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 Erika Meyer

How I Learned To Play Guitar

How I Learned To Play Guitar
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In 2000 I was a 32-year-old single mother with a four-year-old daughter. Looking for work as a web developer, I moved to Portland, Oregon, only to find that Portland is a town where it seems EVERYONE is in a band. I would watch my (male) friends in bands and sometimes find myself in tears, because deep down, I still wanted to be part of it. I’d been out of all urban ‘scenes’ and living a pretty isolated backwoods life since 1990, so I was largely unaware of the shifts that had happened in underground rock during the previous decade.

Around my 33rd birthday, I decided to ask for my guitars again, as I had every few years or so since 1990. Amazingly, this time, my mother returned them. I don’t know why she really kept them from me, and I don’t know why she finally returned them, but I immediately started to play. Thinking, “I want my daughter to experience music hands-on”, I bought a little practice amp and picked up where I’d left off, but this time with a new attitude. I decided right away that I no longer cared about ‘talent’. I decided that ‘talent’ didn’t even matter, that what matters, in fact, is passion and commitment. I knew that if I kept on the way I’d had been, I’d go to my death with some serious regret. It was time to take this as far as *I* wanted, regardless of what anyone else thought. I had thought I was playing for my daughter, but really, I was doing it for myself.

That change from a focus on talent and skill to a focus on passion and expression was a huge and important mental switch. I was finally giving myself what no one else had quite given me: permission to play guitar on my own terms. And more than that, I gave myself permission to ‘suck’. And with permission to suck comes the ability to rock, and to overcome all the fears and insecurities that had been holding me captive.

I had begun to understand, also, by this point, a lot more about psychology behind art. I remembered when I was a kid, my friends would tell me, “I can’t draw” and I would say, “Anyone can draw!” I knew it was just a matter of practice and learning to see and to trust your instincts. So I thought, “What if it’s true of music, too? What if anyone can make music?” I also knew by then that artistically frustrated people often try to put down or discourage other artists, so I decided I wouldn’t internalize other people’s negative projections about my abilities or my right to put time and energy into music. I’d focus on what I knew in my heart to be true: that I have just as much right to rock as Mick Jagger does. Maybe even more.

It was all easier said than done, of course. Progress was slow.

I vividly remember the first time I tried to play, again, with another human — a couple other girls. I forced myself, but as I lifted my guitar out of the case, I was literally shaking and fighting tears. There was an unbelievable amount of repressed baggage and fear to play through every time I took another step forward, but the feeling of accomplishment that comes from taking each step kept driving me forward. At first I hoped one day I’d get good enough to play at a cover tune an open mic. I tried to visualize it … and eventually I did it. At my first open mic I played and sang the Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Well’ on acoustic guitar. I sang it, and I meant it.

And I also played a Cramps-inspired ‘Green Door’,”and when I sang it, I was singing about rock’n’roll.

There’s an old piano
And they play it hot
Behind the green door
Don’t know what they’re doin’
But they laugh a lot
Behind the green door
Wish they’d let me in
So I could find out
What’s behind the green door

At first, I could never in a million years imagine I’d get to a point where I’d be on stage regularly, performing and recording original music, but that changed quickly. I imagined it, and then I did it. It helped to see other women doing it too. A lot had changed since the 80s. One day a girl burned me a copy of some Babes In Toyland songs. It brought back memories of Minneapolis, and after hearing the ‘Quiet Room’ on a road trip to California, at 5 am, I pulled over into a McDonald’s parking lot, grabbed my acoustic guitar out of the trunk, and wrote a song-poem called ‘Dust Princess’.

And I remember completely rethinking my understanding of lead playing one night after stopping by the Crystal Ballroom, standing close, and watching Carrie Brownstein’s unusual, choppy, irresistible leads in Sleater-Kinney.

(continues overleaf)

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23 Responses to How I Learned To Play Guitar

  1. istomponurrockanthem July 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Great article

  2. Darragh July 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Love this, thanks Erika.

  3. Sadie July 26, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Too bloody right!! 🙂
    perfectly written erika and in my view sums up exactly why there aren’t more girls/women in rock.
    My experience has been almost precisely what you have written.
    Rock on!! X

  4. Princess Stomper July 26, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    “Don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise.”

    Abso-fucking-lutely. 🙂

  5. Culturazi July 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Great story, thanks, and congrats on overcoming such overwhelming odds.

