Day: February 4, 2011

How I grew up to be a thumb-fretter.

I was wondering where this thing disappeared to after losing track of it for a few years. I found it yesterday while looking for something else.

It was sort of my attempt at a diary entry, though I was never able to motivate myself to keep a paper journal of any kind at any point in my life (music ended up serving that role more than anything). Yes — I wrote cursive once upon a time. Shocker!

In case you can’t read my writing, here’s what my little note says:

My thoughts at 2:40 am, July 1, 1997.

I would like to try playing the guitar. I need to know how much they cost, and how to tune a guitar. The rest I can figure out myself. Acoustic or electric? Both? I don’t know. It’s 2:42. That’s all for now.

Johnny Papa West.

This is the exact moment I decided I was interested in playing guitar. For the entirety of my life up to that point I had no interest in stringed instruments. At all. There was no desire there to explore. I played piano, I sang, and that was enough for me. I didn’t even really like a lot of guitar-based music. If there wasn’t a piano or keyboard or synthesizer somewhere in the mix, I didn’t want to hear it.

Then I saw the music video for the Eric Clapton song “Change the World” on television one day during the summer vacation that stood between the end of grade school and the beginning of high school, and all that changed.

It wasn’t the song that got my attention. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t think it was anything earth-shaking. What got my brain humming was this: somehow, I saw Clapton fretting the strings on his acoustic guitar with his thumb.

I was thirteen years old and wouldn’t ingest a single illicit substance that had any effect on me until I was eighteen. So I can’t blame it on being high. Some synapse somewhere must have misfired. Whatever it was, I was convinced of what I thought I was seeing, and it was a revelation. I thought playing guitar was a complex science far beyond my comprehension, but here was Eric Clapton — considered by a lot of critics to be one of the best guitarists around (not sure I’d agree with that today, though when Eric was good, he was very good) — playing barre chords with his thumb.

At least that’s what I was convinced was happening.

“I can do that!” I said. “I can pick up a guitar and immediately be just as good as Clapton! Who knew it was so simple? And what have I been missing all this time?”

I was so excited I had trouble sleeping. That explains my note-to-self at almost three in the morning, long before the sleep demons I wrestle with now were even a twinkle in my eye.

The next day I withdrew a few hundred bucks from my bank account and Johnny Smith drove me to Leone’s Music World. I wince a little to type that now. But this was more than a decade ago, long before the horrific crimes of Carl the Ass-Monkey. Though the place already had a reputation for ripping people off, I didn’t know that. All I knew was I wanted a guitar, and I wanted it right away.

I said to some guy working in the store, “I don’t know anything about guitars. I’ve never played one before. I want something that’s a decent instrument to start on, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money.”

He sold me a Vantage VIS-2A and a soft case to go with it. To his credit, he gave me what I asked for.

It was the only acoustic guitar I owned until the summer of 2002, and even if it had a ridiculous number of dead frets by that time it got the job done for those five years, appearing on a lot of the albums I made in 1999 and 2000 both as a solo entity and with Gord as Papa Ghostface. It even popped up once in a while after that, dropped into a warped tuning to disguise its shittiness — it’s the guitar I’m playing on the BRAND NEW SHINY LIE track “Peachy Pear”.

It’s impossible to overstate just how much of a piece of shit this guitar was and still is. When I picked up a mid-level Simon & Patrick acoustic in 2002, it felt like going from a cardboard box to a Cadillac. And when I tried playing the Vantage for the first time in years when I was documenting the serial numbers on all of my guitars a month or two ago, going back to that thing after all the great guitars that have come into my life was a surreal and hilarious experience.

But back to 1997. I brought my first guitar home, played barre chords with my thumb in standard tuning, and it didn’t sound like Clapton. It didn’t sound very good at all. I have this first attempt at playing guitar documented on cassette tape, but I’m not quite masochistic enough to post it here. Just trust me when I say it wasn’t pretty. Our man Eric would have hung his head in shame. I was disappointed, and discouraged, and realized it wasn’t so simple after all.

I was taking on/off piano lessons at the time with a teacher I like to call “Dust in the Wind” (for reasons explored in some detail over here). I thought I’d ask him for some advice. The first thing he did was give me a funny look and explain to me the perils of shopping at Leone’s. It wasn’t a mistake I made again. Then he showed me how to form some chords on the guitar. Simple shapes like A minor and G major.

I couldn’t do it. My brain didn’t want the fingers on my left hand to do those things. I don’t think I managed to form a single solid chord. It was hopeless.

My guitar got thrown in the corner of the apartment to collect dust. It stayed there for a while. Then one day I thought, “I spent a few hundred bucks on this thing. I might as well try to get some use out of it.”

I tried tuning it to a major chord and playing barre chords with my thumb again. It sounded better than what happened when I did the same thing in standard tuning, though not by much. It was still very rudimentary and not too pleasing to the ears.

After that, every once in a while I would pick up the guitar and mess around a little. I was pretty sure I’d never be even a little bit good at it, but at least I could have a bit of fun. In the summer of 1999 I found myself with the ability to record my music in digital form and preserve it on CD, and decided I would make the guitar a permanent part of what I was doing. Even if I couldn’t really play the thing, at least it would give me a different set of sounds to mess with.

