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James R. Stout

Learnings and Legacy

            I recently was asked a question that I have been asked many times over the years. Only this time I decided to answer the question in writing. The question? How and when did I learn to play guitar and specifically the bass guitar. I will endeavor to answer that question without boring most of you. First, I should mention that for as long as I can remember there was always a guitar in the house and at a young age I sat and listened and watched my father play the guitar. He was self-taught (a recurring theme) and had only progressed as far as playing basic chords to accompany himself while singing country and western songs that he loved. He never learned to play “bar” chords or to incorporate picking styles. He was content with strumming chords while singing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. He was happy to sing and play for family gatherings or just to entertain himself.

            I didn’t pay too much attention to his guitar playing until the music of the 60’s grabbed me by the neck and said, “LISTEN!” That’s when I thought to myself that I might could learn to play the guitar. I was about 13-years-old at the time. I was a bit handicapped by the fact that my father’s guitar was very difficult to play. The action was set too high and it took a lot of strength in my left hand to press down on the strings hard enough to properly play. The guitar was also a short-scale guitar that was not conducive to playing bar chords. Perhaps that is why Dad never learned to play them. I struggled along for about a year learning the typical open chords that my father showed me how to play. I was frustrated with my lack of progress. But then for Christmas in 1970 my parents gave me my own guitar. Well, I would love to tell you that it was a fantastic guitar. It wasn’t. But despite it being a cheap Sears Silvertone acoustic it was far easier to play than my father’s old guitar. My ability grew quickly. Within a couple of months, I was playing bar chords and the harder chords that I had previously not been able to play. I have no doubt that part of my progress also came with added strength in my hands and fingers. In my freshman year of high school, I spent 3-4 hours a day practicing. I bought a Mel Bay Guitar Chord book and set out to learn as many chords as possible. I started writing songs and would write a new song around every new chord that I learned.

            Let me step back for a minute now. I had for some time, even before I started to play the guitar, been keenly listening to different parts of the records that I was buying. I would pay attention to the different sounds. I fell in love with the sound of a bass guitar early on. I wasn’t sure at first what instrument was playing what, but I was definitely listening for the differences. I started reading about how records were made and what went into the sounds that I was hearing. I was probably about 12-years-old when I bought The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” album. It contained their song “Penny Lane”. I knew by then that Paul McCartney played the bass on their records and the bass on “Penny Lane” was amazing. The melodic qualities set it apart from other bass guitar parts. At its heart, the bass guitar is a major component of the rhythm section of a band. The drums and rhythm guitar are generally the other major parts. I remember listening to the bass guitar on songs like “Monterey” by The Animals, “Too Much Talk” by Paul Revere and The Raiders, and “Windy” by The Association. I wanted so badly to be playing those parts and making those sounds.

            June of 1971 rolled around and I was telling my father about my desire to learn the bass guitar. He loved the idea, but money was tight. Then my brother-in-law heard us talking and said that he had a friend from college that had a bass guitar and amplifier that he didn’t play anymore and would probably be willing to sell it. A day or so later he called and said that the guy would sell both for $40. Now, it wasn’t a major brand or anything. In fact, despite owning that bass for a couple of years I never could find a brand name on it anywhere. The amplifier was another Sears product. It was a 35-watt bass amp and speaker housing. I asked Dad if we could buy the set and he came up with the money. My father was very supportive of me and my musical endeavors. I think I worked it off by helping him with one of this piano repair jobs. Along with the bass guitar and amp I also received a “Learn to Play Bass” record album by The Ventures. The album contained the full versions of songs and then versions without the bass that allowed you to play the bass part along with the other instruments. Like the guitar, I was self-taught on the bass. I would love to tell you that being self-taught is the best way. Many of the best guitarists in the world are indeed self-taught. But there is no doubt in my mind that had I been able to take lessons from a good teacher I would have become a much better guitar player. I certainly have gotten by with my abilities, but there’s no telling what I could have learned with lessons. The bass guitar though is a little different. A fundamental knowledge of playing the guitar is necessary if you want to get any good on the bass. But I’m convinced that playing bass is something that just touches a person somewhere deep inside. Some people play the bass because the band needs a bass player. The truly great bass players have that certain something, discovered somewhere along the way, that makes them hear a bass part in their head while others just don’t hear it.

            Learning the guitar is also something that is greatly enhanced simply by being around other guitarists. My old pal Lonny Schonfeld and I would get together and show each other new chords or chord progressions or guitar licks that made both of us better guitar players. Paying attention to what other guitarists do helps. But let’s be honest here for a second. Some people are gifted beyond the norm. I could never play as well as some players do no matter how much I tried. But then, I’m not trying to be the best guitarist in the world. I only try to be the best that I can be. I also have a producer’s ear. I hear a song played with a guitar and vocal or piano and vocal and then suddenly I am hearing an arrangement that includes other instruments. Mozart probably started to compose a song with a melody. He then started to hear the orchestration in his head. Where the violins would come in etc. Now, I’m not comparing myself to Mozart. I’m just saying that he was, for his time, not only a composer but a producer too. I love to produce. Some of my recordings start out simple and then grow into a full-blown production. But with some of the songs the “sound” of a finished recording is in my head before anything is recorded. I freely admit that it can at times be difficult to pull that “sound” out of my head and transfer it to media. But it’s a lot of fun to do.

            So, as to the answer of that initial question of how and when I learned to play the guitar. The how is a combination of listening, self-teaching, and paying attention to what other guitarists do. The when is quite simply not simple at all. It’s a lifelong process. By the time I was 18 I was good enough to be playing in nice clubs and restaurants. Good enough to be paid for it. But I was just scratching the surface then. Years and years of recording, writing, learning, and in some cases re-learning things forgotten is the “when”. I don’t do it for money though. I stopped performing for money many years ago. I do it because I love doing it. I love the creative process. I love the finished product. I compare myself to more of a hobbyist painter. I had a neighbor once back when I was in my 30’s and she was in her late 60’s. She had always been artistic and loved painting, but she had been busy in life raising kids and so forth. But by that time, she was able to devote time and effort to painting. Her husband was very supportive and built on a sunroom to their house. But it was mainly her artists studio. She would start with a blank canvas and perhaps a sketch. When she was finished, she had a beautiful painting to share. Sometimes it was still life, sometimes wildlife, and sometimes pastoral.

            That’s me today. I’m in my 60’s and I love to create. I can create music and my paintings are my finished recordings. Someday when I’m just a memory, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have those recordings and they’ll be able to know a lot more about what kind of person I was than if I didn’t make the recordings. I’m blessed to have other creative outlets such as writing and photography. My name will never be a household name. I’ll never be famous. I’ll certainly never be rich due to my creative endeavors. But that isn’t why I do them. I love doing them. They are an integral part of who I am. If I am very lucky the things that I create will be enjoyed by my descendants. That’s more than enough fame, worth more than uncounted fortunes, and a blessing that I am so very thankful to God for.

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