The great singer and storyteller Joni Mitchell once sang, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” So maybe that’s not exactly what the following story is about, but there’s a lesson I’ve learned about always being in the moment, striving to do your best, and not taking yourself too seriously.
Not too long ago, a fellow guitarist showed me his newest prized possession—a guitar shaped like a beer-bottle label. It was a 1980s vintage Hamer “Miller” guitar. I started to laugh when I saw it, but not for the reason you might suspect. Over the years since that guitar series was made, I’d announced my dislike of this particular design to anyone who would listen.
Back in the crazy 1980s, Hamer’s sales staff contracted to supply the Miller Brewing Company with a series of special Miller-branded guitars. It was a quick deal that pumped up the short-term sales results and these instruments were intended for use by bands in the brewer’s national live-music promotional campaign. It wasn’t necessarily a popular idea within the company, and to tell the truth, I thought it degraded the image of our shop. But when it came time to design the guitars, I did my damnedest to make them as cool as I could.
I took the classic Miller beer-bottle label and logo and distorted it into a usable guitar shape—a sort of Gumby-esque double-cutaway. The figured top was tinted a transparent, cherry red to emulate the brand’s logo without giving up some of the maple mojo that an opaque color would obscure. The Miller logo was big and bold, and because I liked the phrase “High Life,” we kept that on as well. Finally, the rest of the guitar was bathed in a metallic-gold color that not only replicated the look of the beer can, but was a traditional electric-guitar color too.
The DNA of the axe was pretty much stock-Hamer fare with two of our original Peter Green/Gary Moore-specification humbucker pickups and the classic sustain-block bridge. The necks were right off the shelf—mahogany with rosewood fretboards radiused to a 14" curve and dressed with 22 nickel-silver frets.
Given the parameters of the exercise, I felt I’d done a good job. We made a few dozen of them, and then it was over. Good riddance (I thought), but people continually asked about them over the years and I reluctantly acknowledged their existence. How embarrassing.
I’d pretty much forgotten about the whole deal by the late 1990s when I came face-to-face with irony in its most glorious and humbling incarnation. Record producer Jon Tiven invited me to tag along to a soundcheck at a Manhattan club one Friday afternoon, but I had no idea what I was stepping into at the time.
Tiven knew I was a Fleetwood Mac fan (and an even bigger Peter Green fan), and as we ducked into the darkened club, my eyes barely had time to adjust before Tiven was introducing me to a burly and bearded fellow with an English accent. “Peter, this is my friend Jol. He’s a guitar builder,” said Tiven. It was then I realized that we were at one of the Peter Green Splinter Group’s few American shows. Green graciously shook my hand, but seemed distracted as though he’d rather be somewhere else—until he heard Tiven mention Hamer as part of my resume.
“Nigel!” Green shouted emphatically towards the stage where his bandmate Nigel Watson was standing. “Nigel!” he shouted again. “The Miller guitar! He’s the man who made the Miller guitar!” Green was beaming and pointing at me. Suddenly I had everyone’s attention and handshakes were had all the way around. Yes, it’s true: Peter Green owned and loved a Hamer Miller guitar. I could hardly believe this surreal moment. We chatted for a while about instruments, blues, and beer, and Green suggested we stay for the show.
When it was time for the soundcheck and Green walked away, I began to snicker. My chuckling then turned into hysterical laughter. One of the musicians I admired most was now forever linked with something I’d always been ashamed of. The weight of the irony was full upon me and I was laughing at myself.
The lesson? Approach each task as if it were the one that will define you, because it just might. Everything matters, humility is a virtue, and life is a gift.