I was diagnosed with RA at age 33. I’m 60 now and learning how to play (and love) the bass guitar. I’m sharing what I learn along the way.
Electric Bass RApture #1
Devastating Diagnosis - Rheumatoid Arthritis
I remember well the day the flight surgeon told me I had Rheumatoid Arthritis. It was January 1995 and I was at the very peak of my career in military aviation, was the very best I was ever going to be as a pilot. I thought I could hear my world come crashing down around me. I was medically grounded for six months, started an aggressive regimen of various medications: azulfadine, prednisone, and several different types of shots in joints around my body. I thought I would never fly again. I also thought I’d never play guitar again, either.
I’d played guitar here and there since I was 14—mostly open string chords, a few basic bar chords, etc.—and though I wasn’t what I would call “good” at it, I truly enjoyed it. I even wrote a few sappy love songs in my day.
Strumming the six string was soothing for me, it was calming to my son when he was in the womb, and it was an outlet for creativity and stress. When RA ate at my joints and my hands wouldn’t make the chords anymore, I had to give it up altogether. Here’s how that reality unfolded:
Eventually, after six months of medications and some stability in my symptoms, I was cleared to fly again with a career-long medical waiver in the Air Force. Sadly, however, my hands never did recover. With medication, the damage stopped progressing, but it was already done: I couldn’t make a proper fist with either hand, none of the fingers on my left (fret-pressing) hand could close all the way to touch my palm. That meant they couldn’t do much on the fret board, either. My right hand was somewhat more limber, but that was only relative to the left. In any case, I found I could make an E minor chord on my six string, but I couldn’t make much else. If you don’t play guitar, all that means is I was able to put two fingers on two strings to make one of the simplest, most common guitar chords...but I couldn’t do much else but pluck onesy-twosy notes here and there. In short: by the end of 1995, I put my classical guitar in its case and probably didn’t take it out more than twice in the years since. In its case in the corner is how my music maker sat for all these intervening years.
A Christmas Gift
For Christmas 2019, my son gave to me a small tin box full of regular guitar picks, finger plucking picks, and some small, colorful rubber fingertip accoutrements perhaps meant to keep one’s fingers from getting beat up by pressing guitar strings. He was hopeful that this gift might allow me to play my guitar again. It was a thoughtful gift, to be sure, and it made me pull that old classical guitar out of its case in the corner and give the thing a go once again.
Sadly, though, my mind was completely able to recall how to make all the different chords I once knew and played, but my hands just couldn’t quite get where they needed to be to make them. For just one example: the C chord is probably the most popular and well known of all chords on the guitar, and I couldn’t get my index finger to fold under enough to press down on the first fret of the B string to make the C note at the top of the chord. No troubles for me to press the C note with ring finger on the A string, or the E note with middle finger on the D string, but I just couldn’t get the rest of it done. In short, I guess, it was frustrating in the extreme. It very much reminded me of all the other things that are like that as one gets old: the mind is willing, knowledgeable, encouraging and optimistic, even; but the flesh and bone are not always quite able. <Sigh>
I put the guitar away that day, sat the tin box of picks and things on my home office desk. Both sat where I placed them, unmoving/unmoved for another couple of years.
Contemplating the Bass Guitar
After I retired from the workforce in February 2020 (timing is everything, isn’t it?!), I took after my hobbies in earnest: I rode 6000+ miles on my six different bikes that year, I took up writing on HubPages, I started a garden, I cooked lunch and dinner for my bride every single day. I worked out crosswords from our local paper and from USA Today every morning, too. In short, I guess you could say I kept myself busy so I would not “miss” the workaday routine.
Still, after almost two years of retirement, hundreds of crossword puzzles and two very successful gardening seasons, I thought I wanted to get back to another favorite, previous hobby: music. One day I broke out the old six string, found that the 1st (smallest) string was snapped on it somehow. Undeterred, I started thumping away at the iconic opening sequence to an old Heart song, “Crazy on You” which did not require the high register anyway. When I found I was able to make those deep bass notes without much problem, could still play that little three string riff I learned a hundred moons ago in college, an idea started to germinate in my little pea brain...
Could I possibly learn how to play the bass guitar?
"Crazy on You" by Heart
A Yamaha in the House
I told my wife about my harebrained idea, and she thought it not so harebrained. In fact, she took me to a local music store nearly immediately so I could try out a four string. Though I tried nearly every one they had hanging on their wall (who knew bass guitars were so heavy?), we ended up buying the very first one I tried: a nice metallic red Yamaha bass. It was reasonably priced, and let’s be honest: my wife really liked the shiny red color. I did, too, of course, but it was her opinion that helped me finally settle on the TRBX304 they had in stock. And so it was that an awesome bass guitar (and a practice amp, a beginner bass lesson book, a large handful of picks, a gig bag, some hopes, dreams and aspirations) went home with us that nice autumn day in October 2021. 18 October 2021, to be precise.
Making Music Again
In the short time I’ve owned my bass guitar, I have clearly not mastered it. Indeed, I wonder if there is enough life left in me to ever “master” it. I don’t spend much time thinking about that, though, because there is so so much to learn, so much wonderful access to music and music lessons out there...and so the only thing that really matters is this: I am making music again. I’m not a great bassist, probably can’t even in good conscience call myself a bassist (yet), but I am definitely making music again. I am thump thump thumping along to some very basic lessons, I’m watching countless YouTube videos, I’m practicing, practicing, practicing, endeavoring to be better every day.
Most importantly, I suppose, is the fact that I’m also creating again, and this brings me great joy. Every time I learn something new, I put together a riff, a little ditty, parts of a new original song. As I said, I am making music again and it really, really feels quite good.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 greg cain