If you could travel back to your youth, what’s the one thing you’d do differently?
On my 12th birthday, my maternal grandmother gave me my first guitar, which she had purchased in Nogales, Mexico, for a gazillion pesos. Which is to say it was worth about six American dollars at the time.
It was nigh worthless, the neck so badly distorted that an ocean liner could have passed across the fret board underneath the strings. My little hands hardly had the strength to push the strings down and produce a note. Mostly I produced the sound of buzzing bees.
My parents signed me up for eight weeks of group guitar lessons. We learned the basic open chord shapes: C, G, D, A. Then D minor, A minor and E minor. Then D7, A7 and G7. With these chords I could play “Kumbaya” and “Puff, The Magic Dragon,” making me a hit around any Christian campfire.
In hell I think you have to sit around a Christian campfire for eternity and sing “Kumbaya.”
Then came the dreaded F chord. I almost quit right there. For weeks all I could muster is a “kunk/buzz” noise. I gave some thought to learning only songs that didn’t require the F chord.
Like any new guitar player, I never ventured past the first three frets. The remaining frets were just for show. Well, for show, and for Eric Clapton.
And that was it for me. As the class concluded, the teacher essentially told my mom to go buy me an actual, playable guitar.
Which she did. At a Phoenix pawnshop. A six-string Guild. I can still smell that guitar case. I’m pretty sure that all I did for the rest of high school was play basketball, play guitar and pace anxiously back and forth behind the cage bars of puppy love.
I learned the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” It’s a federal law, I think, that guitar players must learn the intro to “Stairway To Heaven.” Or people from the government come and take your guitar away.
I took my guitar to undergraduate college. I spent hours with it, finding rhythms and chord progressions that pleased me. In my second semester, I wrote my first song, about some woman who had ruined my life. Yes, I still have a recording of that song. No, you can’t hear it. No one can. Ever. Because it’s truly terrible. I’ve given my eldest son instructions to destroy the track in my Last Will & Testament.
Two years later, my best and oldest friend Paul transferred to Northern Arizona University and became my roommate. Paul is a gifted piano player. He reads music.
And one day he simply challenged both of us to write a song. He was defiant. He said we should be able to do this. So we marched to the university music rooms, me lugging my guitar and he carrying a spiral notebook and pencil. We marched with purpose, as if to destiny.
We began fidgeting with chords and movement. We started writing lyrics. We finished the first verse.
No, I won’t tell you the lyrics. I have too much self-respect.
One line into the second verse, we spun our heads around to glare at each other. Paul took the notebook and hurled it to the floor. We fell to the floor in gales of laughter, mocking our song between each gasping breath.
And so, in my third year of college, I traded my guitar for a cassette car stereo. This decision ranks amongst the worst of my life.
Trading my guitar seemed like such a clear-cut, rational decision at the time. With every confidence and a “humble feeling” (never to be confused with actual humility, mind you), I told my friends I wasn’t very artistic. That I couldn’t sing. That I wasn’t any good. That I would spend my life enjoying music and admiring those with the talent to write it and play it – but that wasn’t me.
But the only thing clear-cut about me at age 20 was some colossal combination of fear, insecurity and laziness. Honestly? Until I entered graduate school, I don’t think I ever endeavored to learn anything that was hard for me to learn. I drifted to whatever was easy, and many things did come easy for me.
It was blithe immaturity that made me trade that guitar, like Jack trading a cow for magic beans.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays.
Contact him at 227-4165 or