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The Search for the Perfect Guitar, Part III

The Search for the Perfect Guitar, Part III

"Vintage Silvertone Acoustic guitar," "1977 Dobro Duolian," "Martin 00X1 Auditorium Acoustic Guitar (14 Fret)" are just some of the headlines advertising guitars on Craigslist, but how are you supposed to play them, hear them, feel them? When you order a guitar online, you're missing an important part of the musical trinity: your fingers caressing the guitar's neck. Willie Nelson may have never touched Trigger until after she arrived in the mail, but he also had Shot Jackson, a master luthier, selling the guitar to him. Somehow I doubt the guy who's selling "Acoustic Guitar with Marijuana Leaf" on Craigslist knows about the tonal differences of aged wood.

At this year's 36th Annual Dallas International Guitar Festival, most of the guitar dealers understand wood in relation to a guitar's ambiance, tone, durability and ability to age. Guitars ranging between $4,000 and $14,000 are a testament to this comprehension. Rows upon rows of acoustics and electrics fill tables, hang from stands and hover in the air. Fenders, Taylors, Gibsons all filling the distant horizon. Stratocasters, Telecasters, PRS. Vintage, cutting edge. Gibson even parked a trailer filled with custom guitars inside Dallas Market Hall. It looks like heaven, but it feels like hell as more and more guitarists fill the entryway.

See also: -One Man's Search for the Perfect Instrument -The Search for the Perfect Guitar, Part II

In 1981, Dallas guitar shop owner Charley Wirz held the first Guitar Festival in a small meeting room of a Dallas hotel in 1978. Charley wanted to promote a vintage guitar show similar to a car show but with the feel of a biker rally. "Build it and they will come, he thought," according to this year's Festival magazine. And from its humble beginnings to Dallas Market Hall's 140,000 square feet of display space, this year's festival brings guitar makers, collectors, celebrities and music enthusiasts together under one roof for three days of "guitar heaven."

"Are you from the Dallas area?" asks a guitarslinger, standing next to me. He's short, stocky, and what remains of his white hair is pulled into a ponytail. His name is Gary "Doc" Dockery, a connoisseur of bingo halls, City Hall events and local festivals around the Temple, Texas, area. "I played the Rattlesnake Roundup twice," he says. "It's neat. It sounds like bacon frying because of all the rattling."

Small talk isn't helping either.

Several more guitarists fill the entryway, pushing us closer together. The show doesn't open for another 45 minutes. "I used to play music out in Las Vegas," he says, "but you play as much out of Vegas as you do in Vegas." He moved to Texas to take care of his son's house while he fought his third tour in the Iraq/Afghan war. Doc didn't attend the festival to buy, sell or trade a guitar. He's here to see Gregg Barton from the Kentucky Headhunters. "He's playing at the jam tonight."

Bands are jamming all three days of the festival. The Sound Bridge Acoustic Labs Stage, Bugs Henderson Stage, Ernie Ball Stage, the Dallas Observer Clinician Stage and Fuller's Vintage Guitar Acoustic Stage are hosting more than five dozen acts. Robert Miller and Friends, Smokin' Joe Kubek and Bnois King with special guests Chet Stevens and Kate Moss, and The Hairless Brothers Band are just some of the acts playing at the Guitar Festival.

"Have you heard of John Prine?" asks Doc. He's wearing a green T-shirt with John Prine's name embroidered in gold.

John Prine is an American songwriter. Highwayman Kris Kristofferson discovered Prine playing in the Chicago folk scene. Kristofferson was quoted saying, "Prine writes songs so good we'll have to break his thumbs." And Bob Dylan told the Huffington Post in 2009: "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree," he says. "All that stuff about Sam Stone the soldier junky daddy and Donald And Lydia, where people make love from 10 miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."

"I picked with him in Kentucky," Doc says and shakes his head. "He's a good songwriter. He's written songs like 'There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money's gone' and 'Paradise.'"

