I was seventeen. I'd bought myself a blue sunburst acoustic for $85 from Guitar Center, with the minimum wage gig I had serving lattes at Open Coffee. I got the guitar (mostly) to impress a guy I had a crush on.
Driving home from the store I had grand visions of myself sitting on stage, strumming the shit out of Radiohead’s “Creep” (I was 17) and blowing people's minds. I was a few weeks short of graduating High School and leaving Laredo for good and all I wanted was to play Sarah McLachlan's ""I Will Remember You"" for my best friend at a local open mic. I had two weeks. I figured it couldn't be THAT hard.
I got home, pulled the guitar out of the box, gave it a strum, and was like, "THEY GAVE ME A BROKEN GUITAR."
It sounded like shit.
An hour later, my buddy came over to give me my first lesson and told me it just hadn't been tuned yet. I didn't know the difference.
We started the lesson, and I SUCKED at it. It hurt. I got impatient immediately. I hated it.
Every time I picked up that guitar and tried fingering through chords I was reminded of how totally inept I was. It hurt to press my fingers down on the frets and I had no idea how to hold my hands over the strings. I could barely keep the damn thing in my lap. It felt like a foreign language.
I signed up for 5 weeks of guitar lessons at a local music shop, thinking that would do it. I showed up for my second group lesson with two 7-year-olds that totally kicked my ass, and never went back.
I never learned how to play "I Will Remember You." Instead, my crush played the guitar while I sang, and it was awkward, embarrassing and all around terrible. I missed half the notes, forgot lyrics and felt like an ass in front of a bunch of our senior class. I remember seeing one of the cute tennis players laughing under his breath and wanting to crawl under the table and die.
I figured I'd never sing like that again.
The image of that girl sitting on stage riffing on the guitar never really went away. I’d drive around in my car listening to Ani Difranco's live records for hours, imagining it was me. So quietly in my own time, I kept searching for really, really easy songs to play. Then at my going away party, with 15 of my closest friends, I sang “Providence” - one of the simplest Ani Difranco tunes I could find. I only knew half of it, but it was beautiful. It gave me the tiny glimmer of hope I needed to keep going.
So I never stopped trying. I took that guitar with me after graduation and hauled it all over Turkey and Egypt while I traveled the globe as an exchange student. Every week I'd find a lull in my schedule and pull up Mirah’s “Archipelago” or Damien Rice’s “I Remember” - cover songs simple enough that I could slowly fingerpick my way through. At some point, I'd hit a wall, feel like an idiot again, and put the guitar down. A part of me thought I'd never get it.
It wasn't until two years later, when I wrote my first song, that I fell in love.
That night - time stopped. And I was more obsessed with anything I’ve ever been. I don’t know how to describe it other than feeling like I was on drugs. Nothing else on the planet existed but the little puzzle of lyrics spilling out of me - and all the sudden playing the guitar went from being a total pain in the ass to the canvas that gave me space to sing.
For the first time, I sang in my own voice. I went from trying to learn other people’s songs to tapping into my own intuition and natural ear. I spent hours that night moving my way around the guitar until I found notes that carried the melody I felt in my gut. I’d fumble around trying to sing over the notes I played, and at some point I’d find something good and it would click. I’d scream or cry or laugh out loud, and that’s how I knew I was on the right track. I wrote what moved me.
Almost overnight, I went from playing the guitar for twenty or thirty minutes, MAX, to an average of three or four hours a day. Many times, I'd play all night. I went nowhere without my guitar. Nowhere. And very quickly, my playing improved. I got better. I was obsessed.
I never got over the high of writing that first night, and so naturally, over time - I got better. My songwriting got more complex and as a result, so did my guitar playing.
Bare in mind; I still “sucked” as a guitarist. I just learned to play my songs well. I remember a buddy inviting me to his studio once to “jam” - and staring at him like a deer in headlights as he barked guitar chords at me. I had no idea what I was doing.
For so many years I tried learning the way I thought I was supposed to. Taking lessons, trying to use a guitar pick, doing scales. I hated all of it. It wasn't until I wrote the way I WANTED TO that I found what worked for me.
People say you should do what you're passionate about - but sometimes, it takes some fumbling to find that passion. It’s okay if you don’t instinctively know. It took me a lot of fucking up and feeling like an ass. But the moment I found it, I knew. I lost time.
Here's the thing: I still question myself. I STILL sit down to start every song feeling completely inept as a guitarist. But I remember what it's like to fumble in the beginning, to struggle to find your footing until you finally hit that stride. At some point the voices in your head quiet down, and before you know it, time stops moving.
The trick is sticking in the game long enough to get past the voices.
At that point, the love for what you becomes greater than the fear of doing it.