Last night I bought a bass guitar. It’s an Ibanez GSR190: a beginner’s bass. It’s “low end” not only in the sound it makes but in the money it costs. It’s strictly no frills, but I’m already in love with it.
Yes, I know: that hardly seems to be a very “contemplative” thing to do. Although within minutes of plugging it in and messing around with it (I’m musically illiterate, and won’t start lessons until March, so I basically have the next six weeks to gleefully make noise like a five year old would before I enter into the “adult” world of actually learning how to play the thing), I was mesmerized by the richness of its deep earthy tones and even my untrained capacity to keep a simple beat. Maybe it’s not a naturally contemplative instrument, but I think it could qualify as a shamanic one. In other words, already I can see how playing the bass can foster a nice alpha state. And for now, that’s good enough for me.
So why, you may be asking, did a 47 year old man who’s never played any musical instrument other than hand drums and who has devoted much of his adult life to the pursuit of silence suddenly go out and buy an electric instrument? Is this some sort of weird mid-life gambit, along the lines of “since I can’t afford the red Porsche, a black bass will have to do?”
Well, it isn’t actually “suddenly.” Although I haven’t been blogging about it, I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of months now. And if a mid-life ploy at regaining lost youth really were the chief motivating factor, I think I would have just gone for an electric guitar instead (I won’t deny that mid-life issues haven’t been swirling around this — they have — but let’s just say I see learning a musical instrument as not so much about meeting women as about staving off dementia). Meanwhile, I don’t think an electric instrument is hostile to silence any more than an acoustic one would be (I just have to remember to keep the amp turned low, or else I might be living in the silence of permanent hearing loss); after all, truly great music often has a contemplative dimension to it. If you don’t believe me, go listen to a recital of Bach organ works in a beautiful old church somewhere and see if it doesn’t transport you. In my experience, all great music — from jazz to rock to Celtic to, yes, Gregorian chant — can be just as consciousness altering as anything by ol’ Johann Sebastian.
All told, what has driven me more than anything else to jump at my age into the world of music-making has been my wife’s recent (within the last six months) foray into learning the acoustic guitar. Fran is still very much a beginner, and her tastes are decidedly different from mine (think of it this way: in terms of the recent Alison Krauss/Robert Plant CD, Fran would be firmly in the Krauss camp while I’m much more on the Plant side of things), but the bottom line is, she’s having all sorts of fun and is improving every day. We’ve talked about how much we both would enjoy it if we could play together, so it just made sense for me to start learning an instrument too.
So, then, why not an acoustic guitar? Yeah, maybe that would have been a logical choice, but here’s where the aging rocker collides with the adoring husband. You can’t love rock’n'roll without loving the electric guitar, but I was one of those weird kids who always thought the bass guitar sounded great too (probably because the first rock album I fell in love with was Yes’ Fragile, a bass-guitar-fest if there ever was one) and so I tended to gravitate to bands that featured aggressive, melodic bass playing. Back to 2008: With a bass guitar I can gently accompany her, keeping time on all those old folk and bluegrass standards she’s learning. And then when we’re done playing together I can plug in the headphones and go back to trying to learn some Chris Squire or Phil Lesh riffs.
It’s my understanding that the downside of learning a bass is that eventually it’s just not a lot of fun to play solo: you gotta be in a band or at least have some buddies to jam with. For now, Fran’s my “jam buddy.” And if a year from now I need something more, I’ll either put up an ad on Craigslist to find some other greyhairs who don’t mind having a beginner sit in with them, or I’ll happily resolve my mid-life by crisis by finally getting a nice (and much more contemplative) acoustic guitar.
But until, then, watch out world: Chris Squire Jr. has just been born!