The Search for the Perfect Guitar, Part II

Editor: In last week's music feature, Christian McPhate began his search for a guitar. Not just any guitar, but his Trigger, his missing part. In that story, he went north to our weird music utopia, Denton, and came away with nothing. Here, he tries his hand in Dallas. I'll start you with his opener from last week. If you've read it already, skip below the links -- that's where the story picks up.

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.

See also: -One Man's Search for the Perfect Instrument -The Stage Crew Diaries: A Tribute to the Volunteers of 35 Denton

Into the Heart of Dallas

Crossing underneath the train tracks on Royal Lane at Old Denton Road in North Dallas feels like traveling back in time. Despite a few transportational upgrades, the area still looks like it did in the '90s. Hell, I see the corner where the pimp and his car full of hookers nearly ran my car off the road because my asshole friend threw a penny at one of the ladies.

Charley's Guitar Shop is located just off Royal Lane in what appears to be a shopping center but looks eerily like office buildings. An old Observer article claims the guitar shop is "little bigger than a closet" and one of the five best local music shops in the area. It sounds like the perfect place to search for my "Trigger."

For more than 30 years, Charley's has been buying, selling and trading guitars. Founder Charley Wirz opened the shop in 1976, and his website claims he was "instrumental in the establishment of the 'vintage guitar' movement in North America." And maybe he was. There's a picture of Charley and Stevie Ray Vaughn in a buddy embrace. Although Charley died in 1985, his shop workers have kept his memory alive by buying, selling and trading guitars they "wholeheartedly believe in."

No one can deny their belief is powerful. You can see it walking through this shop. Guitar relics decorate the walls like trophies of a bygone age. All the greats are represented, from Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul to Paul Reed Smith and even a Mosrite Ventures. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Billy Gibbons and a host of other musician's photos line the walls, and tube amps needing repair are stacked near a work area where an older guitar tech works his magic on an white Fender Strat. Thankfully, several green street signs hang above the doors and point me in the right direction.

Entering Acoustic Avenue feels like entering a guitar god's trophy room. Dozens of ancient acoustics hover in the air, wood aged to perfection shimmering in the soft light. I take a deep breath and feel as if I'm experiencing a flashback as I tiptoe through the room. My mouth starts to quiver when my eyes look upon a Martin 0018 (1927). "This was once somebody's Trigger," I whisper. I reach to caress its wood, but something stops me. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it: a Martin D-21. Its aged wood still smells of fire as I move closer.

My grandfather played a Martin D-21. After he shot and killed my grandmother, the old bastard shacked up with another woman. She then wanted my father to buy it from her when my grandfather died. "You've lost your mind," my father said, only with more expletives than I have in my vocabulary. She sold it to a pawnshop in South Texas.

But this couldn't be his guitar. Maybe it's due to the polish they used to make it shine, but even though it's old, it still looks new. I want to hold it, strum it, but the older guitar tech is busy. I walk around the shop for several more minutes, trying to take my mind off my grandfather's Martin.

"Screw it," I whisper, and leave the shop.

Guitar Heaven

A broken-fingered statue of Elvis Presley greets customers of Shake Rag Music in Dallas. He's also playing a battered acoustic guitar -- a promising sign. A stained-glass peacock looking regal, a giant skull grinning evilly and several old rock posters advertising the Beatles and Ted Nuget decorate the barred glass doors. Located just off Live Oak Street, the small music shop is as much part of rock & roll history as the rock & roll memorabilia on display as you walk inside.

Entering the shop is like walking into a museum. Dozens of signed rock band posters cover the wall: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Doors are just some of the honored bands. Dozens of vintage guitars, low-end and high-end, fill the showrooms. There are Pee Wee Herman, Ozzy Osbourne and the Beatles action figures, creepy in a Tim Burton-cutesy kind of way, while an old Grateful Dead Santa Claus laughs atop a wall of guitars. An old Budweiser guitar hangs on the wall beside me. "Q102 [an old Dallas radio station] gave that away," says owner John Gasperik, who at one time looked like the fifth member of the Beatles. "I bought it from the guy who won it."

