This Old Guitar

This is my guitar. Setting aside guitars that belong to others in my family, this has been my one and only guitar for nearly 35 years, and it is only the third guitar I have owned. I have been playing guitar for a little over 36 years, so the first two instruments (my first guitar teacher called it a “guitbox”), didn’t last long.15178318_10154108358851167_6971157140315119738_n-1

My first guitar was an orange and yellow sunburst affair with a fancy scroll work pick guard that featured an engraving of a hummingbird approaching a blossom. I wanted to take guitar my senior year in a new high school 400 miles from where I grew up and my mom gave me $100 (about $300 today) to buy a guitar. It was money we didn’t have but my mom always took creativity seriously and if I wanted to play guitar she was going to do all she could to make it happen. I walked into a claustrophobic little string instrument store in old “downtown” Campbell, California, just outside San Jose, and paced up and down the guitar wall. My selection was limited to no more than three or four guitars and given that I knew nothing about guitars at the time I was attracted to the guitar that made the greatest impression. My guitar stood out like a red-headed child in a sea of blondes. The sound chamber was encircled by yellow that faded into orange and then into deepening red.  The back of the guitar was all red. The hummingbird on the pick guard seemed to say that nothing but sweet music could come from this guitar.

For less than $100 I left the shop with the guitar, a cheap guitar case with foam lining so thin I had to stuff dishtowels at strategic places to makes sure the guitar was actually protected, an extra set of (very heavy) strings, three picks, and a guitar strap that looked more like a purse strap to me.

My guitar had the desired effect. On the first day of class as we all removed our instruments from their cases, my guitar teacher, who was also the band teacher and had likely first experienced “enlightenment” at a Jimmy Hendrix concert, immediately commented on how colorful my guitar was and how he thought maybe he had seen someone playing one just like it on Hee-Haw. Later, as my teacher went around the class examining each guitar, I learned that the “action” on my instrument, the distance between the strings and the finger board, was significant and it could prove a challenge but one I might be grateful for later.

What my teacher meant was that high action would make it harder for me to learn but like running after you take weights off your ankles, I might appreciate the change when it came time to change. That time came after just a few months. I had the chance to play other guitars and realized I was working twice as hard as some of my classmates just to get clear chords from my instrument. The owner of that little string shop had seen me coming and I had paid too much for too little.

But as the holidays approached I had a job flipping burgers, some money in my pocket, and of course no bills whatsoever. This time, I wasn’t going to some hole-in-the-wall shop, I headed for the big time. Way back in 1980, that meant Guitar Center.

Back then, the people working at Guitar Center were a little rougher around the edges than they are now.  You got the feeling that all of them were just killing time until their next roadie job and didn’t care if they were fired. Guitar Center was considerably less corporate back then, still had the smell of young rebellion inside. Nothing like the behemoth it is today.

First they gave me the bad news. As suspected, I had paid too much for my sunburst guitbox, though they appreciated the look of the thing. They could only offer me $50 trade-in value. I didn’t care. I had more than $250 burning a hole in my pocket. Once again I walked the guitar wall but this time there were dozens of guitars I could afford. And once again I was drawn to the unusual, a jumbo body Yamaha. Color-wise, it looked the same as almost every other guitar on the wall, but it had this enormous butt that made it stand out. When I played it I was struck first by the action, how easy it was to press down the strings. Then I was struck by the tone.

I’m not a great ear guy. I can’t easily pick out a tune on the guitar that I hear elsewhere. In a group, you put someone next to me who can sing and I will follow that voice dead-perfect. Ask me to sing that song we just heard on the radio, and I’m 50/50 on hitting the right notes. But when I picked up that big body guitar at Guitar Center and strummed out the handful of chords I knew, I could hear the depth and fullness of the tone compared to the twang of my first guitar. And as a bonus, the action was so much better I felt like I was cheating as I switched so effortlessly from one chord to the next.

I don’t remember how the deal went down but I know I only had around $250 in my pocket and I left with that big bottom Yamaha and a much nicer guitar case. A few weeks later I went in and discovered they were selling my old sunburst guitar, with the action much improved, for $100. It didn’t bother me at all.

The reason for my visit, a few weeks after buying my beautiful jumbo Yamaha, was my need for a new guitar strap. I made $3.35 an hour flipping burgers early in 1981, and a few weeks after buying my new Yamaha guitar I had earned enough money that I could walk into the Guitar Center and, without looking around at all, tell them I wanted to buy the most expensive guitar strap they had. I’m not joking. I didn’t look at a single guitar strap. I really and for reals just walked up to the first employee I found and told them I wanted to buy the most expensive guitar strap they had. There was a little fussing about as they looked around and compared prices. When they finally brought the strap to me, I didn’t ask them how much it cost I just said okay. It is the only time in my life I have ever made a purchase of any kind in such a manner.

