Friday, April 13, 2012

Changing My Strings

“If you’re a sloppy thinker six days a week and you really try to be sharp on the seventh, then maybe the next six days aren’t going to be quite as sloppy as the preceding six…The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.”
~Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I decided to change my guitar strings. They’d all been switched out in November when I had William at the Guitar Gallery in Cleveland Park (“the guitar guy”) do some work for me. I chose the ones I wanted—Martin silk and steel folk guitar strings—and he put them on after cleaning my fret board and adjusting my action with a truss rod. It’s not as dirty as it sounds.

Four months later one of my open mic friends said, ”Your guitar would sound a lot better with new strings.” Fateful words. The moral of this story is that a guitar with old strings sounds better—and is infinitely more playable—than a guitar with no strings.

I sat on my bed--coffee and water on the adjacent nightstand, and set about my task, daunted and confident at the same time. I figured I would talk myself through it and it wouldn’t be so bad. I took off all the strings and cleaned the fret board. That was my first mistake. Not the cleaning, but I later found out that I should have changed out the strings one by one. Or not.

In all things guitar, I have found that everyone has a different opinion—how I should sit, whether or not to learn tablature, how important it is to put myself through the hell that is learning barre chords. I fall somewhere between easily led and totally stubborn, but one thing’s for sure: I ask a lot of questions. First, I went back and forth with my friend Jacob via text about whether I could combine strings from different packages (weights). I had three or four half packages of D’Addarios I wanted to use up and figured I could combine them.

Somehow when I got a guitar and broke my first string, about one year ago, I managed to order and replace the string without asking anyone what to do. It was truly a case of beginner’s mind. Now I found that I was clueless as to how to proceed. I ached with the sense that I should have left well enough alone. I put everything aside for a minute and tried to breathe. My computer was playing on random and a track called “The Elvis Song” from Liz Phair’s Girlysound recordings came on. “Elvis, be good to me,” she says in a high-pitched nasal whine. “Elvis, be true.” I grabbed my journal and scrawled out the first line of my song, which would end up being the last.

Great, a song was developing. But I wouldn’t be able to write or play it until I got the strings on. I stared at the naked guitar. While one hour previous I’d been banging away at a Loudon Wainwright tune, now the instrument sat there, defiled, and I couldn’t play it.

For many years I’d had a pretentious ambition to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Yes, I am better for having read it, but that book will whack the pretentiousness right out of you. Pirsig writes that the time to do good thinking is not later, when you have the perfect tools in front of you; it’s right now—on the road, as it were—or wherever you happen to find yourself, in whatever state of self-loathing or poverty of mind. Resign yourself to your limitations and act on those, instead of failing to act altogether.  As Tim Ferriss writes, “Boredom is the enemy, not some abstract failure.”  (Gee, what would happen if those two could somehow meet up across the space-time continuum?)

The worst case scenario was not that the strings would all be broken or unplayable or wound backward. It’s only wood and wire, after all. The real tragedy would have been missing this opportunity to be so humbled by an inanimate object that I got a good song out of it. I didn’t miss it. I got my ass to the public library, checked out a guitar repair guide, followed the instructions to the letter, and guess what? Within an hour I had six working strings.

Pirsig says that if you look for the machine, you will never find it. Where is it? In the tappets? The spark plugs? The chrome in between? It’s a cycle called yourself.

Don't Wait 'Til Sunday (Song for Robert Pirsig)

I set about changing my worn out guitar strings, seeking the solace that physical work brings
It proved much, much harder than I had expected: the wood and the wire, my efforts rejected
Someday I’ll be famous with mansions and things
Do Joni and Dar have to change their own strings?

I thought it beyond me, so I’d just take it in and I’d ask the guitar guy to lessen my burden
But amidst all my crying and whining and curses, I found myself thinking about Robert Pirsig
Well, I’ll introduce him ‘cause it’s been a while since he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
He drove ‘cross the country with his teen son in tow; they had many, many, many miles and more miles to go
Someday I’ll be famous and I’ll wear gold rings
And I wonder, does Loudon have to change his own strings?

Pirsig said if you think well just one day per week your tappets will rust and your engine will leak
Instead you should try to be one with the tuning; if not, you might find that your ego’s ballooning
He said that a great man would not wait ‘til Sunday or pine away hoping for riches, for “one day”
Think well right now, do the hard work yourself, don’t count on your servants, don’t lean on your wealth

And don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

The strings  were all bent and my eyes were all cried out when I noticed the bridge holes were a little bit dried out
I put on some music and I did the repair for what seemed like hours to the sound of Liz Phair

Don’t wait ‘til Sunday, don’t wait ‘til Sunday

“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder if Liz has to change her own strings
“Elvis, be good to me,” Liz Phair sings, and I wonder, did Elvis ever change his own strings?

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