Gibson 335 is Doc's guitar of choice. He also plays a Martin DL. His first guitar was a Silvertone. "It was a $35 guitar," Doc says. He also had a Fender Mustang. "But my first real guitar was a Gibson 335. It was a 1965/66 model. I paid $150 for it." It was his favorite guitar. His Trigger. Years later, he paid $1,900 for a replica.

"I got to play a Gibson 003; the 001 and 002 are in museums." Doc removes his black hat and runs his fingers through his white strands. "I hope Greg isn't mad at me. I kept telling him: 'I'm coming'; 'No, I'm not coming'; 'I'm coming.' He's a character. He lived about 18 miles from me. You go like you're going to Madison, turn at ..."

Finally, security opens the festival's glass doors, and everyone surges inside.  

Guitar Heaven

Yamaha acoustic guitars sound like heavenly trumpets welcoming our arrival as people rush to purchase tickets or show their online vouchers. A guitarist playing a cool jazz mix on a sunburst Yamaha beckons people to visit his guitar company's display, while a representative of Guitar Player magazine offers free copies to attendees. Rows of Taylors, Gibsons, Martins fill tables near the far wall to my left, and a Paul Reed Smith display covers the corner on the other side of the hall. I follow behind a small group of guitar enthusiasts and walk slowly down the aisles, searching guitar after guitar, hoping to find my Trigger.

Dozens of guitars fill the packed hall. There's one to satisfy many guitarists' most unusual fandom desires. The Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spiderman, Batman and the Joker, Iron Maiden's Eddie and the Angel of Death tattoo several guitars' bodies. Budweiser the King of Beers is also represented on two different electrics. Even saviors such as Jesus Christ and the Hollywood singing cowboy make an appearance on the bodies of a few Fenders and a trio of Martins.

Looking at a few Dobro guitars - all Nationals from the early '30s - I think about the '67 Martin D-21 hanging in Charley's Guitar Shop. Maybe I should partially follow in my grandfather's musical footsteps and purchase a Martin. Old Willie's guitar is a Martin N-20, and the few I've played sound amazing. Hell, a person can't go wrong with a Martin, and the company's decades of craftsmanship are well-represented at the show. Standing next to a 1920s "Stelk" 12 guitar, a beat-up old 1957 Martin D-21 worn wood glows a burnt orange, but its $7,000 price tag prevents me (or anyone else) from playing it.

I pick up a few Taylors, touch a National or two before finding a '67 Martin D-21. It's at the booth of Mark Pollock, owner of Transpecos Guitars. He's also the former proprietor of Charley's Guitar Shop in North Dallas and one of Charley's closest friends. When Charley died in 1985, Mark took over the shop and the rights to the Guitar Festival. He soon expanded the festival by moving it to the Dallas Convention Center and eventually to Market Hall. He also introduced the Saturday Night Jam. In 2009, he retired, selling the rights to his longtime partner Jimmy Wallace, and opened a guitar shop in Alpine, Texas. Mark's a great guy, and a helluva guitar player. He's played with Freddie King, toured with James Cotton and formed Cold Blue Steel, a popular Dallas band.

"I've had it for a couple of months," Mark says. "Got it from its original owner." It resembles the one hovering in his former shop in North Dallas. The wood looks aged to perfection. "A guy from Japan is writing a book about left-handed guitars and wants to write about this one." I understand. I get tingles just touching the damn thing, but it's a left-handed model, a rarity to be sure, but one I'd never be able to play.

"Hmm, maybe a Gibson then," I say.

Thanking the old guitarslinger, I leave and price several vintage Gibson. There's a '52 Gibson J-45 for only $2,500, but its pegs look like their about to fall off. There's also a '63 J-45 for $3,250 and a '67 J-50 for $2,999, but they're both too pretty. At the table next to me, a Gibson J-35 with dings and scraps covering its battered body fits my desires, but its $15,000 price tag turns me away.

Leaving the aisle of Gibsons, I enter a dark place where acoustics are a thing of the past and only the future of the electric remains. Several shadowy vendors watch as I pass unmolested in their midst. I nearly escape the horrid place when a haggard-looking merchant appears from the darkness. "Hey, check this out, man," he says and holds forth an aluminum bridge with a whammy bar attached to it. "It's a bridge whammy bar," he proclaims and smiles what looks like a broken-tooth grin.

