Some things just find you. A memory found me today and I’m glad it did.
It’s a summer afternoon. Fluffy white clouds drift slowly across the sky, and a gentle breeze stirs the leaves on the tall trees that line the fence of my back garden. They whisper, a gentle rustle that answers the chirping murmur of birdsong. I run across the lawn, chasing my younger brothers in a game. Midway through the long expanse of the summer holidays, school is a forgotten memory and all that matters is now. The year is 1995, and I’m 10 years old.
My dad’s in the house, upstairs in his study which has a big window that looks out over the garden. He was working earlier but now mum’s shaking her head and tutting from the kitchen because he’s got his bloody guitar out. It happens once a year (if that), and today’s the day. He throws the window open and starts to play. It seems very loud from outside, and he’s playing some kind of old fashioned music. I recognise a couple of tunes from last year’s afternoon of guitaring. There’s one that goes “If God was one of us…” and another that seems very upset about something; “Is it getting better… or do you feel the same…?”
I like them both, but I’m mostly happy Dad plays guitar because it’s just another thing he does that proves he’s cool. I walk in from the garden, through the kitchen, and the muted rumble of a little practice amp turned a bit too loud forces its way downstairs. Mum’s still grumbling about “that bloody guitar”. I’m only 10 but I know not to be underfoot when mum’s grumbling, so I go to the living room and fire up Sonic 2.
An hour or so later, Dad’s exhausted his repertoire of half remembered lyrics and licks. I’m pretty sure Smoke on the Water was featured at some point. He comes downstairs and turfs me off the Sega Megadrive so he can watch some TV. I saunter upstairs and find myself in the study. The guitar’s there and unusually there’s still a lead connecting it to the amp. I’ve seen the guitar, unloved and shoved into an unused corner of the room, for as long as I remember. It’s nothing special. But today it looks different. I notice it in a way I didn’t before. I study the amp’s control panel and find the “power” switch. Flick. There’s a pop and a hum starts. A little red light comes on.
The guitar’s on a stand. I have no idea how to hold it so it stays there. The strings feel a bit sharp so I treat it with caution. I sit cross legged on the thick green carpet in front of this object that’s suddenly caught and held my fascination, reaching out gingerly, vague worries about sharp metal strings and electricity in the back of my mind.
My fingers touch the thinnest string. A gentle squeak emerges from the speaker. I pull my hand back a little, place my thumb against the string, and pluck it.
The note fills the room. It sounds and feels different to anything I’ve heard before. It doesn’t just stop – the rich and pure sound carries on, gently receding towards the silence I pulled it from. I just sit and listen. It fades, fades, and after 30 seconds I can’t hear it any more. Even then I know it’s still there, quieter than I can fathom, ringing away. I want to hear it again. I pluck the string once more, and move from right to left, each string thicker, deeper and more sonorous than the one that preceded it. The thickest string makes a sound I can feel through the floor. I move back up the strings one by one, then with a final flourish rake my finger down all 6 strings. The notes vibrate the air and beat against each other. The chord I made from the open strings is dissonant and not particularly musical but that just adds to its wonder; this isn’t a sound I’ve heard before and within the noise I can hear possibilities, different notes fighting each other and hinting at melodies I won’t find for years. I sit, hypnotised, as the notes once more fade to silence.
I have no idea what the frets are for and I won’t find out for another 6 years. The guitar stays on its stand and, having exhausted the possibilities offered by the open strings, I turn the amp off and go back outside to chase my brothers in the garden under the long afternoon sun.