Note: The term tremolo bar is a misnomer. Tremolo applies to the rapid repetition of the same note, as in tremolo picking.
I steadily began expressing my desire for an electric guitar, and people took the hint by giving me birthday presents in the form of cash. I expected to pay extra money in addition to what I had received when I head back to Walter's Music.
I cruised through the aisles of the store looking at all the awesome and odd guitars on display. Jay was seated on a stool in the store selling music as always. He greeted me and I told him what I wanted. He lit up with a spark in his eye and said, That's great, Justin! Then salesman-Jay took over him and he started talking rapidly about electric guitar beginner packages and the like. He led me to a rack of several Stratocaster-style Yamaha Pacificas.
Now these are the average beginner pack guitars. They're not that great, but they work.
I looked at the designs: a Canadian flag guitar, a pink guitar they didn't look so great, especially not in juxtaposition with the giant wall of monstrous metal-head guitars behind it. Jay paused, and salesman-Jay faded away for a second.
Why don't you come around back over here
He took us a few steps along the wall and gestured toward a nicer line of guitars: solid-body single cutaways complete with a whammy bar.
I actually have one of these guitars. Do these ones interest you? I nodded in agreement. Which color? I looked at the rack - there was a black body with a black pickguard and a blue body with a black pickguard. I chose the much bolder black pickguard against a crimson-red body. Good choice. This is called a Godin SD. It's a Canadian company, and they make pretty good guitars. I'd say this guitar isn't great, but it's good.
He took down the red guitar and led me to a typical beginner solid-state combo amp. I had no clue about wattage at the time, but I would assume that the one he showed me was 15 watts.
This amp is what normally comes with the package.
I nodded like I understood the quality of the amp. I waited for what he was about to offer me. He wheeled over to a tiny little amp. On the bottom edge of the amp it read in capital letters: MICRO CUBE. I didn't know it, but this amp is a measly two watts. Jay plugged in the guitar and started jamming away, changing playing styles every five seconds. I thought, if that is what he can sound like with this guitar and amp - that's good enough for me. The amp was surprisingly loud, as he had it only about a quarter of the volume up, and yet I was still able to hear it over the chatter of musicians. He put on the phaser, tremolo, delay, heavy distortion, light distortion, clean, acoustic. The amp had a ton of built-in effects. He stopped and pointed to a glass case of effects pedals.
Practically, he explained. All of those pedals right there that are like, fifty bucks each, are pretty much built in to this amplifier. Not completely, but pretty much. I have one of these things and it's sweet- much better than that other amp you saw. But it's gonna cost fifty dollars extra. You want it?
I thought about it. But that didn't do much. Salesman-Jay had me in the palm of his hand. I just went with what he said and decided to get the Roland Micro Cube. He handed me the guitar and told me to try it out. I grabbed it and sat on the stool. I examined the whammy bar that I had been eyeing this whole time. The silver metal rod was swinging back and forth as the guitar sat on my lap. I played a couple of riffs, and then cautiously grasped the bar. I brought it up and pushed inward, but it didn't budge. The Guitar Hero controller wasn't like this - that whammy bar slides in and out with the push of a finger. I thought that I had been mistaken in thinking that it was a whammy bar. I asked Jay what it was for, and he took back the guitar.
This is the tremolo bar. He amazingly pressed it in and performed the pitch varying feat that I had attempted just seconds ago. We'll talk about using this when I see you next week. He went on to explain one more thing. See this switch on the guitar? It controls which pickups you want to use. The first position uses only the neck pickup - use that one for the acoustic setting if you want that warm sound.
It was time to make my purchase - I got a gig bag, a strap, and a dozen Fender picks. Jay also threw in a beginners' guitar book as part of the package. The total cost came to about five or six hundred Canadian dollars. I triumphantly wore my guitar on my back and marched out of the mall.
When I got home, I took out my shiny new weapon of rock and brandished it proudly. I set up my red Micro Cube, tuned up the stock strings and riffed away. I grabbed hold of the freely swinging tremolo bar and tried once more to emulate the effect that I was so familiar with on Guitar Hero. Noticing that the bar was lifting the bridge of the guitar to reduce tension on the strings, I foolishly raised my eyebrows and said, So that's how it works! My dad chuckled and said, What did you think it was? I had actually thought the bar was an electrically engineered post-pickup effect, which explained why I didn't push down the bar hard enough the first time around.
