Elvis Costello explains how to play the guitar, philosophically

I've been a huge Elvis Costello fan since a friend of mine bought me the ultimate edition of Armed Forces for my 16th birthday. I hadn't really listened to him before that; I was a punk/ska/hardcore kid, so the Ramones were really the only band from the 70s worth caring about. But this friend — who I knew from playing in punk bands! — knew that there was something in Costello's new wave marriage of pop sensibility and punk rock furor that would appeal to me.

And he was right. I was hooked. Looking back, that album was a gateway into so much other music that wasn't just overdriven guitars trashed at blitzkrieg speeds.

So naturally, I was excited when I heard about Elvis Costello's new Audible-exclusive audiobook How To Play The Guitar and Y, and fortunately, it did not disappoint. As the title promises, it's basically two hours of Costello teaching you how to play guitar, with delightfully erudite witticisms. Costello retraces the steps of his own early career with his typical self-deprecating humor. He reminisces on his days as a gangly teen in thick-rimmed glasses desperate to impress the girls by emulating John Lennon and Hank Williams, and fondly recalls how he realized just how unimpressive his guitar skills were and always have been.

Costello offers some actual guitar lessons, too. Sort of. Or at least, he explains how to play the most basic chords, and dabbles at some of the finer points of music theory. He mostly uses this as an opportunity to riff philosophically on the nature of three chords and the truth. While Costello has a keen technical understanding of music composition, and has been fortunate to surround himself with some fantastic musical collaborators throughout his career, he's quick to point out how none of that really matters. Sure, it helped him to find success. But if you just want to express yourself through music, all you really need is a capo and the rudimentary skills to play the open G, C, and D chords.

While music can get more complicated than that, Costello's audiobook is there to remind you that it doesn't have to. Everything you need to know, you probably already know, because you've internalized it all after years of hearing music. And that's the fun crux of the whole audiobook: that there's a lot to intellectualize about music, which is simultaneously fascinating and fucking ridiculous. Because the primal parts are what matter most.

To be fair, Costello isn't breaking any new ground here, and the book is very much centered on his experience growing up in London in the 50s. While that gives it a nice nostalgic air, I also would have enjoyed hearing Costello lean into some of that progressive boundary breaking that first made him famous (and occasionally got him into trouble). However, I recognize that he's pushing 70, and might be at a point in his life where he's feeling more settled and wistful; he very recently retired one of my favorite of his songs because it contains one of his absolute most shameful moments of trying too hard to write something edgy. So in that context, there's also a part of me that appreciated the way that he plays it safe with How To Play The Guitar and Y.

How To Play The Guitar and Y [Elvis Costello / Audible Words+Music]

Image: tmmmb / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)