I cannot remember, exactly, how much the strap cost but I know it was something much less than $100 because that is all the cash I brought that day and I left with the strap, a few sets of strings, and various other guitar accouterments, such as a capo, picks, some Ernie Ball guitar polish.

I still have that guitar strap, I am quite happy to report. It is a thing of beauty and shows little sign of wear other than those I have imposed upon it by necessity. It is black leather and on the inside, where it matters most, it is lined with thick lamb’s wool.  On the outside, in the middle of the strap, is a piece of tan leather intended, I suppose, to host the name of the owner. At either end are small pockets for storing picks. Though I never did take to using a pick, I like having the pouches, just in case.

At this point there was an interlude. In the spring of 1981 I came into possession, by way of an unexpected and unexplainable loan, of a 1976 Bicentennial Martin D-76 Guitar, Limited Edition. The man who loaned the guitar to me, a friend of the family, had the most ridiculous faith in me while at the same time wearing his possessions like a loose garment.  Today you can buy this guitar for, at a minimum, $4,000. Unlike my guitar, which was kept in the band room until I retrieved it after school, I carried this guitar with me in its extravagant, military-grade gray Martin case, to every class throughout the day. If anyone questioned me, I only need show them the guitar and they went silent. It was and is still the most beautiful instrument of any kind I have ever held in my hands.

But that beautiful and finely made Martin guitar spoiled me. Going back to my Yamaha was tough. It was a good guitar but playing it felt like work again compared to playing the Martin. The summer of 1981 I moved back to Southern California and the high E string started buzzing. I decided the nut had to be replaced and while I was at it maybe the action could be lowered. I asked other guitar players where I should go to have my guitar worked on and they all said the same thing. “Call Soest.”

Back then Steve Soest was an Orange County guitar repair wizard. Now he is a legend, having repaired and rebuild or built custom guitars for many famous musicians. When he answered the phone he just said, “Soest.” He took my Yamaha and worked his magic and when I got it back it was like playing a new guitar.

That big bottom Yamaha was my pride and joy until the end of my freshman year college. If I went anywhere overnight, that guitar went with me. I had no reason whatsoever to doubt it or wish for another. And at that time I was playing guitar in front of people a lot. My Yamaha was great. No reason to change, especially after it had been “Soested.”

Then one day I wandered aimlessly into a music store that sold guitars. I have no memory of why I went into this store. It was on my way from one place to another and I was, perhaps, killing time. I did what one does. I checked the prices on guitar strings and sheet music. I looked suspiciously upon the electric guitars and lingered, wiping to drool from my lips, over a few vintage Les Paul’s.

An employee of the store walked past me without a word and pulled a black acoustic guitar from the wall. He said nothing, he just started playing the guitar. It was like a siren song. I floated across the store to where he was casually strumming the guitar and without a word passing between us he just handed me the instrument and walked away.

It just might be the single greatest act of salesmanship to which I have ever been subjected. Didn’t say a word. He just played the guitar and then handed it to me. I strummed out a few chords, then picked through a few chords. I felt like the guitar had been created for me. I felt like this guitar belonged to me and was just waiting for me to take it home. I felt it calling my name and begging me not to abandoned it to another who did not understand. And not most importantly but maybe most importantly, it had stars on the finger board just like the Bicentennial Martin.

The guitar met my criteria. It was different, black with soft gray around the sound chamber. It wouldn’t look like every guitar in any line up. It sounded good, as near as I could tell. It felt good in my hands, like it was made for me.

The price was $400, but that is like $1000 today. My dad was willing to pay $200 for my Yamaha big butt. I owned a VW square back that didn’t run and had rusted floors so you could see the road from the back seat. I sold that car for $100 to a kid who had to push it down the street with a friend as I counted his one dollar bills. I had $50 cash on hand and I borrowed another $50 so I could buy that black guitar, an Alvarez 5013.

Over these 35 years I have never been disappointed by the guitar. I have wandered through countless music store, past hundreds of guitars and played very expensive guitars but never again have I held a guitar in my hands and felt like I had to have it. I lack both the desire and compulsion to play guitar in front of people anymore. So my guitar career has been largely private, so it is hard to know if I would have been better served by another guitar under different circumstances. I don’t know. I once had a roommate with a band that played gigs almost every weekend and though he owned a selection of expensive guitars, he liked to borrow and perform with my guitar.

They only made the 5013 for three years and guitar enthusiasts seem to be fond of it as a bang-for-the-buck guitar, giving it high marks for sound quality and durability. That makes me feel like I really did hear something all those years ago and maybe why I have never felt the need to move on to another guitar.

With kids and pets and me always wanting it out on a stand rather than in the case, it’s had a rough life. Like me, it’s a little bruised up, but nothing fatal.