Gasperik was once a photojournalist. He took pictures of various movie and rock stars: Burt Reynolds, Kris Kristofferson and Led Zeppelin, just to name a few. Whenever a band would show up at Mother Blues, a legendary blues bar, Gasperik would be right there taking pictures. He has shot hundreds of concerts, and he was also house photographer for the Hard Rock Café in Dallas. It was while taking photos at a local guitar show that he discovered the financial gain of bartering guitars. "I started seeing all the prices that guitars were bringing in," he explains. "I was already out buying records and stuff at garage sales, so I started buying guitars."

It took him five years to convert his residence on Lower Greenville into a music shop, and then the city of Dallas shut him down. He didn't have customer parking available at his place of residence, so he eventually moved his shop. He's been at the Live Oak location for about four years now.

"Most of the stuff in here are projects, middle of the road stuff, also some low-end guitars," says Gasperik, motioning to the stacks of guitars behind me. "I'm just putting them together and selling them." He turns away from his computer. "What kind of guitar are you looking for?"

"I'm looking for an old guitar that I can just play in my backyard while drinking a few beers."

"We've got a few of those."

Gasperik leads me through his shop, motioning to various vintage acoustic and electric guitars lining the wall and floors. Silvertones, Main Streets, Rickenbackers; Fenders, Gibsons, Ibanez; Alvarez, Globals, Hofners all surround me. I feel like I'm dreaming. He shows me a blue Fender Telecaster Thin Line. "Good for country," he says. "I prefer Telecasters over Stratocasters." I'm pretty sure a guitarist somewhere choked when he said that.

I play a few of his acoustics: a Conrad, a Yamaha or two, and an Alvarez that I nearly purchase until I realize it's made in Korea. I pick up a Marin and play a few chords, but it doesn't feel right in my hands, almost as if I'm violating someone's lover. I also find an old Fender Stratocaster. It looks like a late '70s model. It's beat all to hell. Chunks of wooden flesh are gone. "I have a complete one over there for $900," Gasperik says and points behind me. The Fender has character, but it needs too much work. I'd rather take an acoustic on the road to Satan's Highway this summer. It's easier to manage. Just one black case. An electric requires a setup, and it doesn't compare to playing an acoustic guitar underneath a West Texas night sky.

"I've also got a Gibson J160 in the recording room," explains Gasperik. "It's one of my favorite guitars. It's the guitar that Lennon and McCartney wrote most of their stuff on."

Gasperik's recording room is small and filled with guitars, amps and cellos. A replica of Ringo Starr's drum kit sits in the far corner as well as ones for Paul McCartney's Hofner Bass and an Epiphone EJ-160E John Lennon Acoustic-Electric Guitar, which sounds eerily like the late singer's guitar as my hands begin to strum "Working Class Hero."

Gasperik lifts an old '55 Gibson off the rack. He plays through a few classic rock licks. Its battered and abused body would make a fine replacement. It even smells like Trigger's long lost aunt, but its $5,000 price tag cuts deep into the pocket book.

"It's got a lot of character," he says. "I don't care if I sell it or not."

I wouldn't sell it either, and now I'm wondering if I'll ever be able to find my Trigger. How do you find that one guitar that you really connect with? Everybody has a different style, but how do you find that one guitar that just clicks?

"I've got a 12-string Alvarez at home that I write most of my songs on," Gasperik says. "It's maybe a $300 or $400 guitar, but whenever I hit the chords, I get a song out of it. It's just finding that first or second chord to find that one magic, or as George Harrison used to call it - 'The Naughty Chord,' or the 'Lost Chord.'

"How do you find it?"

"When you pick up a guitar, the first chord that you play, you'll know."

But I'd been playing guitars all day, and I still can't decide which one to buy.

"The guitar show and heritage auction is coming up at Market Hall," he offers. "You could also try there."

Maybe he's right. I don't have to rush. The Dallas Guitar Show is April 19 to 21, and brings dozens of guitar artists, musical experts and collectors, as well as leading guitar manufacturers into one of the biggest showrooms around. Surely I'll be able to find the perfect guitar at the show.

Otherwise I'll just have to try Craigslist.

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