One Man's Search for the Perfect Instrument
People pick up the guitar for different reasons. Johnny Marr, guitarist of Morrissey and The Smiths, wrote an article for The Guardian called "Why Playing the Guitar Means Everything." In it, he says it's always having something "cool to do," whether it's rock-star ambitions or just escaping life. It means "a lifetime of discovery and discipline. Playing guitar means everything." The late great Andres Segovia, a virtuoso Spanish classical guitarist, told Music Therapy Today that the guitar is "a small orchestra unto itself." Musical therapists claim that a guitar's tonal quality, its direct nature, its capacity to produce chords and its extensive melodic range greatly enhance the guitar's ability to reach people. God knows playing guitar offered me a much-needed release.
A guitar is more than just a musical instrument. It's a window into your soul. Willie Nelson found his guitar, Trigger, after he busted another guitar. He made a phone call, and a dealer out of Nashville sent him the Martin N-20. When he played it, Nelson knew he had something special. In fact, it was so special that when he was in danger of losing everything to the IRS, Nelson hid the guitar at his manager's house. He had formed a bond with his guitar and named it after a famous signing cowboy's ride: "Roy Rogers had a horse name Trigger," Nelson says on his online general-store site. "I figured: This is my horse."
It's been six years since I last owned a guitar. After an oilfield accident, my picking hand just hasn't been the same. The doctors performed three surgeries trying to correct the nerve damage (or at least alleviate the pain) before they finally admitted that I was screwed as a guitarist. When my arm healed, I picked up my old Alvarez and tried to play, but my right arm went numb halfway through Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here."
Unable to watch her collect dust in the corner of my living room, I sold her. I still regret it.
This summer I'm leaving for a writer's sojourn into the wasteland of West Texas, and I need a guitar to take with me to hell. But not just any guitar — I need to find my Trigger.
But to find her will take more than my measly reporting skills. I'll need to consult the gurus of the guitar world if I want to locate her. God knows I won't be able to find her on Guitar Center's wall. I can think of nowhere better to start than a place known for its quality musicians, a place where music is as much part of its culture as cowboy boots, hats and buckles, a place that people around these here parts simply call "Denton."
A Guitar Master
A guitar repairman, known as a luthier, performs surgery on a guitar. The master craftsperson not only understands the complexity behind the magic of stringed instruments but also the intricate tones that each string must make. Gregory Lange, a master luthier, has been operating on guitars for more than two decades, and when I walk in he's handling the inner parts of a Fender Stratocaster with finesse.
Lange is the owner of Little D Guitar Shop, which occupies a newly painted yellow brick building at 124 Austin St. His guitar repair business has been thriving at the same location for more than eight years. "I must be good at what I do because people keep coming back," he says.
Lange learned the art of stringed instrument repair under the watchful eye of a local legend — Christopher Savino. "He was like a genius luthier," says Lange, who shared a room with the legendary craftsman while attending college for jazz guitar at the University of North Texas. Savino had just finished building his first classical guitar. When people saw it, the genius luthier started to receive more orders. He soon dropped out of school to build guitars on a full-time basis and quickly became the "guitar guy" in Denton.
Dissatisfied with another local guitar technician's work, Lange approached Savino. "I know I can do this," he said. "I just need some guidance." Savion agreed and helped him with a few projects. Later, when his business started to take off, the genius luthier called the young jazz guitarist and said, "Hey, I'm turning away a lot of business at the door, so if you want to learn how to do this, you can come here and help me with repairs." Lange agreed and spent six months under his tutelage and four years as his guitar repairman before he opened his own repair shop.
Inside Lange's small shop, a line of electric and acoustic guitars — Ibanez, Yamaha, Guild — line the wall to my right while two rows of them hang in the air toward the center of the shop. A 1968 Gibson SG is mounted on the wall in front of me. Its dark red color is faded with age, but its chrome still shines. To my left is a spacious workroom where a few Stratocasters are in various stages of repair or modification.
"Frankensteins are a big part of my business," Lange says. "That's the cool thing about Fenders: It's all interchangeable. Leo Fender was the Henry Ford of guitars." He's right. A lot of professional players will buy Fender Stratocasters made in Mexico and soup up the electronics by customizing them. In fact, Fender has also jumped on the Frankenstein bandwagon with the release of its Pawn Shop Series, a line of guitars that replicate the mid-'60s and mid-'70s yet still deliver a modern sound; it's an assortment of "guitars that never were but should have been."
"What kind of guitar are you looking for?" asks Lange, laying down the Fender's guts. His dreadlocks are stuffed into his Rastafarian hat, and he slowly moves around the shop like someone who just enjoys being in the moment. He's spent so much time with guitars that he knows what the different brands of guitar necks should feel like, and understands just what it takes to find that perfect guitar.
