Strings: A Ritual of Patience

Fellow Musicians, friends, family, and future inhabitants of earth. The following story is true. The names have not been changed to protect anyone. If you find anything familiar in this, it is certainly not a coincidence. Read at your own risk:

Strings: A Ritual of Patience

This composition is based loosely on personal experience and loathing over the act of putting a new set of strings on my guitar. Something I would fret over for days, even weeks, prior to accomplishing. And in the end, the clock starts ticking once more. A working knowledge of how to put strings on a guitar actually may make reading this slightly more understandable, but, then again, maybe not. To a non-guitarist, I would say the angst of the whole affair, for me, is roughly equivalent to a dry rectal exam.

Beyond compare, changing strings on my various guitars over the past 45 years has become, without a doubt, more of a Ritual than a task. It is a frustrating, agonizing, time consuming endeavor designed to keep me secretly desiring to become a couch monitor, or a crane operator.

Consider the latest recommendation data (when to change strings based on hours per week played) printed on the back of a new pack I used today. By these standards, I have fallen considerably short of compliance. So where is the Ritual in that? Well, let me tell you where it’s at.

Remarkably, when you take into account that possibly all of my personal musician friends, and acquaintances, have each played more gigs this year alone than I have in my entire life, one would think that my compliance in this area would be both logistically effortless, and economically prudent. Well, it isn’t.

When I started to play guitar in 1973, my very 1st guitar had no strings at all on it. So quite easily, I was averaging 100% compliance at that point. Shortly after a friend strung up the first set of strings for me, the guitar changed owners. But, not willingly, it was stolen.

It had been left unattended in the trunk of a car along Route 40 West, just outside of Gallup, New Mexico. (How it got there is a much longer and entirely different story, for a later time perhaps, after a thorough review of applicable statute laws. And, don’t even ask me about my Les Paul Black Beauty. Not the one in the summer of 1992, I had to sell to a pawn shop, while living in my car in Phoenix, in order to finish nursing school. Not that one. I am referring to another one, the 25th Anniversary one, “The one that got away!” The one that, after I had put money down, it seemed to just “walk” out of a music store in 1977!)

Sorry, back to 1973 in Gallup. The car then became, after 24 hours, “property of the Tribe.” Or so I was told by the local state policemen at the station when I went in to report the loss. The car, nor the fact that all of my earthly belongings at that time were also in the trunk, and thereby stolen too, wasn’t all that important to me. “My guitar was in there!” I said. That was my 1st guitar! Perhaps, this was the beginning of the Ritual for me.
Over the years since, the act of the “string change” has taken on enormous meaning, in part, because of who eventually strung my first guitar. He was killed in an accident. I found out that morning, on my birthday, not long afterwards. He was my friend. And slowly the process developed.

Since then, I have watched my friends, some who work in music shops, or have amassed phenomenal Luthier skills professionally and privately, throw a set of strings on a guitar while having 3 different conversations at once, and they do it with the same ease as I would lace up my own sneakers.

Don’t get me wrong, I once changed my 1st string during a song (Train kept a Rollin), and had it strung up and tuned in between lead solo’s. But that was likely a chemically enhanced moment of high octane adrenaline, that will never happen again. Like when I played Radar Love with Mic Rock and the Cows in 82’, while my right arm was in a cast. But I did discover how to get a really cool whirly sound in the chorus part by rubbing my cast across the strings in a circular motion. Just another one of those, “Moments of Madness” I suppose.

First, I do not have, nor desire to use, special automatic gizmos that help wind the strings up. I would likely sever a finger. I am accident prone. My nickname at work in the steel mill was “Jinx”. Not a very flattering moniker.