"Did you design it?" I ask.

"I'm partners with the inventor." He moves the whammy bar, which causes tiny mechanisms inside to move back and forth. "See, it stays in tune." He grins, his dark eyes gleam. His scraggly hair is partially pulled back into a ponytail. "First new design," he says, ending with another smile. It might be my imagination, but it looks like a serpent just slithered out of his mouth.

"Really?"

"Yes," he hisses. "It actually feels different, reacts different."

It doesn't take me long to escape. Catching my breath near a display of leather guitar straps, I begin to rethink my quest. Maybe I'm over-thinking this journey. Old Willie simply sent $750 to Shot Jackson who then shipped Trigger to him. The old man bought it sight unseen, and he has loved the damn thing for more than 40 years. Maybe my Trigger is closer than I think. Maybe I've already found her and just don't know--

Then I remember the mysterious Guild at Glen's Pawn Shop & Music Store in Denton. Its battered body has been used and abused by many players, and yet it still makes a sound blessed by Robert Johnson. It's a beautiful guitar. I remember Glen's helper holding her... fondling her... in front of me, a smile on his face, a fire in his eyes, as if she were just a common wh--

"That bastard," I say.

Now I'm not the jealous type, but imagining Glen's helper playing that old black beauty stirs emotions I haven't felt in such a long time. And I finally understand why B.B. King dove into the fire to save his beloved guitar "Lucille," why Jerry Garcia slept with his guitars "Tiger," "Alligator" and "Lightning Bolt" and why Old Willie refuses to lay Trigger to rest. The guitar is a part of self, the divine unity between male and female aspects, a conduit for the darkness. "It's like ol' Trigger," Glen's helper's words kept repeating in my mind as I sped down the highway.

Black Beauty is my Trigger.  

The Return

Glen's Pawn Shop and Music Store is busy today, but I ignore the customers and the young store clerk who looks irritated but manages a "hello" as I enter. I look to my left and see the mysterious Guild hanging on the wall, its black body reflecting the fluorescent lighting. The owner, Glen, is helping a customer who's pawning a bike. I don't see Glen's helper who first fondled the guitar. Glen's other store clerk is helping a mother and son, but he looks angry, tense and eyes narrowing, a walking time bomb. It could be the worrisome mother who's helping her son try to find his first guitar. She's asking too many questions, and I want to tell her to shut the hell up and just let the damn kid play a guitar. But then the phone rings. The young clerk answers the phone, screams a few obscenities and hangs up the receiver.

"Hey, man, you can't do that," says Glen, placing the old black beauty into her hard shell case. "There are customers here, man." "Hey, man, what am I supposed to do?" asks the young clerk, pushing a brown strand of hair behind his hair. "She wants to kill my dog, man." He shakes his head and walks to the other side of the room. Glen looks at me. "I'm sorry about that, man." But I don't care. A person should never mess with a man's dog, guitar or family.

"This is guitar sounds really good," Glen says. "Lange over at Little d's worked on it. I still haven't been able to find it's model number, though." Despite it's mysterious origins, the Guild is made in the USA, and Glen believes it was crafted in the early '80s. It's old age is apparent when my fingertips hit the strings, for a rich tone reverberates in the soundproof room. I play through the 12-bar blues, a few Alice-in-Chain tunes, a John Lennon song and few of my own compositions. Its action is smooth, and my fingers slide across the strings. I don't want to put her down.

At first the makers of Guild were focused on creating archtop jazz guitars, but then the folk scene of the early '60s changed the company's direction and it began to produce acoustic folk and blues guitars. Its dreadnaught series played just as well as Martin's D-18 and D-28 models, which were popular with blues guitarists. Artists such as Muddy Waters, Jerry Garcia and Richie Havens all played Guild guitars. In the '70s and '80s when other companies were making cheaper guitars to turn a profit, Guild was still churning out guitars considered of the highest quality. Black Beauty is one of those guitars.

"It is like ol' Trigger," I say, closing its guitar case.

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