News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Equalizer: This Beat-Up Old Guitar
BY JONAS BEALS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
I’m reluctant to call it my guitar. It technically belongs to my brother, but I’ve been charged with its care since about 1997, when he let me borrow it to take lessons in college. I’m actually reluctant to call it anything—it’s an acoustic box that probably doesn’t deserve a title or the name of a former girlfriend.
My plywood dreadnought FG–140 Yamaha has a twisted neck, a high action and there’s a notch gouged out of the headstock where I slammed a car’s trunk lid on it, perhaps unintentionally.
Searching the model on eBay brings up results that use words like “vintage” and reveal that it is a “red label Nippon Gakki” guitar—something that must have meaning to someone. Looks like they go for $200–$500.
Since it only cost about $50 to begin with, my guitar has never known the comfort of a case—not even one of those flimsy cardboard jobs. If I ever need to take it somewhere, I wedge it into whatever space is available in my pickup truck.
It hung from a nail on the wall of my fraternity dorm room. Now it just leans up against whatever piece of furniture is nearby. I hardly notice the hollow “bonk” when it inevitably tips over and hits the floor.
This, most musicians will tell you, is no way to treat an instrument, even a cheap one with few, if any, redeeming qualities.
I understand that, but my Yamaha just doesn’t seem to care. Besides, I’m not really a musician.
We’re pretty evenly matched, my guitar and I. It plays about as poorly as I do, and we could both use a tune-up. It’s probably telling that I’ve been “playing” guitar for almost 15 years, yet I’m still satisfied to plunk on a piece of junk. Other people would have moved up to a Taylor or a vintage Martin by now—something with a sweet sound and a fingerboard that doesn’t beg to be strangled in a death grip. But I’m still just a part-time strummer, constantly wondering if a better—or more expensive—guitar would inspire me to redouble my efforts and actually learn how to play.
Until that happens, I’ll comfort myself with rock legends about guitar heroes who cut their teeth (and fingertips) on cheap axes.
Jack White’s favorite is a Kay hollow-body covered in brown kraftkraft cq not craft paper. He got it as payment for some upholstery work. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first guitar was a toy from Sears. Superstar guitarists like Jimmy Page, Bonnie Raitt, Link Wray and Prince have made some of their best music on cheap-o guitars. Many of the early blues stars—Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson—are thought to have played inexpensive Harmony and Stella guitars.
So in a way, playing a hunk of junk puts me in good company. That doesn’t help me play any better, but it’s something.
It’s not that I don’t want a better guitar. I’ve tried. A friend of mine who can actually play says that $500 is all you should spend to get a good instrument. I’m willing to do that, but I always get uncomfortable after a few minutes of perusing price tags at Picker’s Supply or strumming in the weird acoustic airlock at Guitar Center. It just shouldn’t be that hard.
My hope is that one day, I’ll mindlessly wander into a junk shop and there it will be: my guitar. It’ll need a bath and some new strings, but I’ll cherish every glorious scratch and dent, convinced of their absolute necessity and their magical sound-enhancing properties. I will plunk down my money and never look back.
But then I’ll remember the Yamaha back home, hanging precariously off the edge of the couch, indestructible and faithful enough to spark second thoughts. It might inspire me to put that glorious junk shop guitar back on the shelf. A poor worker blames his tools, right?
Maybe I already have everything I need.
JONAS’ IN-TOWN PICK: Jonathan Scales at The Otter House. A steel drum prodigy who takes the traditional Caribbean instrument to some seriously funky and jazzy places. Friday at 10 p.m.
OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: The Stray Birds at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland. A roots-folk trio with splendid, delicate vocals. Friday at 8 p.m. Oh yeah—they’re also playing the Kenmore Inn downtown with Jay Starling. Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
LISTENING TO: “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” by John Parr. From the movie of the same name, it’s the perfect song to accompany daydreams about either Emilio Estevez or Mare Winningham. Your choice.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036