Playing Guitar and the Ripple Effect

You stand on the shore of a glassy smooth lake on a calm, windless day, and toss in a stone. You watch as the ripples break the serenity of the water top, and follow a small swell as it quietly makes its way across lake. 

The swell continues on until it finally appears to fade away into obscurity. But does it really go away? What about the “vibration” of the swell? Does the vibration continue on, across the lake and into a stream? Does it travel an unchartered path into a river, and eventually on to the ocean, where it joins others in a relentless pounding of the shore?

When we play guitar we produce a similar effect. We pluck a note and the vibration of that note is released from the string as the vibration spreads outward, like the ripple of the stone, blindly through the air to parts unknown and unforeseen. Sometimes these vibrations spread out and touch others in the most curious and uplifting ways.

I recently was playing a gig with a local band at an area club. Somewhere during the second set the club manager approached the stage to come up and make an announcement. She got on the mic and asked one of her employees and his girlfriend to come up to the stage.

The couple came up and the young man dropped on one knee and, ring in hand, proposed to his girlfriend in front of a packed house. With a tear running down her cheek she said “yes” and they shared a tender kiss. As they exited the stage we started playing the old Etta James standard “At Last” as the dance floor cleared for them. They danced their first dance as a newly betrothed couple while the crowd cheered them on.

For us it was a special moment to witness. For them, the melody of that song will live on in their memories for the rest of their lives. Whenever they hear that song, on the radio, in a restaurant, or riding in an elevator – the reverberations of those notes will reach out and take them back to that magical night when their journey together began.

The biographies of well known songwriters are littered with stories of how certain songs they wrote touched other lives. Often times these songs touched others in ways that the songwriter never intentioned or imagined when the song was written.

But the ripples of the song travel on and end up crashing on many shores, long after the writer has moved on to crafting other tunes.

I have been asked to play gigs for nursing homes and watched the faces of seniors when we play an old familiar song. Their eyes light up with the spark of a memory that takes them back to their youth, and for a while, they are no longer bound by the shackles of old age.

One of my earliest memories is when, as a young boy, my dad took me to the house of a friend that played in a band. The band was rehearsing in the basement and I remember sitting mesmerized as the band went through its chops. It was as though every note they played vibrated through the inner recesses of my soul.

Those guys had no idea the course of events that their music would set in motion for me, but from that day on, I was hooked on becoming a musician.

When we first pick up the guitar and learn how to make our fingers dance across the fret board, we usually do so for purely “selfish” reasons. I know I did. We are answer a call deep inside to make music to feed a hunger in our heart.

But there are many times that the vibrations of the notes we play drift out across the lake and touch others in ways we could never have anticipated.

It can happen at any moment, sometimes without even realizing it. You might be on stage and play a song that touches someone. You may be idly strumming on a sunny day in the park when a passerby overhears you and it triggers the memory of a loved one. You might play a tune for your child that lives on with them the rest of their lives.

The beauty of playing guitar and becoming a musician is the immense joy it brings us. It gives us so much more than we could ever ask for in return. But it is also good to pause and reflect that the music we make, quite often without knowing it, ripples out and brings joy to the world around us as well.