Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Guitars I've known....

1949 Gibson J-45

The first "good" guitar I owned was a Guild D-25 that I bought from a shop in Northeast Philadelphia, somewhere around Cottman and Bustleton avenues. Guilds are wonderful guitars and, if I had the money, I'd be looking for a 60s or 70s rosewood jumbo; a guitar every bit as nice as a comparable Martin or Gibson and still findable at a fraction of the price.

But I digress, already.

The D-25 is a mahogany guitar with a mahogany top and arched back. It has a deep mellow tone - the result of the top. It has very simple appointments and is, I suppose, the equivalent of the model 17 Martin.

I bought the guitar in around 1972-73. I took it with me to Clarion, PA, and later replaced the original tuners with these really lovely gold Grovers and got a good case for it. Having done that of course I then sold it to my friend, Kim Conner (an amazing individual, read about her here).

Sometime later I bought a Fender Telecaster, either a late 60s or early 70s model; classic blonde body, blonde neck, white pickguard. I bought it at the local music store in Clarion paying around $200 for it. I sold it a year or two later to the father of a friend of mine who bought it to give to his youngest son. A few years ago that son, now married and living somewhere in Ohio, called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted it back. For $7,000.

I always liked his brother best.

When I lived in West Virginia in 1977-1980 I bought a few guitars. I bought the 1949 Gibson J-45 pictured at the front of this post for around $400. I bought a 1967 D-12-35-S Martin - a 12 string D-35 with a 12 fret neck and a slotted headstock (the one I'm playing in the blue-tinted photo on the right). The top was spruce and it was the nicest top I've ever seen on an acoustic guitar. People gauge quality by counting the number of lines of grain in an inch, the higher the number the better. A good top would have maybe 20-30 lines in an inch; this guitar had 100.

The back and sides were Brazilian rosewood. Martin tended to use very straight grained Brazilian rosewood, but the three pieces that made the back of this guitar were as highly figured, deep and "smoky" as the woods on boutique guitars I see today for $10,000. I've never seen another Martin, ever, with wood anywhere near as lovely. The guitar had playability issues; it needed a neck reset and new frets, repairs I couldn't afford. I paid $450 for the guitar and it's value today, with those woods, would be $6,000 or so.

A friend of mine in Pittsburgh called me and told me about a 1969 Martin 000-18 he saw at a local shop for $175 and I rushed to buy it. It was a beat up but lovely guitar. Light as a feather and perfect for the sort of finger-style approach I use. I kept both Martins until the mid-1980s when I was in graduate school and pressed for cash. I sold them both to a physicist at Ohio University. I hope he still has them; he got a hell of a deal.

I still have the Garcia student-grade classical guitar I bought when I was in West Virginia. It was built in 1972 and has really developed a gorgeous tone over the years. Around that time I let two guitars get away that I regret not buying (though, I have no reason to think I'd still own them now).

One was a 1930s National steel-body round neck guitar priced at $175. The other was the best acoustic guitar I have ever played. Both guitars were at The Fret & The Fiddle in Huntington WV, a shop owned by a fellow named Joe Dobbs. Joe was musical partners with Mary Faith Rhodes and together they had a State Department gig that sent them on tour around the world as sort of musical ambassadors. I stopped in the shop one day when they were both there. I had the chance to play their guitars; Joe had a Mossman Golden Era that had been made for him by Stu Mossman. It was Mossman's version of the Martin D-45. Mary had a Martin D-45.

On the wall was a B.C. Rich B-38 6-string. Rich is best known for making odd-shaped solid body guitars favored by heavy metal musicians, but early in the company's development Rich himself built some acoustics. The B-38 was based on the Martin D-28. A dreadnaught, 14 fret neck, sold headstock. The top was orange with age and had mother of pearl around the sound hole. The fingerboard had small snowflake inlays. The back and sides were Brazilian rosewood, the back was very figured and particularly gorgeous. The guitar had an old set of strings on it.

Both Joe's Mossman and Mary's Martin had new strings. I sat there and played all 3 guitars for a half hour or so and the Rich just blew away the other two. It played like a dream and had a sound like guitars sometime sound in dreams. It was $600 which, to me at that time, was the same as $60,000. I walked away, but I still have occasional dreams about that guitar.

