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I went to Brazil for a month, a year after I began learning to play guitar. Fortunately, my hostel had a guitar for guests. Apparently, I was the first guest to play the guitar in quite awhile (I could tell from the smell when I took it out of the gig bag). Still I was able to tune the guitar, so I practiced playing the only songs I knew: “Amazing Grace”, “Brother John”, “London Bridge”, and “When the Saints go Marching In.” I tended to play in the lobby early in the morning or in a small secluded courtyard off the kitchen.

One morning, I was playing on some stairs in the lobby, when a native asked me to play. Over a dozen people were hanging out in the lobby, but I played and they clapped politely, then I asked another guest, a Brazilian male nurse to play, he had played in a band when he was younger. He could only remember one song, but it was an up-tempo folk-rock song that every Brazilian in the lobby recognized. He began playing and singing, then suddenly everyone else began singing along to this obviously meaningful tune. The music was transcendent.

I traveled from Salvador to Manus to Iguassu Falls to Rio de Janeiro by plane and in each airport, I met a guitarist willing to play for me as well as let me play his guitar. Again, guitars served as bridges in Brazil.

Finally, in Rio, I went to buy my own guitar. After a wonderful shopping experience, which I will tell you about some other time, I brought my made in Brazil Giannini GWNC1 nylon-string classical guitar back to hostel. Little did I know, but several of my housemates were guitarists. One was a singer-songwriter from England, who only played chords, but wrote original songs as good as those by Tori Amos or Jewel. She teared-up when she saw my guitar and played it more than me for the rest of the day (I helped her buy her own guitar a couple days later). Another housemate was twenty-something Israeli veteran, who had taken guitar lessons for most of his life. He could play anything. Unfortunately, he had quit and could not remember whole songs, just fragments. Another people in the hostel could play one or two songs or were exceptional singers. Even though we came from places as far apart as Holland, the USA, New Zealand, and Brazil, We had a great time sitting around listening to and singing with the other guitarists.

Then someone asked me to play, since it was my guitar. I should have said, “No.” But, I tried. First, I played, “Amazing Grace.” There was silence and someone condescendingly said, “Well, it’s a start.” Then, I played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Suddenly, a lady started shouting, “Who dey, who dey think gonna beat them Saints!” She was a New Orleans native, and I was playing her hometown’s theme song less than two years after Hurricane Katrina hit. That was the first time my playing moved someone.

OK, so here is my question: What has been your best impromptu guitar experience?

Tags: 1st, Brazil, Friendship, Time, Travel

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As you say, music is often a great bridge in human relations. Over the years I've seen that happen many times.

A couple of my earliest guitar memories involve my old buddy, Jim Arachtingi (you out there, Jim? we've lost touch...). Back in about '72, he and I played in a folk group at church: he on guitar, me on banjo. At that time I often wondered how guitarists managed to play six strings with only 5 fingers. On Christmas Eve we were scheduled to do two services in the school gym, 9pm and midnight. There were a bunch of hours in between, and rather than go home, we decided to just jam in the empty gym. I mentioned my confusion about playing guitar, so he showed me how to do barre chords. I reciprocated by showing him a few things on banjo, and we decided to swap instruments for one song at the midnight service. It worked out fine, and that was my start on guitar playing - though I didn't get my own instrument for a couple of years.

The other memory I have with Jim was mid-1975. I don't remember where we were coming from, but we were driving past a wine and cheese place. Anyway, we went in and, since it seemed a little slow, we asked if we could play. The owner said sure, so we got our instruments and played for a good long while - no preplanned sets, just whatever we could remember. After a while we were offered free wine to keep playing. I don't actually like wine much, but found that plum wine not only tasted good to me, but also helped keep my voice clear. We were offered a regular gig, but since I was about to transfer to a university in upstate New York, we had to turn it down.

Then there's a sad memory of a guitar experience that never got to happen. It's pretty fresh right now because of a recent reunion with some old college buddies that has brought back a flood of memories. My college sweetheart's last semester involved remote student teaching, so we didn't get to see much of each other up to graduation. Long story short: due to a lack of response to my letters, I thought she was dumping me. Years later I discovered she thought I dumped her (for you youngsters, imagine a world without cell phones and email....). I had written a song for her to propose marriage, but she never got to hear it. Things would have been different if I had been less self-pitying and more supportive those last months, and, most importantly, had been prepared to propose at graduation. But instead, there were two broken hearts that summer, and our lives diverged. The whole episode doesn't speak well of my character and lack of fortitude or determination, but a lesson was learned. And I still have the song to remind me.

peace and joy,
Great stories. Your wine and cheese tale reminds me of a song & story on one of Garison Keilor's radio shows. His piano player worked his way across the USA by playing pianos in various restaurants and bars. The owners would pay him with food and he met a lot of interesting people. Your last story is so sad that it may inspire me to write a blues tune.

