In Search of the Perfect Musical Instrument

Essay by George Pitlik

I was seventeen when my ten-year-old baby brother Ken took up learning guitar. A few weeks later, I left for Air Force basic training and did not return home for six months to find Ken still plunking away, and I could almost recognize a few songs. He continued to work on his guitar chords, and when I returned home after my four-year enlistment, only to find Ken was in a local rock and roll band playing as loud as he could.

Ken is now 65 years old and has never had a “real” job, as we non-musicians might call it.

He has played all over the United States and his band played occasional parties at Hugh Hefner’s mansion on the lakefront in Chicago. (For those who do not recognize the name Hugh Hefner: he was the publisher of Playboy magazine. I’ll bet you remember the name now.) Yup, poor Ken never had a real job.

But this story is about how I finally found my instrument, so let’s get on with it.

When I was 25 years old, I bought a guitar and tried to give it a go. Took about ten lessons that just did not seem to take. I blamed the teacher, of course. Sold that guitar.

Then in my late thirties, I watched a commercial on TV that explained for an affordable exchange of cash I would get a neat guitar with case and lessons. The guy on the screen said it was magical how fast I could learn to play real songs. Current students were testifying how easy it was, and that after just a month they were playing beautifully. Yes, indeed. It had to be true, as I could watch them play right there on the late night TV. I signed up.

Apparently the guitar I received in the mail was not one of the “magic guitars” I had seen being played on the advertisement. It just would not do what I wanted or expected. I sensed another failure, and I was right. Sold that non-magical guitar to someone more gullible than myself.

I won’t bore you with what happened to guitar number three and the saga of buzzing strings. I was beginning to believe I was not meant to be even a hobby guitar player. I had proof. I can’t remember what became of that guitar, or maybe I am too embarrassed to relate how I sometimes handle frustration by taking it out on fragile inanimate objects. (I am tempted to tell you what I did to a weed eater that would not start. Suffice to say concrete was involved.)

Fast forward to 2015. Right after New Year’s, I decided to give playing music one last try. I went to the music store and picked up a few guitars, which caused chills and sweating. Maybe, I thought, there are just too many strings on a guitar? Hmmm… I will just scale back to something simpler.

I learned that there is a one-string instrument called the diddley bow. It’s from America. But I just could not tell friends I was learning to play such a thing.

Logically I moved to the two-string instrument called the erhu, also known as a spike fiddle, or a “southern fiddle.” It was beginning to sound more promising.

But before committing to finding an ehru, I gave Google another whirl. “Three-string instrument” is what I typed, and within a fraction of a millisecond I learned there are lots of instruments with three strings. From Japan we have the shamisen, and Russia has a beauty called the balalaika. There are many others.

I was getting close. You probably can guess what is coming next: the four-string ukulele. That was it. I decided to buy one and learn how to play it. However, reason kicked in, which is unusual for me. I waited and thought for 60 days before buying one. I never do that. 

Sixty-one days later, on Independence Day in sunny Florida, I found myself in a large music store. I had no clue what I was doing. I asked the heavily-tattooed, long-haired man behind the counter to show me some mid-priced ukuleles. He stared back and said ukuleles could be bought on EBay for $19.95 with free shipping—and could be had for several thousands of dollars as well. I stared back and asked him how many strings were on the $4000 ukulele. The staring contest was in session.

“Four.”

“How about on the EBay one?” I said.

“Four.”

Backing away, I wondered what clever reply would be appropriate. Janet, my spouse and personal photographer, stared first at me and then at the sales guy.

After 60 long seconds, I asked him to show me a few under $300. He did. I chose one, and then added about $100.00 worth of accessories, to ensure my success….

Back home in Texas, I began to approach the mastering of the ukulele. I thought. Only four strings: how hard can it be?

I went through the “learning accessories” I had bought. A one-page laminated sheet entitled “Ukulele Chords” surprised me: crammed into the sheet were 10 columns and 12 rows of chords. That works out to 120 chords. Of course a songs does not use all of them, but still….

The book “Music Theory for Dummies” is a disappointment. The instruction is not linear. Very scattered and confusing. Must mean I am not a dummy!

The Internet, especially YouTube, has thousands of videos ranging from individual ukulele songs to complete ukulele orchestras. I am blown away by music played by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. (Check them out!) Classical music played on a ukulele astounds me as well. There are uke players who truly do have magic hands and fingers.

I signed up for an online course from ukuleleunderground.com. I am on my eleventh lesson and loving it. There are several reasons why this online course agrees with my learning style. Mainly I can pause the instructor, rewind, and listen and watch again and again and again.

I have had live guitar instructors preface a lesson with, “This is easy. Let me show you how to do it, and then we can move on.” When an instructor tells me it is easy, my mind flips back to sixth grade at St. Eulalia Catholic school in Chicago, Sister Mary Francis is at the chalkboard using little stubs of chalk to explain how to divide fractions. She would proclaim, “Class, this is easy!” Every time she wrote, her fingernails screeched on the chalkboard, mirroring what was going on in my brain. It was not easy. I sat in the last seat in the farthest row from her desk. She did the seating chart.

After explaining the intricacies of fractions she would turn and face the class and say, “Isn’t that easy? Any questions?” Up shot my skinny arm, and even under the yards of black garment her frustrated sigh was visible.

So I would say, “Could you please explain again? I am a bit confused.”

She turned and started again and the chalk hit the board as she repeated the very same explanation, word for word. I just told her I did not understand. Why is she doing the exact same thing again?

She finished, and as she turned she said, “Okay, now everyone has it! Let’s move on!.” Need I say that she looked at me when she made the statement?

My online instructor always smiles at me. When I click the little slider on the video screen and rewind, he starts again, and son of a gun, he is still smiling at me. Over and over till I get it. He always smiles. Having a patient instructor who does not mind repeating is the main reason I think I may actually learn how to play the ukulele. When I took guitar lessons, YouTube did not exist.

The uke can be frustrating, but is fun to play. I very much enjoy trying to get my fingers to move into the correct form to play a difficult chord. Often I send a signal from my brain to my left ring finger and find my pinky finger moves instead. That is quite entertaining to me, but slowly I improve. I like that.

So far here is what I have learned:

Playing an instrument is difficult. I have a new respect for musicians.

I cannot sing.

My left hand is resisting my efforts to make it do something. My entire life it has just hung out with Righty handling all the work.

When I notice a person with very short fingernails on the left hand and long on the right hand, I know why.

Right now, I can pretty much play two- and three-chord songs: Skip to My Lou My Darling, Rock-A my Soul, and Oh, Susanna are ones I can manage strumming and singing.

Now about my singing: when notes have a higher pitch I just sing louder, and for lower pitches I sing quieter. But…I am getting better, so, take that, kindergarten music teacher who moved me to the back row of the choral group for the Christmas performance! (What type of person holds a grudge for 68 years?)

A while back I learned that two of my friends also have ukuleles, so we are getting together to “jam.” Makes me smile just to say “jam.” And this week, two more folks found our group and are joining. For our next jam session we will be playing “Let it Be” by the Beatles. That tune requires five chords that switch rapidly and various strumming techniques. Fortunately my online smiling instructor has videos that teach the song. I figure 30 replays might do it.

I am not sure what the future has in store for me regarding my level of competence, but I am definitely in for the duration. (What does that mean?)

I suggest that if you want a challenge and enjoy music buy a ukulele. Or maybe a diddley bow?

The author on his porch in Alpine, playing tenor uke. (Janet Stewart, photo)
The author on his porch in Alpine, playing tenor uke. (Janet Stewart, photo)

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