Maryland brothers Jad and David Fair formed Half Japanese in 1975, affecting a strange but undeniably charming musique brut posture that won them a nearly instant cult following on the release of their debut triple-LP (!!!) 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts. Themes ranged from love to horror film kitsch, and anything resembling recognizable tonality was out of the question, as neither brother was able to tune his guitar in any conventionally understood sense.
Of course in the ‘70s and ‘80s, punk’s anyone-can-play ethos was on the road to becoming a mundane part of the underground rockscape, but a brilliant little mini-manifesto from David Fair revealed that to Half Japanese, this wasn’t mere us-too naivete, but method. I first encountered the writing in the liner for the 1995 2-CD set Half Japanese Greatest Hits.
How to play Guitar
by David Fair [of Half Japanese]
I taught myself to play guitar. It’s incredibly easy when you understand the science of it. The skinny strings play the high sounds, and the fat strings play the low sounds. If you put your finger on the string farther out by the tuning end it makes a lower sound. If you want to play fast, move your hand fast and if you want to play slower move your hand slower. That’s all there is to it. You can learn the names of notes and how to make chords that other people use, but that’s pretty limiting. Even if you took a few years and learned all the chords you’d still have a limited number of options. If you ignore the chords your options are infinite and you can master guitar playing in one day.
Traditionally, guitars have a fat string on the top and they get skinnier and skinnier as they go down. But the thing to remember is it’s your guitar and you can put whatever you want on it. I like to put six different sized strings on it because that gives the most variety, but my brother used to put all of the same thickness on so he wouldn’t have so much to worry about. What ever string he hit had to be the right one because they were all the same.
Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that’s absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound. In fact I don’t tune by the sound at all. I wind the strings until they’re all about the same tightness. I highly recommend electric guitars for a couple of reasons. First of all they don’t depend on body resonating for the sound so it doesn’t matter if you paint them. As also, if you put all the knobs on your amplifier on 10 you can get a much higher reaction to effort ratio with an electric guitar than you can with an acoustic. Just a tiny tap on the strings can rattle your windows, and when you slam the strings, with your amp on 10, you can strip the paint off the walls.
The first guitar I bought was a Silvertone. Later I bought a Fender Telecaster, but it really doesn’t matter what kind you buy as long as the tuning pegs are on the end of the neck where they belong. A few years back someone came out with a guitar that tunes at the other end. I’ve never tried one. I guess they sound alright but they look ridiculous and I imagine you’d feel pretty foolish holding one. That would affect your playing. The idea isn’t to feel foolish. The idea is to put a pick in one hand and a guitar in the other and with a tiny movement rule the world.
As a guitar player myself, I was floored by how perfectly sensible every damn word of that is. Here’s a condensed version, from Jeff Feuerzeig’s absolutely marvelous documentary Half Japanese - The Band That Would Be King, which I unconditionally recommend to anyone interested in playing music for the sheer love of music, all other considerations be damned. Honestly, if you can watch this film and not even just fleetingly want to form a band, I’m not sure I understand you.
UPDATE: per the band’s Wikipedia page:
In October 2013 longtime band members, John Sluggett, Gilles Rieder, Mick Hobbs, Jason Willett, and Jad Fair will be touring with Neutral Milk Hotel, and in November will record a new Half Japanese album.
But you were going to Neutral Milk Hotel anyway though, right?