Voodoo Meditation

There’s a certain joy in attempting to master the unmasterable; it prioritizes the process and the adventure over the result. The strategy game Othello (also known as Reversi) has been marketed under the slogan “a minute to learn… a lifetime to master” (yes, including the ellipsis). It’s the perfect description of these kinds of activities: a low barrier to entry, with a lifetime of learning after that in the pursuit of perfection.1

This is the same reason I’ve played guitar for over 16 years. The barrier to entry for playing guitar is quite low: you need the instrument, and a pair of hands (and if you’re a total badass, you don’t even need the latter). With practice come notes, then chords, then speed, and then the rest of the techniques one needs to master the instrument. Eventually, obviously.

Some songs can be picked up quite quickly. The Doobie Brothers’ classic “China Grove” is a great starter piece, with a simple rhythm and a typical power chord progression. It’s still my warmup song when my fingers are frozen stiff from a Canadian winter.

Some songs require a little more practice. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” is one that every electric guitarist learns. The pulling-off motion for the descending intervals in the verses is deceptively tricky, but it’s manageable with a little bit of practice.

Some songs are a real challenge, requiring hours of practice and hundreds of attempts. A fair amount of Led Zeppelin’s catalogue falls into this category. “Black Dog” seems easy enough on the first listen, but it contains a hell of a guitar line.

And then there’s Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix’s guitar lines aren’t simply technically challenging — there’s an almost palpable connection that is formed between listener, Hendrix, and guitar when he plays. It’s a groove, an ethereal quality, and yet a heaviness. It’s nothing that can be explained, but it is something that can be felt when attempting to play.

I’ve spent the last five years trying to learn “Voodoo Child”. 2 The version you hear there is the one I have a recording of, and is therefore the one I’ve attempted to learn. There’s no other way of putting this: it is a difficult song to learn. I’ve managed to button down the intro pretty well, and I can play the verses and choruses alright, but I’m finished as soon as it hits the first solo. Five years of practice, with a hair under two minutes to show for it.

It gets worse: as soon as I had a good grasp of those two minutes, I attempted to compare it against a live version. For, you know, flavour. And that damn Hendrix had to change it up and make it even more challenging. Adam Savage has his Maltese Falcon, and I have “Voodoo Child”. I don’t think I’ll ever tame this beast, but that’s fine: the adventure is in the pursuit, not the result.

In the excellent 2004 film Layer Cake, Colm Meaney’s character casually disassembles a 1940s Luger pistol onto a glass table while observing that “meditation is concentrating the front of the mind on a mundane task so that the rest of the mind can find peace.” While dubious in its accuracy and biological merit, this is a similar interpretation to what I wish to achieve from meditation, via “Voodoo Child”.

Despite its primary association with Buddhist traditions, meditation is something which we all practice, to one degree or another. The word itself carries with it a broad range of activities and goals, but the simplest interpretation is that it relaxes, trains, and focuses the mind. Those who actively practice it can gain from it what they wish.

To meditate, some assume the lotus position, some lay on the ground, and some disassemble old pistols. I stomp on a Boss DS-1 and plant my fingers onto the seventh and ninth frets. Again, and again.

  1. See also Josh Centers’ article about Letterpress in the fifth issue of The Magazine↥︎

  2. Sometimes referred to as “Voodoo Chile”, the title it was originally catalogued under. Confusingly, there’s another Hendrix song called “Voodoo Chile”, but it’s a 15 minute blues jam, not a four-minute rocker. ↥︎