Another JBJ
John, what a beautifully sad story. It brings to mind a couple of great songs about lost loves. Of course, Harry Chapin's Taxi, but also a wonderful song by Canadian Fred Eaglesmith called Crowds, the chorus of which goes:

"I look for you in crowds
in train stations and bus stops
on sidewalks and in the middle of the night
when I go driving by
little churchyards on saturdays
I look to see if you might be the bride
I hope you're happy now
but I still look for you in crowds"

I found it on YouTube, and had to say thanks for introducing me to Fred Eaglesmith and Crowds. Fred's story and mine definitely have a similar emotional root. I'm working on a new song to tell my tale, but right now it's hard enough to sing that old song all the way through.

peace and joy,
I played for folks other than family or people sitting around my deck or campfire for the first time last summer. I took a new guitar by the coffee shop owned by a trusted guitar friend for his comments and suggestions. His music act for the evening didn't show up, so everyone in the place who could play was asked if they would get up and do three songs. Since I have never discovered the magic of songwriting, I did three of my favorite Fred Eaglesmith songs. Nobody threw tomatoes, I didn't break any strings, and I remembered all the words. So, it was pretty exhilarating.
Congratulations Brent. Did you do Crowds?
No, I didn't, it is such a spoken-word type song that it didn't really seem like a good one to play. I did "Pontiac", "Water in the Fuel", and "Summerlea". Anybody who likes good guitar and songwriting should really check out Fred's stuff.
Thanks for the encouraging story, Brent. What a nice way to break in.
I was young, about twelve. I had a steel string Silvertone, high action; make your fingers bleed, department store guitar. My Dad strummed chords and sang folk music on his Martin classical guitar made in 1964. He left strict instructions. I was to play his guitar when he was home and with his permission. That summer I finished chores early, snuck into the basement, and found a classical guitar instruction book written by Matteo Carcassi. I figured out that the music on the guitar was just like the piano one octave lower. I secretly began to practice on that wonderful Martin guitar. Months later I transposed a piano version of the Beatles new hit “Yesterday” in the key of F on my father’s guitar. One day we were singing songs and making up new verses or improvising our own silly songs when Dad let me play his guitar. I played my version of “Yesterday.” His eyes grew big and he said, “That was really something.” Thinking he was just giving me the obligatory parental praise, I made a self-effacing comment. “They play it differently on the record in another key.” At this point, my Father replied indignantly, “If I wanted to hear them play it. I would buy the damn record!” From that point on my Dad would always have me play it for his friends or guests. Also, he said I could play his guitar anytime. But it took me several years to realize his indignant remark was truly wonderful praise. Live long, play often, strum loud, and God bless.
James, Son of Larry
Thanks for sharing such a wonderful family memory. --Jason
True story, I crashed a party with a friend many years ago, waaaay out in the boonies. Somehow the scene was getting ugly and we couldn't find our ride home, so we jumped in a car that was leaving. I was the only female. There had been a stage at the party and my friend and I had played so some guy in the car shoved a really sweet Guild at me and told me to play. As the car began to move I realized that everyone in the car was waaaaayyyy drunker than me, the driver not the least among them. I played a song (I think it was "Uncle John's Band") and everyone in the car sang along. As soon as the song ended, the guys all started yelling about something. The car is careening down these dirt, mountainside roads and the driver was so ornery about whatever they were arguing about he was actually halfway into the backseat. I was terrified and I began singing "Amazing Grace." Everyone started singing with me. The arguing stopped and the driver had both hands on the wheel again and his eyes on the road. When the song was over, the shouting immediately started again, so I sang another... I sang song after song until we got to the place we were getting out, and God knows what happened to all of them after that, the car drove off and they were already yelling at each other.
It was 1977. I was 13 going on 14. My sister and I were taking the Amtrack from Denver to Galesburg with a drunken rugby team from the U.K. The train ahead of us had derailed. We would be changing over to Trailways buses at 4:00 am. in Omaha, Neb. To stay awake, we moved down from the observation car to the lounge.

We followed the music to the lounge car where I met a man in his early 20's playing an acoustic guitar. He said he was already a single father and, was now going home to his 5 year old son in Florida. Next to him was a college kid? playing bass lines on a 6-string. They played Tennessee Stud, the way Johnny Cash would've. I had played trumpet for 3 years by then and I dropped it like a hot rock for a little Yamaha acoustic.

I did not play guitar that night. But I never cared about playing anything else from that day forward. There's just something about trains, guitars, summer nights and meeting people that has now become inextricably linked for me. I can hear the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad from 4 miles away late at night or, super early in the morning if I am still up. More often than not, it makes me reach for my Tacoma. I used to have more guitars than that, but right now, it's all I've got.

My best impromptu guitar experience happens every time I hear that train.


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