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James R. Stout

Play It Again Sam

            I’ve had a lot of younger people ask me how I learned to play the guitar. When I say younger, I’m talking about people under 40. The first thing I tell them is that I didn’t start out playing guitar. I started on the piano. I grew-up in a family where everyone played the piano. I took piano lessons for only one year. I liked it, but it took a lot of work to get better and at the age of 9 I didn’t want to put in that work. My father also played the guitar and I had been hearing him play since I could remember. He wasn’t a great guitarist though. He knew basic chords and essentially played only well enough to sing along to the songs that he most enjoyed – country classics. He played songs that included “Hey Good Lookin”, “Bouquet of Roses”, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, “San Antonio Rose”, “Walking The Floor Over You”, and “Detour”. At the time, I wasn’t a big fan of country music. I was more interested in The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, The Beach Boys, Paul Revere and The Raiders, and The Monkees. I eventually came to love those country songs and do so very much still.

            When I was about 13-years-old I wanted to learn to play the guitar. My father let me play his guitar, but it was a very difficult guitar to play. It had a short-scale making it hard to play bar chords and the action was set too high making it so that I had to press down on the strings very hard in order to play it. I learned a few chords such as C, D, G and E. F, Bb, But, B, and A were a little harder to play on that guitar. I didn’t get serious about playing the guitar though until I was 15. Probably the major reason that I started to get better was I got my own guitar for Christmas when I was 15. The action was far better, and the scale was normal. I lived and breathed playing guitar after getting that guitar. Herein lies the reason so many younger people don’t learn to play an instrument. It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work. Too often young people of the past 30 years would rather play video games or watch someone else play and sing via videos.

            During the summer before I turned 16, I took some guitar lessons at a local music store. The problem was the teacher wanted to start me out with “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Row Row Row Your Boat”. Well, I had gone far beyond that on my own. I had bought a Mel Bay guitar chord book after getting that guitar and I learned every chord that I could. I started to play bar chords and learned lead guitar licks. I was learning most of the songs that I played simply by listening to the records and figuring out what they were doing. I also got a bass guitar that summer and it came with a record that had two versions of each song on it. One was the full version while the other didn’t have the bass guitar playing. It allowed me to play along with the song. Learning the bass also provided another way to learn the scales. I fairly well devoured anything by Paul McCartney and the studio bassists who I didn’t know their names at the time, but they were the best. These included Joe Osborn, Carol Kaye, and Ray Pohlman.

            My typical day when I was 15, 16, and 17 was to go to school and then come home and practice in my room for 4 or 5 hours. I came out long enough to eat dinner and was back at it. Doing that obviously allowed me to get better, but it was definitely hard work and determination that was important to my development. I wrote my first song when I was 15 (although I had tried to write songs prior to that, I didn’t write anything that was organized the way a song should be) and it was called, “It Must Be Love”. I started writing songs all the time. I freely admit that most of those songs were inferior and essentially songs that I learned how to write a song with. Another reason for getting better on the guitar was having another guitarist to learn from and visa versa. My friend Lonny Schonfeld and I started to play guitar together in November of 1972. We spent hours and hours practicing. The great thing was he would show up with some chord or guitar lick and I would have a new one and we traded off. Getting together with Lonny as a duet was one of the most productive times of my life while learning the guitar. Our abilities and how good we were getting seemed to accelerate at the speed of light. The difference in that first year was amazing. We were just two kids still learning when we met and by the next October, we were playing live gigs in clubs. But the learning didn’t stop there. It never stops.

            Well, here I am 64-years-old now and I would be a liar if I told you that I play as often today as I did for most of my life after 15. The great thing is I have literally gotten a lifetime of learning and even if I go a few days without playing, it’s like I had just kept going. All of that learning was what I called it earlier. It was hard work and determination. I’ve written about 600 songs over the years and while many of them were songs only good enough to learn by, I’ve accumulated over 100 songs that I believe to be of quality. Chances are pretty good that I will continue to play and sing until I can’t. Eventually, I’ll get to old. Arthritis and other age-related conditions will no doubt one day halt my playing. But what a great trip it has been and will continue to be for now.

            The lesson to be learned here is that anything worth doing and that you’re inspired to do is going to take time, hard work, and determination. My brother-in-law is a fantastic carpenter/craftsman. He has all of these saws and tools that might as well be from Mars to me, but he can make some beautiful things with them. It didn’t just come naturally to him. He has spent as many years learning that craft as I have the guitar. I know some guys who can take a car engine apart completely, repair or modify it, and put it back together. The darn things run incredibly well afterwards. It took time and work to learn how to do that. I’m a bit behind the times when it comes to cars. In my younger years I changed out parts by necessity on a variety of cars, but I wasn’t interested in learning that trade. So, if you’re still young and there’s something that you really want to learn how to do, then roll up your sleeves and spend the time it will take to learn whatever it is. If you do, then one day you’ll finish doing something and you’ll stand back and look at what you’ve done and think, “I did that.” You’ll feel pride for a job well done and for staying with it. As Ringo Starr sang, “It Don’t Come Easy”.

Getting my first guitar - Christmas 1970

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