Instead, after feeding the hypodermic needle-like end of the new string through the camel’s eye, (the tuning post on the head stock) I clutch the string in both hands and slowly maintain tension as I loop it back over itself while simultaneously turning the tuner peg bit by bit. (It looks even worse than it sounds) Taking great care to not wrap it up backwards, (yes, it has happened), and to ensure slight upward pressure as it comes around to the initial insertion point, where the string originally starts its bend. Once I get a full revolution, I will at times, use the little spinnie thing to wind the string up faster. However, I still go slow enough to ensure each following loop will coil up below the last, to prevent slipping. Also, the string wants to cross over and/or under the other strings and often drop into the wrong bridge or nut slots, very annoying. (Nut Slot), there is another story in there somewhere I think.

Not surprisingly, a thousand times, if not more, I have impaled one or more of my fingers on the brutal end of that skinny pointed monster. But don’t be too harsh to judge. That can, and has happened, at any point throughout the Ritual. In fact, it happened once “During” a show, in the middle of a lead solo (Crazy train). How?

Earlier that day, tapping into my vast, not so wizardly guitar maintenance skills back in the 80’s, I chose to stop the Top string (6th one, the Fattest) from buzzing, by cutting the end off of a G string. (G string? not what you imagine, I don’t wear them, I pluck them) I then tried slipping it under the fussy little bastard up at the nut. (oddly pornographic lingo, is it not?) It worked like a charm. No buzz! But, in the intro of my solo that night, I rapidly slid my pick and hands down the neck to attain the proper sound and momentum for the solo. As I did, my left had middle finger caught the tip of the “fixer G string” and welcomed it to inoculate itself through my finger, right into the fleshy palm side above the first knuckle and hit the inside of the back of my nail about midway to the tip. It literally felt like lightning struck me! I finished the solo somehow, without my middle finger, which I frantically kept trying to ensure was still attached, and yelled for Jim (the light man) to turn to spot light on after the song. Lucky for me, it was the last song of the 2nd set. Once the light was on I saw the end sticking out of my finger. Turning my hand over, I could see the other end of the string, like a black dot, through my fingernail. I then used Ed’s (the drummer) pliers to pull on the exposed string end. Slow and steady, until it pulled all the way out. I believe Floyd (the sound guy) may have passed out here, or at least uttered some sort of guttural moan as the length was slowly revealed. I soaked it in a double shot of JD (drink of choice at the time) during the break. I then drank the shot and finished the night. Anyhow, back to changing my strings.

Secondly, I have frequently prolonged the times between the Ritual, for financial reasons mostly. But eventually, I submit myself for sacrifice, yield to facing yet another danger during the process. This is the risk of partial blindness, losing an eye, or suffering excruciating agony similar to getting stung by a bee. Only in this case it is more of “Strung” by a prick. Mainly, from the wandering bounce of wayward string ends. Occasionally one is destined to smack me in the face, and close calls to the actual eyeball occur way more frequently than I will admit. Controlling one of those skinny bitches, whipping open from their stir crazed coiled restraint, is like trying a one handed grab on a dropped fire hose with the hydrant wide open. It has never been easy for me.

Next, once all 6, (or 4 or 7 or 12) strings are attached, it is time for the stretching step, (String Yoga) of setting the strings, or “breaking them in”. And “breaking”, is not all that far off from the reality. Though I do believe a broken string is a sort of guitarists, Right of Passage, but I seriously doubt many people who play guitar will resort to wearing Doubleneck hats, and invite all their Geetar slinging buddies to join them in a G string wearing “String Break” beach frenzy. I can see them now, stumbling in perfect harmony, while chanting the lyrics to a revised Zeppelin version of ”The Thong Remains the Same”. But, ya never know right?

Never-the-less, the time has now come for the pinched faced, masochistic grimacing, while slowly bringing each string, up to pitch. Other, more professional folks I have observed, change all the strings at once. They first remove all of the old ones, and then add all the new ones. I am pretty sure this is quite faster and likely one of the best ways, unless you have a Floating Bridge. Which, I dare not discuss here. Mostly, out of fear of the Spring Tension Gods, who will most assuredly curse my Schecter, Banshee. Forever!

