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My first guitar….

Applause_AA-14-1_01I remember my first guitar. I found it in the Papershop. I think I was 20 or so. The guy selling it lived on some side street in Olyphant barely wide enough to navigate (even though it wasn’t a one way) in an apartment roughly the size of a closet. The guitar itself was a ghastly Ovation knock-off with one of those round backs that made it look like a canoe paddle. It was fairly obvious the guy was selling it either to pay for his next meal or his next fix. I sorta felt guilty, but managed to get over it, especially since I just handed him a hard earned $100 I wasn’t going to be able to buy beer with.

The face of the guitar was some sort of plastic and after a few weeks of my customized bashing it cracked like a windshield getting hit by a rock. But it had a killer pick-up in it and stayed in tune for weeks on end. I played it so much I’d gash my finger open and the blood would spray all over the edges of the sound-hole, making it look like I dabbled in impressionism. I had no idea how to play “properly”, and after all these years I’m pretty sure I still don’t. Pretty proud of that actually.

Recently somebody asked me how I learned to play and I quite innocently and without any hesitation said “I listened to ‘Magic Bus’ over and over.” I thought that’s how everybody did it. Lessons? Wha? While everybody in my classes were out being sociable and lying about sex, I was siting in my bedroom learning the Bo Diddley beat, which is the cornerstone to whatever comes next. I you can go E to A…or A to D, and people move this way and that way despite themselves, then not only are you a guitarist my friend, you are an entertainer who will no longer be forced to lie about sex. You can now get asses out of seats and you don’t have to run with a ball and be swarmed by multiple neanderthals with no necks to do so. Nope. All you need to do is what the men don’t know but the little girls understand. Six strings. Three chords. And the truth as you see it. It ain’t gonna make you rich, but it’ll keep you so busy that you’ll barely notice. Except when your starving.

harpI wanted to be Dylan. Not very original I’m afraid, but I learned “Girl From the North Country” and pretty soon I was taping a harmonica to a bent wire hanger and putting it around my head like a hangman’s noose….trying and trying to figure out why it sounded so dreadful no matter what I tried. At the time I didn’t realize that harps came in separate keys, so I was trying to play a song in one key with the harp tuned to another. And at the time “tuning” wasn’t the fancy white-collar playanoteuntilthegreenlightblips thingie it is today. I used to hum “Johnny B Goode” to myself and tune my A string to the note in my head. You young punks have it easy.

I also used to walk to school uphill both ways in blinding snow storms. More on that another time.

petetownshend_bloodyPlaying nothing but a bad guitar for years gives you an extra appreciation for good guitars. Or even decent ones. I eventually bought an off the rack Takamine from Giannetta’s Music in Scranton for $650, a guitar I still use for solo gigs because it sounds tolerable and my heart would not be broken if some drunk tripped over something and fell on it. I bought a Takamine because I saw a picture of Pete Townshend playing one, although I’m pretty sure his cost more than mine. If it’s good enough for Pete I figured, it’s good enough for me. Of course as soon as I bought the Tak my man switched back to Gibson Jumbos….the contrary little English poof.

woodyAfter falling in love with all things Woody Guthrie I bought a raggedly old used Epiphone for $175 because I heard Woody “borrowed” one from Burl Ives and “forgot” to return it. As soon as I got it I stuck a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on the face and became even more of a raging leftist. The guitar sounded thin and reedy, like something you might have picked up at Sugarman’s back in the day if you managed to talk yourself out of the $25 ukelele. But the Epiphone stayed with me until my nephew “borrowed” it a few years back and has thus far “forgot” to return it. I’m proud to say that some of my best songs were written with that guitar. And much of my politics, which went from FDR’s new deal to Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and whomever Pete Seeger managed to get blacklisted from….migrated about as far to the left as a man can go without popping up in secret government files.

GIB SJ10 VSNH1On my 40th birthday I finally got a world class guitar….a Townshendian Gibson Jumbo imported from Toronto that I won’t dare take to gigs for fear that some drunk might trip and fall into it. It plays like a dream and makes me feel like I’m wearing a plate of armor when I strap it on. I’d steal this guitar from Burl Ives and forget to return it. It rocks hard and can sing me to sleep. When I die I’d like to be buried with this guitar….even if I’m still paying on it.

Unless I can talk my friend Lorne Clarke out of his custom made $3000 monstrosity that melts my fingers and sounds like a panzer corps on steroids. He let me use it to record once (my 3rd record, the all-acoustic “Drinking With Nick Drake” was all Lorne’s guitar)….and when I rather carelessly leaned it against the wall and it nearly fell over I thought he was going to snap my neck with his hands….which happen to be the size of garbage can lids. He told me that if he died he’d leave me the guitar in his will, and ever since has been worried that I might try to kill him.

Now, can I tell you about my first piano?

In a bit..


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