…By learning to play the guitar myself.
I could pretty much end this piece here, but for the sake of a little slice of unimportant personal history, let’s go into a few details.
Everyone in my family is naturally sureela. My mother, father and brother were all born with the ability to sing, my father is a jack of all instruments, and my brother inherited that from him and went on to become a music arranger. Me—I don’t know why I didn’t get that strand of DNA. I was born without the concepts of scale, pitch and note. I don’t even know why I embarrassed myself by participating in a singing contest in school.
When I reached college, my then girlfriend’s eyes always used to light up on talking about a particular guy in her class who was not only good-looking but also played the guitar. And my eyes used to light up too, but in shades of green and red.
You know what they say: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So I borrowed my youngest uncle’s guitar and began learning. Uncle was very patient. The great thing about him was that whatever I wanted to learn, he’d teach. The trouble, though, was that whatever I wanted to learn, he’d teach, with the result that instead of starting with the basics, I was jumping all over the learning curve. I had no idea of what was tough and what was easy, so among the first songs I’d picked up was Michael Learns To Rock’s Paint My Love, which contained two million chords and was a bit of a stretch for a beginner. My other cousins would go nuts hearing me practising the same things over and over and over, which is, actually, the only way one learns anything in life.
There are five stages of guitar-learning frustration:
Stage 1: Total newbie. Your fingertips hurt, you’re worried they’ll get cut and bleed, the skin starts peeling off. I’d say 50 to 70 per cent of people get frustrated and quit at this stage. If they’ve committed themselves enough to buy their own guitar, they stick on a little longer than two days.
Stage 2: Your fingers don’t hurt any more, but they simply refuse to obey your mental commands to form the correct chord positions. It’s very frustrating.
Stage 3: You can now play chords easily enough. It’s very rewarding ’cos you can sing along (if you’re sureela) or accompany someone singing, but it’s very frustrating because you want to be able to play the guitar solos as well, and you’re not fast enough yet.
Stage 4: You can play the solos of most of your favourite pop/soft-rock/country songs. But when on earth will you ever be fast enough to play stuff by Petrucci or Satriani or Vai? Damn, it’s frustrating!
Stage 5: This is the stage when you’re actually Petrucci or Satriani or Vai yourself. I have no clue what they might be frustrated about, but I’m sure they must be frustrated about something!
Back to my guitar autobiography. The other thing was that Uncle is the quietest person in the world. So quiet that he even laughs silently, and only when it’s a level-10 joke does he laugh with actual sound. Which was why, whenever I asked anything, he’d tell me the answer, but the trouble was I had no clue what to ask. So I never actually got to know any of the theory and principles of how music works. What was worse, the guitar I practised on was always tuned two notes low, so when I bought a book of chords (pre-internet era) and tried to play along with the songs, it never seemed to sound right, but back then, I had no idea why and I didn’t know what to ask, so I just gave up. I still couldn’t distinguish a high note from a low note.
Then followed a four-year hiatus in IIT Delhi, during which I did—correction, tried doing—vocals (very besura, I might add) in our band but gave up right before our first gig. Didn’t bother to learn any guitar in that time either.
After I dropped out, my then girlfriend dumped me. I was grief-stricken and heart-broken for over a month then, but I’m eternally thankful to God now. The phrase ‘good riddance’ comes to mind.
I fell in love with another girl back in Guwahati, and she wanted to learn guitar. So of course I volunteered to teach her. I dug out my brother’s old guitar, bought strings, and since the internet now existed, started reading sites like guitarforbeginners.com. Finally the bulbs start lighting up in my head. Oh! That’s why! Oh! This is why the guitar never sounded right. Oh, so I should practise this.
Thus, in the process of teaching someone else, I managed to learn about guitar and music in general. I also decided to become a bit sureela, so I brought over our family harmonium, put a huge blanket over my windows so that the landlord and neighbours wouldn’t throw me out or throw stones, and started practising both vocals and guitar. In the initial days, I used to watch others play the intro of songs like Wherever You Will Go and White Lion’s You’re All I Need, and I’d wonder, damn, will I ever be able to play those?
After a year or two of ass-grinding practice—I must’ve done three-four hours a day—those same songs were re-classified into the ‘I can’t believe I used to find these hard’ category. During those times, I aspired and practised to play much tougher songs in shows, but gradually, the realisation dawned that I didn’t really have that much of a fire in me. My foremost ambitions were to be a writer and actor. So by the time I moved to Mumbai, I was content with what I knew of guitar. I can’t play the solos of Pull Me Under or Sad But True, but I can play most of the riffs, and I can completely play popular stuff like Your Body is a Wonderland, You’re Beautiful, Yellow, I’m Yours etc., which we’ve played at a show or two, and that’s good enough for me.
But the guitar-learning experience was a very valuable one. It helped me prove to myself that I wasn’t a completely lost case. That I still had the determination to go from zero to concert-worthy through hours and hours of practice.
And above all, there is the simple but profoundly pleasurable feeling of playing and singing by myself. Few things can make me feel good so quickly. Once you have the skill, it’s yours for life. And it’s worth the effort.
— Kenny Deori Basumatary, author of Chocolate Guitar Momos