"Well, I was passing by a pawn shop in an older part of town, something caught my eye and stop and turned around / I stepped inside and then I spied in the middle of it all, was a beat up old guitar hanging on the wall / 'What do want for that piece of junk?' I asked the old man / He just smiled and took it down and put it in my hand / He said, 'You tell me what's it worth... you're the one who wants it..."
-- Guy Clark - "The Guitar"
The ongoing relationship between a musician and their favorite instrument usually represents a lifetime commitment.
At first, you pick this thing up and it makes that initial impression. A connection is made. Time stands still. From that point on, you don't ever wanna let go. Life is good. You're in this for the long haul together.
We never forget that first axe crush. Mine was a white Gibson SG Jr. It had no traveling case or gig bag. A previous owner had apparently left it sitting in the sun for years, and the paint job was cracked like an intricate spider web. Once hospital white, it had turned the color of pale urine; a warped black plastic pick guard bulging at the screws, one single coil pickup and two lowly control knobs: volume and tone. Both dials were turned to "10" and never adjusted.
The thing was barely a guitar. I was barely a musician. Perfect fit all the way around.
It was ugly. And badass. Got it for a hundred and fifty bucks at Pete's Pawn and Music in Garland. I traded it a couple of years later for an ounce of bunk weed. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Not sure why. My values were clearly askew.
Like Chris Rock often says in his act, "A man is only as faithful as his options."
Doesn't really matter what kind of instrument it is; real musicians usually love to interface with one specific machine -- and that's what a musical instrument is, a machine -- that facilitates the manifestation of their particular creative expression.
Without a guitar, bass, keyboards, horn or drums, we're left to making noise with electronic gadgets and record players. Are we not human? Let's explore the organic route to making noise.
This week, I've asked an odd batch musicians -- both local players and/or Dallas expats -- to get personal and spill their guts about the stories behind their favorite pieces of gear.
Vaden Todd Lewis (The Toadies/Burden Brothers)
"I've got a '73 Gibson L6S that I got in Lawrence, Kansas around '94. My manager was hounding me to get a 'real' guitar, as I'd been playing knock-offs my whole life. (Hell, I figured getting an Epiphone was splurging.) Anyway, I've had that Gibson guitar re-fretted at least three times, and the neck now has a 'French' finish, which I guess means... no finish. It's got a cool decal of the Toadies logo, which was given to me a few months after I got it. I've checked out the wiring and there's about a pound of solder in there. I guess that's what makes it sound different from any other L6S I've played: its got extra metal."
John Freeman (Dooms UK)
"The first guitar I owned and played was a 1960-something aqua-blue Tiesco Del Rey. It had a crazy two-tone metallic pick guard, one of those big spring loaded whammy bar and a bunch of metal knobs and switches that didn't seem to affect the sound at all. Plus, the action was like a cello so it was incredibly hard to play. I got some amazing sounds from that thing that I have never been able to duplicate. I miss that hunk of junk."
Danny Balis (The King Bucks)
"A 1971 fender Precision, all original; traded in a '73 P-bass for it at Charlie's Guitars. Got it right out from under Kinley Wolf, and I hear he was pretty ticked about it. Put flat wounds on it, and haven't changed the strings in about four or five years. I won't change them 'til one breaks. Put the original pickup cover and ashtray on it and stuffed foam under the strings near the bridge. Sounds like Jamerson's from all the Motown recordings. Have played it exclusively at about 1,000 shows, and have heard from numerous soundmen and recording engineers that it's the best bass they have ever heard. If I lost it, I would quit music altogether."
Gary Myrick (Gary Myrick and the Figures)
"There are three custom instruments that I've owned throughout my career. One looks like a big rockabilly semi-hollow body, yet it has a solid body. It was made of Amazon rain forest light solid wood with 24 frets and an old Strat type knob setup and quite tough sounding EMG pickups. Everyone thought it was some weird vintage instrument. I had them add a Floyd Rose whammy bar that I could beat the shit out of and still stay in tune. It has a sunburst body with white binding and the signs of the playing cards inlaid in the neck fretboard. It is called the TEXAN.
