The other day, I picked up my guitar and didn’t know what to play. This is happening more and more, and I guess it’s because I pick up the guitar less and less. When I was 15, I could strum my way through the entire Beatles catalogue, half the songs on classic rock radio, and any number of self-penned blues jams before I ever had to stop and think about what to play next.
Even in college, when playing time was precious, I always had a song in my head—usually some loud, obnoxious punk-blues rocker—ready to go when I had the chance to plug in and turn up the distortion on my Fender amplifier. From there, I’d rip through a suite of loud crunchy rock songs. Some days I’d practice an intricate solo, trying to get it to sound exactly the way it did on the recording. Others, I would unplug and fingerpick some country ballads. I wasn’t great, or even very good. I played every day, though, and on certain songs and techniques, I did okay.
These days, I’m lucky if I play once a month, usually on a weekend. Most of the time, my guitar sits in the corner of the living room gathering dust. When I do get the chance, I’ll spend several minutes strumming chords aimlessly. My fingers slip or stick along the fretboard. I haven’t learned a new solo in years. Chalk it up to life as a young adult: work, marriage, obligations, and weekends spent carpet shopping. I should appreciate the free time I have, I’m told. My friends warn, “Wait until you have kids!”
They’re probably right. If the mid-twenties are a time of decline for a man’s hobbies, the child-rearing years are the Dark Ages. So as far as my guitar-playing is concerned, I’m holding out for the Renaissance, when I expect to have the time to play and the disposable income to buy bigger and better equipment. I’m waiting for middle age.
Two men in my family have blazed this trail, becoming expert hobbyists since their nests emptied. My father-in-law is a train enthusiast, and may even be considered a “foamer,” as train crews used to call those buffs who seemed to foam at the mouth on sighting a particularly rare engine or car model. I’ve never seen him react that way, but my father-in-law is definitely all about things locomotive.
He subscribes to train magazines and reads train websites and goes to train conventions. He’s fascinated by a new online tool from Amtrak that allows users to track a train in real time by name, number, or station. Each Friday night, he gets together with other train guys for model train operating sessions. They often meet in his basement (the natural habitat of an expert hobbyist), where he has a continually expanding model train scene. When I first saw it nine years ago, the track wasn’t more than an oval loop. Now, there are tunnels, bridges, road crossings, switchyards, towns, and landscape details. He wired the entire scene himself. Even to a nonfoamer like me, it’s impressive.
My father is more of a jack-of-all-hobbies. Over the years, he’s been into stained glass window-making, hiking, grilling and smoking meat, golfing, collecting bar paraphernalia, and kayak fishing. He’s always been an excellent woodworker. Lately, he’s started brewing beer (an idea he picked up from my brother-in-law, an expert hobbyist in the making).
And then there are the guitars. Like me, my dad’s been playing since he was a kid, but in the last few years it’s grown into an obsession. For a while, it seemed he was buying a new guitar or piece of equipment every week. Some were fixer-uppers, like an old amp that needed rewiring. Others were fun items my dad has always wanted, like a Fender Telecaster and a looper pedal. In his basement (where else?), he’s got the whole setup, amps and foot pedals and a keyboard and enough guitars to rival Keith Richards’s home studio.
He plays all the time, maybe more than he ever has. He watches instructional videos online to improve his technique. On the phone, I hear about the latest picking style he’s tried to master. When I visit and we inevitably retreat to the basement to play, he’s always ready to jam on an Eric Clapton tune he’s figured out, with some complicated lick that he’s spent hours perfecting. I can’t keep up.
But I’ll get there. Just give me a couple decades.