After the end of the world, Joel found peace in restoring guitars. That inspired me to do the same in the midst of a real-life pandemic.
“That’s starting to sound like something,” Joel says to Ellie, as he stumbles across her practising the guitar. She’s trying to learn Joel’s acoustic rendition of Pearl Jam’s Future Days, one of the key tunes on The Last of Us Part II’s soundtrack.
“Ugh, I suck,” she scoffs, after a scuff of fret buzz and dead notes, the desirable ones dusted in between.
“Nah,” Joel replies. “Just need to build up your calluses, that’s all.”
Which is not strictly true. Having calluses on your fingers doesn’t make you a better guitar player. They’re the hallmark of time spent, not of ability earned. It’s true that all good players will have calluses by dint of how much they practise, and you can certainly play for longer and with less discomfort if you have tough fretting fingertips, but the calluses themselves are not the thing. It’s the same sort of specious reasoning and dubious causality that might make you think ice cream consumption increases the frequency of death from drowning when, in reality, both activities – eating ice cream and swimming – take place more frequently on hot, summer days.
Speaking of swimming, what follows next is Ellie’s birthday, told through a wistful flashback to better days, of swimming, and dinosaurs, and rocket launches. We’ll talk about that one day, but not today. Today, we’re talking about how The Last of Us Part II rekindled my love of the guitar.
Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
WE’RE TALKING AWAY
The Last of Us Part II’s soundtrack is filled with brilliant licensed music, including Pearl Jam, so much Crooked Still, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and even Johnny Cash. But it is Ellie’s simple, stripped-back acoustic cover of a-ha’s Take On Me that captured people’s imaginations.
In the year of pandemic lockdown, guitar sales have soared. Earlier this month, Fender CEO Andy Mooney told the New York Times that – driven by people’s desire to pick up new skills in isolation, to return to old hobbies, or tick items off their bucket list – 2020 will be the company’s best year ever for guitar sales.
“We’ve broken so many records,” Mooney said. “It will be the biggest year of sales volume in Fender history, record days of double-digit growth, e-commerce sales and beginner gear sales. I never would have thought we would be where we are today if you asked me back in March.”
I would not be surprised if some portion of those sales were people inspired, by Ellie and The Last of Us Part II, to play an acoustic version of Take On Me. Just look at how search intent for “Take On Me chords” shot up a few days after The Last of Us Part II released, on PlayStation 4, on June 19. That spike in the graph is the week commencing June 21, 2020.
At least, that will have driven guitar sales for those of us who didn’t already have a guitar or two gathering dust in the house that they could call on at a moment’s notice. In my case, however, I have a guitar or six, hanging on the wall in my study, gathering dust.
I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TO SAY
Aside from the assortment of guitars Ellie finds – and in surprisingly good condition, given the apocalypse – on her travels, perfectly positioned to serenade Dina or to reflect on lost loved ones, there is one special guitar in Ellie’s life: the custom Taylor 314ce in tobacco burst, with a unique moth fretboard inlay.
It was a gift, to Ellie, from Joel. It’s the guitar Joel retrieves in the game’s prologue, while he explains to Tommy the events of the first game, of Salt Lake City, with the hospital, the surgery, the Fireflies, and Marlene. All the while the brothers talk, Joel is focused on the guitar. Strings removed, he checks the neck for twists or bends, the sign of a guitar stored improperly for years, leaning against a table or dresser. He cleans the ebony fretboard with lemon oil, buffing deposits of grime and dust from the surface, polishing the fret wire and the mother of pearl inlays, working moisture back into the tight, pore-like grain of the fingerboard.
After 20 years of ruin and decay, to find a quality instrument in such serviceable condition? It’s remarkable luck. And for Joel, someone whose love of guitar only narrowly falls behind his love of family and of coffee, to give that guitar away, to a beginner? That’s quite a gift.
But it’s a promise Joel made to Ellie, years earlier, when they arrived in Salt Lake City, Ellie still suffering from PTSD after her encounter with David and the cannibals. A promise to teach her guitar when their journey was over.
And for a time, their journey was over.
I’LL SAY IT ANYWAY
I’m not going to recount the events of Joel’s demise, not again. I don’t think I can face it. And I’ve litigated the extreme violence of The Last of Us Part II, in pursuit of prestige TV and an air of maturity, like Game of Thrones or Westworld, at great length already. Go and read it. Or don’t. But know that Joel’s death, the specific, graphic nature of it, still haunts me.
But it is not just the tortured end of Joel’s life that hurts; it is what is left behind, complicated by the glimpses of happiness – or at least, of life – we flashback to, after the fact. Of the science museum; the ill-fated hunt for new guitar strings; the barn dance; Joel on his porch, with his guitar, his coffee, and Ellie. And not just what is left behind, but also, the glimpse at what could have been.
When Ellie visits Joel’s home, after his death, before setting off on her quest for revenge, she lingers. She reminisces over the drawing she did of him that he kept on the mantle and the pamphlet from the dinosaur exhibit at the science museum. She sketches the owl on his favourite coffee mug, something to remember on her travels. She smells his clothes and hugs his jacket, holds his treasured broken watch that his daughter, Sarah, gave him, before staring wistfully at the photo of the pair, that she stole from Tommy to give to Joel. She pockets Joel’s trusty revolver, steeling herself for the travails ahead.
In Joel’s study, however, is the heart of the sadness. On his workbench stands a figurine of a horse that he was whittling from wood, but all around the room – on the workbenches, hanging from the walls – are guitars, in various states of repair. And it’s then that it dawned on me, that after two decades of struggle, Joel had found a nice, quiet life for himself in Jackson: finding, repairing and restoring guitars.
