Strong Lessons From a Simple Guitar
How an old Kent acoustic taught me everything I needed to know about kindness.
Years ago, when I was just barely into my teens, my dad came home from work carrying a battered old guitar he'd found at a yard sale. He knew I had wanted to learn to play one for a long time; I’d seen folk groups, country acts—even some new group called The Beatles playing them, and it looked like so much fun. In fact, while these performers were on TV, I’d watch carefully for the close-up shots, and (using a baseball bat as a “guitar”) I’d mimic their fingering, the position of the chords, and the timing.
When he gave me the worn instrument, I sat down and, propping it up on my knee, began to position my fingers on the neck, just as I had seen the performers do. Certainly, I was going to be the next Elvis or Johnny Cash. But before I could even play my first note, he did something that I’ll remember to my dying day: He took a big, calloused hand, put it over the fingerboard, and stopped me! Then he said, “Son, wait a minute. Let me tell you a little story.
"You see, life’s a lot like that old guitar you’ve got, especially when it’s time to pay your dues. And, just like the sounds you can make on that guitar, the ones you make in life will be entirely up to you. We can’t stop you from framming away at it like an off-tune madman any more than we can stop you from playing beautiful music. When you get to be an adult, it’s going to be the same thing when you’re ‘out there’ in the real world. Nobody can stop you; it’s your choice as to what type of ‘music’ you give them.
"Now, you see those strings, and how you’re holding them down with your fingertips? Each note is meant to create harmony with each other. That's your goal in life, son… learn to place each thing you do... each step you take… so it’ll be in harmony with mankind. Otherwise, just like with the guitar, you’re gonna make such a noise that nobody’ll want to hear you.”
I listened intently; this was good stuff!
Then he continued, “And, by and by, you’ll learn how to sing with that guitar—maybe even write a few tunes yourself.
When you do, remember that a simple tune does better when the words are from the heart. Make them easy for people to learn - to keep in their mind because, you see, you're painting a picture with each one. Son, remember to do the same thing in your everyday doings, and you’ll make friends and be happier than you ever thought.
And that ‘song’ that you sing—the one you show everyday in your actions—will be the one that’ll go ‘number one’ with your friends and others. Just leave the lyrics open to your brother’s and sister’s point of view, and they’ll be humming that song long after you’ve gone.
Now… let’s hear you play.”
Over the next few months, I used every spare moment to practice on that guitar. Finally, having learned a few tunes that I could sing with, I was invited to play at a talent show that was held at the local elementary school. After asking a few other guys (who knew the same songs I'd planned to play) to back me up, I hit the stage—and, after our set, walked away in second place! Tired and still a little nervous, I left the auditorium to meet my parents, who'd driven us all down there.
"Well, Daddy, what'd you think? Did I do all right?"
He looked at me and smiled, "Yeah—but was that as loud as you could play?"
I was stunned. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"Son, listen: You did a great job up there, but you handled that git-box of yours like you were scared of it! We couldn't hear any of your solo and hardly any of your rhythm! You see, you need to put more energy into your playing if you're going to get anywhere!"
I thought about it (and, honestly, felt a little ashamed for being so soft) but knew he'd tie it in somehow to what he talked about when he gave me that guitar—and I was right:
"Yes, you did good. But, you know, with all the harmony and good lyrics and voice and all, you need to have confidence! Don't shy away from your playing, because nobody will hear or remember what you played. By the same token, don't ever shy away from your convictions or expressing yourself. If, like your guitar picking, you know what you're doing and do it with confidence—and, yes, boldness—then people are going to perk up their ears and start listening. And you know what? I'll bet you they'll want to hear more from you!
Now, you tie that in with what you learned when you first got that guitar, and apply it to your life at school and, later down the road, in your life as you work, marry and all - and you're going to be a success!"
Once again, that man knew what he was talking about—and it's all worked out so very well for me... thanks to my daddy and a battered old guitar.