To say my guitar is a shit guitar is no shame. I always knew it. I described it in the blurb for a poster advertising a showcase at the Ontario Conference of Folk Festivals as “his cheap acoustic guitar … that he used to patch through a distortion pedal and play drop-d punk tunes on in Nanaimo.”
Yet people would say, “for all that, it has a nice tone.” Yes, I would reply. Guitars like being played. And I played that thing every day. Wrote all my songs on it. Gigged on it, with a cheap pickup that slotted in the soundhole. One summer, as a university student in Ottawa, I took some of my tips money and bought a nice Senegalese djembe from the Ottawa Folklore Centre. That night, there was a wicked thunderstorm, and I was awoken from my sleep by a loud noise. Checked in the kitchen but nothing was obviously wrong. Shrugged it off. Next morning, shuffled into the living room, and there was my djembe, gaping open-mouthed at me with the skin head half off. I rushed it back to the shop, where they said, “Whoa – that shouldn’t have happened!” But while they were fixing it up, I did some thinking of my own. I told them to put it back on the floor once they’d repaired it and instead had them install a Fishman pickup in my guitar.
Now it was superb and useful. Big, bassy sound. No tone or volume controls on the pickup, but it was active. It made the guitar sound better than it had any right to. The action was incredibly high. I just got used to it. I liked to tell people it made me a better player because anything else was like butter in comparison, but I think that was not entirely true.
Who cares? It was my constant companion, my entry to a whole gamut of social circumstances. On the bus coming back from drama festivals. On the BC Ferry, amusing a group of elderly Chinese tourists. At Saturday night parties and Sunday morning church services. Campfires. I will not lie – that guitar, my strumming and my singing were ingredients in getting every girlfriend I ever had, including the one who’s now my wife. (“Play the song called ‘Katie Hay’!” said a visiting friend of hers from high school. I subbed her name into a stupid little song I’d written called “Beavertails”, and she laughed so hard she knocked my lamp over and broke it.)
The guitar was recorded on many demos and, eventually, my two CDs. It was also recorded on the third, final, and slickest Siobhan record. Nick, the guitarist and singer, asked to use it because it had a good pickup and, as mentioned, a high-punching sound generally, and his guitar at that time was not very good and possibly broken. Nick was habitually rough on guitars. At the end of the session, we had a great guitar sound and the bridge of my cheap St Laurent was peeling away from the ply top. I was devastated. I don’t know how Nick didn’t notice when he gave it back to me, or maybe it peeled away a couple of days later, like my djembe head in the night. Because I didn’t see it right when he returned it, and because he was the bandleader and charismatic plus not particularly flush with cash, and because it was my old shit guitar anyway, I didn’t confront him about it. I just looked into getting it repaired.
The first place I went, Songbird Music, looked at it and said, “No point. Just get a new guitar. Let me show you some.” Ah, but you misunderstand me, sir. You see, this is my guitar and I want it made well.
At the Ottawa Folklore Centre, the tech said, “I can fix it so it will never happen again. Is it worth it to you to fix it?” I nodded. A few days later, it came back, whole.
I won’t say for sure that the intonation problems began then. As I said, it’s a shit guitar. It’s always had action high enough to slice pork ribs. But when I was recording my second CD, I knew there were certain parts, higher up the neck, that my guitar was a bit unreliable about. You know, the ringy open E and B strings were supposed to match the notes on the 9th fret of the D and G strings, but they didn’t always quite. Or if you got them right, then when you made the barred D chord up there for an A, that chord would be off. I drafted a spangly Takamine from a friend for a couple of those high parts, and the engineer had a rough old Martin that he had me double some parts on. Mostly, though, it was my guitar on the record, as it should be.
At that time, doing my own gigs around Ottawa and even playing a bit around Ontario and Quebec, I may well have made the leap to a new guitar. My old music buddy Ira, who has acquired many stringed instruments of various descriptions since those high school days, has been on my case about it for years. After Siobhan’s first European tour, when I had a bit of money from music, I got his brother to make me a nice bouzouki. He’d been training as a luthier and made some stunning guitars and mandolins. “Okay,” said Ira, “but I don’t see why you don’t get him to make you a guitar instead.” Well, I had my guitar. It had a pickup and it sounded good, and the man had repaired it so it would never break again. I didn’t need a guitar.
Then my job was cut. Then we moved to Britain for studies. Any available resources were paying food and rent (London rent, and then Edinburgh rent), and my time was eaten up by reading and writing and attending to my family. Playing music was not a priority and there really, really was no cash in the kitty. It wasn’t even a question.
But it has become so, as I’ve been playing at an open mic in the neighbourhood, and then performing along with my wife as she reads from her novel. The number of times I’ve had to swap over to the house guitar because mine can’t keep its tuning has become embarrassing. Another guy who plays there – an old folkie from the Valleys who’s made a few of his own instruments and seems to know what he’s doing – offered to take a look at it, so I brought it round a couple of weeks back.
Diagnosis? Besides the terrible action, the neck was a bit bowed and twisted, and there was plenty of wear on the frets, especially the first seven. It was coming away slightly but visibly from the top. It would need a neck set, and he knows a guy who can do it well, but the job would be dearer than a new guitar – not a fancy one, but one that can do everything my guitar does and maybe better.
Not the greatest of news to hear, but when I started talking about it with others – musicians who’ve been hearing me play for the last year or so – they fairly tripped over themselves to say yeah, it’s time. Get a guitar that’s worth what you can do with it. This enthusiasm surprised me. Like, have they been talking about my guitar when I leave the room or something? But they, not having grown up with me, perceived me as a decent player on an indecent instrument.
For me, I think it’s time. It’s an upgrade that’s been deferred, but now we’re in a position to do something about it. So, after 25 years, getting more life out of my St Laurent Etude than it ever had a right to expect, it’s time to give it a rest.
Right after this song…