So I’ve taken up guitar

Photo of Vincent Tran

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This pandemic has robbed me of my sense of time. 

This strange year in isolation has somehow flown by, and yet it feels like the only thing I know at this point. The days are cyclical variations of themselves — I’m always in the same place, trying my best to pick up the pieces of what’s been lost. 

Though the hours seem to blur every morning when I wake, my memories of the past year are stitched together by a single object: my family’s acoustic guitar, a Regal T-13 made some time in the 1970s.

It’s not the nicest guitar, but it’s special. My godmother Aneta loaned it to me as a present for my 17th birthday; it was a family heirloom of hers, but she knew I played piano and had been making music with my friends. Both her father and her own son used it to teach themselves how to play, and she hoped I could be next in line. I remember her saying something about it potentially kick-starting my dreams of becoming “one of those famous singer/songwriter fellas” I always talked about. Whether she thought I was referring to Kurt Cobain or Ed Sheeran, I don’t remember. 

What I do remember is taking it out of the case in my living room later that evening, resting it in my lap as I made one of those cringey jokes about Oasis’ “Wonderwall,” pressing down on the A and D strings only to find that it hurt my fingers a great deal, then putting it back in its case and propping it up in the corner of my bedroom, where it would remain unbothered and forgotten indefinitely. I told myself I’d be that guy in a band who “didn’t need” to play guitar, making excuses such as “giving other instruments room to breathe” and pointing to frontmen such as Julian Casablancas of The Strokes (you can imagine my embarrassment when I found out he actually does play.) My guitar dreams were shelved, though the friendships I made through playing music lived on.

Last spring was my first semester at UC Berkeley. I spent 3 1/2 years prior stumbling through community college, searching for a sense of direction and purpose. I felt the sense of home I had just begun to cultivate slipping away as I packed my belongings and moved out of the dorms, driving back to Southern California. Every item I put away triggered memories of a time cut short and a future I had worked so hard for fading further from my grasp.

After turning in my last final in May, I sat in my childhood bedroom, feeling emptier than I had all year. With nothing but uncertainty on the horizon, I scanned for anything that could bring me comfort. There it was. The dusty guitar in its dusty case. I took it out of the corner and held it in my hands, and all the dreams and memories came rushing back to me. 

So I pressed into the A and D strings again and tried to pluck them with my fingers. It sounded awful, but I could make out the faint notes of an E minor chord. I had no plans, no goals for the summer, so I committed myself to playing every night. I resolved myself to relentlessly practice the same chord every day until I got it right, then move on to the next. The sound would come one day. 

When my housemates and I moved into our first ever apartment in June, a modest little box in the middle of frat row, I had been playing for just over five weeks. The number of chords I could successfully make with my fingers had grown from one to five. Nobody else in our apartment played music, but with nothing else to do to pass the time, I suggested we try. We scrambled gear together off of the Free & For Sale page, and before we knew it, we had a little garage band going. There we were, two electrical engineering and computer sciences students and an English major, sitting on the carpet of an unfurnished living room with acoustic guitars, a Fender Squire, a keyboard and two modest little amps, learning the chords to “Cigarette Daydreams” in between hearty helpings of takeout from Steve’s Korean BBQ. We didn’t care about how we sounded. We just wanted to play. It feels like the first concrete memory I’ve had since the world seemingly stopped. 

So I’ve taken up guitar. That old, rickety ‘70s Regal has been there for me in the best and worst times of this forsaken pandemic, through the joys, pain and stresses of school, friendships, heartbreak and all the rest. A growing repertoire of songs under my belt, including some of my own, has held me together. Every string I strum, each note and each new chord I discover helps remind me that even in quarantine, there’s still a lot of life out there to be lived. 

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].