No instrument has captured the essence, energy and evolution of rock and roll music like the electric guitar. Over the geological eons of rock history, the stage personality of each member has been carved out even before they joined the band. The drummer is the goofy one. What is the difference between a drummer and a savings bond? One will mature and make money. The bass player is the quiet one. Just ask one and he probably won’t tell you the same thing. The keyboard player is a bit of a milquetoast, if you ask me, running around tickling the ivories. The guitarist? He’s the guy the lead singer is looking at enviously, waiting for him to make a mistake so that his envy can turn to scorn. The guitarist is the one looking blissfully at the heavens, his fingers moving skillfully over the fretboard, coaxing mellifluous melodies from a 8-pound piece of ash hewn roughly into the shape of a woman. 

When an engineer at the Gibson Guitar Company named Lloyd Loar started experimenting with sound amplification by mounting an electro-magnetic coil of wire underneath the strings of a viola, things changed for future generations of teenage males who had plenty of manual dexterity but little chance of capturing the imagination of the fairest of the fairer sex. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and when the mother of invention found out that playing guitar was just a way to impress girls, invention was grounded for two weeks.

Last Thursday night I went with my friend Errol to see one of the best, electric guitar virtuoso Frank Gambale, at Daryl’s House in Pawling. I found out about Gambale due to Errol’s great taste in guitarists, and I met Errol because of his great taste in local journalists. Errol is a guitarist too, and I’m struggling along myself, trying to learn the instrument after 45 years of playing it. I first started playing the electric guitar at about 14 years-old when I heard “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and realized that the song started with a guitar part that was only three notes. I learned those three notes, then spent the next five years trying to figure out what to do during the rest of the song. I couldn’t have found a worse teacher in Frank Gambale, since the resemblance between his guitar playing and mine is the like comparing apples that can play a guitar to oranges that cannot.

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You want to see a knock-down, drag-out fight in Congress? Table the budget and tell them that they cannot adjourn for recess until they figure out who was the greatest guitarist of all time. “Clapton? Are you kidding me? He couldn’t hold a candle to Jimi Hendrix!” “Well that’s because the guy always had lighter fluid all over his guitar! The damn thing was a fire hazard!” “What about Chuck Berry? He invented all those riffs AND played them while doing a duck walk! If it walks like a duck-” “I got TWO words for you: STEVIE... RAY... VAUGHAN. I don’t have to say anything more. But I’m a politician, so give me about 20 minutes to rattle on regarding some unrelated extraneous crap.” “Eddie Van Halen literally revolutionized the guitar solo under almost intolerable conditions: putting up with David Lee Roth. And I bet he could have done it while walking like a duck, but for reasons of personal dignity chose not to.” “Prince played a guitar shaped like a punctuation mark, played it amazingly, and still managed to look cool while wearing that Aunt Jemima thing on his head.” “Duane Allman played a million great guitar licks and never once got his hair caught in the strings. You know how hard that is?” “If there is a better guitarist on this Earth than Jimmy Page, may a bolt of lightning come down from the heavens and strike you dead right now. By the way, if there actually is a better guitarist and you are struck dead, I apologize in advance.” 

What makes a great guitarist great? My criteria have changed over the years. When I was in high school I loved to hear a lead break that was so fast that I could play it on my car stereo and not catch up to it in fifth gear. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to appreciate a solo that is melodic enough to hum in the shower. Every one of George Harrison’s leads sound really good soaking wet. I want to hear a solo that enhances the dynamics of the song. And I want to know that the guitarist is making a weird face while playing it.

Frank Gambale riffed on, as we mortals watched in amazement. His fingers performed a triple full twist, double flip and then stuck the landing. I turned to Errol and said, “You think playing thirty-second notes is so difficult? I play a note, and then thirty seconds later I’m ready to play another one, and it all comes right out my f-hole.”

I’ve been refining my guitar sound to use more effects that will effectively obscure the fact that I can’t play. I don’t use echo, because if I do you’re going to hear the same mistakes twice. But I keep practicing. Sometimes I picture myself closing the show at Woodstock. Half a million people are all looking at me, waiting for my solo. Most of them are soaking wet, putting more pressure on me. If I disappoint them, they probably couldn’t smell any worse, but that’s not the point. I play, I shred, I conquer, and afterwards the crowd is stunned. All you can see for miles around is smoke and flames rising from the stage. “Dude! You burned your guitar like Jimi Hendrix?” “Well actually, the crowd banded together and burned it, but the end result was the same.”

Join Rick and Trillium for some love and harmony, Sunday morning, Oct. 6, 9 a.m.,  for the Annual Ovarian and Breast Cancer Support-A-Walk at FDR Park in Yorktown.

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