I've played guitar for almost thirty years.
This fact, to me, is both astonishing as well as a little unnerving. It shows that not only have I managed to keep doing what I gravitated towards as a child into the years where I--by societies' standards--should have gotten a "real" job, but it also gives me the unpleasant proclivity to assess where I am in my progress of my "craft," as it were, on a somewhat regular basis.
While I can't profess to have put as much time as I should have into my playing over the last year or two (personal reasons and a need for a life-changing reinvention being the main culprits), I can say that I haven't stopped playing.
The Young at Heart Chorus is my main band now, and they keep me busy with rehearsals, the occasional show, and homework learning a number of new songs that I probably wouldn't have dissected on my own. Having a framework of material to play over and over again gives me some advantages. I'm not the main focus in the show and neither is the rest of my group. Our job is to back up the singers and stay out from underfoot (although I hear from the directors that we will be playing a more integral part of the new show. More to come as it unfolds). So, instead of having my focus be in part focused on my appearance while I perform, I can just concentrate on the execution of the music. I can close my eyes and pay attention to my left hand fretting. I can tune in to the way I tap my feet. I can enjoy occasionally pinching a harmonic with my right hand, emitting a heavy metal tone that invariably gets a chuckle and a wink from my co-workers.
I can focus on how I hold the pick.
And here is where I have found inspiration to write today.
When I started playing guitar I only needed a minimum of equipment. I needed the guitar (obviously). I needed strings. I needed a lesson book. I needed five dollars (?!!) to pay my teacher, Mr. Bob Normandin, who I owe a huge debt of gratitude. And I needed a pick.
Guitar picks come in many sizes. Not only do they come in varying diameters and shapes, but they come in a few different thicknesses as well. Fender carried the widest selection of picks in the early Eighties; they had probably five or six different thicknesses, from heavy, to medium, to thin, to extra thin. I remember my mother giving me a few extra dollars from time to time for me to buy picks, as they are by nature easy to lose. I even owned a few pick dispensers, which were triangularly shaped like a pick, but thicker and spring-loaded, and would dispense one at a time. They also came with a small cord that could be affixed to a belt loop until all the picks eventually had been lost. Then it just clacked against your leg as you searched the floor for something to play your guitar with.
My guitar teacher always used a heavy pick. I, conversely, would opt for a thin.
"When you get older you'll find that it's not how thick the pick is that will determine how fast you can play, it's all in the way you hold it." That's what Mr. Normandin once told me, right around the part of the lesson where he'd launch into a rapid-fire jazz run on his big hollow body guitar. He never pressured me to use one, he just wanted me to know that if you use a thin pick you're only going to be able to get so much out of it--you can only pick a note so hard with a thin piece of plastic. But with a thick pick you have a lot more options. You have a lot more room to explore. You have leverage.
I liked Eddie Van Halen back then (still do), and he played with thin picks. That was enough for me. I didn't doubt Mr. Normandin's wisdom, I just thought I'd always opt for the thinner pick because I played Rock. Rock music entails being flexible; it entails precision; it entails shotgun style riffs made to assault the senses under a thick covering of distortion, delay, and reverb. And I never could imagine doing that with an inflexible hunk of plastic between my thumb and forefinger. I always looked at the firmness as being a liability.
I'd try it occasionally, though. I'd awkwardly attempt to hold the thick Fender heavy (as it's called) up far enough between my finger and thumb so that only a tiny bit of the edge showed. I liked how I could force a tone from that pick that wasn't possible from the thinner version. This would eventually wear off and I'd go running back to the thin Tortex picks, made by the Jim Dunlap company (which I had been turned onto in the Nineties). I did this for years and years, mindlessly asking for them in the music store, then stuffing them into my pockets to transfer with the change and bottle caps that would invariably collect.
I realized today that I haven't used one in a very long time.
I realized today that the picks that I had been transferring from pocket to pocket for the last five months were picks that came from the trip I made with the Chorus to Washington, D.C. They came from an air guitar contest booth who had a guitar case full of picks out for the taking. I had filled my pockets--filled them full--with a mass quantity of these picks.
And they were all the same size ... because, apparently, you needn't concern yourself with how thick your pick is when you play air guitar.
These picks I speak of were all Fender heavies, and I've been absentmindedly using them exclusively.
I've been playing all kinds of music--fast, slow, hard, heavy, jazzy, country, reggae, Broadway--every kind of music imaginable with the Chorus, and I haven't once gone running for the thin picks.
And while I was enjoying the flexibility that the thick plectrum gave me I noticed how lightly I was holding on to it. Unlike the iron fisted clamp I previously would employ with the thinner picks (partly because they gave in to the string so easily), I realized today, as I was playing an up-tempo strum with wah-wah pedal on a decidedly funky composition, that I was barely holding onto that pick--not that it had any chance of escaping my grasp--it wasn't going anywhere. But I realized that the focus of resistance had shifted. The discipline and the control that I had attributed to the give and take of the pick was now null and void. It was all in my control. It was fully, and without reserve, in the attack and release of my hand. The angle, the velocity, the location and the frequency of my hand striking back and forth upon the strings was what was allowing me to execute the part, not the resistance of a tiny piece of plastic that I relied on being thin enough for a certain style of music.
And that's when I realized that Mr. Normandin was right. He had assured me that I was going to eventually be in complete control. He told me, way back then, that I was bestowing more importance on the gauge of what came between me and the strings, and not enough on the idea that I held the key to the sounds I wanted my guitar to make, not in my hand, but in my head.
And that got me thinking about a whole bunch of other stuff ...
... but I'll stop right there and call it a day.
Thanks for reading.
PS: a special thank you to Mr. Bob Normandin, who taught at Fererria's Music Center in The Flint section of Fall River in the early Eighties. Rock on, indeed, good man. Rock on.