You’re never too old to discover something new about yourself.
It’s strange how I can be alive for more than half a century and still discover new things about myself. Specifically, I’ve started learning skills I thought I would never have; I’ve discovered talents that were so latent I didn’t even know they existed.
It’s absurd the stories we tell about ourselves. And they are usually reinforced by those around us. I have discussed before my experiences with singing, that I was convinced I couldn’t sing until after I joined a chorus several years ago and found that wasn’t true. It serves as an example of how what others say about us (and to us) affects how we see ourselves, but often bears little resemblance to reality.
Just as I thought I couldn’t sing until I started singing, I’ve made more discoveries about myself recently.
I was raised by a single mom. She had no choice but to know how to fix basic things around the house. I know she tried to instill those skills in me, but it never really took. The story I told myself was that I just wasn’t handy. This notion was reinforced later when I owned my own house and felt overwhelmed at all that needed to be done (and my seeming inability to do something about it).
Fast forward a couple decades and one pandemic. While stuck in the house, I became intrigued with a new hobby. It turns out that there are people out there building and playing their own instruments. In this case, cigar box guitars (CBGs) and similar string instruments.
After buying a cheap factory-made CBG, I decided to try my hand at building one. I started with a simple one-string “Canjo” (yes, a one-string banjo with a can for a resonator), for which I bought the supplies from Home Depot on a whim. I also ordered a CBG kit and built my first guitar. After that, with a box from the local smoke shop just looking for a purpose, I created a diddley bow — a one string guitar that is surprisingly fun to play.
For my first guitar build, I also unearthed a hobby from childhood — wood burning. Because I love butterflies, I put stenciled and burned two on the body (the box). I had dubbed the guitar Pandora (the box didn’t want to stay closed initially), so I burned the name, Dora, on the neck. I was pretty satisfied with how it turned out, considering I hadn’t done anything like that in decades.
The discovery that I could make something that actually made pleasing sounds (a relative term — don’t consult our cats on that one) was startling. What happened next, though, was just as surprising. We moved to a new place a couple weeks before lockdown started, so are still trying to sort out the stuff we have in boxes and put things in shelves. We discovered we needed more bookshelves and ordered some. One set was meant to go in a corner, held onto the wall with screws and brackets. This would go against our lease, however, so I figured out how to screw them into the sides of my wife’s massive desk. I easily handled the drill and put everything together. It sounds like a small thing, but I’m convinced I got the confidence to do this from all the woodworking I had done.
Now to the actually playing of these instruments. A quick background: when I was a teenager I was given an electric guitar as a gift. I took lessons and tried to learn to play it, but I have terrible hand-eye coordination, and my left hand didn’t want to cooperate. Turns out that the left hand is pretty important to the playing of a guitar, especially — interestingly — if you are right handed. It involves reaching my fingers across the fretboard, pressing certain strings while leaving others alone. It was a mess.
Or so I thought. Fast forward more years than I want to even think about, to earlier this year. One day in April, I was reading facebook and someone mentioned playing their guitar. They then showed a picture of it and it turned out to be a CBG. It was smaller than an average guitar. It had three strings instead of 6. It looked so cool. And the thought occurred to me: I might be able to handle three strings.
As I am prone to do, I took a deep dive into all things CBG. I watched Youtube videos, stalked eBay, Amazon, and Etsy to see how much these things might cost. I found that, although they are usually a fraction of the price of a good traditional guitar, most were still out of my price range (anything more than about $30 was too rich for my blood — yeah, I’m a bit of a cheapskate). I finally found a rather cheap but seemingly usable factory-made CBG. The box was cardboard. The neck was kind of small. But it kept a tune nicely, and turned out to be a lot of fun to play. It was also in my price range, something that was even more important at the time.
The CGB was fretless, with just markings and no frets, and came with a slide. Playing with a slide actually felt easier than when I tried learning the fingering for the frets decades ago. And it made a cool sound. Before I knew it, I was playing the blues riffs in the book that accompanied it.
I guess I could have stopped there and just played that guitar forever. It was and is fun to play. By this time, though, I had been haunting YouTube and websites devoted to CBGs. I found all sorts of tips and tutorials on making my own. I also found commercial sites that sold kits. I decided to try one of the easier kits. Just like the guitar I already had, I wanted this to be fretless. It arrived with all the pieces: neck, body (box), tuners, strings, etc. It took a few hours to put together but sounded pretty good. I put it together and played it awhile before deciding how to decorate it.
In the meantime, while I was waiting for the guitar kit to arrive, I decided one Sunday to go to Home Depot. I got a long piece of 1” x 2” lumber, some eye bolts, some wire, a few screws, and headed home. In the matter of a couple hours, I built my Canjo. I didn’t put frets on it as you are supposed to do, so I played it with my slide. It was fun!
In that moment I made a couple discoveries: first, I had a few nascent skills — woodworking, music — that I could develop, skills I had pretty much written off as just not there for me.
Second, I realized just how much great it feels to make music with an instrument I created. I probably will never be a luthier (someone who makes stringed instruments), nor do I want to be, and my creations are probably not at the level that I would feel right selling them, even if I wanted to let them go. But I still love the feeling I get when I play something I made. I have since built a Diddley Bow — the one-string guitar I mentioned earlier — and have just finished a CBU — cigar box ukulele. The closer I got to done with it, the more excited I would get because then I got to play it.
The Play (ing)’s the Thing
And that’s quite a thing, getting to play it. Of course, I don’t know how to play a ukulele yet, but I’m learning. In the meantime, it still was quite a thrill the first time I picked it up, plugged it in (did I mention it’s electric?) and strummed away!
So yeah, I have not only learned new instruments (and about to learn another), I have gained new skills and found new interests. This is kind of surprising to me. I will turn 55 next month. When you get to this age it’s easy to believe I know everything there is to know about myself, that I’ve already questioned all the assumptions I have about myself. But I keep surprising myself.
It’s kinda cool to know I still have a few tricks left.