Tuesday, February 05, 2008

My white whale

Billie Joe Armstrong and the elusive Cadd9 chord

After a lifetime convinced I had zero musical talent (in spite of what seemed a promising career on the recorder in 4th grade), I decided sometime in 2000 or 2001 that, screw it, I'm a pretty smart guy. I may not have a musical bone in my body, but surely I could figure out the guitar enough to work my way up to a tolerable level of mediocrity.

I was mostly self taught, with the help of a Dummy's Guide. (I eventually did get 8 lessons at the Old Town School to help move things along.) But in those early, early days, plunking away on my ridiculously cheap Espanola (handmade in Paracho, Michigan since 1925), one thing filled my daydreams: being able to play Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."

I tried and I tried and I tried. I listened over and over to the CD, I downloaded guitar chord tabs, went on message boards debating which chords he used, tried to replicate the strumming pattern, talked to friends and strangers alike. And I couldn't do it.

Nevermind that it's roundly regarded by guitarists of even ordinary talent as a patently simple song to play. I mean, the only thing I was lacking was the proper rhythm, chords and vocals. I had the lyrics, though!

At some point I managed to pick up the strumming pattern (down. down-up. up-down-up). Forget about picking -- I'm not even close to that. But it was a huge milestone.

Next came the chords. There are only FOUR of them, for chrissakes! But to this day, for the life of me, I do not hear the Cadd9. On my guitar it sounds like a regular C. I also use the "lazy" three-fingered G chord, leaving the B string open. I know, I know!

Finally, there was the singing. It's surprisingly hard to sing and play at the same time, though some songs are harder than others. The key is to lock your arm into a rhythm that becomes almost automatic. I've managed it on close to 20 songs, but for this one I just could not do it. My voice would follow the chords where it was supposed to go opposite of them or something. Or I would accent syllables in line with the strum pattern. It was bizarre and frustrating.

But just the other day I picked up the guitar, which I hardly do anymore, and ... I FOUND IT! My voice did something it's never been able to do. It sounded right! It sounded great!! (Mind you, I was alone.) I didn't think it could get up to Billie Joe's nasal twang. I thought I was forever stuck with my own baritone nasal twang.

I know it's ridiculous, but it felt really incredible. I think if I played it at an open mike, possibly preceded by somebody worse than I am, 3 out of 5 listeners would actually recognize the tune and a plurality of that group might find the sound almost listenable. Or, dare I say, pleasing?

So there you go. Call me Ahab. Wait. He died, didn't he?

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