Ruhee Dewji

Puzzling through

There’s this weird thing that happens when you get over the first few bumps in a beginner learning curve and your muscle memory starts taking over, like you’re suddenly having an out-of-body experience, observing yourself doing things without any input from your brain. When I’m playing guitar, I’m often scrunched over the body of my Tele in a terrible office chair in the corner of my apartment, and occasionally it feels like I’m just sitting there watching my fingers move on their own. This is a good sign! Something in there is working. But it’s only flashes so far, and the rest of the time my brain is still catching up. It’s a reassuring vote of confidence, like, “hey, you’re doing the thing, it’s getting there.”

Everyone I know plays guitar, it seems, like even people that never talk to me about music. It’s funny and a little frustrating to be doing what pretty much everyone else spent some time doing as a teen. Sometimes I’m just dicking around a lot playing songs I liked when I was a teenager, but I’m also way more disciplined than I was back then (except for a few years of hitting woodwind technique hard, when I thought I wanted to play jazz forever). Playing guitar exercises is a whole different ballgame than playing woodwind ones. Like I mentioned, most of your body isn’t involved, which continues to confuse; the small movements make my hands feel so fluid and the rest of my body is so zen. I’ve caught myself breathing in time sometimes, which I love—it’s like I can’t quite give up my roots.

One thing I just haven’t come to understand is guitar tone and sound. I mean, I can hear the differences, and I understand it in principle, but constructing and modifying it is so weird—so many bells and whistles and twiddly knobs. On a sax you spend so much time thinking about opening your throat and tinkering with the tension in your jaw and your face, literally opening your body to let more music out. Understanding how to translate what my ears hear—there are maybe hundreds of guitar sounds that I love and can point out and describe, but I don’t have the vocabulary for them—is a really strange experience. I can only deal in examples.

To make things more difficult, some of the technical vocabulary is just straight-up different. In flute music, for example, a tremolo marking often means a flutter-tongue, like you’d do when you roll an R. It’s a pretty cool effect, one which I use a lot when I improvise. In other cases it can also mean just trilling between two marked notes or playing one note at a very rapid speed. (It’s been a while, but I think this is reasonably accurate.) In the world of electric instruments tremolo mostly means a variation in the signal’s amplitude or volume. More confusingly, guitar tremolo arms are actually producing vibrato, since they’re all about pitch variation and not amplitude. Clear as mud.

You never think about these things when you’re like “Cool, I can play ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ with this thing,” you know?