Guitar playing as creative research

Image by Kari Shea from Pixabay

So a few weeks ago I talked about my new adventures in creative research, something I’m taking on to supplement my scholarly investigations into the role of research in creative writing. Long story short: creative research (i.e. research to enhance a creative work) is something I’ve never engaged in much myself because the creative writing I do is more for fun than Serious Work, but I wanted to try it out as part of a revision of a novel-length story I completed the first draft of a few months ago.

I talked before about how two of the characters in that story work in a bar and how I ended up doing research using internet sources like YouTube and to try to add a little authenticity to the work they do in the story and how they each think and talk about their work. In this case, I wasn’t able to go to the location the bar in the story is loosely based on because of COVID and time issues, but I was able to learn enough from the internet to improve the generic BS about bartending and cocktails that was in the original draft.

So I’m still working on that same project. In addition to working in a bar, the characters in question also play music. Specifically, guitar. One is in a band, the other is just starting to learn. This has been another area of research but it’s one where I’ve managed to reap the benefits of hands-on, in-person research rather than just scrolling the internet.

Now, the reason I chose guitar for the characters rather than, say, drum and piano is because I actually had some long-ago experience playing guitar. Which is to say, when I was a kid, my aunt used to give me weekly lessons and I managed to learn about half of “Blackbird” by the Beatles before my guitar was stolen when my parents’ house got robbed when I was in college. Not the most illustrious of music careers, but I at least knew what it felt like to hold a guitar in my hands, the sting of pressing down the strings (especially when you’re new to playing or the strings you’re using aren’t the greatest), and how difficult finger placement can be when you’re just learning something. This was all great and stuff I could definitely use for the character who’s less experienced with playing.

But there’s a scene in the story that takes place in a music store, as in one that actually sells musical instruments. In it, the characters try out different guitars and one starts to show the other one how to play. I have probably been in a store like this at some point but not in a long time so pretty much everything I know about stores like these comes from the movie Wayne’s World more than actual experience. (“No ‘Stairway’! Denied!”)

I knew of a local music store in a nearby mall, though, so I decided to take a trip to gather some observations about what the store was like and how the “trying out” process for different instruments actually works. Like, do they really just let you sit down and play a guitar in the middle of the store?

It turns out that they very much do, at least at this store. Almost as soon as I walked in, the woman behind the counter noticed I was looking at the wall of acoustic guitars. In my head, I was trying to figure out which one my characters would be most interested in trying (and also the price—this would be important to the story). She asked me if I played. I told her I did, but only a little and not in a long time. She asked if I’d like to try one of the instruments. I somewhat reluctantly agreed, mostly because I thought it would be a good idea to refresh my memory on what it feels like to actually hold and play a guitar for the story.

To my surprise, I actually sort of remembered how to play “Blackbird,” even though it had been over 15 years since the last time I’d held an instrument.

I was in the store probably an hour, trying out different guitars. It was a little embarrassing because the salesperson kept asking me for my opinions on each guitar and I didn’t know enough about them to really have any other than a few where the neck felt a little wide for my hand or something like that. For the ones that I seemed to like, she would tell me the story behind the company that made it and her store’s relationship with that company. Or, if it was a used instrument, some of what she knew about where it came from.

Did I plan to actually buy a guitar that day? No. Did I do it anyway? Yes. (An acoustic/electric Luna, in case you’re interested.)

Now, as I revise this section of the story, the actual experience is doing a lot to inform the scene. I also created a whole background for the fictional store and the fictional character who runs it based on my experience at the real store. Even though a lot of this information probably won’t make it into the story, I think having this in mind is making for a richer scene.

The actual experience of re-learning and playing the guitar has also been immensely helpful. My own learning and struggles have helped strengthen my portrayal of the less experienced character and his music playing journey even more. Meanwhile, the YouTube videos I’ve found online as well as a subscription to Fender Play(1) have given me more of a sense of how the more expert character might talk or think about what he does and how he might go about teaching the less experienced one. I’d already found some of these videos before (the free ones, at least) but the experience of actually being taught by them rather than just passively watching them hoping for useful information to plug in to the scene has been really valuable.

What’s interesting about this is that when I was reading all of those books on writing as part of my research, I often got really annoyed with the authors who told aspiring writers that in order to write something they needed to experience it firsthand. Like, who has the time for that? Or the money? Especially for a project like mine that will probably never be seen by anyone’s eyes but mine. Now that I’ve done it, I still think dropping a couple hundred dollars on a guitar would be a silly thing to do if you were only doing it for creative research. For me, the experience of playing again has actually been a really good creative outlet. It just happens to be one that’s helping to feed my other creative outlet. How cool is that?


(1) If you’ve ever looked up a guitar video on YouTube, you know how utterly pervasive Fender Play’s marketing is. The commercial for this platform STILL plays on every video I watch despite the fact that I’ve already subscribed. (The same is true for Les Mills Plus, an app I subscribed to almost a year ago and still get ads for on almost every video I watch.) As I write this, I’m about halfway through Level 1 of the acoustic rock lessons and my impression so far is that they start off very slow and very basic, which is great for learning technique but can be a little boring at times. I supplement Fender Play with more fun videos from people like Andy Hillier and Andy Crowley, who teach actual songs in ways that are relatively easy to follow even for a beginner. I’ve now relearned to play “Blackbird”! And “Wings,” the beautiful guitar theme from Brokeback Mountain. Basically, I’m having a lot of fun and my neighbors now hate me.

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