My Favorite Guitar
This spring I sent my favorite musical instrument to the guitar hospital. While she was away getting fixed, I missed her. I’ve had my friend, a Guild D-40 acoustic guitar by my side for a long time. So, in her absence, I went through “separation blues.”
I have never been away from this playmate for long. We’ve crossed the continent together many times and often we’ve gone to sea, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Nantucket Sound to the Bering Sea, north to the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea.
We’ve shared many stories together. How long? She came into my life when I was singing in New York City at least 42 years ago. The mid-Manhattan music store, where I bought her is now gone. At the time I couldn’t afford a guitar case; so with a jig saw, I modified an old guitar case that had been the home for my previous bar guitar, a Yamaha dreadnought. The Guild didn’t fit, because her headstock was bigger.
Twice I visited the factory in Westerly, R.I., where she was built. Long ago the factory closed, and the company moved away. Financial troubles, and two separate factory sites, Guild guitars are now made beautifully in Santa Monica, Southern California.
Our relationship has out lasted so many friendships. Our shared time together is longer than the time I’ve spent with the lives of people I love, my marriage and my many jobs. She and I have lived in and left many towns and cities. Each time, we left what we called “home.” There are only a few friends I’ve known and cherished longer. Certainly there are relatives I know and have known longer. So many have departed.
Yeah…. I am being petty and self absorbed, sharing this tale. Yep!
In a world where long relationships are both important and rare, a musician and his instrument live in an uncommon place. Together we reside somewhere in the realm of love, respect, camaraderie, and in partnership. This is what I am honoring here.
A musical instrument is a colleague and for years this guitar’s gift to me is a cross between life-long friendship and some kind of spiritual nirvana. Musical instruments are a kin to the old worn out yoga mat and or maybe that familiar rocking chair, a family heirloom.
A musical instrument can be like a pet in the family. We love our pets. We share in their place, good and bad. They lift us up with just a gentle stroke, a movement of a paw, and for sure they can command our attention when they have something to say. A purr or a bark can say a lot. In most cases pets are ideally obedient and patient with us. But pets have to eat and this lady only needs a guitar string change a couple times a year. This guitar has outlived three dog lifetimes.
My old Guild has sat in the corner of the living room, untouched, neglected for longer than a few days. A pet won’t do that. At other times, this spruce and mahogany lady with steel strings has worn me out to the point where it’s past midnight and I am too tired, too exhausted to give one more strum. More than once I have fallen asleep on the couch with her nearby.
Beyond a pet, she too is loyal, without complaint, and dutiful. Unlike a pet, her demands are all inside me.
Growing old with this guitar, I received a pleasant and unexpected gift. Like me this Guild’s sound has changed through the years. I remember going into the store, hearing her for the first time and making the purchase. I know I was excited about her sound and the wonderful thoughts and music she inspired.
But you know, I got a big something else farther down the road. As she aged, her sound deepened. Notes improved. Like a bottle of living and breathing wine, this instrument’s flavor has changed. She has aged with me.
Low notes are articulated more fully. And even the high notes have a crisp bright sound. This is not the same guitar I bought.
We’ve aged together well and are both intact. We both have nicks and scratches on our cosmetic surface. Call it signs of experience. We wear a shared history and our sound together is a match.
This new sound didn’t arrive overnight. I discovered this fact in different not so obvious ways.
Here is an example. I recall going into the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania with my brother just a few years ago. We took the tour. A sound check room held a lot of beautiful shiny new guitars hanging on the wall. I tried them and quickly discovered that my old Guild at home had a deep resonance.
It is true Martin guitars are the best in the world. Recently, I bought a Martin. But having a new Martin, doesn’t diminish the story that my Guild and I share.
You got to love something that feels like kin.
I started learning how to play guitar when I was twelve. My first guitar was cheap. Though I had a warm start, my first instrument had a serious crack in the neck. The tension in the strings actually kept the crack from growing. I bought it in a music store, on Boylston Street in Boston. The music store is long gone.. That instrument is in guitar heaven, along with my second and my third.
A decade ago, I threw out my old flat black Royal manual typewriter. I took it to the dump. I cried driving away. That marked an end. That was closure to the mechanics of its time, when you could tap a key. One finger tap moved metal that made an impression on a ribbon, soaked with ink; which then transferred the mirror image of a letter to a piece of paper.
Throwing out that typewriter meant closure to an era and the way we once wrote. When I tossed it in the heap of debris, a person standing next to me asked what it was… Typewriters are a mystery today. He thought it was some kind of printer?
God bless musical instruments. The way they work is the same. They don’t need a new operating system, a new hard drive, or lose their fashion because of some errant digital error inside or progress in a newer version.
I can’t keep those kind of instruments, when their usefulness has passed. I go through cell phones like everyone else. I live in a small apartment and there is no room for me, let alone room for the things that for whatever reason have lost their usefulness or become obsolescent.
Because of scarcity of space, when it comes to my other possessions, computers, cameras and lenses; I decided decades ago I was not going to run a museum of my personal creative tools. So they are sold, given away or tossed.
With the Guild guitar’s multiple week departure, nobody was deprived here. As a musician, I am not without my fretted instrument. I have two banjos and a Martin guitar.
Oh yeah! I was quite okay during this guitar’s absence, while it was being repaired: getting a fret job and professional attention for the first time since before I bought her. Which says a lot about being durable.
I still possess and love my Guild F-50; my concert guitar. And when the night gets late and I feel lonesome for my friend, any one of these instruments is more than able to bring comfort. But my F-50 Guild and my D-42 Martin are a pedigree apart. To grasp any one of these top notice guitars is like dressing up; wearing socks, laced shoes and putting on a pressed shirt and clean pants.
My D-40 is the one I play, even when I am too unkempt to be seen; which is a lot of the time.
I have other sweet instruments to play. I have a 163-year-old English Wheatstone concertina along with two other of its playmates and a plethora of harmonicas. They all keep me busy and warm and happy, though our bond by comparison to that old Guild makes them relatively new.
Don’t misunderstand my mission in pounding out these words. For sure this wordy epistle is self-indulgent… and not a call for sympathy.
What stands out, this day, is the significance of those friendly things in our life, that we keep, that outlast the technology of yesterday and are just as good if not better today. We learn to appreciate them even more, almost always when they must temporarily go away.
My guitars, and especially this one, are lifelong friends.
The good news is that the old guitar sounds even better today. Matt Shimala, the luthier, from Fairhaven did significant work. He re-glued the bridge, removed and reset the neck, installed new frets and tuned the old instrument to her new life.
Today I play her with the amount of frequency as though she was brand new and we are getting reacquainted. Yet she and I are reunited old pals. She is mine to keep…..for a while longer.
Matt Shimala’s website is https://shimalaguitars.com.