Taking On Change
by Neal Lemery
The pandemic is a time of postponement, not taking care of business. Life now has a lot of waiting around, and my frustration and impatience show up in high numbers on my emotional dashboard. The personal “to do” list seems to keep growing and has few check offs.
In normal times, my life’s challenges usually get resolved with me realizing it is a time to change. And that work to refresh is always so productive and satisfying. In these times, much of what we are facing seems out of my grasp to change. Most things get booted down the road. Like the virus, procrastination is becoming the new normal.
I often escape into my music. I pick up my guitar and find some solace, literally tuning out the world. Even there, there is a need for change. In guitar speak, it is realizing it is time to restring my faithful six string acoustic.
There’s a lifespan for good steel guitar strings. All my chord making, strumming and picking literally wears out the wires, as well as providing proof of my labors with bigger callouses on my fingertips. In that playing, oil and dirt from my fingers are rubbed into the strings. My picking and the vibrations becomes tiresome to the guitar (and probably the rest of my household).
I play my guitar for its mellowness, harmonizing tones and its predictability in terms of the sounds that are emitted, consistent with one’s repetition of chord patterns, strumming, and finger picking. One gets to mix it up, of course, by using different sizes and materials for strings, and the qualities that are unique for each guitar.
Other variables are at play: the type and age of the wood, the thicknesses of materials, the design, humidity, and how precise you are in tuning each string. You add other variables, too: the methods and styles of finger picking, flat picking and slides, plus little touches like pull offs, hammer ons, and chiming; not to omit the likely dozens of other techniques and styles I’ve yet to hear about, let alone begin to attempt. Guitars become “sweeter” with age, the wood conditioned by time and playing to evolve into an even more expressive instrument. It is a metaphor that I appreciate more the older I get.
Yet, it all goes back to having strings in good shape. It really is the simple things that make a big difference in how my guitar sounds in a day. Aside from all the complexities and sophistication of the accomplished musician, it is the act of restringing and putting on a set of new strings that makes my guitar come alive again. Sometimes, you just need to get rid of the rust and dirt and the “worn out” aspects of life.
I procrastinate, doubting myself that it really might be time to change the strings. I’m good at the kind of self-talk that talks me out of making a needed change. I’ll bargain with myself, offering excuses like time, or effort, or thinking it really hasn’t been that long since I put on the strings that are there now. I ignore the principle of guitar strings that age and wear out are a function of how much you play, versus what the calendar might say.
It’s not like I have to run down to the music store for a set, or that the cost will break my budget. For all their magic, guitar strings are a bargain. I almost always have on hand good to high quality strings, engineered for a long and vigorous life, with promises of crispness and high-quality tones. And, I have all the little tools, wood cleaners, and the other gizmos of the specialized world of guitar string replacement. I learn by trial and error in my music. My string changing regimen is a product of years of redoing and reliving most every mistake you can make, plus having some exciting adventures along the way.
Today, for instance, was the reliving of the occasional crisis of having a wooden peg pop out and plummet into the depths of the guitar box. These little pegs, which I want to think are insignificant, are really essential. They secure the little “ball” end of the string snug in the hole in the body of the guitar. They grasp one end of the string, so you can then tighten it, eventually giving enough tension on the string that it will vibrate and produce a note.
When pegs run wild, I feel helpless and inept, adding salty language to the experience. The peg then plays hide and seek, rattling around the inside, and getting caught in nearly every crevice of the various wooden bracings inside. I do the dance, holding and shaking the upside-down guitar in every angle and configuration, hoping to maneuver it to come out of its cave and rejoin its companions on the face of the guitar. There is the added chance of having the peg flying through the air and lodging under the nearest piece of furniture, prolonging the chase. More excitement comes when the cat decides to help.
This game is sometimes played with a guitar pick. My personal record for chasing the reluctant and shy guitar pick inside the guitar is a (now) laughable three weeks. At best, the usual plastic pick is worth, maybe fifty cents, but still, it’s the principle of the matter and a personal challenge. Man vs guitar pick. I WILL prevail.
The string changing ritual offers other challenges, such as squinting sufficiently in order to thread the thin wires through the holes in the tuner pegs at the other end of the guitar, so you can then wrap the wires around the pegs and begin to tighten them. The shiny wires blend in well with the chrome tuner pegs. In this stage, it is easy to qualify for a Purple Heart for Guitarists, by giving yourself a substantial poke in the finger. My guitar is frequently sanctified by my sacrificial efforts, accompanied by that now well used salty language.
You have to put the strings on in the right order, of course. Each string has a different diameter, with lower notes produced by thicker strings. That seems simple and logical. But, we’re talking me and mechanical tasks. Disasters can occur, with a brand-new string in the wrong place that’s tightened too much, accompanied by the unexpected loud twang of a broken string. Then there’s that deep feeling of ineptitude. Another box of strings is now on the table, adding to the potential confusion. I’ve learned to practice rituals of how I lay out the paper string packets and the manage the order of installation, much like a priest officiating at a high mass.
It is even more fun with a 12 string guitar. String changes on a 12 string increase the challenge by several magnitudes of difficulty, where the rubric requires the lowest four pairs (courses) to be tuned in octaves, but the top two courses are tuned in unison on the same note. Doubling the number of strings and the number of pegs that can go wild more than doubles the fun.
As one hits the home stretch, with all six new strings in place, you get a sense of impending success. When you finish up the tuning ritual with the electronic tuner and the seemingly never ending turning of the pegs on the tuner machines, the transformed guitar begins to sing its songs with a fresh, much improved voice. I’m always struck by the sweetness of the new strings.
“Wow, I should have changed these long ago. The new ones sound great,” I usually proclaim to the household, causing my wife to mutter that I always say that when I put on new strings. Still, it is continually a fresh and delightful discovery, each and every time. I am, perhaps, a slow learner.
I coil up the old strings, and attempt to put them in the garbage can, along with the handful of snipped off string ends, from both the old and new sets. This tangle of wires always resists me, usually breaking free and uncoiling onto the kitchen floor, attempting to evade my thick-fingered efforts to corral them and restuff them into the can. After all our quality time together, they just don’t seem to want to leave. It can be another perilous time for exposed fingers and toes, another opportunity to earn a Purple Heart for Guitarists. Now, though, I can see them in all their dirt and grime, the finish worn off and dull, any new effort to bring forth any decent sound doomed to failure. Tired and worn out, they are ready for a rest.
The rules and the pleasures of guitar string changes applies to other parts of my life, as well. I learn a lot from this occasional task. Familiar jeans well past their prime and faded, torn t-shirts and flannel shirts, with ripped sleeves, deserve similar replacements. Shoes, however, are the worst. I can easily wear out a pair of my favorite hiking shoes, my daily attire, until every last aspect of padding and support are long gone. A new pair tells me immediately that the old shoes were at least several months past their lifespan, and that familiar phrase again crosses my lips, “I should have changed these a long time ago.”.
These discoveries can be applied to other aspects of my life: toothbrushes, cracked glassware, chipped plates, bent forks, even one’s favorite chair. I can apply these lessons to my community life, as well: overly familiar places to hang out and tiresome, sometimes toxic people who refuse to grow in their thinking and experiences.
My guitar teaches me a lot about life: perseverance, consistent practicing, having a regular time to focus on some quality “me time”. And, change.
We can wake up in the morning, engage the world, and remark to everyone within ear shot, “I should have changed this a long time ago.”