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! :-)

“That God’s Love Might Live in Us” — A Few Lovely Words from Thomas Merton
Timothy Keller Gets Contemplation Wrong
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
How to Keep a Holy Lent
  • Darrell Grizzle

    Happy Mid-Life Crisis. :o)

    ~ Darrell (tooling around in his black convertible)

  • Andrew

    The contemplative shaman. Enjoy the noise!!

    I have just put a comment up here that appears to be an excerpt taken from either one of your books or your site. I found it while Google searching the net. Please confirm the source so I can correctly accredit it to the right book. Thanks,

  • Shelia

    Sweet! Contemplation finds a new venue.

    A few things: First, I began piano lessons when I was 7, but I’ve been playing all my life. Those first interactions…playing a tone and listening til the last traces faded away…playing several notes together and feeling the mood it created inside me…giving wordless voice to something so deep it was unutterable…were truly transcendent. Thirty-three years later, it is still magic. In that same way you can lose yourself in a splendid organ recital, you will lose yourself in the music you make, even before your skill equals your vision. And isn’t that part of meditation…losing yourself?

    Second, who knew the Krauss/Plant combo would be so satisfying? So, I anticipate you and your wife will find new songs in one another you can’t even imagine yet.

    Third, if you can be inspired and challenged without being intimidated, you should listen to Victor Wooten. He is probably one of the top three bass guitarists in the world today. He has played for a host of artists including a recurring gig with Bela Fleck. But, he also makes the bass guitar SING on its own. There are scads of videos of him on youtube, but here are two of my favorites:
    Hang with the second. He will travel a million miles in this solo. But, he will land occasionally in a place that might feel a bit like home.

    Enjoy the new adventure.

  • phil foster

    My first thought (honest) was the monks in “Into Great Silence” sliding in the snow. Capture that playful, spontaneous, God-given joy on the bass and you’ll have arrived.

    Although I haven’t touched a drum kit in 15 years during college I was in a group with my first wife that played all over Florida. Mucho fun, compadre. And, yes, at 57 I’ve been contemplating getting another kit. You see, there’s this praise team at church, they need a drummer and…

    If you desire to be completely intimidated, check out Tony Levin (of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel fame) or Trey Gunn (KC). Clearly (and speaking as a drummer) the bass is THE instrument. It holds the bottom, keeps time and plays melody. If the bass player is happening the band is happening.

    Finally, drop “crisis.” It’s a recovery of childhood and adolescence in an adult way. As in the Parsifal myth, you are now back in the Grail castle (after years of slaying dragons and diddling with maidens) but now you know what questions to ask. Enjoy! Salut!


  • Carl McColman

    Shelia: Thanks for the Wooten links, he’s amazing. What a sweet and joyful energy he seems to exude.

    Phil:Indeed, Levin is amazing; I’ve seen him in concert three or four times with Peter Gabriel, and he always shone. Don’t know Gunn but I’ll check him out…. if you do get the trap set, beware: you might be one of those greyhairs I’ll be pestering to jam with!

  • phil foster

    Only if we have contemplatio before and/or afterwards.


  • Carl McColman

    Works for me!

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  • Cody


    I am in the same boat as you! As a 45 year old, I am also seriously contemplating taking up the bass and have been looking at Ibanez GSRs as well! My son is starting to play drums and I would like to play with him someday or maybe get into a church group.

    I would love to hear about your initial experiences if you have the time someday to email me.


  • Carl McColman

    Hi Cody. The main thing I would say is, have fun. Try to carve out a half hour each day for practice. And I can’t stress this enough: take lessons. If you really want to learn, it’s worth the money. The bass is all about accompanying the drums, so you’re on the money in terms of what you want to do with it.

    I like the GSR, and the little amp that comes with the starter pack is plenty powerful enough for playing in the living room. I suppose eventually I’ll want to take a closer look at the Fender basses – but one of the reasons I went with the Ibanez was that I couldn’t make up my mind between the P bass and the J bass, and so the GSR seemed like a good compromise.

    Let me repeat: have fun. Let that be your guiding principle, and you’ll be on your way.

  • Bacchus Aquinas

    I ran across this quite by accident (if you believe in accidents heh).

    I started playing bass about 2 years ago. I was thrown in the deep end and had to learn on the spot, after only ever having played around with one a few times (I stretched the truth when I told them I was a bassplayer – the band was just too good – great amped up celticish/Aussie-Colonial Punk (I suppose) and figured I could rise to the challenge.

    Two years later the word is I’m much better, but not as good as I want to be.

    But all that muso ambition stuff aside, I agree completely that the Bass is an awsome shamanic tool (I dabble like many spiritual drifters). Because it can be highly percussive and the player can easily modulate the frequency of the beat, it can be quite mesmerizing.

    There’s something captivating about a sound you can feel.

    Music is good for you.


  • Joy

    Very cool! We’ll have to get together sometime and compare notes (…yes the pun was intended). I didn’t know you were 47… I just turned 48 on the day we left Georgia (best birthday present I ever gave myself!).