Tag Archives: Guitar

I Am the Anti-Jimmy Page.

Yesterday Hannah and I were driving in the car listening to Led Zeppelin. We were oohing and aahing over Jimmy Page’s guitar playing and she asked me how I thought it would feel to be the best guitar player, to be able to pick up your instrument and do anything you wanted, to be master of your craft. I told her I imagined he felt powerful and free. Then I told her that I am the anti-Jimmy Page. Wildly limited by lack of knowledge and experience. Incapable of playing what I hear in my head. And yet. I pick up my instrument. I make a sound. Les Paul said he learned early on that one note can go a long way if it’s the right note. I’m looking for the note. It’s in there somewhere.


“Musical Note” by Philip Jenkinson


Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: ,

The Danelectro

Gary chose a guitar from his personal stash for me to borrow. I specifically asked for a loaner with little or no value so that I wouldn’t worry about messing it up. A few weeks ago I nearly ruined my son Eli’s Black Beauty by plugging it into the wrong hole in the amp. I use words like hole instead of input jack, a term I learned two minutes ago when I googled amplifier and hole and cable. I know nothing about gear. Gary’s Danelectro is a starter guitar from the ’80s, and it sounds like a cross between an acoustic and an electric. It’s creamy and lightweight and completely boss. Gary says it looks right on me. I guess that matters. It feels great. That definitely matters. I’d never heard of Danelectro before becoming the proud temporary owner of one, but it turns out some cool people play(ed) them.



Filed under: Visual Aids Tags: ,

Mystery Chord

Recently I updated my Facebook status with a photo…

…and a question: What chord is this?

The comment thread was illuminating in an entirely ass-backwards way because I couldn’t get a straight answer.

Bryn Bennett A5

Joan Anderman Thanks Bryn. That was like having a crush on someone whose name you don’t know.

Rod Webber Not so quick. Are you just strumming the 3 strings your fingers are on, or all 6? Or some other combination of strings? If it’s just the 3 strings, then I would agree with Bryn.

Bryn Bennett OK, I take it back. A5 min7 sus2

Rod Webber I didn’t mean to call you out… But, yes, I would agree, if it’s all 6, A5 minor 7 sus2… Or actually the “B” may technically be an add 9… A music theory person will have to step in at this stage… But that’d be my guess.

Bryn Bennett Haha. Not at all. The hands looked like a straight up power chord to me though.

Mark Towner Williams A E G A B E or G 6/9 /A

Mark Towner Williams oh..and nice hands by the way

Mark Towner Williams correction A E A G B E ( still spells the same chord)

Joan Anderman You wonderful informed musicians are blowing my mind. I’m strumming all six strings by the way. All power chordy. It’s so interesting to be on this side of the song divide.

Rod Webber I thought so… It’s doubtful you would have had a “crush” on a simple A5. ;)

Kurt Armstrong A sus-9?

Bryn Bennett I have a crush on an A5!

Joan Anderman Hands off, dude. A5 is mine.

Rod Webber Actually, no Joan– A5 minor7 add9 is yours. Get it straight. It’s like you’re making out with strangers in the dark!

John Young need a bigger amp.

Joan Anderman Making out with strangers! Rock and roll is just like I pictured it.

Mark Towner Williams All guesses. Typical really…we all name the same chords different things as you know from your Grove days. What makes this a G 6/9 /A is the fact that all strings are played (ending in G B A)

As usual, the more I chase clarity the more confused I become. Do I even need to know what chord I’m playing? What do I lose and what do I gain by not knowing? Should I try to learn some music theory or stick with my current method of putting fingers on strings until I stumble onto something that sounds good? By all means weigh in, dear reader.


Filed under: Word/Play Tags: ,
Joshua Tree Lucky Penny

Lucky Penny

What happens when you stop speculating and plotting and talking is this: your mind wanders. Literally. It rambles over hill and down dale, directionless. It drifts into a bar and leans against the wall with a drink and a smoke. It peels out in reverse. Recent emails and long-lost boyfriends and the kitchen stove and bad habits do-si-do along its porous borders. It thumbs through file cabinets plucking out random bits that you will later guess are not so random. It groks the backyard.

Your mind wanders as you sit in the blue chair strumming an E chord with the capo on the first fret. The capo makes the strings feel tighter and sound brighter and you might be dreaming but it also makes them more forgiving when your fingers aren’t in precisely the right position, which they’re often not. In your nascent awareness you note that you’re playing in the key of F. In your infinite wisdom you know that you need another chord, so you scroll through all the ones you know. E to A. E to G. E to D. E to B minor. And so on. Deciding which chord comes next seems like an extraordinary manifestation of personal freedom. There are no good words to describe this feeling of volition. It’s confusing and intoxicating. You’re in a vehicle you’ve never operated on a road that isn’t paved moving toward a destination which doesn’t exist. You are the automotive assembler and the road worker and the town builder.