I rented a few electric guitars (a pretty spiffy sparkly Gibson Les Paul among them, with the most wonderful-smelling case, that showed up on YOU’RE A NATION and MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS), and then I bought the mysterious Strat copy/tube amp combo so I’d have something more stable to rely on.

The rest, as they say, is a tale as old as thyme. Teenage dude climbs up a very steep hill very slowly, accidentally figures out how to bend a string in the middle of recording a guitar solo, experiments with a lot of different odd tunings, starts walking up the hill faster, then starts sprinting, and wakes up one day to discover to his amazement that against all the odds he’s somehow become a pretty decent guitarist after all.

I still couldn’t tell you how it happened. I never learned how to play the “right” way. I didn’t even try to after it became clear it wasn’t going to work out. I never practiced scales, or did any exercises, or learned how to read tablature. I just kept playing and trying out different tunings, and somehow I kept getting better — first in tiny, almost undetectable increments, and then in huge leaps and bounds.

The moment it hit me I’d reached a place where I could do genuinely interesting and creative things on the guitar was when the song “Redound” was being improvised and recorded for SUBLIMINAL BILE.


I considered both of my band mates to be better guitarists than I was. But I found myself in the position of being the only guitarist in the band once we were cut down to a three-piece and they settled into their new roles as the rhythm section. I think having to fill up all that space on my own forced me to get a lot better in a hurry.

Even so, I’d never played anything like that before. I wasn’t working off of any preconceived melodic ideas I had in my head. That stuff just came flying out of my fingers while we were recording.

Gord and Tyson looked at me when we were listening to the playback and said, “How the hell did you do that with your thumb?” They almost looked a little frightened.

I’ve never been a virtuosic guitarist, nor have I aspired to be one. There are things I can’t do — won’t ever be able to do — given the way I play. You’re never going to hear me doing crazy scale-based shredding, for instance. And there are certain chord shapes I just can’t get, no matter what weird tuning I’m using.

I think those limitations made it necessary for me to adapt and advance the way of playing I developed and find my own way. My thumb had to get used to flying all over the place in order to make up for the absence of other fingers to help out.

Around 2004 or 2005 I started throwing the index finger in there once in a while when I wanted a different shape and the thumb couldn’t do it alone (though this doesn’t happen often, and a lot of the time it’s still all thumb, all the way). I went from playing with a pick about 90% of the time to phasing that out, and now I almost always play with my fingers, regardless of what kind of guitar I’m playing or what the music entails. I don’t fingerpick in any conventional way with my right hand, but I seem to be able to do quite a bit with just my right thumb and index finger.

These days I feel almost as comfortable and confident on the guitar as I do at a piano. I never in a million years thought that would happen.

The fun part is, if you sit down and listen to all the albums I’ve made, solo and with friends, from 1999 on (because I didn’t really start to get serious about the guitar until then), you can hear the technique take shape a little at a time. It starts out very crude and amateurish. By the time you get to an album like SHOEBOX PARADISE less than a year later there’s a pretty clear improvement, even if I still didn’t know how to bend a string yet. Fast-forward another year or two and it doesn’t even sound like the same person playing guitar anymore.

At this point, even if a very skilled and patient guitarist wanted to teach me how to play the right way, I don’t think I would be interested. I’ve been doing it this way for so long, it’s moved far beyond trying to compensate for not being able to get my fingers to do what they were supposed to, and it’s just become the way I play. Once, back in the band days, Gord told me his brother Cliff said to him, “He does all that with his thumb. Imagine what Johnny could do if he played with his fingers!”

I used to wonder about that myself. I don’t really wonder anymore, though.

I never really get the chance to tell much more than the skeleton of this story to people who see me play for the first time and say, “What the hell are you doing to that guitar?” So if anyone was ever curious about how and why I came to play things with strings in such a weird way, there you go. Maybe at some later date I’ll get into all the different stringed instruments I ended up with, the stories behind them, and all the different tunings they live in. That’ll be a pretty grotesquely large post when/if it happens.

In other news, it seems there are a few people who have asked for CDs to be “reserved” for them at one of the places where my music is available. Only, these aren’t your ordinary reservations. The people have been right there, standing a few feet away from available CDs, and just haven’t felt like reaching out and grabbing one. They’ve asked for a copy to be held for them so they can take it at some later date.

I think that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a CD, not a sewing machine. You’ve got jackets with pockets. You’ve got purses. You’ve got hands. It’s not a difficult thing to take home with you. If the CDs in question are still there a week or two from now, I’m going to take them back myself and redirect them. I don’t have an unlimited supply of this stuff to let sit somewhere while there are people who want to listen to the music who don’t let the fear of gripping plastic hold them back.

Also, one of those mics I put up on Kijiji is gone already. I wasn’t expecting that. Big thanks to Kevin for his interest in the Rode K2, and for being so easy to deal with. It’s a nice microphone…I just think it will be better served in the hands of someone who’ll use it more often than I did.

I don’t know how much airplay the new album is getting on CJAM. I tend to listen via the online audio archives, and that feature of the CJAM website has been absent for a few weeks with no sign of returning anytime soon. Hopefully it isn’t gone forever. In the meantime, thanks to anyone who’s playing my stuff, if you are playing it. The feedback I’ve received so far has been positive, so maybe it’s not as inaccessible an album as I thought it was! As I like to say, wonders never cease, and dress pants never crease.