The Life of Guitars

I am staring at my guitars tonight. They are here beside me in the studio, waiting as always like patient cats for me to approach them and play with them. Each represents something special to me, in a way, again like my various and varied cats, each with a look, a feel and character.

But in another sense each is a time capsule of sorts, a window into my past and perhaps my future. Guitars have stories to tell, about their acquisition, the gigs they have done, the insanity they have witnessed, the hits they made. They are old friends and sometimes I find myself pining for ones that I sold or traded or were stolen…it’s a guitarist’s lament, “if I only had every guitar I ever owned…”

It’s true really…my 53 Les Paul Junior was stolen from my apartment in NJ over 40 years ago and I still think about it–they took my leather jacket as well. And there was my Gibson 335 that I sold because I felt “over it” and really wanted the funds towards something new–talk about stupid mistakes–it would be worth a minor fortune and today I do not even own a Gibson–I am basically a Fender man, but it would be nice to have an ax with humbuckings.

But tech talk doesn’t get to the heart of my guitars–their real stories, most of which relate to how they came into my life. I cannot tell them all here–so, I think I will begin a
new category with this blog…let’s say–guitar stories. And let’s start from the beginning with my first real acoustic guitar(I did have an electric earlier–but we can talk about that another day).

Guitars are mostly about people, at least in my experience. And this one is about my Uncle
Harold, my Mom’s youngest brother. In a nutshell, Hal was a great guy–a school teacher with a Pete Seeger/Arlo Guthrie folk bent who also was a camp councilor. In the tradition of my family, he would bring his guitar to Thanksgiving as we all did, and we would play songs that came from our various generations. It was always a yearly high point for me and in later years, when I became a session guitarist, it became a regular annual event at my folks apartment in the Village in NYC. In my earlier years, I was a bass player in a local band in my hometown with my buddies and my brother called “Spring Plowing.”

We were pretty darn good and eventually became the house band at the Village Gate and toured the college coffee house circuit playing original stuff. As a bassist, I dabbled at guitar, developing a real love for James Taylor’s playing, but I did not own a guitar and so would borrow one from my brother or sister to play. It happens that Uncle Hal and family were visiting us in NJ one day when I was about 16 and he heard me playing a bunch of songs from the Fire and Rain era–which I had learned pretty faithfully. Hal must have been impressed and he asked me about the guitar I was playing, which was my sisters $35 Stella. He was shocked to learn that I had no guitar of my own and being the amazing, giving, caring mensch that he was, he told me to go down to his car and open the trunk and take one of the three guitars there for my own.

He would not entertain my protest, so I went down to the car. In the truck were three guitars as he said. A pretty nice looking nylon string, a shiny steel string the make of which which may have been a Yamaha, and an old beaten up Martin–a mahogany 0015 with school paste on it, a loose bridge, a broken string and no case. It was absolutely in the worst shape of the three but it was a Martin and I knew what a Martin was. So I lifted it almost religiously from the trunk and brought it inside where the brief look on Hals face made we want to put it back, but he then smiled and said sincerely, I want you to have it. I protested but he insisted and thus the Martin (1946) became mine, and it’s story unfolded. That Martin toured with Spring Plowing. It came with me to Texas and Colorado to college. I learned to love Doc Watson, Ry Cooder and Charlie Christian on that ax. I studied jazz on it and held it as a treasure. It was perhaps twelve years later and my recording career was in full swing both as a session player and a rocker with Robert Palmer. I had recently purchased a beautiful Guild acoustic, a small one, not that different in size from the Martin… and I knew it was time. It was as though the Martin spoke to me. So, I brought it to a very fine luthier and had it restored to look and play like new and with a proper case. Thanksgiving was days away when I got it back. And so we assembled at my folks house for our yearly feast and then it was pickin’ time. I pulled Hal aside and said I had something for him to see. He opened the shiny case to find his old guitar–now looking reborn. “I want you to have it back,” I said, “I have my own guitars now. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing today if I did not have this guitar with me, if you had not shown the confidence and support …” There were tears and hugs and a little protest, which this time I would not accept. And a smile worth all of it.

Hal has passed now and the guitar is with my cousin and his children where I am sure it is cherished. I hope the next chapter in its life will be written by them someday.
Thank you, Hal.

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