SIMPLE GIFTS / 1 FEBRUARY 2004

     I have a couple of Martin guitars hanging on my cabin wall, and a handmade frailing banjo, and even a pretty sweet hollow-body Gibson electric guitar. I'm not an amazing player. The last time I made any progress with the guitar was thirty-two years ago during the recording sessions on my first album. I played the basic acoustic guitar for that album, but the producer had hired this wizard studio player to supply the fancy stuff. He seemed to be finger-picking and flat-picking back and forth in the same song, or even in the same phrase. I asked him how he did it. He showed me, and that's the last time I improved as a guitar player. I've played a lot since, made lots of albums, but never got any better at it.
     One of the many times I decided that being a song-and-dance man wasn't ever going to work for me, I went down to Job Service and asked if they had some kind of test I could take to find out if maybe there was some job I didn't know about that I'd be good at and enjoy a lot, and make something like a regular paycheck. They sent me up to BYU to take an exhaustive batch of tests that revealed some alarming stuff--like I have virtually no left brain and that I have no particular aptitude for anything but what I was already doing--tough luck about the pay scale.
     There was another test of mechanical and conceptual talents. Of a possible fourteen, I scored a twelve on spatial perception, a ten on pattern recognition, an eleven on something else that I forget, and an astounding fourteen on something you'd think for sure I'd remember, but I don't (except I think it probably wasn't memory). But on manual dexterity (something you might think would be fairly basic to a guitar player) I scored a whopping two. I was appalled! But then when I thought about it, it sort of figured. And I had to admit that even a two was a pretty good gift, really. Sort of like breathing is, which doesn't take any talent at all.
     So I play pretty simply. And one of the things I look for in an instrument is a sweet enough sound that playing really simply sounds really good. I love a guitar that sounds good enough that a single strum on a G chord is satisfying. Old Martin guitars tend to sound like that, and from when I was a kid I wanted to find one. At age forty-one I finally thought, "Hey, I'll just buy me a new one and keep it 'til it's old!" Seems to be working.

("'Tis a gift to simple, 'tis a gift to be free...")