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My Guitar Teacher

Wanting to understand how all the musicians I’ve written about do what they do, I sought out a good teacher.  I found a 17-year-old kid.  He’s a genius, and he’s teaching me a lot more than how to move my hands across six strings.

by Donovan Wheeler

The callouses on the tips of my fingers feel weird.  As if I had dipped them in super-glue that never peels off.  Running my hands across my laptop’s keyboard now seems less sensual.  Massaging its odd “QWERTY” layout—transforming those swirling abstractions in my head into tangible, serif-toned realities on the screen feels like an exercise played out with a prosthetic left hand.  This is a trade-off, the cost I have to pay for context, for understanding, for a connection to the musicians I have written about for three years and watched for many more than that.

For too long I’ve watched one performer after another stand behind the microphone and mysteriously move their fingers across those elongated, string-laden gridirons running from their stomachs to the spaces beyond their shoulders.  Those flittering digits, executing a subtle ballet across tensile, wound steel…creating beautiful sounds—no explanation given…no logical interpretation available.

I had to know how they did it.

Stuck on “GO” with no viable way to pull off my first dice-throw, I did what any high school teacher would do: I asked a kid.  The “kid” in question is a high school junior named Parker Black.  A redhead (or “ginger” as opts to call himself) sporting a jaggedly cut, Rubber Soul mop-top, Parker is a master on the frets.  That I already knew.  Word-of-mouth had largely confirmed that before the boy had even begun his freshman year.  What I didn’t know was whether he could teach me anything, and whether our traditional roles inside the walls of Greencastle High School would dampen his ability to tell me what I had to hear.

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To be clear, Parker is not one of my current students.  As things stand, he will be next year, when he begins his final two semesters in the “K-12” system.  For now, he’s that kid I often saw in the hallways, casting that goofy, adolescent grin; lugging his oversized backpack; occasionally shoving his buddy beside him into the usual throng of girls who (as usual) have clogged the passageway so they could gossip about some crisis-level nonsense none of them will care about in ten years’ time.

Parker took care of me.  Referred me to the local music store, recommended the brand and style of beginner guitar I’d need.  He reminded me to buy a tuner, and set up the day and time for the first lesson.

“We’ll start with half-hour sessions,” he said.  “Then if you’re really serious about this, we’ll move to full hours.”

If I’m really serious?  Why wouldn’t I be really serious?  Who does this kid think he is?

I didn’t realize how smart he was, even as the first lesson unfolded.  He demonstrated the first two chords to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (which…for what it’s worth…is most likely the single-most-common beginner set of chords).  When he ran his pick across his own set of strings, he filled his little studio—a glassed-off cutaway inside what used to be Greencastle’s Karma Records store—with a breathtaking melody.  He shifted from the opening “E” to the follow-up “A-sus,” and the sound rang through the room.

“Go ahead,” he nodded to me.  After clanging through what approximated as the Klingon version of Springfield’s hit, Parker grinned.  His eyes beamed a bit…he nodded.

“Okay…” he said.  He voice trailed off.  It was a casual okay, the kind of reasonable acknowledgement a little-league dad utters on the first day of kindergarten tee-ball practice.  In time, I would get those two chords down, and he would show me a traditional strumming pattern.  I would catch on quickly.  So quickly, that we soon began bringing our strings to school so we could “jam” during our lunch period.

As he’s explaining first-grade-level guitar theory to me his hands bang out the opening measures of Dave Matthews’ “Crash.”  When he’s chatting about the practice session he had with own band he’s riffing Jimi Hendrix.  He’s 17.

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When the second lesson began, however, I realized Parker was operating with a method in mind.  Round two was technical: Finger placement, thumb placement, scales, open and closed string progression.  He furiously wrote down the “F-sharp” and beyond arrangement of notes for the open “E” strings.  He started making me commit them to memory immediately.  When he caught me peeking at my digital-readout tuner, he ordered me to turn it off.  And when I figured out how to cheat on the “G” chord, by using a pinky-finger/thumb combination which wraps around the back of the neck, he waved that away.

“That’s going to create more problems for you in the future,” he said.  He insists that I learn all the open chords, meanwhile he throws an entire set of “bottom-fret” chords at me—starting with the “F” at the top of the neck and working my way down high-pitched “C.”

“There’s a dozen ways to do everything,” he often says.  “I want you to be able see all the notes and all the chords on the fret.”  I get what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to make me fluid and reactionary, rather than textbook and mechanical.  And during every lesson he demonstrates that, albeit unconciously.  It happens when he’s talking to me, when he pauses…searching for his thoughts.  On those moments he fritters his own hands across his instrument.  As he’s explaining first-grade-level guitar theory to me—in detailed, coherent sentences—his hands bang out the opening measures of Dave Matthews’ “Crash.”  When he’s chatting about the practice session he had with own band—an eclectic mixture of high school and college kids—he’s riffing Jimi Hendrix.  He’s 17.  He started playing ten years before.  It’s unreal.

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And every Tuesday afternoon his 48-year-old future English teacher snakes around a studio door which awkwardly opens into the narrow hallway, momentarily cutting him off from his lesson.  Every week, Parker greets him with a casual “How’s it goin’?” which rings out with a sort of Dakotan, Frances McDormand feel to it.

Six weeks into our sessions, things are coming together.  I still can’t “play a song” yet…whatever that means.  But neither one of us seems to care.  I’m thrilled because things are happening.  That original Buffalo Springfield riff? I can nail that, now, and I can change chords without stopping the flow of the thing.  The strumming patterns are starting to happen on their own as well.  Of course, now that I’m comfortable, he’s throwing new tricks at me.  Now it’s time to learn to pick individual strings…and I still have to get better switching from a “G” to a “C.”  If he would let me use that cheat move on the “G,” it would be a lot easier.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good enough to play in front of people.  Since that was never my goal to begin with, I don’t worry about it.  What I do know is that when Parker Black walks into my room next year to begin his nine month session as my student, I will have my work cut out for me.  How does one emulate genius when the genius he’s trying to emulate becomes the one he has to teach?  It’s a paradox which will haunt me for a long time, in four-count measure to the sounds of Buffalo Springfield.

About Donovan Wheeler

When Donovan Wheeler was 17 years old, he looked like this…and couldn’t play the opening riff to anything on a guitar. He still can’t, but he’s counting a different 17-year-old to change that.

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