How I Learned To Play Guitar
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.