Into the Wild: In Love With a Guitar
The bond between a guitarist and his go-to guitar
This month I release my seventh full-length album, El Sonido Nuevo, and will be touring behind it. My career has evolved quite a bit in the 23 years since first stepping up on a stage. Initially music was all about live shows—everything was focused on making the show as powerful and musical as we could, and life was all about funneling this energy to the stage. After a few years, recording studios entered with a coquettish bow, whispering the possibilities of Abbey Road and Pet Sounds as we wondered why our amazing live sound wasn’t translating to world-changing records. Life was a balance between the studio and the stage. In the last five years I have spent ever more time in the studio, as well as doing stints as a sideman, producer, engineer, amateur gear builder, producer of commercials, guitar teacher, columnist, and even an occasional keynote speaker. Each “hobby” could very well be a career, and each demands full attention, pulling me into a constant internal battle on where and how to spend my time.
With the first record release shows just right around the corner I realized it was time to put down the soldering iron, step away from the mixing board, and spend some time preparing for the upcoming shows. Throughout the ‘90s, my band was on tour constantly so my chops were pretty together. These days I find that I need to spend a couple of weeks prior to my tour focusing on my playing and singing, figuring out what pedals I’ll be stepping on, how to make my voice do things that weren’t really thought through when recording, and in general pulling my head back to a simpler and more singular focus. With that in mind I ran out to my studio and set up shop. I have acquired some really wonderful guitars and amps throughout my career, and utilize them to full effect when I’m recording. Like many guitarists though I have one guitar that really speaks to me like no other. It is a mongrel Fender, a ’62 Strat body with a ’55 Esquire neck. It has been with me all over the world, and I have wrapped my playing around the contour of the neck, my sense of tone around the bell like sounds, dulcet and pure.
I took up the guitar at 16, as therapy for healing tendons in my left hand. For a short period I had a Spanish gut string that I picked up in a Santa Barbara guitar store, but quickly started plotting ways to get something more electric. My first electric guitar was lent to me a couple of months later by Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was a dot-neck Gibson ES-335 12-string that I strung as a 6-string. I remember really loving the sound of that guitar, but he took it back after a few months. I scraped together $150 and bought a Squier Strat and I used that guitar for my first few shows. It was cool, and looked just like Denny Freeman’s guitar (off white, maple neck Strat) but I was yearning for something with a little more character.
After a summer of playing at the Black Cat Lounge for some very generous tippers (no cover) and working the days at a BBQ restaurant, I had amassed enough money to go guitar shopping. I walked into Heart of Texas Music with $750 in my hand. There were two guitars on the wall, both for about the same price. The first was a late ‘50s Gibson ES-175. At that point I was really into Grant Green, Charlie Parker, and the ‘50s and ‘60s jazz. The guitar was so hip and played so smoothly. I sat with it for about 30 minutes and was making up my mind to get it when my eyes were drawn a ragged black Stratocaster hanging just a few feet away. I kept looking at it, and finally took it from the wall. It had a lot of wear on the neck, and obviously had been a player’s guitar. From the second I grabbed it I knew that it was my guitar. Even acoustically it had a clarity and a ring to it that sounded extraordinary. The action was amazing! Vibrato seemed to happen with just the intention of it, and it really sang when I would dig in. I stayed there playing, lost in a reverie, until one of the sales guys tapped me on the shoulder to tell me my time was up and I needed to either buy it or leave the store. I walked up to the counter in a daze and basically handed the guy all of my money. For $750 I walked out with the greatest monetary investment I ever made in my life, excited, but having absolutely no idea how far it was going to take me.
Ian and the love of his life: a "mongrel Fender" with a '62 Strat body and '55 Esquire neck,
as seen on the cover of his 1993 self-titled debut album.
I played and played, time slowed down, girlfriends came and went, music took over everything, and the one constant in my life was that guitar. It went to Hollywood with me, I was playing it when I got my first record deal, and I made all of my first two records with it. My hands molded around the contour of the neck and it was generally no more than a few feet from me at any time.
As time went on I became more and more determined to find other guitars to replace it. I played Les Pauls, Gretsches, Guild Starfires, other Strats, Teles, and on and on, but nothing could cover as many sounds, sound as pure, sound as beautiful, sound as perfect as my guitar. In the studio I might grab something else, but live, whenever things were really on the line, I would always play it. I felt somehow more powerful and plugged in when it was in my hands.
Over the years I have been offered ridiculous amounts of money for it. At times, despite the seas of cash we musicians swim in, I could have used it, but I just can’t imagine not having the guitar. In fact it is probably the only “thing” that I really feel that I need in my life. I get pretty paranoid with all of the travel, hotel rooms, clubs, and airplanes that are part of touring, and this sometimes keeps the guitar locked up at home.
In the past few years I have had the joy of playing many amazing guitars. My good friend Ted Bailey recently built me a really beautiful Strat-style guitar. He put a lot of love and mojo into it, and it plays like a dream. Ironically it looks quite like my first Strat, off white, maple neck. I have been getting to know it over the last couple of months, and will be taking it on tour with me for the new record. It won’t replace “my guitar,” but she is wooing me slowly to her charms. It is always a joy getting to know a new guitar, but playing “your” guitar is a singular feeling.
Ian Moore is an Austin, Texas-based guitarist who has had his hands in a bit of everything related to guitar, from an acclaimed solo career to building and modifying his own gear to being a sideman for pop star Jason Mraz. ianmoore.com