For whom the guitar strings toll as I play

The common acoustic guitar is actually one of the oldest instruments we know of. There are stone carvings of long-necked instruments with wooden sound boxes which are thousands of years old. For instance, in Alaca Huyuk in Turkey there’s carving of a Hittite playing the instrument.

The name of the instrument comes to us from Sanskrit. and Arabic. Chartarra in Old Persian means ‘four strings’ and in Arabic it became Qithara, which became Guitarra in Spanish through the influence of the Moors. It was the Italians, of course, who departed from the original form of four strings to have five, six, and up to twelve.

So, when I sit down to plonk out my tunes on my trusty Ibanez, I’m connecting with history in a real way. Through the name, through the form, and through the music, I connect with all the guitar players throughout history – whether they entertained the Pharaohs of Egypt or Napoleon in his elegant halls, or me in my house as I trace out the melody of some cover I hope to make.

That gives me a little pause, and maybe a little goose bumps, when I think of how I connect to the rest of the world. Through Mark to his family. Through my parents, my aunt, and my cousins. Even through my sister in her grave in Sussex. And earlier today, when I passed by the square and squat castle here in town, I was thinking about how people hundreds of years ago did the same as me; hurrying past the old monstrosity to get to the more fun parts of town.

I’m not a native of these lands. When granddad did as Norman Tebbit said and got on his bike, he ended up in Sussex. Not here. That’s where mum and my aunt spent their teenage years. Before getting on his bike, they were Yorkshire folk. That I ended up in this place was just chance; my auntie happened to have a house here, and my parents wouldn’t let me live on my own.

But while I’m not native to this place, Mark is. Mark has relatives all over Surrey, and we can barely pass through a town without a remark about some second or third cousin or uncle or Auntie who live there. Mark’s family is vast and well dispersed, and they’re as native in this place as the ground I walk on. They sprung from it, ages ago.

I once suggested that Mark should trace his family back, but he quickly shot it down and said there were probably whole legions of people in the family who had already done that. He could just borrow the books. He had no interest in poring over old church documents, tracing births and deaths and marriages going back through history. Mark has roots in this place, and they’re everywhere, so he’s not interested in investigating them. He has seen and felt them all his life, and they hold no mystery to him. I have no roots, and go looking for mine, and want to find some. Having roots seems important to me.

When I sit down and play on my guitar and start to think about how old the instrument is, and how many thousands of years has passed since it first came into being, and wonder about the players throughout history – that’s a bit of root-searching, isn’t it? I pretend to be connected to something that’s not actually there, but which I pretend is there.

What does it matter to this hairless ape in this time and in this place if another long-gone hairless ape played a similar instrument in the presence of an alpha-male of his ape-tribe thousands of years ago on another continent? It doesn’t, but since I attach value to the idea it must mean that it is a human idea.

Togetherness, hierarchies, and bonds between hairless apes, whether living or not, says something about the nature of the ape, doesn’t it? And it says something about human nature that I dream about performing the song I’ve played on the guitar for other hairless apes so that they like me more, because as John Donne wrote in his “For whom the bell tolls”, “No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own Or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”

But I play the guitar because someone thought of one all those ages ago. I live in this town because people hundreds of years ago thought it into existence. I play songs that build on older songs that build on older songs. Nothing new under the sun, they say, and it’s true. There are always connections between the hairless apes. Connections between hairless apes are the most important thing about us. This is why we have language, music, science, history, art, pride, and jealousy. Connections are what we are. It’s us. It’s human.