After moving to Indianapolis in 1987 I picked up the occasional guitar. I owned a Travis Bean for a while. The Travis Bean has a solid aluminum neck that runs all the way from the headstock to the bridge, giving it amazing sustain. It also makes it very heavy and, unlike a Les Paul for example, where the weight is in the body, the weight here is all in the neck, making it a bit uncomfortable to play. Aluminum also holds the cold very well so that, when the neck gets cold in the Winter, it will stay cold until early Spring.

I bought a jumbo sunburst Yamaha acoustic that played and sounded really good for a while, but has taken a turn for the worse in the past couple years or so. It was at the shop I bought the Yamaha that I let another dream guitar get away; a Gibson B-25 cherry sunburst acoustic 12-string with a small body and an ENORMOUS neck. I remember taking it off the wall and sitting and playing it for a few minutes during which all the sales people and customers came in to watch as the guitar just lent itself to really fast finger picking. I can't remember why I left it there; probably some well-intentioned moment of self-denial.

I bought an 80s American Fender Stratocaster, white with a rosewood fingerboard, that I still have and like a lot. At a local bar one night I bought a 1966 Guild Starfire with a cracked headstock for $50. It's the same model guitar that Jerry Garcia played at the start of the Grateful Dead and used on their first album. It's the guitar I used when I played my first guitar solo on the 3rd Many Bright Things album.

I traded the Travis Bean in on a Jerry Jones reproduction of a Coral Electric Sitar which is great fun (and has a warm neck).

The first time I swallowed hard and got rid of a crate from my record collection was to use the LPs to trade from a 70s Guild F-212 acoustic 12-string which I still have and like a great deal.

A lot of time has passed since then and I have come to understand that the guitarist is more important than the guitar. When I was playing a lot of pool I went out and bought an expensive and really beautiful cue stick. I can still remember the sense of shock and disappointment I felt when I used it the first time and missed every single shot that I'd been missing with the bar room cues.

Thinking about guitars always reminds me of the old joke:

"Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?"



jim reilley said...

nice post-i remember playing some of those guitars you spoke of both in clarion and on a few new dylans home invasions in indy. i have a list of some of my ones that got away as well as a list of ones that would presumably get away once i buy them. am playing a new martin that i just got in the mail as i type this. can't wait for you to meet her. as an aside to the carnegie hall joke, one of my faves that i heard a while back:
so glenn miller and his orchestra were flying through a snowstorm in the midwest in the 40's. the plane was forced to land in a remote cornfield and the gang grabbed their gear and started hoofing it towards a light in the distance. freezing and soaking wet tired and hungry, they see that it is a beatiful old farmhouse with smoke coming out of the chimney and a warm glow about it. as they get closer and finally to the porch they look inside the big picture window onto the scene of a saturday evening post cover of a family all curled up kids playing games on the warm floor father with pipe mother with knitting etc, and glenn looks at his trumpet player and says "how can people live like that"?

Stan Denski said...

I love the Glenn Miller story; Jerry Seinfeld tells it in the documentary about stand up.

I wish I had the Martins back. I am getting a new Paul Reed Smith acoustic - not on the market yet but Ricky Scaggs has one I think. I have high hopes for it.

TCB Walsh said...

Great idea for a post - I have a 1965 Gibson LG1 which is like a smaller J45. I got in on eBay 10 yrs ago for $450. It's in mint condition. The seller bought it new and never got into it and it basically sat under his bed for 35 years. eBay is always a crapshoot but that was one time where it paid off. I'm not sure you can still get deals like that on there anymore. It's a fantastic guitar - big sound from a small body and perfect for sitting on the couch and playing Dylan, Lennon/McCartney, Neil Young or John Lee Hooker.

Stan Denski said...

Vintage guitar prices have truly gone insane. The Les Paul Juniors from the mid 50s that we bpught every week for $200-$300 are now hovering around $10,000. I remember when i first started getting George Gruhn's mailorder catalog seeing a pre-war D-45 for $12,000 and thinking "NO WAY is a guitar worth that!" That guitar sells for $250,000 today. In the 80s, at a jam session, as a joke I hid my friend's guitar in a closet. It was a 1959 Les Paul Standard that he bought for $2,000, later sold for $20,000 and is for sale today in a UK shop for $475,000.

eBay is a crap shoot. I bought one guitar from there I didn't mention in the blog, a Guild D-50. It developed a loose brace (and it's own fuzz tone) and I sold it "as is" for the same $400 I paid. I just won't ever buy another acoustic without playing it first. Two Martins of the same model made on the same DAY can sound radically different.