Behind Bars - Chord Digressions

Up To Speed

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

There aren't many substitutes for motorcycles, but 11 inches of sopping snow militates for alternative recreation. Neither of my BMWs invites the use of tire chains or short stainless-steel fasteners threaded into their treads with a screw gun.

Thus it was last holiday season found me noodling around on my old guitar, an original Silvertone some 50 years old, filched from my mother the very first day I was tall enough to reach over its dreadnought body. After leaving it wretchedly unplayed and standing in various corners for nearly two decades to dry out between sprayings from my ex-wife's cats, I finally broke it out a couple of years ago to re-string-and promptly busted the tuning head on both sides. The only guitar I'd ever played-and I'd killed it.

Pretty Wife (pre-marital edition) encouraged me to buy another. Entry-level acoustics cost the price of a decent pair of riding gloves, but I couldn't see it. When you've only ever gone through one door, all the other doors look like walls.

Besides, I have this other axe, a different kind handed down from Gramps. It's the double-bitted type that you use on firewood. Despite regular applications of boiled linseed oil, it's on its fourth handle. Regular spankings from a mill bastard file reduced one head to a vestigial stub, but the other side still splits old-growth fir as well as it did before logging restrictions. While no church ever made me believe in resurrection, good old gear has no trouble carrying the argument.

Anyway it's a poor craftsman who blames his tools, so I headed down the street to visit our friendly neighborhood luthier at Guitarville. Two days later, the old girl had her head repaired, her neck adjusted and a fresh set of strings, all for $86.45. Despite all the dents and scuffs, she played like new. Maybe the VA should budget for a few experienced luthiers, as surely I'm not the only old soldier who could stand to have his broken head screwed back together.

Re-calibration of fingers after a few years off-like getting your land legs under you after a long sea voyage, or reentering the traffic stream with rusty motorcycle skills-takes some getting used to. Best to practice a bit before embarrassing oneself, but somewhere along the way my new mother-in-law caught me picking at my hand-me-down soundbox.

She raised a sharp, red eyebrow but was polite enough not to say anything. By then I didn't care, anyway. In riding or noisemaking, it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

I just wanted to play. Like my old R69S/2, the old acoustic demands neither formidable skills nor X Games attitude to have a good time. Just sit down, pay close attention and before you know it, you find yourself singing right along.

Then along came Santa-curiously during daylight hours, badly road-soiled with his traveling suit gone completely brown and the cuffs worn off to shorts-bearing a bevy of boxes, two of which disgorged a hard-cased electric guitar and a sweet Fender practice amp.

I had no idea that my mother-in-law played guitar, much less a Schecter Omen-6. Turns out she closed that chapter a couple years ago, hanging up her axe only when arthritic fingers finally stopped her rockin' the house.

Awestruck, I didn't pick it up at first but walked slowly around it, sniffing warily the way you might if you were a Hondamatic rider about to swing a leg over a Tuono R. It looked aggressive, capable and intimidating as hell-good enough that I would own every error and furthermore commit mistakes I hadn't even thought of yet.

But just as girls are meant to be kissed and bikes are meant to be ridden-even and perhaps especially the very good ones-instruments are meant to be played. If I wait until I have the skills for it, I'll never gain them. That's how that game works, so I sat down and started to play.

And sucked.

Eventually, slowly, it started to come together. My fingers recalibrated from the familiar old six-string, just as my throttle hand automatically recalibrates after jumping off my placid '60s twin to seize hold of the 100-horse light-switch of my latter-day boxer.

As with that bike-chotomy, the old guitar offers everything I need for a pleasant afternoon and bears irreplaceable memories to boot-but 15 watts of boost let me do things I never imagined doing on the Silvertone.

Plunking along a country road on my old bike is profoundly satisfying. I look down at the cylinders warming my feet and appreciate that they're beautifully made in a classic style, durable and effective within their limits. At 60 mph, the beggar's riding position feels natural all day long.

But without gooey modern tires, I won't ride to the edge of the tread. Öhlins shocks, wide wheels, 50 pounds less weight and serious power mean that even I can do things on my '07 R1100S that motorcyclists literally didn't imagine when the R69S was designed.

The gifts of technology don't make me a better guitar player or a smoother rider, but they expand the envelope. My friendly old bike, with its sand-cast cases and gentleman's kick-starter, is satisfying and reliable as Grandpa's axe. The new one, its alloys unapologetically shrouded in deep black plastic, is closer akin to my neighbor's hydraulic log-splitter.

Re-entry into a skilled avocation is always a daunting prospect, especially if you're not as good as you think you were back when-and nobody's as good as I remember, at least on bikes. (I always sucked on guitar.)

But as neither a professional motorcycle racer nor a gigging musician, I have the luxury of time for improvement. Maybe I'll work in some guitar lessons next summer, between track days and an MSF Advanced RiderCourse. You can learn from anyone if you pay attention. You may find that lessons on what brings joy are as important as any other, and a lot more overdue.

Besides, hearing "That's too loud!" from my teenage stepson is very nearly as gratifying as provoking him to cluck that I ride too fast.

Maybe next summer I'll take Sonboy along on a moto-camping weekend. We can even bring my old Silvertone and play some homemade music around the campfire.

Everyone ought to wick it up sometimes, but it's good to unplug once in a while.

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