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Somewhere out there, a 1952 Les Paul wears a crescent-moon-shaped scar in its gold top. The guitar was already 16 years old when that two-inch dent, exactly the size of a school-locker padlock, was forever imprinted on it. That mark was, and probably still is, a reminder of an argument I had with a band member about a girl. It’s not only my story—it’s the guitar’s story, too. I had a very emotional bond with my guitar, and sometimes I wonder what else that gold top has seen over the years.
Can a luthier’s creative energy somehow permeate an instrument
as he shaves, shapes, and transforms raw wood into a guitar?
Every guitar has a personality. Maybe you’ve never thought of it exactly that way, but you’ve noticed. It’s reflected in the way an instrument behaves when played as much as it is in the way it looks. Some are easy partners, while others spar with the musician— daring you to take a careless step in search of an imagined note. We might feel that a guitar is willing or stubborn—physical manifestations of the guitar’s design and construction expressed in human terms. A long scale will feel stiffer than a short one. String spacing choices at both the nut and bridge can radically affect feel. But, beyond the typical neck-dimension and shape issues, there are other imponderables. The very best instruments invite a closeness between guitarist and guitar that is hard for a non-musician to understand—and hard for a builder to explain. Can a guitar have a soul? Is there a spiritual essence or energy within a well-traveled instrument?
Recently, I blogged about restoring a pair of 1960s vintage Marshall 4x12 cabinets. During the process, we found shards of beer-bottle glass lodged in the vinyl covering that I attributed to a long life in clubs and bars. That mental picture got me thinking about the idea of essence. Vintage instruments are said to possess a mojo that goes beyond pure age and break-in time. Could it be life experience— a sort of wisdom?
Just as people are the sum of their experience intermingled with their genetics, can a guitar absorb the totality of its practical contact with the world? Perhaps this can lend some credence to the idea that a guitar whose life is constrained to its case cannot speak as fluently and effortlessly as those that are well traveled and truly road worn. Certainly this is the marketing angle behind new guitars that are scratched and dented to appear old and wizened. That’s not to say that stage-prop relic jobs are completely devoid of a worldly education borne of dues-paying exposure to the world. It’s just that they’re a bit like a well-dressed grad, stumbling to find their professional footing and establish a comfortable identity.
On the flip side, another bit of mythology to consider is the concept of the luthier-built instrument. Often I find that a guitar that’s slowly finessed to completion by a pair of gifted hands will possess an unexplainable natural response to the player’s touch, as though it were anticipating and guiding the playing. Certainly this can happen occasionally with mass-produced items—just as a creative genius can certainly escape from the doldrums of a test-driven educational system. In many large factories there may be no shortage of knowledge, but perhaps it’s the kindness of an individual luthier’s intent that births the most sensitive of the breed. Not just the material selection, but the actual act and process of building could be adding to the essence of the guitar that is to be. I view this as the “pre-story,” and for me it adds a lot of value to an instrument.
In an interesting and sympathetic vein, just as hopeful parents might play Mozart to their infants in the womb, there are encouraging studies about subjecting tonewoods to vibration in preparation for use in musical instruments—usually violins. Studies suggest that vibration affects the equilibrium of moisture content in wood, decreasing weight while retaining or even improving the modulus of elasticity. Urged on by this information, some violinmakers employ a sound-barrage chamber to pre-season their woods.
In the same way, perhaps the nightly exposure to long sets and loud amplifiers could be part of the key to a guitar’s worldliness. I have a friend who works as a tech for some very high-level players who swears that placing a guitar in front of a speaker cabinet for a week’s worth of gigs improves its sound. There are also small electrical vibrators that can be attached to a guitar’s strings to “open up” the sound of an instrument. I guess this could be viewed as a sort of “intellectual” learning—like reading about something as opposed to actually doing it.
Beyond these physics-backed scenarios, I keep returning to the concept of the guitar’s life story and its impact on essence. Maybe it’s just a romantic notion that untold years of busking, blues bars, studios, and pawn shops might somehow embed a guitar with a soul that can help you express your own feelings—but it’s one that I like. Maybe someday I’ll be reunited with that goldtop and we can discuss it.
Jol Dantzig is a noted designer, builder, and player who co-founded Hamer Guitars, one of the first boutique guitar brands, in 1973. Today, as the director of Dantzig Guitar Design, he continues to help define the art of custom guitar. To learn more, visit guitardesigner.com.