Published Nov. 16, 2012
Four decades later I can still play the tunes I studied in the early 1970s, although a jog of my memory reminds me that I did play some of those tunes at times over the ensuing years. I discovered this fact recently when I played Mel Bay’s arrangement of “Santa Lucia.”
When I play music I develop finger memory, and once I learn a tune I can play it with very little conscious effort because my fingers know where to go, and this was the case with “Santa Lucia.” I learned Mel’s arrangement of the tune in 1972, and it’s still in my fingers, but for a couple spots that evaded me and required consulting the book.
Mel Bay was my assigned book, Grade 1, when I began taking guitar lessons in the summer of 1972. I started guitar the summer before when two friends, wanting to work out the lead to Neil Young’s “Ohio,” taught me three chords, D, G and A, to play over and over, freeing them to study the melody, called lead in rock circles. I had been playing violin for four years when I started guitar, so my fingers were accustomed to the coordination required to play a string instrument, but learning chords, where you hold down anywhere from one to four fingers at once across a span of three to six strings but not touching strings that must remain open, required dedicated practice, especially when it came time to switch quickly from one to another. Every guitarist knows the experience of slowly placing one’s fingers one at a time on the proper frets and strings, and by the time you form the chord the music has moved on to the next chord or beyond and you must do it all over again. I had pretty much forgotten that experience until I taught guitar several years ago and watched students undergo what I had mastered so long ago. And I still must tread that ground if I learn a new form of a chord, but it’s a study I enjoy, and I’ll play the chord or chords over and over, enjoying the sound of metal strings creating musical concord while I learn to quickly forge my fingers into the desired shapes.
My early guitar studies were later quite aptly stated in the Statler Brothers song “Where He Always Wanted To Be,” which describes an aspiring country singer who listens to country musicians while his friends listened to rock-and-rollers. My friends started me on guitar to help them learn Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, but I learned to play like Johnny Cash.
Before I got my own guitar, I practiced a smaller version. I somehow figured out that my mother’s ukulele, which my uncle bought for her while he worked in Hawaii, could be played like the four higher strings of the guitar, and I practiced chords and strumming on that small cousin of the guitar until my parents gave me a classical guitar for my birthday in 1971. Once I owned a six-string, I began the laborious process of learning the notes of the guitar. Because I played violin I could read music, but the notes on the page required different fingerings on guitar, and I had to start nearly anew, a slow, laborious, and thoroughly enjoyable chore. Later I took lessons at Bob’s Music on South Main Street in North Canton, which became one of my favorite stores once my friends introduced me to the magic of the guitar. I sat in a room in the back for my lessons, and my instructor passed me quickly through book one of the Mel Bay series because I had learned so much on my own.
Mel Bay guitar lessons were divided into seven books, taking the student in an orderly and progressive method from the basics of string and note names to finger placement to increasingly difficult scales and tunes, but after the second book I struck out on my own and never completed the course. Now I own a new volume that combines all seven in one book, “Mel Bay’s Complete Method For Modern Guitar.” Mel Bay Publications has done the same with the classical guitar course — the modern guitar course employs the use of a single flatpick, whereas classical guitar uses the thumb and three fingers of the right hand, or left if you’re a left-handed player, either with picks or with the fingers.
If you’re a beginning player, you can’t go wrong by working your way through the Mel Bay guitar course. Even if you’ve played for years, Mel Bay is a good source of exercises and tunes to keep you sharp because guitar, like any field you choose to study, requires regular, orderly, dedicated practice.