"One that's beat all to hell," I answer.
As an acoustic instrument, when you play it, vibrating the wood actually changes the cellular structure of the wood over the course of many years. So an older guitar will have a richer tone. "Now they sell these electronic devises that you attach to your acoustic guitar," Lange explains. "When you turn it on, it vibrates the guitar and advances the aging process to improve the tone." ToneRite is one of those devices. It retails for about $150.
Lange shows me an Ibanez and Yamaha, which is a little older, a little more beat up. His best option is a 1986 Guild with a $600 price tag. It's a beautiful guitar with a light wood color that's darkened with age, but it's just not the one I want. It's lacking that perfection.
"Do you have that one guitar that's just, you know, that one guitar?" I ask.
"One's never enough." Lange laughs. "But my favorite guitar is an old '40s Gibson LG2."
When he was working for Savino, they did most of the repairs for the two music pawn shops in Denton — McBride's and Glen's. It was while they were repairing these guitars that Savino traded an old '65 Belair to Larry McBride, one of the pawnshop owners, for a pile of guitars located in the pawnshop's inner sanctum (basement). Lange first noticed the '40s-era Gibson because "it was the worst of the bunch." It had holes in its sides and cracks. It was all gouged up, and somebody had done a bridge replacement with the wrong style of bridge. Lange, though, saw the value in it — he understood it was Trigger. His legendary boss later agreed and told him so when he repaired the guitar: "You were the only one who liked this guitar, and it's going to need continued work."
And maybe that's what I should do. Maybe I should hit the pawnshops to find my Trigger. When I was younger, I found an old Fender Resonator at a pawnshop. It was a beautiful instrument with chipped black paint and a chrome face that sang the blues. Yet by going the vintage route, I'm in danger of falling into a sea of debt. I've seen some '60s-era Martin D-21s as high as $5,000 and classic Fenders sometimes higher.
McBride Music & Pawn is part of a series of shops just off the town square in Denton. Its red and yellow sign with the shop's name in large, bold white letters dominates its side of Oak Street. It's been a family-owned business since 1968. Bars cover the windows, similar to other pawn shops. Guitars and rifles line this historic shop's walls, while, in the center of the room, several low-end acoustic guitars wait to be played again. It smells musky inside the shop, as if a half-a-dozen old guitars were allowed to sweat at one time or another. A customer sits on a stool, playing a Taylor acoustic. It sounds crisp and clean. He plays through bits of several country rock tunes while several other customers walk around the room, searching for that perfect guitar (or rifle or handgun).
Strumming a few acoustic imports is awkward. Their necks are thicker than I'm used to, and my right arm starts to ache after several minutes of playing. Disgruntled, I put down the instrument and approach the counter. "Which one is your best acoustic guitar?"
The store clerk takes a sunburst-colored Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar off the rack above him. "This one," he says. "The look, the feel, the non-cutaway acoustics." He plays a few root notes, allowing each one to sound before moving to the next one. "And obviously the sound, but I really like its smaller body too. Bigger bodies are cool for a certain feel." He plays through a few chords. "For me, though, I like the little bit smaller ones."
Simon & Patrick acoustic guitars are handcrafted by master luthiers in the backwoods of Quebec. The company's website claims that their guitar artists come from a long lineage of guitar makers, and not only do its guitars feature an integrated neck system but also a custom polished finish that allows the wood to breathe and vibrate, which improves the "aging" process.
The store clerk quickly tunes the guitar. "They're legit, you know?" He then plays a blues riff.
When he hands it to me, the guitar's craftsmanship becomes even more apparent. It feels like a Martin D-28 and plays as smooth as one, too. Its spruce body is in magnificent condition, and the action is undeniably quick. Its $699 price tag is not a bad buy for its quality. But it's lacking one important element: character. I want to see the miles on it.
"Thanks." I hand the guitar back to him and leave the store.
By lunchtime, I'd visited several pawn shops but still couldn't find that perfect guitar. At Glen's Pawn Shop & Music Store, I found a Martin DXN Dreadnaught and a mysterious black Guild, battered and beautiful. "It's like ol' Trigger," says the store clerk, as he played through several Willie Nelson chords. There was no denying its quickly degrading resemblance, but it just didn't feel right.
Entering Cash America Pawn just off Interstate 35 and U.S. 377 was similar to going to Walmart at 2 a.m. Nothing but crazy people buying guns, diamond rings and old VHS tapes. A few guitars were hanging on the walls in the back of the shop. A few foreign imports, a couple of Dean guitars, a BC Rich Warlock and an old Epiphone acoustic guitar. Its age, though, didn't help this broken beauty. Its tuning pegs nearly fell off when I tried to tune it.
There are plenty of great guitars in Denton, but mine isn't one of them. I venture into the heart of Dallas.
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