Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Good Guitar

Yesterday’s post was a bit lugubrious—sorry, folks! I actually first thought about it looking at that pic from Duncan Mills; odd how that innocuous photo took me down that track (so to speak)…. Anyhoo, on to a lighter note today.

My favorite guitar these days is a 1958 Harmony Master—that’s the very one in the pic to the right. As you can see, it’s not much to look it—the fretboard is worn, the “block inlays” are painted on & partially worn off— in fact, there’s paint that’s worn off in a number of spots, & the tuners are slightly stiff, especially if you’re used to more contemporary guitar tuners (fortunately, I’m also used to the tuners on ukes & banjos, so this is less of an issue). Still, I’m almost invariably happy to play this guitar. Why is that?

Some of it’s pure sentimentality. I think about the fact the guitar is close to me in age (about two years younger, depending on when it was made in ‘58). But it goes beyond that. There’s something real & solid about the instrument (solid: I do describe it’s neck as being like a baseball bat!), & there’s something warm & real about the instrument's tone, too. Sometimes, you feel a connection with an instrument (or presumably some other object) & the instrument seems to have its own life as it’s being played.

Now I don’t mean this in the sense of “I make the instrument come alive”—hey, I know my strengths & weaknesses as a guitarist, & while I do ok, I’m not someone who knocks folks dead with my lyrical lines. No, I’m talking about an internal sense, some sort of connectedness to that guitar.

& why would I have that with what—despite now being a vintage instrument—was in its origin a cheap guitar? After all, Harmony guitars back when this instrument was first sold were going for around $50—maybe a few dollars less. There are mitigating factors, of course—the average old Harmony that’s still in reasonably good shape (cosmetics aside) is a better instrument than the cheapies you see nowadays. They were built to be played & enjoyed, & were built with an eye (or ear) for the instrument producing music. Sadly, that’s not true of many of the cheap guitars you see nowadays—with action too high for anyone to play, horrible intonation, etc. & too, if an instrument has lasted 50 years, it must have something going for it—some folks along the line have loved it & loved playing it.

Sometimes on various sites I do see folks advising aspiring guitarists, ukers, etc. to buy the absolute premium instrument. If you want a flat-top guitar, get a Martin or a Taylor; if you want an arch-top, get a Gibson or a D’Angelico. Are those instruments good?— you bet. They’ll sound better & play more easily than that 58 Harmony Master, or any other guitar I own. But that’s not the whole point. For one thing, not all aspiring musicians have the $ to plunk down a couple grand on a guitar. For another thing, there are intangibles—if you feel the instrument “suits you,” if you like the sound & feel. & then, too, it’s the guy or gal who’s picking on that instrument that’s making it sing—you can give a “numb-fumbling” guitar player a 1930’s Gibson, & he’s going to still sound like a numb-fumbler. There’s a story about this—the way I heard it first had to do with the great guitarist Chet Atkins; I’ve since heard other musicians (& instruments) substituted for Chet Atkins & the guitar, so the story may well be apocryphal. But whether or not the story’s a “fact,” it’s definitely “true.”

Seems Chet Atkins was noodling on a guitar one day in the studio. Someone said, “Man, that guitar sure sounds great.” Chet stopped playing, put the guitar back in its stand and said, "Well, how does it sound now?”

If you want to learn more about Harmony guitars (& ukes, etc.!) check out the following sites: The Unofficial Harmony Guitar Home Page; The Harmony Guitar Page; The Harmony Instruments Blog; The Humble Harmony Uke.

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