On Another Note
By Martin Gibson
Hi, I’m Martin Gibson. I play guitar. I think it was probably destiny. In high school, I was my team’s pick guard. My first girlfriend was named Melody. I thought we had an arrangement, but if fell flat. She was stringing me along, anyway. Besides, she was so snarky. I couldn’t baritone like that for much longer. My best friend was Mike, and of course he had a pickup, but that’s natural, isn’t it? He got suspended from school after dropping a piano down a mine shaft, resulting in . . . A flat miner. Anyway, in college my major was liberal drinking, even though I was still a minor. I augmented my studies by picking up a nylon string folk guitar, the first of many. I’ll refrain from the rest of the story, as it’s too long. Suffice it to say I developed a coda ethics. The key thing was the passion for music that awoke in me. Now that I’m older my skills may be somewhat diminished, but don’t fret, I can still finger my way around.
I really think of guitars as women, like boats and ships. They’re even shaped like a woman, except that the hole is up closer to the navel. That makes sense because the music is born from there. You see this design carried out in many of the stringed instruments, from the violin to the ukulele to the stand up bass, or double bass. Bass is short for bass viol, you know. The guitar shape reminds me of the hundreds of prehistoric Venus figures found across Europe, big breasts and even bigger hips. Like women, it’s difficult to win an argument with them. They are all individuals, with their own temperaments. Whether you’re skilled enough to get the sound you’re looking for, of if that guitar is capable of “delivering” that sound, is always a question, a struggle, and each new song or arrangement involves a lot of labor. At least it does for me, as I’ve only been playing for about forty years; that’s not nearly long enough.
I think it’s quite possible that Hamlet, that melancholy Dane, was a guitar player. In Act III, Scene II, he tells Guildenstern, “Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.” No? Maybe the lute, then.
What’s your favorite musical instrument? For me, it’s the cello. It’s a similar shape, but the tone is so deep and sensuous. If I were sentenced to only be able to hear one instrument for the rest of my life, cello would be excellent. After that, it would be alto sax, I guess.
When I was much younger, I was playing guitar in the parking lot of The Needles, an incredible rock formation in South Dakota. It was a sunny day in summer, and I was sitting on the back of the car, just playing around, while the people were coming and going. I wasn’t busking or anything. An old man walked by, and said to me, “Son, that thing ain’t never gonna get better if you keep pickin’ at it.”
I’ve always thought playing guitar is a lot like making love. One hand is caressing and fingering her neck, while the dominant hand is down around that big hole. You know you’re doing it right when you get the sweetest sounds. Some like it loud and aggressive, others prefer the gentle touch. The relationship of the musician to the instrument is an intimate one; there are strings attached, after all. The circular hole is rich with symbolism — eternity, the ideal, perfection or the cosmos. It’s the cycle of life, death, and life again. It’s the womb, out of which new things are born, living things.
Make no mistake, music is alive. It breathes, and even reproduces, in that it gives rise to other musical ideas. And it has motion. Why do you think symphonies are divided into movements, anyway? Music also moves us, such is its power. The art of singing has its own magic. The right side of the brain has to do with creativity, and the left side with language. When you sing you’re using both sides of the brain; you’re unifying your own consciousness, and that’s got to be a good thing. That’s one reason why singing, chanting, or intoning has such resonance not only for the singer, but the audiences.
What happens to music, once it has been expressed? Does it die out? No, it continues to live forever. Like radio or TV broadcasts, it radiates out into the universe. Oh wait, no it doesn’t! Sound cannot travel in a vacuum like space, can it? It has to have a medium, like air. Still, what if the medium is cosmic consciousness, and we’re all connected to it? Problem solved. If not, music still lives forever. Well, not all music. As Duke Ellington said, there are only two kinds of music, good, and the other kind. Good music lives forever, in our memories, in the culture. I listen to jazz a lot, and I keep hearing new interpretations of the classics from the 1930s and 40s. Mozart and Beethoven will be heard for as long as there are ears to listen with. As far as the question if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound — I’m leaving that one alone.
Music is good for everyone and everything. I sing to my vegetables all the time, and I think they like it. Kids love it too, and take to it immediately. Music is said to “soothe the savage beast.” Or was it breast? You don’t even need a sound system, because you can play anything you want in your head. I used to play whole albums to pass the time when I worked on assembly lines. Two albums, coffee break, two more albums, lunchtime, and so on.
I was in a music store some years ago, buying a set of strings. There were a few younger guys looking at a bass guitar. The sales clerk, a young woman, was musing aloud, “I wonder why all these Army guys always seem to play the bass.” Never able to resist putting the puck into an empty net, I answered, “They all had to go to BASS-ic training.”
Music expresses that which cannot be spoken, and on which it is impossible to remain silent. — anonymous