Thursday, September 6, 2007

An ode to the guitar—and raw, blood-stained fingertips

If you love something enough, you've got to put up with the pain and discomfort it may well, and usually does, bring you.
This could apply to a lot of things in life, but I speak of musical instruments.
I've heard of piano players who've suffered from painful or numb fingertips. A trombonist friend of mine in Florida said that the hand that operates the slide is "locked" in slide position; when he tried to play a violin, he found he lacked the dexterity to do it. And then there are guitarists.
Like myself.
We get string grooves in our fingers. Now with regular practice, the fingertips become hardened and become immune to the pressing of the strings. But if you go even just two weeks without playing, the fingers soften up and it's time to get used to the pain all over again.
It does hurt. A budding guitarist's fingertips can become quite raw. It's a pain I love, however. When the fingertips on my left hand ache, I know I've had a good playing session. And I also know to keep practicing.
Believe me, when you, for instance, have to play even a simple progression like A minor - F - D - C - G on soft fingertips, you really feel it. After an hour, a C chord is murder. An F becomes nearly impossible, and a bar chord becomes something that anyone considering the art of torture would be proud of. Bar chords also cause the wrists to ache, if you play them enough.
Do you remember what Bryan Adams sang in his song "Summer of '69," about playing till his fingers bled? It's true. In addition to the sweat and the tears, sometimes guitarists even shed blood in the quest to master their instrument.
I enjoy playing the bass in addition the six-string, and I played bass in a high school band. We played coffeehouses in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a year. Anyway, one day at our practice studio at the back of a music shop in Stow, we were gearing up for a fresh batch of gigs but we'd had a few months off for studies—months in which I hadn't picked up my bass at all. My fingers were tender again. Near the end of our practice session, I was playing on the upper range of the bass, using the higher-pitched D and G strings. The G string—no pun intended here!—actually sliced through the indentation on my index finger that was created by all the string-pressing and it bled—profusely.
Now I have a blood phobia. But I was "in the zone," so to speak. I was so high from the chords, the steady twack of our drummer's snare and the feedback from the amps that I uncharacteristically ignored the bleeding index finger and kept playing. Blood ran down the fretboard and actually shorted out one of my pick-ups. It cost me two hundred 1987 dollars to get that fixed. But at least I'd mastered a rather tricky bassline!
I have never shed any blood since that day. But I continue to get raw string grooves in my fingertips when time gets in my way and prevents me from playing as often as I'd like. But, as I say, it's a pain I enjoy. Raw fingertips are the price I'll happily pay to become a virtuoso.


Pam said...

Glad you shared this. I'm planning on buying the boyfriend a guitar for Christmas. He was in a band years ago, and sold his equipment when they broke up. But lately he's been wishing he had a guitar just to putz around with at home. Now I'll know not to worry or think he's nuts if there's any rawness or bloodshed : ).

Nightdragon said...

Pam -- Go for it. He'll love it. I was happy as a pig in mud when I got my guitar two years ago. I loved being able to practice and continue learning again -- and just to have a musical instrument to occupy my time with, that I never get bored with, is pure joy. Your boyfriend, as a musician himself, will feel the same. But yes, if he hasn't played for a while, his fingertips will get raw all over again!