My Lap Steel, the Lonely King, I had built by the talented Bill Asher. It is simple, great sounding and is very versatile. It has beautiful stars on the fret-board plate inlay, much like the Everly Brothers signature acoustics they played in their 50's era. Bill added ruby red Sparkle extra thick as paint, and added 1920's haunted house looking brass doorknob plates to house the two volume tone knobs. Last, but not least, is my old beat up Mexican Triumph Telecaster. I was going to sell it and took it to my friend and pedal board guru Brian Brown (works with Tom Petty and Phish). He got it in shape. Polished the frets and added a new 1950's style bridge and new bridge pickup, and also did some internal work on the electronics.
I added some artwork; an aging leather old cowboy engraved pick guard, a Triumph Motorcycle ancient emblem belt buckle and transformed it into a wild amazing tough Telecaster, which I love for its simplicity. It plays fantastic and sounds classic and tough. I thank the Lord I'm lucky enough to have and play them."
Jonathan Tyler (Jonathan Tyler and Northern Lights)
"My 'gem', if you will, is a Lee Oskar Harmonica in the key of C. I haven't ever put a single breath of air through the harp. The special thing about this harmonica is that it was signed by Mick Jagger after a Rolling Stones performance, and handed to my manager years ago. He passed it to me on my 23rd birthday last year and it hasn't left my house since."
"The first time I ever played rock music with anyone was in the hayloft of our barn back in Dakota City, Nebraska. My buddy Kurt was playing a Gibson L6S; I was playing a Univox synth. I don't have the Univox anymore, but I do have the L6S and it is my most prized possession. I still play it, it's my main axe and I love it."
Glen Reynolds (Chomsky)
"When Chomsky did the Craig Kilborn Show in 2004, I wanted so badly to play my first ever guitar; a 1983 black Fender Squire made in Japan. My dad bought it when I was 14 at McBride's Pawn Shop on the square in Denton. Sadly, at a bar show in Silverlake in LA the night before, I slammed my black baby into the ceiling while on stage. One of the tuning pegs was tweaked and I couldn't use it. I love that guitar -- it's so Frankensteined out that it looks like I stole it from Thurston Moore. I took some screw on knobs off of an old 60's transistor radio and replaced both the tone knobs with 'em.
I could never sell that guitar; it's a representation of my whole life as a musician -- from being a runt watching Fry Street Fairs and dreaming of the stage to watching that red light go on from the business end of the CBS cameras as hundreds of thousands watched live that night in LA at the twilight of Chomsky's career."
Corn Mo (Dooms UK)
"About 10 years ago, I wasn't able to check my accordion on the plane coming back from NYC, so I had it shipped. When it arrived, it had shattered. I used to get it fixed at a guitar shop in Denton but the guy told me it was beyond repair and charged me $10 for a claim ticket. Luckily, I went to Brook Mays on Stemmons and there was a guy there that refurbished old accordions. He had a white Francini with translucent gold keys. He offered to put lights in the keys but I told him it was cool already. He only charged me $300. Later, my friend T.W. Bond installed a couple of condenser mics and turned it into a thunderous instrument. I still use it."
Chris Holt (Sorta)
"I have a cherry Gibson ES-335 that I've had for more than a decade now. I acquired it out of necessity after my first Les Paul was stolen. I've broken the headstock on it twice, but luckily it was repaired both times. It still sounds and feels perfect to me. I put a Bigsby tailpiece on it a few years ago (Carter Albrecht's idea), but I didn't care about it depreciating cause I'm never gonna sell it. I've probably played it at a thousand shows and who knows how many recordings, and even though I've owned maybe ten other guitars since I bought it, I keep coming back to it. It's my baby."
Brandon Smith (Billygoat)
"I have a 3/4 scale nylon string thing that was given to me about 15 years ago. It definitely has been through a few wars with me and thank goodness it isn't pawnable, or I surely would not have it still. Super fun to play and was improved a couple years ago by my son knocking it down some stairs, requiring a few ounces of wood glue to keep it held together. Loves it."
