From the beginning: history & inspiration
I started playing sometime around the middle of the 1960s. I'm old enough that I really can't remember the exact year. Do I count from when I started plinking on my dad's budget classical guitar or when my parents, determined to support my musical interest despite my expressed disinterest in studying classical music, bought me a Kent electric guitar for Christmas? Regardless, let's call it 1967: a year memorable for the "Summer of Love".
I was most interested in what was known at time as "folk rock" and its glassy-eyed cousin, "acid rock". My friends and I hung out and learned songs together. We discovered that I was pretty good at picking out chord progressions and solos by ear. I was going entirely by instinct at that point, so my voicings and fingerings were often awkward, incomplete and inaccurate. Still, I managed to capture the gist of a song and teach it to my friends.
One of the things that was really cool, in retrospect, was that I already had some good intuitions about music theory. I couldn't explain why, but I knew when a chord sounded out of place (e.g. a major instead of a minor) in a progression.
My first performance came after I had been playing for a matter of months. I was with friends at some church function when one of the adult leaders asked me to lead a group in playing a folk song. It seemed like a great idea to me. As a result of that experience, I think, I've never had stage fright.
A lot of the early days, from middle school through high school, was all about hanging out with friends and making music. We'd get together in living rooms, basements and garages to play the songs of the day. We'd play anything we could figure out: Hendrix, The Monkees, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Vanilla Fudge, etc. I usually ended up singing as well as playing guitar. We had a reliable drummer, but rarely a bass player.
I actually played a few paying gigs back then: a couple of dances - one with a band that had been literally thrown together the morning of the gig - and a policeman's ball.
My gear obsession took root at an early age. I paid for most of my gear through earnings from my paper route, and later from working in a TV repair shop during the the summers of my first and second years in high school.
Occasionally my dad would chip in some fraction of the purchase price of a piece of gear that I wanted as an inducement for me to earn good grades in school. I was a classic underachiever. I tested well, but really didn't make an effort in the classroom. School bored me.
The gear I had was, quite frankly, crap by today's standards. The best guitar and amp I owned were a Harmony Rocket and a Silvertone 1485. I had a few others along the way. Even the crummy amps would be judged fairly today (aside from being significantly quieter than their "professional" counterparts), but the guitars were just awful.
Out of the box, most cheap guitars were painful to play. I learned how to make them comfortably playable (and indeed, some quite good) by leveling frets, adjusting neck tilt and relief, adjusting the bridge, etc.
I had a few effects back then. A fuzz pedal, a really awful wah pedal having a variable inductor rather than a pot, an Orange Squeezer, and a couple of Electro-Harmonix effects at various times. I didn't use them often or keep them for long.
I have been into electronics since a very early age, so I got into modding my gear. I added a couple of gain stages to my 1485. I built an elaborate switching system and preamp into one of my guitars. I turned cheap tape recorders into echo units.
The real thrill, though, was playing at parties. A lot of these were outdoors and ended with the requisite series of noise-abatement visits from the men in blue. We were always interested in knowing how far away we were heard.
I played keyboards for a short period. I always loved the sounds of the Hammond, Vox and Farfisa organs that figured prominently in some of the songs of the day. I found a cheap used two-manual organ, fixed it up, and taught myself to play In A Gadda Da Vida, Light My Fire, Lighter Shade of Pale, 96 Tears, and a few others. Both hands. For everything else I either comped the chords or played guitar.
In college I continued to play music with whoever was around. For about a year I was part of a trio that had a classical guitarist, an electric guitarist and a flautist. We all sang. I played my electric guitar through a Conn saxophone effect that added sub-octaves. My amp was a transistor radio.
I also ran a weekly coffee house in the dorm for nearly two years. I met and played with a lot of good musicians there. I took inspiration from hearing them play things that I couldn't. One guitarist in particular said something I've always remembered: "Anyone can learn to play the guitar in a few hours. Then you spend the rest of your life trying to master the instrument."
After college I got married, acquired a Rickenbacker 360 six-string (inspired by Paul Kantner), built an amp (SS) and started work on a guitar-synthesizer that I never finished. (I did learn quite a bit about optical pickups and pitch extraction, though. Also, that work prompted a village from guitarist Steve Hillage.)
Shortly thereafter I took a break for a couple decades, but that's a different story.
When my younger son started showing an interest in music I picked up the guitar again and remembered how much I enjoy playing.
I'm less social now than I was when I was young. I still love playing music, but I'm just as happy to be playing for myself as I am to be playing for an audience.
After having spent four years in "bands playing original material in bars" I decided that I didn't want to be part of that scene, and concentrated on my solo guitar technique and repertoire.
I try to get out and play at open mics to find out whether anyone aside from me can make sense of the musical direction I've taken. I've been pleasantly surprised by the response.
I've had a "not a band" since last summer. It's just three friends jamming and writing material with the occasional foray to an open mic. I really enjoy the process of creating new music and working out the arrangements. We record everything.
Aside from having built an amp (which I no longer use, but has been adopted by MSL's guitarist) in 2005 and a batch of cables last year, I have no interest in building or modding gear. Maybe that'd be different if I didn't have a day job...
As much as I like learning new things about music and gear, there's something else...
There's a "flow"... When I forget about what I want to do, and just let my fingers "follow the music", something ... happens. Intention disappears. The music seems to come from somewhere beyond me. There's a fluidity not just to the notes, but to the music itself. It's me playing, but the analytic part disappears and I play entirely by intuition.
Hmm, too new age-y... Or Meher Baba by way of Pinball Wizard...
OK, how about this: Y'know when you're playing something and a finger lands in the wrong place and you think, "Oh, that's wrong." Maybe you stop and correct yourself. Maybe you play through it, try to minimize the clinker and make sure you get it right the next time it comes around. Normally this is a good thing. You have to play with intention. That's key to improving technique.
But sometimes that "wrong" note catches your ear and you think, "Ooh, that's interesting" and suddenly all these other possibilities seem to unfold, and you pick one without thinking. And that leads to another possibility, and another, and another... And before you know it you're playing something that seems to be coming from beyond yourself. It's like slipping on ice and recovering your balance, then discovering that you can fly and finding yourself in interplanetary space...
Um, maybe a bit too heavy on the psychedelics, huh...? Or philosopher Olaf Stapledon's science fiction story "Star Marker"...
Sometimes I can go for weeks without ever hitting this "flow" state. Other times I'll find it three or four times a week. When it does happen, it's truly amazing. This is what really what keeps me coming back. The experience is part reward for all the work I've put in so far, and part teaser for what I might be able to do intentionally if I keep working.