On a very hot day in the summer of 2015, I left my apartment near Prospect Park in Brooklyn and went for a long and very sweaty walk to clear my head, not thinking too hard about where I was going. Normally when I need to get out, I head to the park where I can find a little space, some green, and other people’s dogs to watch. But this time I headed down the hill, past brownstones and churches, streets of shops, and the Gowanus Canal. I ended up on a deserted industrial block about two miles from my house, home of Retrofret Vintage Guitars.
Retrofret is easy to overlook if you don’t know what you’re looking for. It’s housed in a large brick building built in the early 20th century for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and still bears the ASPCA seal over the door. It wasn’t my first trip to Retrofret. I’d been there before early in my guitar-playing days, but was too timid and embarrassed by my lack of skill to try anything. On that first trip, I rang the buzzer, hiked up the stairs, crossed over the roof and its tiny herb garden and walked into the front door of Retrofret, perched like a tiny house on top of the building. I walked out again a few minutes later. But on this July day, I was determined to get past my fear of playing guitar in public, at least long enough to see if I could figure out what I liked.
There were no other customers in the place when I walked in. A tall thin man with a beard (a description that fits approximately 85% of the population of my part of Brooklyn) came over to help me. I told him my story — that I was a lifelong violinist who’d come to guitar by way of mandolin when my sister-in-law gave me the guitar she’d bought off of QVC that smelled vaguely like lighter fluid. That I’d been curious about guitarsfor years but had only just started to play. That I play Irish fiddle and bluegrass and am an erstwhile literal second fiddle in an Americana Band with a penchant for music in 3/4 time that sometimes plays just a few blocks from the shop. That my day job as a musicologist and ethnomusicologist editing an online music encyclopedia — the very encyclopedia, in fact, that Retrofret had in print form on a shelf behind the counter — had recently published a dictionary of musical instruments and I’d been reading and reading about them.
He had me pegged for a Martin after that. Martin guitars are the classic bluegrass guitars. I tried a stack of Martins, from fairly new to ancient and way out of my price range, but none of them felt right. He gave me some other things to try, smaller guitars mostly, because that’s what girls play. I picked up a Gibson Hummingbird. Better, but still not right. Too mushy on the follow through. too imprecise. Then he handed a 1957 J-45. It’s big guitar, a wide-shouldered dreadnought It makes a chocolately but unruly sound with a huge bass. It sounds like it’s been hanging out in the back of a bar until 3 am most nights. It’s been in a couple of brawls, too. There was once a hole punched through the back that the wizards at Retrofret repaired. It was love at first sight. I could tell because although he kept bringing me more things to try, I couldn’t quite bring myself to put this one down. And that’s how I came home with my guitar.
It turns out that the guitar changed everything. I went from enjoying playing to obsessing about playing. I have played just about every day since then, often for hours. I’ve had a couple of lessons here and there with my son’s guitar teacher, but mostly I’ve taught myself and mostly that’s part of the fun. It’s completely different from my experience of learning violin in elementary school. I pretty much always want to be playing the guitar, MY guitar. And I miss it when I travel without it.
The more I play, the more I know how to do, the more I feel determined to write a song. The thing is, I’m really not sure what kind of song I want to write. It’s starting to be embarrassing. I’m a lifelong musician who’s been composing classical music for years. Why am I stymied by songs?
This blog will chronicle my journey in search of the song I want to write. I will be studying songwriting by listening to and playing and/or arranging songs by others. I’ll dig into the history of songwriting and also my personal history with particular songs. I’ll consider what makes a good song — what makes a song stick with you — and examine the musical elements and forms that make up songs. I may also try to talk to some songwriters or get them to guest post. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going yet, but I’m hoping I might learn something along the way.