Jail Guitar Doors – Week 2

Jail Guitar Doors – Week 2

This is the second part of a seven part series chronicling my time volunteering with Jail Guitar Doors.  To read Week 1 – Click Here.

I’ve eaten my fair share of meals alone.  It comes with the job of playing music. When I was traveling overseas, I would often find American fast food chains in odd places.  Kentucky Fried Chicken is more frequently found than McDonalds.  However, I never found a Taco Bell and I admit that is one place I crave every now and again.  I laughed at the irony of being so close to the US – Mexican line and eating at Taco Bell this night.  I had literally made a run for the border.


George Bailey Detention Facility

Learning from my first week working in George F. Baily detention facility, I left Mission Gorge early at headed south on I-805.  I discovered that there are two separate exits for Palm Ave. in San Diego.  That was confusing.  After a brief detour in National City, I ended up near Otay Mesa and enjoyed my tacos before driving up the curvy mountain road to the jail.  Jail Guitar Doors long time volunteer and San Diego branch organizer Rob Bird was waiting on me this time.

The same good looking woman was behind the glass at check in, and I wondered if she had read my previous article.  I doubt it, but it made me think a little about what I write.  Those who know me, will catch that shard of humor.

There were fewer inmates in this weeks class.  All three inmate teaching assistants (TA) returned, but the class was noticeably smaller.  Each course is eight weeks long, and if an inmate comes to each class he is granted two specific privilges.  First he is given the option to come to the extra Saturday classes, and hence twice the amount of the guitars per week.  Second, he is given the option of becoming an inmate TA.  There are three TA’s in our class and they help with getting the new classmates going on the guitar.

The class got started a little late and the inmates tricked in.  Following Rob’s lead, we let the guys pick up the instruments and explore them on their own.  They self segregate into small groups, usually around one of the TA’s.  There was a short window to interrupt the class and go over the week’s lecture; into to key signatures and diatonic chords.   However the inmates had become so involved in their own studies we opted not to interrupt them.

I went over to the dry erase board with Rob’s lesson plan in hand and sketched a diagram of common harmonic movements.  For example, the dominant chord (V) leads to the tonic chord (I), the ii goes to the V, etc…  As I scanned across the room, looking for opportunities to help.  As I noticed one of the inmates, Larry, looking for help I was approached by of of the TA’s.

Cal is one of the older inmates in the class. He has long white hair and wear glasses.  I think I had earned his respect on the first week when I worked with him on the bass line to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Crossfire.  He noticed the chord diagram I wrote on the board an came over to ask a simple question, ‘Can you show me how to figure which note comes next‘ was his query, or something like that.   It took me a minute to figure out what he meant by his question.

Off to the left of the chords, I had written a table of chords showing all the major chords of each  key.  In other words, the I, IV, and V of keys that work well on guitar, like G major, C major, and A major. In the key of G major, that would be G (I), C (IV) and D (V). What Cal was asking me essentially was, the musical alphabet and how a musician can use it to figure out which chords are in a key.  We spent ten minutes or so spelling out the C major scale and how to find which chords are major or minor.  He surprised me by knowing where the naturally occurring half steps in music are (B-C, and E-F).  Cal had an ‘aha!’ moment and was extremely happy to have finally discovered the answer to some question that had stumped him for so long…. Even if we did label that tricky 7th scale degree chord as ‘special’ and not ‘diminished’.

I went a little further into theory and began to show Cal the Cycle of 4ths (or 5th’s depending on which needless academic squabble you side with), and his attention waned.  I saw Larry looking for his turn and I wandered to the back of the room.  Larry sat by himself and struggled with the same problems every beginner guitarist has.  Heavily tattooed arms and fingers better made for turning wrenches, Larry tried cram three of fingers into fret 2 for the A major chord.   I suggested that he use only first finger for the A chord and sacrifice the high open E string in order to be able to smooth out his transistions.  He seemed pleased that he didn’t have to follow the rules and happily began to use only his first finger.  Larry may never be a great musician, but I feel over the next six weeks we’ll be able to get him to play ‘Margaritaville’.

Rob and I roamed throughout the class and assisted the inmates as we could.  The elder latino inmate Caeser, taught lessons in Spanish to two pupils.  Once they left Caeser continued  working on his own picking skills up until the very end of the class.  He doesn’t say much, but is very polite and works on his chops diligently.

As the class finished, and the jail locked down for the evening.  The young TA asked some questions about triads.  I went through the four different combinations of intervals that can be used to create triads.  If you know what four chords those are, leave a comment below.  I admit, it was fun to drag out a lot of theory 101 and getting to go over those questions.

During the class we were visited by the same mechanic gone minister from the previous week.  He made a point to come by and ‘God Bless’ our class.  I guess that doesn’t hurt.  I also got an interesting article from my dad about a Luthern Pastor who began teaching inmates twice his age the letters of the alphabet and eventually became a the Director of Corrections in Ohio.  In the article there was a story about a renovated church where they provide inmates with proper attire.  The clothes are for job interviews when they get out.  The woman who looked after the clothes was asked, ‘Who provides these clothes?’, and she replies, “God Does”.

It would be easy and comfortable to tell stories about teaching triads to inmates.  It’s safe. It’s happy.  It doesn’t risk controversy or hurt feelings.  But the truth is, working with Jail Guitar Doors has brought up many questions again about religion for me.  Specifically, why must someone believe in or use religion to do something for another person?  I just can’t figure this out.  At points throughout my life I have spoken with religious men (and women) about this.  Men like the Reverend Carl Petering and Pastor Vincent Dial.  Both of the men are accomplished in the arts as well as theological studies, Petering being a master painter and Dial a long time jazz drummer.  (Dial also happened to be an ex- NFL football player and my middle school music teacher.  We have stayed in touch over the decades.)

Pastor Vincent Dial from Bethel Christian Church in Jonesborough shares his message Sunday night.

Pastor Vincent Dial from Bethel Christian Church in Jonesborough shares his message Sunday night.

I don’t think this a question for a six week course.  Questions like this probably don’t get answered, but in the meantime, I’ll keep driving down to the jail and working on music one out of tune chord at a time.


All opinions expressed herein are that of the author and do not represent Jail Guitar Doors USA.

Copyright © 2015. C. Lougeay

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