Beyond the Surf: Learning to Swim
Toby Keller finishes his summer-long series about learning to play the guitar and diving into the world of music.
Waves beat the shore rhythmically beneath the moonlight that skirts along the surface of the sea but never dives deeper than me. There, in submerged darkness, I hold onto the Ray and peer into murky water. I've been here before; the unknown is becoming familiar, the lightlessness isn't so suffocating anymore. I strum down, up, up down. I change the tune; I hit a different chord. For a second there is a spark, a flash of light produced by the sound of my guitar. I know where I am. My fingers feel swift, controlled and unshaking.
I sit in the guitar room of my new house next to my amp, the Ray resting on my lap, a black pick twirling between my fingers as I stare out the window. The murkiness of my music knowledge seems to flood my eyes. I realize my reflection looks dead. I quickly look away, not wanting to see myself struggle. I look at my hands… play something, I silently demand of them, but they rest without acknowledging me.
Sometimes it feels like I'm going to die—my lungs will burst if I don't get to the surface, or somehow master this new world. I hold my breath and pick through "Remorse is for the Dead" by Lamb of God. Halfway through, I switch to "Schism" by Tool, then "Sold My Soul" by Zakk Wylde. None of them sound right. My hands can't replicate the sound I want to hear, but I can tell it's there somewhere, beneath the inaccuracies of my picking, or the wrongful placement of my fingers.
I slow myself down, trying to learn patterns before I make music. Muscle memory, baby, that's all it is… I watched Jimmy Paige play on "The Song Remains the Same," a live concert mixed with video footage of the band and other random scenes. He's got it down. His fingers move like they aren't even touching the strings. He closes his eyes and dances around the stage while wild riffs ring out. Later, I listened to "Since I've Been Loving You" by Zeppelin. I played it half a dozen times. The feel of the song wouldn't let go of me; the guitar, Robert Plant, John Bonham, it all rushed over me in cascading turbulence. It was a beautifully chaos—and the feeling is that my heart understood, even if my mind couldn't keep up.
Learning to play the guitar has kept me sane in a lot of ways this summer. My love for music has found another outlet, my love for life has found a new obsession, and my mind has been overjoyed by the constant stimulation and rewiring. It's like learning to swim after living in the desert your whole life.