It seems half of Telluride went to Denver on Saturday to see the Rolling Stones. By all accounts, it was a phenomenal show. It didn’t seem to matter where folks were sitting — social media photos ranged from blurry shots of the video screens from the nosebleeds to photos of Mick prancing seemingly just a few feet away — the rock ’n’ roll delivered. For this girl with Parisian dreams and modest means, the Stones are too rich for my blood. I just don’t have that kind of disposable income. I decided I couldn’t justify the hundreds of dollars required to see my hero, Keith Richards, saunter across the stage pulling endless riffs from his five-string, Open G Tele. Because, yeah, I’m spoiled. Up close or not at all. Telluride festivals and shows at the Sheridan Opera House have made the prospect of attending stadium events unappealing, to say the least. Even if it’s the Stones.
But still, knowing Keef was in my state made for a touch of melancholy. He’s my muse, after all. It would have been fun to try to catch his eye. Louche and disarming, charming and gentlemanly, disheveled and dedicated to the blues. He’s an unlikely muse, but when I sling a guitar strap over my shoulder and the tubes heat up and hum, there he is — lurking just out of my peripherals, dragging on a ciggie, listening.
Good teacher and muse that he is, Keef said a couple things about playing guitar that have stuck with me through the years: Play the acoustic before the electric, and learn to play the blues.
Picking up the acoustic guitar makes sense for any number of reasons. It’s physically more difficult so I like how it builds hand strength. It’s also a callus-builder. Hours in the saddle make for tough fingers. The worst thing about letting the calluses soften is the pain of bringing them back. Never stop playing.
The acoustic guitar demands that you get it right, which Richards has said, requires precision. A poorly struck note on the electric can be fudged. An acoustic tells no lies.
And the acoustic is handy for shared living situations. I only plug in when I’ve got the house to myself for a decent stretch of time. That doesn’t happen often. Until I have my dream music room, my guitars live in the living room. Anyway, when the Big One drops and there’s no more electricity, an acoustic will always play.
I love Keith’s self-awareness as a guitar player and have incorporated it into my own assessment of my skills.
“I know what I can do and what I can’t,” he said. “Everything I do is strongly based on rhythm ‘cause that’s what I’m best at. I’ve tried being a great guitar player and, like Chuck Berry, I have failed.”
I’ll never be a David Gilmour or even a Keith Richards. I don’t play to please anyone (well, except for my muse), but for the joy it brings. I love those unbroken (rare) hours at home hunched over my guitars, moving from acoustic to Strat to Tele and back again. Time pauses, my fingers fly, song ideas get scrawled into one of the innumerable notebooks that are strewn about me. In a cloud of incense and imagination, I am at my most free when I am playing music.
While I definitely work on scales and chording, what I really try to do is let the songs I play lead me, to let feeling, rather than technical ability, be the driver. The great producer, Don Was, said this about Keith.
“To me, Keith is the paradigm, the connection between emotion and art,” Was said. “He’s a musician that all musicians should aspire to emulate. He’s a guy who understands how to just play in the moment and not be self-conscious. He knows how to get in touch with the feeling of a song and to translate that into music in a very spontaneous way. He’s like a great jazz musician, really.”
But what Richards loves is the blues. The muse himself said, “If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock ’n’ roll or any other form of popular music.”
My forays into the blues are rudimentary, at best. And still, I soldier on. I try not to think and just feel. I like drone notes and open tunings and the fascination it evokes to tiptoe down that path. I often wonder what it would be like to stand at the crossroads, pondering the swap of my soul for the magic key to guitar prowess. Nah. I’ll just keep practicing.
Like Keith, I love rhythm. And like Keith, when my band was together, I loved working off the drive of the drummer. Keith has Charlie Watts; I had Phil Hamilton. The musical conversation Phil and I had was exhilarating. I let the drums possess me and it informed my playing in all the best ways. I’m no savant. Sometimes when I’m choppy and out of whack, I feel as if the two halves of my brain are in no way connected.
“Somehow you got to get both of them to love each other,” said Keith of the right hand and the left hand. Yes, my muse. And singing on top of all that? In the band, I rarely sang. I just liked to hang back by the drum kit and help stoke the engine.
So Keith’s molecules are probably still swirling in a football stadium 350 miles away. Thanks to a ripping Telluride Jazz Festival and being comfortable with my decision to not spend two car payments on the Stones, the FOMO was non-existent. Anyway, I’ve got my guitars waiting for me. And my muse. I think he just lit up another cigarette. He’s waiting.