  6. chuck July 26, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I still cant play for shit after all these years, but I just dug out the old beast for a quick bash… thanx for the tale…

  7. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    I want you to write a book! I so enjoyed reading this. It’s funny, I was born in a different era to you, both my parents were teachers like yours and I had the same hang ups about singing as you had about guitar playing. I also felt exactly the same about classical music training. In rejecting it, I found my talent. I created my talent. Talent is bullshit. The ability to picture yourself doing something is far more important to ability to do something in real life. If more stories like ours are told and more women play music in public on their own terms, then it will be easier for other women to picture themselves doing it. I’d also like to blow the myth of talent right out of the water. It’s a bunch of rubbish. It’s a concept that kept my dream of being a singer out of reach. I had no idea that I could learn singing. I was a fool. I bought into the reality I was presented with, designed by the ‘talented’ and perpetuated by the lazy and envious to justify their specialness and their lack of balls to get out of their comfort zones and learn respectively. I came to realise that sheet music and rock music are enemies. ha ha… pretty much. Or sheet music and me anyway. When we teach our children to talk, we do not sit them down with a book of the written word at the same time. We allow them to make sounds and encourage these sounds and low and behold, language is adopted and communication is possible. It’s the same with music. I don’t know whose interest the current mode of learning it is in… but it seems to be more preventative than productive. Teaching a person scales before songs is like teaching a child the alphabet before sentences. What are they gonna do with that?
    Anyway, thanks for sharing. I am currently teaching my bassist how to play bass. I have never played bass in my life and have picked one up approx four times. But she is making steady progress as I am teaching her to listen to her bass and not to be afraid of it or of breaking imaginary rules when looking for a note. I am teaching her how to own her bass and how to find her own way on it. She loves playing it. As a ‘teacher’ I can feel proud that I’ve maintained her enthusiasm and helped her through the frustrating tricky bits. I’d like to teach guitar to people for some extra cash, but my methods are not conventional so I don’t know if I can be so bold as to charge cash for them. Maybe that there is a problem to address…

  8. hannah golightly July 26, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    I have a feeling that this piece is capable of getting a few secret dreams out of the closet. Thank you!

  9. Joan July 27, 2011 at 12:14 am

    An inspired and inspiring story, one that resonates loudly for me.

  10. Daniel July 27, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for the inspiring piece!

  11. Brigette July 27, 2011 at 2:27 am

    *Swoon

  12. Scott Creney July 27, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Thank you for writing this. So great.

  13. Billy July 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    This story is really inspiring and beautiful, and I’m not even a girl! 😉 Thanks for sharing. I’m sorry that you had so many idiotic guys telling you what you could or couldn’t do. I can’t help but feel that if you’d grown up in my circle of friends, nobody would have said those sort of sexist things about/to you. All the fellas I know would have thought it was awesome that a girl could play, and would have encouraged her, and would have freely admitted that she “could play”.

    Best of luck in the future!

  14. Yokaishinigami July 27, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    great article. I find that one of the biggest turn off’s to pursuing music is the overwhelming negativity towards newer or “less talented” players. There will always be haters, but just ignore them (listen for constructive criticism though) and play your heart out. play for you, yourself and you.

  15. Everett True July 27, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    There’s a ton of commentary about Erika’s article over on Meta Filter.

  16. hannah golightly July 27, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    The key thing to glean from this piece seems to be giving yourself/taking “Permission To Suck”. That gets rid of the fear of trying/learning/experimenting. Only then can we put our energy into playing and only by playing can we get good at doing so. Loved all the out pouring of personal stories on the link. It’s good to feel solidarity in an awkward experience.

    Write a book!!!!!!!!

  17. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:10 am

    Go for it Erica. I’m serious. I’ll buy a copy. There’s a lot of people who commented here and through the link who would clearly love to read it too.

    Not that I’m an Ian Brown fan or anything, but I once heard that he said to be a good songwriter you have to say the thing that is uncomfortable. It may well be a unanimous ingredient. I think whatever you create should be true to yourself and always be personal. That is the thing that we hear in someone’s voice that connects with our own spirit and feels easy to relate to. Sometimes the hardest thing in this world to be is yourself. But whenever we are, it’s worth it.

  18. hannah golightly July 28, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Intimacy. Maybe that’s what I love about it. Intimacy is special. Both in music and also in your piece.

  19. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Thank you, Erika! Wonderful piece, congratulations for sticking with it. I understand your heartache at not being where you wanted to be: when I took my daughter for her first music lesson (she learnt to play bass with a wonderful teacher who taught by getting the kids to play together – no sheet music, no scales, just passion and practice and making noise – so she & her friends get to skip the misery of this particular experience) I started crying from the sudden, urgent missing of amps and leads and music-making; even the airless, dark smell of the studio made me sad. I’m so glad I have music back in my life, and glad for you that you do too.

  20. Wallace Wylie August 1, 2011 at 3:30 am

    I know the main thrust of this essay is about how frustrating/demoralising it is to be a woman in the male dominated world of music, but as a 35 year old who is constantly wrestling with doubts about my ability to write songs I found it pretty inspiring from that angle too.

  21. Lucy Cage August 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Yeah, I’ve heard about Rock’n’Roll Camp for Girls: it sounds brilliant. That’s the same sort of ethos behind the studios I mentioned: it’s all about the joy.

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