Nick and I went down to McCabes the other day. McCabes is a local landmark, a musician hangout and store that has sold guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and musical etcetera for 50 years. I have some history with the place.
We were there to rent a guitar and sign Nick up for group lessons. He’s announced his intention to join the school band come September.
The Fern Hill band has one other guitarist and a couple of singers. (The keyboardist and percussionist graduated last month.) It might not sound like a big deal, joining an elementary school band of three.
It’s a very big deal, I assure you.
Nick was the band’s roadie last year. Not that they went anywhere beyond the schoolyard, but he helped with setup. It’s always been his practice to watch from a safe distance before leaping.
Nick doesn’t like performing on stage, and I thought he was going to be the roadie again this year, but a few months ago he decided to make the transition.
“This is a cool place,” he said, when we walked into McCabes.
I used to play a banjo—bought at McCabes when I was a teenager. Still have it. I also have a guitar, a Goodall, which I bought when I was much older at a dark point in my life, intending to learn it. I never did.
A Goodall is not just a guitar, it’s a Stradivarius of a guitar, hand made by a man named James Goodall and his son. They make about eight a month. My fingers can’t do it justice, but this is the sound:
Whenever I show this guitar to friends who play, the conversation goes like this:
Wolf: “I have a pretty good guitar, you know. Ever hear of a Goodall?”
Friend: “Nope. Let’s see it.”
I hand the friend the guitar and he plays it.
Friend: “You play this?”
Wolf: “Not really.”
Friend: “How much do you want for it?”
Wolf: “Sorry, not for sale.”
Behind the register at McCabes was a woman, Nancy, whom I knew from long-ago summer camp days, when I played banjo. My girlfriend had been Nancy’s counselor. Nancy took down several guitars and Nick tried them on for size.
“This one’s nice,” Nick said, fitting his left hand around the neck of a Yamaha. Its color was deep forest green. It had a built-in acoustical hookup and tuner.
“I can give you a deal on it,” said Nancy. “It’s a lot cheaper than renting if Nick’s going to keep it a whole year.”
This was a road I’d gone down with Nick before, buying things he ended up not using—not unlike my purchase of the Goodall. I had told myself we were going to take this guitar thing slowly. I still had my doubts Nick would go through with the band plan.
“Please dad, it’s a really good deal,” said Nick. “Plus it has the hookup which is good for the band.”
“If we get this you have to learn to play it,” I said. “Done deal.”
Nora and I have a godson, Forest, in a family of musicians. Forest’s parents encouraged him to play violin when he was young. Sometimes I thought they encouraged him too much. Now he’s a young man, and plays guitar as well as violin, and sings, and is generally a prodigy.
Every child is different, I know. There’s a time to encourage, a time to refrain from encouraging.
At home, Nick takes his new guitar out and makes sounds with it, running his hands over the strings.
“Want me to show you a chord?” I say.
“No,” Nick says.
Upstairs at McCabes, Nick sits with three other kids while the teacher, David, shows them tuning, some cords, strumming. David, who has been down this road before, divides the group up, gives each kid one chord to play, and conducts a song.
When David calls out “G” Nick focuses on his hands and strums along, not quite in rhythm. But the G chord is clear, and fills his corner of the room.
The lesson done, we head downstairs into the store.
“That was an hour?” says Nick. “I didn’t seem like an hour.”
“An hour,” I say.
“I need a strap, I think,” says Nick.
“I spent a lot on music this week,” I say. “How about I get you one when you’ve learned five chords?”
In the car on the way home, this:
“Did I suck?” he says.
He says this like he believes it to be true.
“You made a chord,” I say. “You strummed the guitar and music came out—you were part of a song. How cool is that?”
What I want to say is, the more you practice the better you’ll be. That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall, isn’t it?
I don’t say it. I’ve already said enough.
“Dad,” he says, “What if I really get into it?”
“That would be just fine.”
“Would you let me play the Goodall?”
“Your hands aren’t big enough yet. But if you really get into it, yes, you can play the Goodall.”
If you really get into it, you can have the Goodall.
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