Eclectic Autodidact: Chords a challenge in playing a guitar


It hurts to type. It's not carpal tunnel (not yet anyway, I have that penciled in my calendar for early 2016) but rather my left hand finger tips are getting raw and that's where most of the useful letters hang out.

In order to better myself, expand my creative horizons, and cross another item of my list of things to do before I turn 30, I'm trying to learn how to play the guitar.

My assets include my girlfriend's electric guitar, her "learn to play the guitar" text book from high school and long chimp fingers. My liabilities include a complete inability to read music and an aversion to cutting my fingers. I'm beginning to get past the first, the second is still bothering me.

So far, I'm starting to get the individual notes, currently I can play notes on five out of six strings mostly correctly, and I hope to be able to play "Greensleeves" by the end of the week. What I find especially difficult is though is chords.

As I understand it, chords allow you to play a song with relatively few actual notes or changes by playing a collection of notes at once. Since humans are traditionally born with a standard number of mouths, this is typically impossible with woodwinds and more or less a unique feature of the string section.

However it's hard to look cool walking around with a piano case on your back so I've opted for the guitar.

The problem I have with chords, besides the finger gymnastics that result in profane mudras and the little bump on the pads of my fingers which always catches the next string over and ruins the chord, is that I don't really understand them. I get the actual structure of them, several notes played as one, but the actual purpose still eludes me. I just don't understand what they're there for. I can't make the few I know into anything that resembles a song even though I know you can play most of 20th century music with just four chords.

I did try an instrument once before, not counting the time when I was signed up to learn the violin in fourth grade without, strictly speaking, being notified of that fact.

For several years I played the flute. I could play several songs, but I learned by ear and, being unable to read music, I couldn't pick up new songs with any speed.

High school band, already tricky for a boy playing the flute, was as uncomfortable to me as English class would have been to an illiterate. I stopped playing at the end of middle school.

Also during high school, playing an instrument was the kiss of death for theatrical ambitions. Once it was known someone could play an instrument, he or she would be cast as a musician in every show until graduation.

I guess the underlying issue I have is that while I can grasp music as a science, it's never really clicked for me as an art. Vibrating strings of different lengths producing staggered notes, numbers in time, an orderly progression of individual notes that together makes the backing for a song, these things I understand. I may not be particularly good at them but I understand them in concept.

The ability to lose oneself in the music and draw fresh tunes out of the ether escapes me. I think that's why most of the music I follow, I follow for clever lyrics instead of particularly impressive tunes. I find it hard to believe I could create a melody from nothing, though I can recognize when the tune in one song will fit in another.

For example, I recently realized most of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" can be sung to the tune of "Star of the County Down."

Meanwhile, my girlfriend, who started playing her ukulele about two months ago, has already written her first song, an introspective piece which ponders how her life might be different had she ever watched "Star Wars."

I hope to reach that point by early next spring, then we can start a band.

Currently my list of band name ideas includes The Holotherians, Failure Notice, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, and current frontrunner Loup d'etat.

Write to Sean McHugh at


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