Once you have a guitar with all of it’s strings sitting around all the time, a funny thing happens. You find out that everybody’s dad plays the guitar a little. Like, when your parent’s friends (who are also your friends’ parents) come over for a cook out, the dad sees it sitting around, grabs it, starts to play, says “ooh! that needs to be tuned!” Then he spends some time tuning it, then he plays his “classic riff”, That is, the thing he knows how to play the best of all, over and over and over…..Here’s the thing about these dudes: They usually don’t know any whole songs. They usually just know a few riffs from the classic rock world and a few from what you assume is the world of blues, because you’re not familiar with them (and because they all modulate a 5th and have a turnaround).
Pat Rock is one such Dude (Dad). The father of my good friends, Christian Rock (not a made up name, I swear) and his kid brother, Matt, was at our house shortly after I got my grandma’s guitar up and running. As I said, when I put the strings on, I didn’t know how tight they were supposed to be, so I just tightened them enough so that it didn’t feel like they would break. “Tuning” the thing hadn’t occurred to me at all, even though in the background of my mind, I think I knew that was a thing that people did. When he said it needed to be tuned, I remember thinking, “duh, of course it does”. He said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to have steel strings on this. I think this is a nylon string guitar.” I just shrugged.
Until that day, I had just been plucking the strings one at a time with some giant triangular pick that I also bought at Cintioli’s. I would maybe put a finger on a fret or slide up and down the neck, but I certainly wasn’t trying to “play” anything. I was so in awe of the bright, crisp, resonant sound of the new strings, that I hadn’t really considered tuning or much else really.
Pat is sitting there tuning the thing and it is, by nature, anxiety provoking. He’s hitting the string and tightening it. You can imagine the sound that makes, right? Up..Up…Up..Up…Uuuuuuuuup. Next string Uuuup…..Up….Uuup! Like something’s gonna snap. But it doesn’t, and soon he’s got the whole thing sounding pretty sweet. He starts playing like a pro immediately, blowing right into the thing. he’s got these rough, huge, dried out, calloused construction guy fingers, and they’re dancing all over this guitar, making the most sophisticated, soulful of sounds. He’s bending strings with great tuneful intensity. I’m thinking the guitar is gonna break apart in his big mallet-like hands, but it doesn’t. Who knew? I should have known. Pat was a rocker. He has fuckin “Rock” in his name. He looked kind of like Tom Petty. He had always had a blond mullet, which by 87, had begun to get some blow dry, formaldehyde hair gel treatment into a more Daryll Hall, Thompson Twins direction. He wore prescription glasses, but they were sun glasses, of the greenish grey Hessian variety. And he had tattoos. He had the Black Panther that scratches your arm, and a little cupid looking guy with boxing gloves and a few others. This was before EVERYBODY had tattoos, so there was a biker/rocker element to his whole presentation. It only made sense that he played guitar.
I asked him to show me some things. He said he couldn’t teach me anything too decent because he didn’t know how to read music. I said, “I don’t care about that! I wanna learn how to float around on that fretboard like you can. show me that thing you just did!” He did, or tried to. I was still lacking majorly the finger strength and dexterity it would take to pull any of that off. Also, it hurt! I must have made some reference to the pain, because he said, “Well, you don’t have any calluses yet.” I said “calluses?” He said, “Yeah, you get calluses on your finger tips from playing the guitar. it makes it not hurt anymore.” I was amazed. I had calluses on my palms at the base of each finger (not from jerkin off you assholes)from riding a BMX bike (shout out to Oakly F-1s, B1-Bs then finally, Mushrooms!!!), but calluses on my fingertips sounded crazy!
It was great though, this visit from Pat. I now knew how to tune my guitar. so it just sounded better now. Even if I was just dorkin around hopelessly on the thing, it now sounded better to me because it was in tune, and because somebody with some knowledge had rocked the fuck out of it. We all now knew that it could be rocked, that riffs of some gravity could be achieved. Most important of all, I now knew the opening riff to Satisfaction by The Stones. This stupid little 3 note phrase was instantly recognizable and I’d spend the next few months playing it in front of as many people as I could.
Other riff dudes popped up over the following weeks and months. My Uncle Gene’s friend, Kevin Strunk (don’t monkey, call Strunky) was also a guitar player. He and my uncle had a “band” in my (other) grandmom’s basement years before. It was called The Hector Boyd Band, but none of them were named Hector Boyd. I think they were just very focused on Pink Floyd and Uriah Heap and Mott The Hoople and wanted a stupid sounding band name like that. At some point Kevin must’ve been at our house with my uncle and sure enough, within minutes the riffs began to flow. He said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to have steel strings on this thing.” I shrugged. He also said that the key to learning the guitar was learning bar chords (what the fuck is a chord?). He showed me how a bar chord, which was the same (impossible) finger shape moved up and down the fretboard allowed you to form all of the chords with just that one formation. Also, bar chords are what made things sound heavy, but you really couldn’t tell so much until you heard it on an electric guitar, he said. I nodded.
The next riff dude was Bobby Webster. He was the brother of my uncle Bill. Bill was only an uncle by marriage, so Bobby was nothing at all to me in terms of relations, but he was very uncle-ish. His son Jesse, who I readily referred to as my cousin, was also obsessed with the Beatles, like me. That very year, we went to Beatlefest 87 together. Jesse and I were totally fascinated with the White Album and it’s darkness just under the surface. We had both arrived at The Beatles straight from Ozzy & Motley Crue, so that creepy ass blank, white double LP was to us, endlessly fascinating. Jesse was also learning to play the guitar from his dad, and together they taught me several things, most notably, the riff from Day Tripper. Bobby’s brother in law happened to be legendary Philadelphia guitarist, Rick DiFonzo, of The A’s who in just 3 short years would be playing all of Dave Gilmour’s parts from The Wall live at the Berlin Wall with Roger Waters, Sinead O’Conner, Van Morrisson, Cyndi Lauper, Danko, Helm, and Garth, and The goddamned Scorpions, but I didn’t know any of this at the time.