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 altogether.

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 in cursive style once upon a time. shocker! if you can’t read my writing, here’s what my little note says:

my thoughts at 2:40 a.m., 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 guitar-based music. if there wasn’t a keyboard or synthesizer of some sort 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 that all 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 13 years old and wouldn’t ingest a single illicit substance until i was 18 (not one that took effect, anyway). 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 convinced myself was happening.

“i can do that!” i said. “i can pick up a guitar and immediately be just as good as clapton! what have i been missing?”

i was so excited, i had trouble sleeping. hence 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. in my defense, 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. i just knew i wanted a guitar, and i wanted it right away.

i said to a 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, which was a piece of shit, 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. that’s the axe 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 for 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.

i digress. 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-and-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 just didn’t want the fingers on my left hand to do those things. i don’t think i managed to form one single solid chord. it was hopeless.

the 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 played 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 (including a pretty spiffy sparkly gibson les paul — with the most wonderful-smelling hard case — that showed up on YOU’RE A NATION and MERRY FUCKIN’ CHRISTMAS), and then i bought the infamous 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 at all. i just kept playing, and somehow i kept getting better — first in tiny, almost undetectable increments, and then in huge leaps and bounds.

the moment i realized i’d reached a place where i could do actual interesting and creative things on the guitar was probably when when the song “redound” was being improvised and recorded for SUBLIMINAL BILE.

redound

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 shaved down to a three-piece and they settled into their new role 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 even 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 considered myself to be 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 metal shredding, for instance. and there are certain chord shapes i just can’t get, no matter what weird tuning i’m using.

but i think those limitations made it necessary for me to really 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 it out.

around 2004 or 2005 i started throwing the index finger in there on occasion 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 a little at a time, and i now play almost exclusively with my fingers, regardless of what kind of guitar i’m playing or what the music entails. i don’t finger-pick 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 forward (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 guitar. 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. but i don’t really wonder anymore.

i never really get the chance to tell much more than the skeleton of that story, though i’ve always wanted to explain it in more detail. so if anyone was ever curious about how and why i came to play the guitar 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 were right there, standing a few feet away from the CDs, but didn’t feel like taking one. so they asked for a copy to be held for them, so they could grab 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 and have no fear of gripping plastic.

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, because 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.

4 comments

  1. In my opinion, it is not at all inaccessible. I popped it into the car stereo and enjoyed it right away. I listened to it exclusively for 3 days.

    While I am busy disagreeing, I’d like to add that dress pants do crease.

    1. they do indeed! i just enjoy playing with words. and i think it would be kind of amusing to have a pair of pants that would never crease, no matter what great lengths the owner went to in order to make it happen.

      i’m glad you’ve enjoyed the new thing. i think for some reason i just have a difficult time being objective about the things i do…it’s kind of like writing a diary and thinking there’s some good writing in there, but assuming it isn’t the sort of thing anyone else would be interested in. but you show some people anyway, because you feel like sharing your thoughts. and then, to your surprise, a lot of them “get” it, and enjoy it, and share it with other people, and the next thing you know your diary is being read all over the place.

      i think it will always surprise me when people like what i’ve done, because i always just do it for myself and follow whatever musical impulses i have at any given time. but it’s a nice feeling to be able to share it with people, and to have them be receptive to it. thanks for being a part of that, charles.

      1. Thank you very much for letting me be part of the experience.

        The pant crease comment is my sense of humour having fun with your word play. I tried putting a smiley on the comment and it got stripped when I posted.

        Speaking of my sense of humour, I hope I copied your street address correctly and that you get (got) my thank you note.

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