hear a song, and then sing it back, note for note, and word for word.
It was easy for him, he said. He was born with it, something he just did. It wasn’t a big deal. His mom sang, and it was just part of his life.
I had first heard him sing at the prison talent show, his voice filling the half court gym that was also the room where every other public event happened. The room grew still when he sang, everyone following his voice as he hit every note of the song. And when everyone applauded at the end, I first saw his big smile, happy with himself and happy with the joy that he brought everyone else. His joy came alive then, with what he did with his talents.
The guitar would be new to him, and he thought he might want to learn. I knew he loved to learn. He’d graduated from high school a year ago, and was now taking a full load of on line classes at a community college. He’d struggled a bit with writing, and my wife gladly tutored him a bit on writing papers. Their discussion at one of our first visits quickly intensified, as he focused on how he could improve his work, and be a serious student.
I’d given another one of the young men I’ve been mentoring a guitar for Christmas. He was happy at the gift, but he’d struggled with the guitar, finally realizing it wasn’t his passion, and wasn’t something he enjoyed. He’d talked with me about his frustration and we left the discussion with him giving it back to me. He’s a guy who looks out after others, and sensed the guitar needed a new owner.
Now, there was the young man who needed a guitar and I had a guitar to give.
The next visit, I brought him the guitar, and a gig bag, a tuner, a capo, and some picks; all the mechanics you need to start. I put it in his hands, watching a grin brighten his face. He didn’t need me to show him how to hold it, he just picked it up and held it close to him, almost clutching it tightly to his body.
The right hand strummed, hesitating, playing with the strings. I showed him the G chord, his fingers quickly figuring out where the finger tips went, between the frets. The chord rang out from the guitar, close to being correct.
He frowned, not happy with the sound, and he tried again, and again. I reached over and moved a finger closer to the fret, changing his left hand a bit. Again, and it was better. And, again, and it was spot on. The frown was now a smile.
In a few minutes, I showed him another chord, and again, I moved a finger here and there, and then, his second chord was strummed, producing yet another smile. He was figuring it out, and moving back and forth between the two chords, and then a third.
“You can play Amazing Grace now,” I said.
He looked at me, his jaw dropping a bit, and shook his head.
“Yeah, its easy,” I said, taking the guitar from him.
I played the three chords he knew, and sang the words of the first verse, moving from chord to chord and then back home, strumming a rhythm, putting guitar notes into chords and rhythms, and adding the poem.
“Here. You try it,” I said, handing his guitar back to him.
He sang then, strumming and moving from chord to chord, making a passable version of the old familiar song.
“Really,” he announced, looking up at me, a much bigger grin now lighting up his face.
“Yeah, really,” I replied. “You can sing and play the guitar now.”
Before I left, he’d learned two more chords from me, and was talking about a song he’d been singing, and wanted to play it on the guitar.
“Homework”, I laughed. “Something to play for me the next time I show up.”
His laughter filled my heart, his eyes focused on his hands as he moved from one chord to another and back.
“There’s an E minor in it. Can you show me that one?” he asked, his hands trembling a bit on the frets.
“Sure,” I said, moving two fingers on his left hand into the E minor fingering. “It’s easy.”
And, it was for him, amazingly easy.
The next visit, he played several songs for me, including the one he had wanted to learn. He had good rhythm, good strumming, and was sliding his chord hand around to play the four chords in his song.
He stumbled a bit, but we all do when we are first learning a song. I told him everyone does that, at first. But, he still moaned a bit with frustration, expecting himself to be perfect.
The next couple of visits, I taught him some more, things I’d been working pretty hard on the last four years to learn and push myself up to higher levels of playing. My learning curve was a lot longer than his, and he quickly soaked up everything I offered to him.
My wife played a bit, too, with the guitar and her mandolin. He soaked up what she was showing him, too, at lightning speed.
Several times in the next few weeks, a staff person would come by, and show him a song. He’d watch, intently, and then played a duet with them, mimicking every movement, every note. Goosebumps showed up on my arms when I played with him, my jaw agape as I watched him learn so quickly, mastering small things here and there, bringing his own joy to a song he loved.
One day, I brought new strings, and showed him how to restring the guitar. He chuckled at the new, bright sound, as I wound up the old strings, strings he’d worn out, playing a couple of hours a day.
We’ve brought our guitar and mandolin teacher in now, to see if he can keep up with him. And, its a struggle, we hear, our teacher feeling challenged at what the young man can soak up in just a little bit of time.
And, every time I visit, we play together, sharing what we know and what we love, our voices filling the room and bringing more smiles to his face.
He’ll outgrow this guitar soon, if he already hasn’t done that. He’ll finish his associates degree in December and be paroled in February. Then, he’s off to a real college campus, and start his junior year, being a normal college student living a normal life. There’s a new guitar in all that, too. And, I can’t wait to take him guitar shopping and see him light up the store with his big grin.