Maybe it’s the punk rocker in me breeding an inherent mistrust of nostalgia, or maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in family of musicians so there were always guitars around the house, but I’ve never understood why guitarists get so attached to their instruments.
Music is a trade as much as an art, and guitars are simply tools for pursuing that trade. Sure, they’re expensive and hard to replace, but so is a good set of socket wrenches, and no mechanic, well at least none we’re familiar with, ever gave affectionate nicknames to their socket wrenches.
Read the last Popdose on the return of Scott Pilgrim.
An acoustic guitar is a wooden box, essentially, and when you strike it, it either sounds good or it doesn’t. Some of that quality is inherent in the box, but most of it comes from you. A crummy instrument can make a good player sound worse, but no amount of high-quality, expensive gear can make a lousy player sound good.
Now I play a little guitar, and sometimes I’ve been paid for it, but my trade is writing, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, anywhere and anyhow that I can—on manual and electric typewriters, on crude early word processors, on Macs and PCs and longhand in spiral-bound notebooks and on the backs of envelopes and grocery bags. I have preferences for where and how I work, of course, but they’re only that—preferences, not prerequisites. I’m just interested in getting the job done, and I can’t be bothered to remember the specifics of my first long-ago typewriter any more than I remember or care the make and model of the first guitar I ever played.
That makes me an outlier, I suppose. Because many guitarists—maybe most, professional and otherwise—are sentimental, even superstitious, about their tools, and they love to talk about them. Classical-guitar teacher and journalist Julia Crowe has collected those stories in her new book My First Guitar, which will be published next month. The 70 musicians represented here span a wide range of genres. There are electric-guitar pioneers (Les Paul, Dick Dale), classic rockers (Peter Frampton, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Page), jazzmen (George Benson, Pat Metheny), classical soloists (Sharon Isbin, Benjamin Veredery), shredders (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai), and the great uncategorizables (Richard Thompson, Daniel Lanois, David Tronzo).
The title is a bit of misnomer, since memories of a player’s first guitar inevitably springboard into reminiscences of early gigs and the process of learning to play. Some of the most interesting interviews are with figures who are not known as players at all but as technicians—luthiers like John Brune, who constructed his first guitar out of the remnants of his parents’ dining room table; Christian Martin IV, heir to the Martin guitars empire; and engineer Seymour Duncan, whose work in pickup development dramatically increased the volume and sustain of the solid-body electric guitar.
The interviews vary wildly in tone, reflecting the personalities of the subjects. Dale, for instance, talks with the same heroic bravado that characterizes his playing. Dale’s been surrounded by his own mythology for so long that even if he’s telling the stone truth it sounds like a tall tale. Studio pro Steve Lukather has an infectious enthusiasm, still sounding, for all his Grammy awards, like the wide-eyed kid he was when he first started playing. The more understated players are often funny and self-deprecating. Lanois talks of being 10 years old, in his first lesson on steel guitar, innocently asking, to the despair of his teacher, “When do I get to hold this guitar like Elvis?”
In the same vein, Thompson recounts having his guitar literally stolen off the roadside after a van accident and buying an identical instrument with the insurance money—only to have that guitar stolen from his dressing room. After that, “I realized I was cursed and doomed,” Thompson says. “I was not going to bother to get another guitar of that same make ever gain. Had I gone through this three times in a row, I might have had to go into therapy.”
All the tech-talk and brand-name-dropping, in the end, is just a way to get the story started—just as that first guitar is a starting point, not a destination. As it turns out, most of the players interviewed in My First Guitar don’t have particularly fond memories of their first guitars. Most of them starting playing on cheap, no-name boxes and stuck it out until they could afford a decent instrument.
And so the conversation takes on a melody of its own, and the music of conversation, like the music of an instrument, comes from the people involved. Seventy people, all talking about the same thing, are going to give you 70 different answers, 70 different stories, 70 different melodies. And the instrument, as always, is ultimately less important than the player.
For solo gigs, Jack Feerick plays an Ovation CC67 roundback, fingerstyle, mixing the piezo bridge pickup with a Shure PG57 unidirectional mic pointed at the soundhole, all through a 60-watt Crate PA 4 with two 12-inch cabs. As critic-at-large for Popdose, he uses a Hewlett-Packard P7-1154 with 6 gigs of RAM, Windows 7 and Apache OpenOffice 3.4.