Wednesday, August 20, 2008

He Plays Like Hendrix

About a year ago I was booked to play a show in Virginia Beach. I thought I'd booked the show at a coffeehouse. It was, in fact, what can only be described as a church complex, complete with multiple music venues and--you saw where this was headed--throngs of emo kids.

I walked inside and said, "I'm Chris Milam and I'm here to play music," and a nice older gentlemen led me to the coffeehouse side of the compound. Along the way, I passed "the rock venue," where a Christian emocore band was currently rocking out to a horde of adoring Virginia Beach emokids. My guide told me, "when this show's over, everyone will trickle over to the coffeehouse to hear you play."

Cool, because Christian emocore teenagers are my target audience.

Turns out he was right. The rock show ended and everyone went from a loud, raucous rock venue to a dead silent coffeehouse to drink cream soda and listen to some dude with an acoustic guitar they've never heard before. They lined up in front of the tiny stage and looked at me expectantly while I did some quick math: "How many emokids can I take in a fight? Twelve? What are the legal implications of defending yourself against literally dozens of minors? Do I know any Fall Out Boy?"

Meanwhile, I'm sound-checking.

One kid sees that I'm left-handed, playing a righty guitar, and yells out, "Check it out--he plays like Hendrix!"

There is nothing--I repeat, nothing--on the planet more potentially disastrous someone can say about your set before you play it. I am a white kid playing (at the time) folk songs on acoustic guitar. Now bystanders expect me to tear through "Manic Depression," close with my recreation of the "Star Spangled Banner" and light my guitar on fire.

Anyway, I quickly remembered from high school how unrelentingly nice the "weird" kids are (it was goths and metalheads when I was in high school), maybe because they feel like they need to be that nice just to survive the emotional and social pratfalls of high school and pubescence. The whole crowd couldn't have been cooler, everyone was supernice during the set, and all's well that ended with my guitar on fire.

But this the question I get a lot:

Why do I play the guitar upside-down (i.e., "like Hendrix" but I repeat, NOT "LIKE HENDRIX")?

I actualy started playing bass. Wait, I actually started with the obligatory 2 years of piano lessons that everyone's mother beats into them in childhood, then went out of my way to never practice and forget everything I ever learned. Then, a few years later, I wanted to play in a band, the band needed a bass player, so I started playing bass. I got a left-handed bass (which meant that I played right-side up, or "properly"), re-learned to read music, listened to jazz, and had general funsies.

This was around 8th grade.

The problem was that I was always trying to write songs, and writing songs on bass isn't easy, especially for a 13 year-old nascent musician. Meanwhile, my older brother had an acoustic guitar in his room that he was learning to play. And he was playing, you know, songs on it. Not just Flea's part of "Under the Bridge." Songs. So I'd go into his room and try to memorize the chord shapes as he played them. Then he'd leave to go do whatever-cool-older-brothers-do and I'd steal his guitar, take it into my room, and try to mimic the chords he played.

Two problems:

1) His was a normal, or right-handed, guitar, which meant that when I went to play it, the strings were upside-down. I had to invert everything, including everything I had learned playing my left-handed bass.

2) If he knew I was stealing his guitar all the time he would've throttled my scrawny ass, so my practice sessions were few, far-between, and very short.

Anyway, I kept it up, eventually got a cheap guitar of my own (a normal, right-handed one), and just kept playing upside-down.

Folks ask if it makes playing certain songs harder or easier, and I don't find that it does either way. Some songs you just have to play differently (in terms of the fingering/technique), but I don't find that it's any harder or easier playing upside-down.

Until someone in the crowd yells out, "He plays like Hendrix!" Then you're screwed.

The wind cries Gary,

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