Brad Houser (New Bohemians)
"In 2001, Critters Buggin, toured along with Bachir and Mustapha Attar from Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco. On Sept 9, we passed thru Chicago and went to the Lakland Basses factory to look at instruments with the owner, Dan Lakin. I wanted one of their handmade hollowbody basses for about a year, but couldn't afford one. There was a gold one there (think Les Paul gold top) and I played it for a while, loved it, and put it down. Dan quoted me a price, below dealer cost, at the upper limit of my budget. I bought it. When I walk into sound check with suspicious new case in hand, Mike Dillon, perpetual smartass, asked, 'What'd ya get, a new bass? Lemme see it, I'll tell ya if it's gonna be any good". I opened the case, dude sees the bass, proceeds to shut the fuck up. Gig that night was amazing.
My two other basses stayed silent the rest of the tour. Two days later was 9/11. We were scheduled to play NYC at the Wetlands on 9/12. We figured that place was covered in about 3 feet of ash (it's a few blocks north of the WTC.) We went on down to Asheville, NC to resume our shit. Wash DC was supposed to be 9/13, but the city was cordoned off. In Asheville, we began to wonder if some gun-totin' motherfuker was gonna do a drive-by on our asses. We had two Moroccan Arabs on board with us, our gig posters were in Arabic-looking script, and we were headed into the Deep South -- possibly Deep Shit.
We all proceeded to bug the fuck out (no pun intended), trying to figure out what to do next. Turned out that to cancel the tour and hightail it back to Seattle would have cost us $5000 a piece in lost guarantees. We pretty much let it rest and didn't talk about it any more. Every show was ridiculously slamming. No one messed with us, or our Visiting Dignitaries, for the rest of the tour. Given the level of pseudo-patriotic bullshit that was going on in the media, I consider this to be miraculous. So that's the way that my gold Lakland Hollowbody bass and I got together. Four months later, it became apparent that her name was Dorothy. I had never named an instrument before, but since we had gone on the Epic Journey together, it seemed appropriate. After 9/11, we weren't in Kansas anymore."
"My Harmony Broadway acoustic is my favorite. I needed a specific guitar for a project in San Francisco. I browsed thru the $700-$2300 guitars in an alley music store, not seeing or playing anything with any character, but the last guitar grabbed my eye. Surprisingly, its wide neck and extended frets fit my big hands like no other. The sound was rich and natural. Figured it cost over $1500, but it was listed as $100. Thinking the price was a typo I nonchalantly paid and quietly left. 15 years later it's still my favorite instrument by far."
Barry Kooda (Nervebreakers)
"I still have the 1955 Gibson Les Paul Special that I bought in 1978 from Charley Wirz of the legendary Charley's Guitar Shop. I was bitchin' about my sound, as usual, and Charley and I put over sized magnets in the rear pickup, which makes it scream. Later, I was thinking about trading it off and Charley said, 'Don't sell that guitar.' Then he died and I figured I'd better keep it forever. That, and my 1963 Fender Super Reverb is all I need. For rock, anyway. When I played a show with Al Jourgensen and Ministry, Ibanez built 3 AE2 acoustic guitars specifically for the show. Al gave me one, kept one and gave Mike Scaccia (from Rigor Mortis) the other. That's the other one I'll keep forever."
Cricket Taylor (The Electro-Magnetics)
My most favorite sentimental instrument is a Takemine acoustic guitar covered with Batman stickers; and it was given to me by Nick Brisco of Fever In The Funkhouse. It was his favorite (and first) guitar, so it is very special to me. I needed a guitar for songwriting and when his band got their record advance and bought all new instruments, he gave the guitar to me as a gift with conditions: That I NEVER remove any of the stickers. 15 years later, I've written tons of songs with it and some of my favorite musicians have played it during jams at my house. It's been to five different countries and I've never removed a single sticker, although I've added several more to it during that time."