That was what hit me the most, I think, what made me saddest about Joel’s death. That he had finally found a way to relax and something positive he could do, something that didn’t involve hurting people or putting himself in danger, that he and others could enjoy. Joel had, perhaps, found his calling, in that little workshop filled with part-restored acoustic guitars.
It might not seem like important work. After the apocalypse, when survival is paramount, simple pleasures – like playing the guitar – seem unimportant. Trivial. Wasteful, even. Sitting at home, suffering through the coronavirus pandemic, I wondered: how many of our hobbies, of our ways to pass the time, would survive the end of the world? Video games, television, movies, professional sports – they’d all fall by the wayside. Nobody would make new series for Netflix and there would be no infrastructure to stream them; the only things we would watch would be things committed to VHS.
But music, singing, is one of the earliest art forms, not just for entertainment but for the transmission of knowledge, the telling of stories. And the guitar? The guitar can survive the end of the world. Joel knew that. It’s why he was restoring instruments, and it’s why he was teaching Ellie to play. All you need is a guitar that works and a little incentive to learn, like endless nights with nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.
Just like in 2020.
TODAY’S ANOTHER DAY TO FIND YOU, SHYING AWAY
I’m a guitarist. Or, at least, I was, once. From the age of about 13 to 23, it was (mostly) all I did. I wasn’t brilliant, by any stretch, but I was solid. Workmanlike. Though you wouldn’t know it now, to look at the satin-soft fingertips on my left hand.
Then, when student life ended, the guitars in my house fell silent. Casting aside childish things for full-time employment and a crippling mortgage, combined with a serious illness and subsequent surgery that damaged the nerves in my neck and left shoulder that left me with restricted mobility, it hardly seemed important.
In the intervening years, spanning well over a decade, I can probably count the times I played the guitar seriously – that’s sat down and learned a song or played something from start to finish, rather than just a couple of notes or licks – on my fingers. Physiotherapy and a regime of exercise improved the mobility in my left side, but that urge to play didn’t return. Any calluses I once had were long gone.
Then, after hearing Ashley Johnson-as-Ellie’s acoustic rendition of a-ha’s Take On Me, I did what everyone else did: I picked up a guitar, looked up the chords online, and played a song from start to finish for the first time in a very long time.
It wasn’t great! I had to look up chords I used to know, the changes were rusty with acres of dead air between them, and my fingertips – once impervious to pretty much anything due to impressive calluses – grew sore and tired quickly. I played in secret, while my wife was out at the gym, because I was embarrassed; it’s tough to feel like a beginner at something you were once proficient in.
But it felt like something. There was a hint of muscle memory, underneath the fret buzz and the wading-through-treacle chord changes and the sore fingers. Dare I say, I enjoyed it, just a little bit. My proficiency was buried beneath a thick layer of dust and grime, just like the guitars on the wall of my study.
Like Joel, though, there’s something I could do about that.
I’LL BE COMING FOR YOUR LOVE OKAY
I had some of the tools I would need to revitalise my guitars, but I was short on component parts. New strings, for one thing – the ones remaining on my instruments were all over a decade old – but also lemon oil, polish, some soft cloths that hadn’t been used with any other chemicals or solvents, and specialist tools for dressing frets. Online shopping to the rescue, I set upon restoring them; first, with my acoustic guitar, a beautiful blue-burst acoustic by UK manufacturer Tanglewood, around 21 or 22 years old.
Strings removed, I first checked the neck for any warping or damage, then set about cleaning the neck and fretboard. First, I lifted all of the grime, years of dust mixed with an underlayer of grease from a guitar that was once in heavy use caked on its fret wire. Once the entire fingerboard had been cleaned and the frets were polished, I set about working moisture back into the rosewood surface with lemon oil and a cloth, before checking the bridge, nut and tuners for any defects. Finding none, I lubricated the pinch points with carbon – a little rub of pencil lead to allow strings to slide more freely – then strung the guitar with some quality Martin strings. They are, by far, the most expensive set of guitar strings I have ever bought in my life; one of the perks of having less time to play the guitar is being able to better afford it than at any other point in my life, I suppose.
When I was finished with it, that guitar sang. Now, far from being buried in a guitar case in the garage or hanging on the wall of my study in easy reach but sadly untouched, it stands – on a quality stand, not leaning – next to the sofa. I play most evenings before bed, even just for a few minutes. It helps me decompress at the end of a long day, filled with the usual quota of challenges, amplified by a global pandemic and the most nightmarish political climate in decades.
I have four other guitars and a bass left on the wall of my study. Next to face the treatment was cherry-red SG from 1997, a guitar with a defect in the lower horn where someone clearly toyed with converting it to left-handed, an idea quickly abandoned when they realised the task wasn’t so simple. I haven’t corrected that mistake, though I could fill the hole and refinish the guitar if it needed it; that guitar wears its wounds proudly, like I do the scars on my neck from so many surgeries.
After that will be a 2001 Telecaster, a meaty slab of a guitar that has a nick in the fret wire – from falling face-first into a table – that will need a full fret dress and setting up from scratch, in addition to the general TLC the others are receiving. The 5-string bass and an Ibanez “Super-Strat” will require the least attention, having lived most their lives in cases, while arguably the best guitar in my collection – a Les Paul Junior with a translucent blue finish on a figured maple top, handcrafted by Gordon Smith in 1997 – may well need stripping and refinishing. Carrying scars is one thing, but peeling paint, a wholesale lifting of the finish around the machine heads is potentially an issue. We’ll see.
I’m trying to space out the guitar restoration, then, because this could be a long-term thing. It might not be the apocalypse, but it feels like the end of the world at times. And like Joel in The Last of Us Part II, I’ve found something I love – or rediscovered it, both caring for and playing the guitar – that might not be important against the backdrop of everything else going on, but it’s something.
And, God knows, we all need something right now.