How many times have I ducked down, then, cautiously dared to watch, as each string sings higher and higher, in its quest for the perfect 440 vibration! I am certain that the ratio of break-per-string change is income based. When I have extra string o’ plenty, not one will snap. Whenever the funds appear lighter than usual, or if I forget to throw an extra set into my gig bag before a show, one will break, every single time.

Finally, the set is strung. The pitch is perfect and the cats are all settling down. They are quite tired after their frenzied attack directed at every step of the way, biting and pawing, jumping and grabbing at each noise and anything the swings even slightly below table height. I wonder if they knew the origin of strings, would they be as playfully oblivious while playing with Cousin Fritz’s entrails. Likely so, I know they will eat a bird whole.

My birds in fact! Those precious little morsels as they were. The little bastards managed to jimmy the bedroom door open and had a “Kitties Day Out” adventure. All that remained of the two little Budgies, were scattered groupings of feathers, some green, some blue. I suppose they each finally succumbed to fatigue, thereby signifying the end of the chase. I found a perfectly intact head under the dining room table. It was years before I could appreciate the irony of it all. I didn’t blame the cats really. It was likely the most fun they’d had in years. I was hesitant to mix species again, that is certain. I only wanted them to be able to fly around in the bedroom, so they had a little more freedom. Better quality of life. I never did get around to fixing that door. Truthfully, it is possible cats were never used as a source of guitar strings. That designation fell upon sheep, cows, horses etc., kitties were safe, but for now, back to the guitar.

Afterwards, when the tiny clipped ends are safely disposed of, Deviation Alert # 9… # 9… # 9… # 9… time for the last injection of insanity? Once, in the cold darkness of the early 80’s, a nagging limp annoyed itself to my attention. I lifted up my right foot one day while in the shower, and there, sunk peacefully into the cavernous crack of my badly split calloused foot, was a tiny 2 inch length of a 1st string. {at the time I used 8’s, so, very small diameter} It even had the little brass ball still attached! {If I had saved every one of those brass ends since 1973 I would have a lot of balls by now} Apparently, I had stepped on a dropped string end at one point during or after a “Ritual” string change. Miraculously, [or not] it lined up perfectly with the split of my callous. Gradually, my weight pushed the hooked end deeper into my foot, eventually breaking the skin and causing the “limp” of discovery. By the time I found it, it was well on its way to a serious infection. I pulled the string out, dumped Peroxide on it, and off I went.)

So, where was I? Oh, back to the beginning of the ending. After I clean up all the little ends of the strings and recoil the old ones up, I mark a section of the new pack with the Ritual date, and store it in the respective guitar case for future reference. Then we, (the cats and I), each retire to our respective corners, where we silently grieve and patiently await, yet another, changing of the Strings: A Ritual of Patience. ~ James M Desiderati 10-10-2018

Dear Reality

Dear Reality,

You SUCK. I once read “Reality often stinks.”, but I am saying that you don’t just stink … You SUCK!

Please allow me to tell you why. And this involves your whole family, not just you, so please do not take offense too quickly. I realize that your Father Time and Mother Earth have provided us with a wonderful place to pursue our dreams. Your Aunt Cliché and Uncle Blame have more than tried to summarize, identify, and categorize the complications life involves. But, quite honestly, if it were not for your Cousins Faith and Hope, things would seem depressingly negative.

Despite the best efforts of some of the most compassionate hearts and intellectual minds, there is still much conflict, hate, and unrest in our world; which, must I remind you, only exists because of you. It seems to me that many of the problems started between your twin siblings, Truth & Lies. Initially it was easy to tell them apart. But lately there has been so much happening that it is almost impossible to tell one from the other.
Maybe you should consider changing your name to Fantasy. That way you have no responsibility to present facts about anything. You can just sit back and collect your dues that you know damn well we all must pay.

I have considered trying to hire an attorney to take you to a higher court but clearly you have control of all the power. No amount of desire can overcome the strength hate builds even as your other Aunt Nature sits there day after day and preaches balance. Like that matters to those in misery. There is no balance that I can see. None I can find any more worthy of questioning than why one snowflake is different from another.
And lastly, what ever happened to Grandpa Love and Grandma Peace? This world would be so much better if they came around again.

