Taking On Change

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.”


An Unexpected Christmas Delight

I finally figured out why I picked up the guitar many years ago and have put a bunch of time and energy into playing. I’ve certainly had other rewards and joys. But, tonight, I experienced a new form of joy.

Tonight was my weekly band practice. Last Saturday, we had a lovely gig at the library, playing Christmas music for an appreciative audience, and we had a great time. We found our “groove” and played well. But, now our gig calendar is empty.

Tonight, our leader said he’d gotten us a sudden invitation to play tonight at a nearby long term care facility for dementia patients. Pop up guitar concert time! We are a flexible group of guitar addicts!

Twenty minutes later, we are setting up in the main living room, in front of the tree and the fireplace, and we start playing our Christmas song list. The audience are there in their wheelchairs and lap robes. Soon, they are tapping their toes, nodding their heads, and smiling. We play for about an hour, and are having ourselves a good time, as well.

After our last song, a number of the residents profusely thank us for playing. I’m putting my guitar back in its case, and one lady rolls up to me in her wheelchair and offers me a piece of candy from her private stash.

“Thanks,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

Another lady, who I know, is there, too. She’s been eyeing me, and finally says, “I know you.” We talk, and she remembers me, and tells me thanks for coming. And, “Merry Christmas.”

Tears come as I’m driving home, and I forget the cold night and the piercing east wind, and remember the warmth of the evening, and the blessings of music.

His First Guitar

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.


Come September

Come September, and it is the start of a new year. School is starting, vacations are ending, the garden is in full harvest mode.

The long season of lawn mowing has slowed, nearly stopped, and one has time to wander around the yard, taking in the flowers, and the now unmistakeable presence of the start of Fall. Summer is still here in the heat of the afternoon, but the early morning crispness and heavy dew is a sign of transition in the calendar, in the cycle of the seasons.

The last few months have been their usual blur of activities: chores and projects, sandwiched between work, and the summertime events.

We still haven’t made it to the local farmers’ market this year, and have only had a few walks on the beach. I took a long anticipated hike a few weeks ago, realizing it had been a while since I hit the trail, what with trying to find where I’d last laid down my hiking boots and my binoculars.

A family reunion was fun, with great food, singing, and visiting folks I hadn’t seen for a year. And, we had an unplanned one later one, gathering for a funeral, and remembering the wonderful stories and laughter of a favorite uncle. Another reminder of how important it is to find the time for the fun and adventure of happy times, and good memories, and the strength of families.

One evening, we had the joy of listening to a favorite due sing and work their magic with their guitars and mandolin. They played a concert at the youth prison we go to every week, visiting and mentoring young men. There was a special joy in our hearts, watching young men enjoy themselves, becoming one with the music, and pondering their own talents and dreams. Again, I was reminded of the power and gift of music in our lives.

Every week, I take my guitar there, through the prison gate, and play and sing with one of my buddies. His musical talents are amazing, and an occasional tear runs down my face, as I share his joy and gifts, and watch him grow and find himself. My guitar teacher is now part of his life, and his skills seem to grow exponentially.

Their Pow Wow last week was a celebration of Spirit, of their many rich heritages, their creativity, and, above all, of their rich and fruitful community. I was humbled and honored to be asked to come, and sit with them, and dance with them, in all their splendid and welcoming community.

I go there as a mentor, but I really am the receiver, the mentee, the beneficiary of so many gifts from those amazing young men.

As with every summer, there never seems to be enough evenings sitting outside, just enjoying the end of the day and the solitude of the yard. Yet, we have had those wonderful evenings, and an hour here or there just enjoying the place and the day.

Last week, my chore list got sidelined, and I rediscovered my canvasses and paints, and brushes, and spent a few hours lost in art. My soul was happy, and the frustration inside of me that I’d hadn’t really had all the fun I’ve wanted this summer floated away. Later on, I played my guitar and sang a few songs outside, building up good memories of time well spent.

I held myself to one weekend wedding this summer, and savored the experience of love energy, a beautiful woman walking down the aisle, and the smile on her husband’s face. There was much laughter and happiness, on a sunny evening, where barbecue smoke and good music lingered into twilight.

I’ve also found some riches in getting rid of things, and cleaning up a bit. My golf clubs, which had accumulated dust, are now in the hands of a high school student who is passionate about his golf team. My childhood .22 rifle is now in the hands of a firearms instructor, and my mother’s deer rifle will soon be in the hands of a young man passionate about the sport and time out in the woods with his family.

My baby picture is now hung on a wall, rather than sitting in a box gathering dust, and there is a large pile of old papers waiting for the end of fire season and a new burn barrel. Other treasures await my rediscovery of them, and the crossroad questions of “toss or save”. At 59 years old, the “toss” answer is becoming more popular.

The real treasures now are time with family and friends, and in simply being present amidst the natural beauty that surrounds us. And, I keep learning to pay attention to that, and to be present in all of that.

Come September, I hope to simply be grateful for all that is, in my life.

Neal Lemery 9/1/12




Unwinding the string from the tuning peg, and popping out the peg by the bridge, the old string flayed around a bit, before I coil it up and set it aside.  It had lived a good life, part of the first strings on my buddy’s first guitar.


He’d worn it out, as he tried out his first few tentative chords and strumming patterns, toughening his finger tips and the side of his thumb.  He’s a finger picker, first and foremost, quickly finding his groove as he brings the songs in his mind to life on the guitar.  He’ll do a lot with this guitar; he’s one of those natural musicians, playing the chords and the beat not too long after he first hears a song.


He’s watched everything I’ve done with my guitar, when we get together and play.  And when someone else comes by and picks out a tune, he’s all eyes and ears.  What he soaks up is soon flowing out of his fingers, bringing out another song on his new musical pal.


We clean off the fretboard with a rag and something called guitar honey.  The frets and the wood of the fretboard soon sparkle, along with the brand new strings.  He’s realizing all of his hours of picking, and learning new skills, has actually worn out the tough metal strings.  There’s been some progress here, with his new hobby, his passion that’s burst into flame in the last six weeks.


With each one, we push the ends through the tuning peg, wrapping it around, and then slowly tightening it, bringing it up to the proper pitch, playing an odd melody of increasing frequency; boing, boingg, BOING!


He’s mystified, at first, at the process of changing strings.  It is another lesson in guitarmanship, this craft of creating music from this oddly shaped wooden box, a board, and six wires strung over a hole in the box.  Some call it a Tennessee flat top box, but we who spend our time with it would think a more spiritual name would be a better fit.


Soon, the guitar is back in his hands, and he’s fine tuning each string.  The smile on his face telling me he’s hearing a sharper, clearer voice from his friend.


The new strings, like his life now with the guitar, sharper, more defined, and more in tune.