At a party where someone is playing guitar for people in one corner and someone is playing with their phone on social media in another, which person is more social?
Through the window of a big-city storefront, I see men dressed in shorts and black T-shirts. Strutting around on rubber floors, these adults could be toddlers at a daycare facility, except they are pumping iron. From my vehicular vantage point while stopped at a red light, I watch them lunge around—sweating, grunting, and assuming different athletic poses—while ignoring each other. This is the third gym in a dozen blocks to present the same spectacle. I am reminded of a mosh pit without physical or emotional contact. Less frequently, I pass yoga studios with a slightly gentler but equivalent scene.
Modern life has robbed many of work that exercises their bodies and fulfills their desire for accomplishment, so they join a gym to work out their muscles. Similarly, much of our socializing happens in the ether, where emotions are conveyed with words devoid of the body language and inflection that separate a humorous remark from the gauntlet thrown. Whether they realize it or not, every person seeks to find meaningfulness. Thankfully for us, there is the guitar.
When I go somewhere with a gig bag or guitar case, someone will inevitably ask me about it. Usually it’s fellow-musician bonding, but often it’s a curious civilian. “My brother plays guitar” or “I’ve always wanted to learn guitar” are things I’ve heard more than a few times. I can recall meeting people who became friends (or even bandmates) this way. People crave interaction, and even while quiet, the guitar breaks down social barriers better than any phone or tablet ever could. I don’t imagine people asking me if I’m a DJ when I break out my laptop at the coffee shop.
As for communal behavior, I realize there are lots of ways to get elbow-to-eyeball with 10,000 of your closest friends. Sporting events come to mind. I suppose watching people tossing a ball around and knocking the crap out of their opponents is the height of physical interaction for the players, but if the audience looks away from the field, the spell is broken.
Full disclosure before sports fans send me hate mail: I’m a Formula One fan, which is possibly the most boring of all sports (apart from curling or NASCAR). But my point is that, in contrast, a musical concert is a magical experience that even a blind person can find sublime. Athletes say they “do it for the fans,” and being a spectator in a like-minded crowd can be cathartic. But participating in a live-music performance is more than just a salve for the soul: It’s inherently tribal.
There is something physical and magical about coaxing music from something as earthy and crude as a guitar. Guitar music is grease for the increasingly complex human gearbox. There’s an anecdote I’ve heard often, where a band member recounts how, during a show or a jam, they feel as though the audience was directing the music. The dynamics of a song changed for a reason that was not planned, anticipated, or explained. Those are the moments of rapture that keep both the audience and the performer coming back for more. That is the allure of a musical séance, for which the guitar is the spiritual lightning rod. We spread that electricity to all—invisibly—for everyone within earshot to absorb like a potion.
As guitarists, we all found our instrument for different reasons, but eventually we discover that the power of connection to others is what the guitar really facilitates. Musicians couple with their own souls while performing, but even more importantly, they give. It’s this sharing with others that brings purpose to our passion, and it gives meaning to our lives. I’m giving the gift of connection.
They say that it is better to give than receive, and each time someone asks me about my guitar, I think that’s what is happening. That is the church, the temple, and the gym. Besides, it’s easier to play music than bale hay or lift weights.