Sorry if I seem upset, it was just a bad morning for me. I woke up from a nightmare: I was watching helplessly as the rich were amusing themselves at the expense of the weak, poor, and ignorant. As if they deserved the worst you could offer just for being born. Ha, thank God that was only a dream huh?

Grass Is Always Greener

The Grass is always Greener….

This phrase is one of many old adages expressing how the reality of something is really quite different than what you may have initially expected. A list of examples is unnecessary in this case as I am sure most everyone can come up with quite a few on their own.

The point, however, is expressly different.

Imagine what you think your death will be like. Will it be at home? Will you be surrounded by loving family, friends and cherished memories of your long and prosperous life? Will you be at peace with yourself? Will you be warm and comfortable in a soft cozy bed? Will there be the sweet fragrant aroma of incense permeating the air and tranquil melodies floating between hushed whispers of thanks and gratitude? Will you feel a growing excitement at joining the billions of other souls who have made this unique journey to a better place?

What wonderful ideas, right?

The reality of death is not quite so pretty for many people. Far from the above descriptions of how things could be are the actual ways many people face their last moments on earth.

My life experience including 10 plus years working Hospice (23 total years in nursing) have led me to this place today. A place where I am trying to help everyone understand that the above desires for end-of-life experiences are only possible with conscientious effort, planning and above all else CONVERSATIONS with others.

Too many people suffer needlessly at the hands of a system designed to keep people alive “no matter what.” Mechanical interventions replace natural processes. Legal checklists become substitutes for conversations and making real choices. Heathcare algorithm “clickfests” take the place of tender touch and genuine human interaction. These “interventions” are manipulating dying and death into becoming situations of cold, sterile, expensive states of suspended animation in order to wring every last breath out of a body long overdue for its final “resting place.”

Does this sound too harsh? Maybe an acronym to lessen the intensity of suffering? What could we call a system focused on longevity and not quality of life? What could be appropriate in our acronym-infested healthcare system? I know! Let’s call it,

S-ervices, A-gainst, D-eath … and what it really is: SAD!

Do not misinterpret my compassion for minimizing suffering as a fatalistic wish to end all happiness by “killing” everyone before their time. Such an assumption could possibly give strength to what pushes death even further into the abyss of denial.

There are wonders of technology and dedicated people everywhere that can save lives. The resources are almost limitless in both material effort and will when saving lives. When there is an opportunity, we almost all rush to the aide of anyone in distress.

But isn’t dying simply just life at its most amplified state? Isn’t everyone’s emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual culmination of lifetime energy at its most powerful when people are dying? Why is it that the one moment in life – that we get no other chance at repeating – is stripped of resources when they are most needed?

What I support is a preservation of that kindness and love we seek. While still capable and healthy, there is still time to offer a greater acceptance of dying and recognize it as the catalyst from which all appreciation of life began. When we can accept our limited existence, it intensifies each moment and delivers the “spirit” of living as no other act can. We can then set aside our fears and embrace the loss of a loved one with a renewed understanding of how important this end time is.

We have tossed death into the cold, damp corner of our minds where we hope we will never need to go again. We label our relief at not having been struck by lightning as good luck or the Grace of God, and some say we have “survivor’s guilt.” We feel even more relief to be alive.

We can learn to die better in this world. There are exceptions, for sure: trauma, sudden onset of disease, and the hateful violence of some people. But for the majority of human existence, there is a natural compassion and concern to help one another.

Consider the shape of our life to look more like an hour glass instead of a funnel. Instead of narrowing options and resources as we circle nearer the tapered end there is an acceptance and an expansion of personal options once we pass through that point where quality of life reigns over quantity of days. We are embraced and comforted approaching the natural end of our life. Please have meaningful conversations with your family friends and loved ones about how you would want to die. Do not look across the fence of death and think that the grass will be any greener, less complicated or less problematic than the reality you live in here.