After toying with all the different effects on the Micro Cube, I took a closer look at my guitar. I didn't know the details at the time, but the Godin SD has a volume knob, a tone knob, a five-way pickup switch, two single coil pickups, and a humbucker at the bridge. I took one knob, turned it all the way down, and strummed. No sound. I turned that one up and did the converse. The sound of the strings was muffled, which I recognized from my tone knob on my amp. I turned that knob back up, and tested out the pickup switch. Strumming a chord after each switch, I noticed almost no differences in sound. So I compared the extremes: position one and five. I found the fifth position favorable for distortion, and following Jay's tip, I liked the first position for the acoustic setting and other clean sounds.
I spent the rest of the day fine-tuning the knowledge of my new empowering tools. From that day on, I would play the guitar every single day of my life, not counting a couple of vacations that prevented me from doing so. That is, until I fractured my wrist two years later.
The next evening, I played in front of my first audience. Not formally, but we had guests over. I sat cross-legged in front of my tiny little amp, and it was inevitable that my parents' friends would gather around me to observe the new guitar in action. I really had no presentable material - I simply lowered my head and riffed away as usual. A minute of Canon Rock followed by twenty seconds of Smells Like Teen Spirit followed by two repetitions of the Smoke on the Water riff followed by the Crazy Train intro followed by
I received no comments from anyone. People just casually sat around asking questions like, How much was that? My dad would later tell me how I should learn a complete song instead of picking up bits and pieces of them. I made the argument that there are very few songs for the guitar that do not require some sort of vocal or band accompaniment and that songs like Canon Rock are just too hard to complete.
I really had no urgent desire to show off my guitar-playing. I played for myself, and that was enough.
I knew that it was enough, because pretty soon I was learning more songs on my own than with Jay. One day I was at his place jamming around quietly while I waited for him to finish up his lesson with another student. I was unplugged on my electric, and I was just playing around to pass the remaining five minutes. When we started the lesson, Jay proposed that we learn Chop Suey by System of a Down that day. It was a song that I actually knew, so I was a little excited to get started. But then he paused.
Did I hear you play Megadeth just before now? Yeah, I said, recalling my brief run-through of Symphony of Destruction before the lesson. You know what, then? Let's not learn that stupid song Chop Suey And with that he stood up from his seat to fiddle with his audio system. You know a song called Train of Consequences by Megadeth? I actually did. Not well, but I'd listened to it several times and tried to figure out the opening riff. He turned on his speakers. Chuck-unk chunk chugga chunk chunk I had originally eared that sound to be a muted low E power chord. When Jay told me to rest my fingers against the strings near the third fret and strum, I was a little doubtful. The sound didn't seem right to me; it sounded like a dead harmonic and I was definitely not used to that. But who was I to try to correct him? I played just as told and sure enough, I began to see that his way was right. Aside from the face-melting solo, I learned the entire song, even the tricky pre-solo. Near the song's perfection, Jay busted out his bass and drum machine. We recorded the song without vocals on his home recording studio, and I got to take home my very own copy of solo-less, voice-less, Train of Consequences.
As Jay noticed my interest for Black Sabbath, he put Paranoid up on the repertoire agenda. It wasn't Paranoid entirely - it was the Megadeth cover. Apparently, Jay was a pretty enthusiastic Megadeth fan. In the cover, the song's tempo is doubled and the solo is completely different. Jay made the comment that Black Sabbath is too old and not fast enough for him. I looked down at my guitar and raised an eyebrow.
The main riff was easy: I got that part right away. The solo was probably the first real guitar solo that I learned. It was a little challenging - it introduced the new concept of Van Halen style finger-tapping and generously employed my previously learned techniques of alternate picking, bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
But what really put me through a struggle was the plain verse part of the song. It was a simple progression of two-note power chords. Simple? Yes. Easy? Far from it. As I mentioned earlier, the tempo was on par with a rabbit's heartbeat. On top of that, the chords were palm muted. Any guitar player with an ounce of experience knows that palm-muted chords are generally played with all downstrokes. Mind you, this mundane, repetitive task can become extremely tiring to the picking hand. Especially if your teacher casually insists that you play it over and over again for practice. I produced a bead of sweat for each additional palm-muted power chord, and rejoiced each time I ended the verse with a relaxing sustained power chord.
With diligence, I mastered the song. I felt so accomplished that I attained the need to produce a recording of it on my own. And with that, I added a whole other realm to my guitar playing experience.