Casey Hess (Descender/Burden Brothers)
"The last Burden Brothers tour graced the band with a relationship with Gibson guitars. We're huge Gibson fans. Cheap hollow body guitars are what I'm used to, and I run them into the ground. Gibson asked us if we'd like to hold onto a couple guitars. I asked for a Goldtop Les Paul. Why not? They handed me a '57 Reissue. It was the first time I played a true legend of a guitar. The Holy Grail! Shit! My gear has always been the cheapest in any band I was in. I am proud and humbled to play it and hearing it through a Marshall is one of the best things in life."
Chad Lovell (Course of Empire)
"After COE finished we divided the spoils of our record riches as evenly as possible. So some received P.A. gear, others recording, etc. I opted to take more recording gear in lieu of our massive drums, because that was more valuable to me ultimately. Problem was I did not have a drum kit. All my close friends chided me for not having a kit and playing. My response was 'why would I want to go drop 4-5 grand on a kit to play with my buddies sometimes and the random cover gig?' A year went past sans drums until one day Gene Coleman, dear friend and mentor that he is, called me and said, 'Hey, what are you doing RIGHT NOW? Come out to my studio and bring $500 with you.' He would not delve any deeper into his secret.
I soon discovered that a warehouse owner down the street was selling a kit for $500. It is a classic 1981-82 Yamaha Recording Custom, with ORIGINAL era Zildjian Cymbals. Black Piano, old school jazz sizes. Needless to say, I bought the drum set that I still use to this day. Took it home, stripped and cleaned it, and it is the best sounding drum kit I have ever used. I talked the guy down to $420 bucks to boot."
Ken Shimamoto (FW Weekly)
"I got my first electric guitar -- a Silvertone Harmony 1478, built in 1965 -- along with a shitty Tempo solid-state amp, for my 15th birthday in 1972. I think my old man paid fifty bucks for the pair. It looked like the Fender Jazzmaster that Chris Dreja was holding on the covers of the first two Yardbirds albums. It was red, and I liked the way the cutaways (which I called "horns") looked (although not as much as the ones on the Gibson SG that I'd replace it with). The pickups, which resembled the toaster-top humbuckers on Rickenbackers, were so shitty that you could talk into them and you'd get signal through the amp. Running it through a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, I could pick up radio transmissions from Canada (in Spanish, for some reason) just like Hendrix at the Isle of Wight (although minus his musical aplomb).
For two years, I had been lying to these two black guys I knew at school, telling them that I knew how to play, and as luck would have it, their funk band split in two the same week I got my guitar, which necessitated finding a new lead guitarist: needless to say, myself. I knew three cowboy chords that I'd learned from my sister on an acoustic guitar I'd co-opted from her, and had just started stealing licks off B.B. King Live At the Regal and a budget-line John Lee Hooker record, inspired by seeing teenage Nils Lofgren wax obscuro legend Roy Buchanan's tailfeathers at the climax of Buch's PBS special. All of my solos started the same way, with me sliding my finger up the neck to find 'the note.' Somehow, I managed to get by.
I wound up breaking the neck off that guitar in my parents' basement after experiencing an epiphany: the first time I ever played my stolen licks and actually made 'em swing (to my ears, at least) like B.B. It wasn't just me, either: these two younger cats that used to hang outside my folks' house when I practiced asked me later, 'Who was that playing your guitar before?' Last year, I saw an Austin band playing at Lola's 6th Street in Fort Worth, and the front guy had my guitar. When buddy Frank jokingly told me, "If you wanna grab it, I think I can take him," I was tempted. It was the first time I had ever heard somebody that could really play using one of those guitars. Later on I went up to the Austin cat and asked him how much he'd paid for it. He got it for four bills, probably at Workhorse, an Austin shop that sold nothing but old Silvertones, Danelectros, and Kays -- guitars people used to throw out. The last time I saw one online, they wanted $800 for it."
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This Christmas, go nuts and give your kid an electric guitar.
See if doesn't make your whole family dive headlong into something meaningful and real.
Trust me when I say that there is nothing like that feeling of making noise with an instrument in your hand for the first time. It's like speaking a new language, or tapping into a different intellectual wavelength.
And if your kids can learn to trust and respect their chosen musical instrument, they might even be able to unconditionally love another human being someday.