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Gear Addiction Recovery, Step 1: Your First Guitar

Steve recounts his first guitar, a Seville Les Paul copy, and the feelings that went along with it.

I’ve been getting sentimental lately. It could be the change of seasons, but I’m going to call it the first step in gear addiction recovery (see last month’s column). Either way, it seems the memories of my first guitar have been on my mind quite a bit these days and that motivated me to dig a little deeper to find out why.

Do you recall your first guitar? Way back before you knew anything about flametops, PAFs, mojo, and all the other G.A.S.-inducing details we discuss, there was just the guitar. Maybe you had your heart set on a Les Paul or a Strat. Depending on when you grew up it could have been one of those fluorescent colored, pointy-headstock thingies that got you all hopped up about being a rock star. Whatever it was there was innocence to it all, and that my friend is what this article is all about: rediscovering your love of the instrument.

While my first real guitar was a 1980-81 Gibson “The SG,” before that I had another guitar…a Seville Les Paul copy. It was a cheap knock-off with a bolt-on neck, but that guitar meant everything to me. Allow me to share my story… it might even sound similar to your own.

By the time I was 12 all I could think about was playing the guitar. My buddy had rented one and was taking lessons, so any chance I got I’d hang out at his place and watch him play through his Mel Bay Book #1 lessons. Lessons with compelling names like “E-nuff” and “E-string boogie.” It didn’t sound like KISS, but at least there was some semblance of music being made on that first string (he never made it to the B string). It drove me crazy not having my own guitar. I started saving my paper route money so one day I could take over all six strings. Maybe my buddy would even cough up the book since he wasn’t using it anyway.

Going to the music store was like going to Mecca for any young, aspiring guitarist. The best store we had (Mau’s Music) was probably a half hour away and to this day I can vividly recall the anticipation of a weekend trek to scope out what I’d be spending my hard-earned paper route money on. My heart was set on a Les Paul because of Ace Frehley, and this store had a mile of them—hung up, row by row, in every color and style.

Interspersed with the real Gibsons were the knock-off brands that to my untrained eye were basically the same guitar. This particular store carried the Memphis and Seville brands, and somehow the way the sales dude jammed out “Cat Scratch Fever” sold me on the wine red, bolt-on Seville Les Paul copy. It could have been his long hair and cool jeans, or just the fact that he was telling me with these riffs that I too could rock for $99. By the way, the real deal Les Pauls were way out of my league at $600, so I just let it go and wondered why the toggle switch was labeled Rhythm and Treble instead of Rhythm and Lead. There were rhythm guitarists and lead guitarists but I’d never seen a treble guitarist before. I’d have to figure that out later because the Gibsons said the same thing…hmm.

$215 later I had my Seville Les Paul, Rock Amplifier Company Petros I 1x10 combo amp (with a dedicated distortion knob!) and a Lifeline 10’ straight cable. Life was good. I never had the guitar set up professionally, but I came home after school every day and played and played and played. I dug into records and began learning to transcribe when my teacher didn’t want to waste my lessons by teaching me other people’s songs. I didn’t have a tuner so I used my dad’s pitch pipe and a tuning fork for the first five years as a player.

Living the life of a pre-internet guitarist also meant that information didn’t come as easy. In fact, aside from my Guitar Player subscription, the only way to find out about new gear was if a buddy picked something up or I got to go back to Mau’s Music or Custom Music to check out what was going on. Ignorance was bliss and all that mattered was getting better on the instrument and getting together with friends to jam and trade licks. It wasn’t until I broke my first string that it dawned on me that you needed to change strings on the guitar at all.

So why do I point this all out, and what does it have to do with recovering from G.A.S.? Simple. Before any of us had the means to support our habits, it was the love of the instrument and our desire to excel (or meet girls) that propelled us forward. We appreciated everything we had, even if we wanted more. There was real sentimentality connected to that first guitar.

Take a minute to look back on your first one and the story behind it. You probably remember your first guitar very clearly, even if it wasn’t a ’59 Burst. And if your first guitar was a ’59 Burst, please don’t tell me about when you traded it for one of those fluorescent-colored, pointy-headstock thingies…that would kill me. For the rest of you, please share. It’s cathartic and the first step in your recovery.