D7 sounds good. (Can this possibly be how it’s done?) There’s something wry about E to D7. A little off. Slightly warped. Like some of your favorite people. Maybe the song should be about a person. You’ve been keeping a running list of possible song titles and one of them is Lucky Penny. The song will be about her, whoever she is. You start singing the words, lucky penny, over the E chord. You don’t so much choose the notes as let loose a few. The seems uncraftsmanlike and will have to change but for now you let yourself off every hook because number one you are STARTING and number two you have it on good authority that it’s best to spew now and edit later. You’ve got two chords and as many words and you need more of both so you let your mind wander again and it lights on a message you received the previous evening from your sister Nancy.

hi jo – glad that you have safely landed in the desert.
last night I had some weird vertigo attack and freaked out.
kim drove me home in my car and then took a cab to patti lupone.
blah blah.  wish I had a husband or dog at these times.

You have a husband and a dog, but at times like these it’s good to be alone. Also, at other times. Less auspicious times. Sometimes you actually disappear while surrounded by your family or your friends. All your life you’ve felt weird about it. Now you’re thinking it’s just how you roll.

Lucky Penny

It’s good to be alone

Slip into the cone of silence

No one ever knows the difference

Go on

I am she as you are she as you are me and we are all together. And we have a verse, to boot.


Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: , ,
Joshua Tree E chord

Pick a Chord, Not Just Any Chord

A few weeks before I came to the desert I tagged along with my friend Liz Linder when she attended Ladies Rock Camp. Liz is a photographer who developed a crush on bass guitar, screwed up her courage, and made her move. She enrolled in a weekend intensive run by Hilken Mancini (who was in the band Fuzzy and co-founded Punk Rock Aerobics and owns a vintage shop), singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord, and Nora Allen-Wiles, who works at Whole Foods when she’s not organizing and mentoring. LRC is conceptually rad: a bunch of grown women learn an instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform live at TT the Bear’sin three days. I mean, come on. The first thing they did was sit in a giant circle and go around saying why they were there. For example: I want to hang out with girls. I want to see what happens. I turned 40 and my wife thought it was a good idea. I want to get away from my husband and kid. If little girls can do it, what have I been afraid of for the last 30 years? I want to learn how to play well with others. I’m having a midlife crisis. I have to go on tour before I die. It was crazy inspiring.

One of the guest speakers was Juliana Hatfield. She offered a bunch of insights and advice during her songwriting workshop, but it was a couple of throwaway remarks that stuck with me.

1. Juliana’s favorite chord is E.

2. Try a capo.

Regarding the E chord: what does that even mean? Is she drawn to E’s personality? The sound of E’s voice? The mood E puts her in? I plan to inquire and will report back. As for the capo, I’d always assumed they were proverbial one-trick ponies, shrewd little shortcuts to singability, helpmate to the masses who don’t know enough music theory to transpose a song into a different key. But Juliana seemed to be saying (in a few halting words) that a capo changes the timbre of the strings and sometimes sparks an idea or a feeling or a direction. I tucked that tidbit away like a morsel of food in my cheek.

So. I wake up in Joshua Tree, face-to-face with the first day of my songwriting retreat. I have no idea what other people’s moments of truth look like, but mine is bright and cool and so incredibly still it’s as if someone with major juice has shushed the world. The previous afternoon I’d partaken in the ritual guitar restringing and the ritual labeling of notebooks and any other damn ritual I could think of.


Nothing to do but start. But finding the right spot seems suddenly crucial. Which brings me (once again) to Carlos Castaneda. When Castaneda was a graduate student in the anthropology department at UCLA, he was perplexed and full of questions and restricted by reason. (Sound familiar?) He sought out the Yaqui sorcerer don Juan, who agreed to teach Castaneda only if he could pass a test, which was to find his spot on don Juan’s porch. The wannabe apprentice crawled around for hours until don Juan took pity and offered a hint. He told Castaneda that he needed to feel for the spot, not look for it. Later I read that Jungians interpret don Juan’s advice as basic instructions for perceiving the unconscious by circumventing the rationality that obscures it. Hardly a songwriting how-to, but I’m angling for a way in and a Castaneda book was here to greet me and nobody will die if feel around for a spot. So I do.

There is my blue chair. There is the wood table on which I lay my notebook. I clear my mind. I open my senses. And like an animal that awakens with an appetite, I retrieve the scraps I’ve squirreled away. The capo goes on. I strum an E. Here comes something.


Filed under: I am trying to write some songs Tags: , ,