Ok. Having committed to the idea that I need a new guitar, the job is now to find one. A friend from my Nanaimo days, herself a guitar player, used the phrase “condolences and congratulations”, and that’s very much what it feels like. There’s excitement in trying out new guitars and figuring out which one might be the right one, even as it’s tinged with sadness that this is replacing my reliable companion.
My criteria were simple enough to define. I had a budget range – I’ll be discreet here, talking about money, you know, but it had to be in that sweet spot where it’s an improvement on the guitar I’ve already got but doesn’t blow the bank. This is not a purchase we were planning, and I can’t really say I’m using the guitar in such a way that commands the Martin that I’d love to have. For my price tag, I definitely wanted a solid top; some guitar promised all-solid woods, which could be great. And it needed a pickup inbuilt. A mate of mine suggested buying the guitar I wanted and then having one installed, but I didn’t feel confident that such a move wouldn’t inflate the costs. It also felt like the kind of thing I’d want to have a relationship with the shop or the guitar tech to do.
This mate had recently (like, a year and a half ago) done that, and moreover, he’d gotten the guitar second-hand. When you’ve got time and at least one guitar in your arsenal already that you trust, this is a fine option. Plus, he makes his living through music, so both his needs and his awareness are different. I wanted to be able to play the guitar I was going to buy, strum it, finger-pick it, and see how it sounded and felt on the kinds of songs I play.
The first place I went was a small independent shop up in the Valleys – AStrings of Pontypridd. I got a tip about this place from a co-worker and was very glad, as I wouldn’t have known to look for it otherwise. But a great shop, and they gave me a lot of space to just sit down and play on guitars, setting up a few stands near me and just cycling through ones: yes, keep that one here; no, not that one.
The first I tried was a Faith. This is not a guitar I knew at all before embarking on this journey. They’re a British company with all models designed by a top flight luthier, Patrick James Eggle. All guitars are made in Indonesia, and their schtick is to provide well-made guitars with all-solid tonewoods. To keep things in financial line, their Naked range goes for a very stripped aesthetic, doing away with any of the extra bits that might make a guitar prettier but also add to the cost. So no gloss finish, no binding, no spangly mother-of-pearl inlay. The thought of an all-solid acoustic with a pickup and good designer inside my price range was very tempting. This one never really left the rotation. Others came and went and I was still coming back to it. It had a great bassy quality to it and a very earthy sound. Perfect for a lot of the things I like to do. I was surprised by the look of it – ordinarily, I’m not about a black stained guitar. I prefer the wood grain, but because of the satin finish and unadorned quality of the guitars themselves, the look of it didn’t trouble me at all.
I was also keen to try their stock of Seagulls. They’re a Canadian company, made and designed in Canada, and they use reclaimed wood or wood sourced sustainably from their own lot. The patriotism and environmental ethics were strong pulls for me. Plus, my buddy Ira had a Seagull for a while, and I remember it was decent. I tried a couple, and this pretty red one stuck around in the rotation. Slimmer, smaller body. Katie observed that I didn’t quite know how to hold it – it would be a big change from my current guitar. Honestly, there were a couple of other things about it that didn’t quite sit right. It was my Number Three, but not, I think the one I would pick.
While I was playing around, the owner of AStrings would bring something else for me to try out. When he put this Guild on the rack, I thought he was doing that salesman thing: “Yes, I know it’s a bit past your range, but I think you’ll agree that when you play it, it’s worth the extra.” Certainly, when I played it, it was top-notch. Great feel on the neck, of course very good action. A bright, full sound on the high notes, but also incredible clarity in the bass strings. I could hear each note on its own within the chords I strummed. It was a completely balanced guitar. And a Guild – well, I would have figured they were the the class of out-of-reach. But the price tag was inside the range… at the top end, to be sure, but in range.
We left the shop feeling good but wanting to keep going. This was the kind of place I’d like to spend my money, but the hunt requires you to try them out. The same make of guitar in a different shop is, in the end, a different piece of wood, and it will sound different. This was especially true about the Faith. Without going into the boring details (I tried a few more Seagulls out, wanting to find one I loved, but they were never the best ones for me of the ones I tried; I discovered a guitar that pretty much no one knows about and was briefly tempted but, in order to get the pickup, would have to be patient and try out a different physical guitar, and that leads to the another-piece-of-wood conundrum; my prevailing prejudice against Tanglewoods was pretty much confirmed, though the one in the photo at the top could maybe have been my guitar), the last place I tried nearly got me.
It was PMT right downtown – a national chain, and kind of the Tesco of guitar shops compared with the local greengrocer or butcher I’d hit on earlier. It was not the sort of place I’d prefer to spend my money, just in terms of where the profits go. Yet I have to remind myself that the employees there are, nonetheless, locals who live in the community and need to eat and stuff. And I went in twice – twice, my friends, the second time with my wife – to try out basically one guitar, and both times I had really great, supportive, professional, and no-pressure service. I would have been happy to buy it, and I might have done. This was another Faith Neptune in the Naked range, but instead of the black finish it was pale, pale blonde. Engelmann Spruce on the top, mahogany back and sides. All the woods, the machinery, the finish – exactly the same specs as the one up in Pontypridd. Somehow, this one sounded different. Maybe it was just the fact of playing it in a room covered by Martins and Taylors – things resonate differently. But it felt different in my fingers, too. It was really nice, and it had an impressive growl when I dropped the E to a D. It was great, and it would keep about sixty quid in my pocket.
Talking it over with my wife (which is always a good thing to do, but especially when making big purchases), she didn’t want to influence me too much. She was trying to take my own words and reflect them back to me, and also let me know what she saw of my reactions as I played on them. And the qualities that make the Faith an interesting guitar come through in stories I could tell about it. The Guild makes those qualities evident in how it sounds. That is a significant difference. I was tempted by the future, wondering how the satin-finished all-solid wood guitar would develop as it ages. It’s an interesting, perhaps academic question. But, as my guitar chums have confirmed enthusiastically for me, the Guild will also grow and change. But it sounds absolutely stunning right now. It is the standard I am comparing all the other guitars to.
So, with not really any hesitation and only a little sadness that the hunt was over, I drove back to Ponty, played on the Guild and the black Faith a bit, then made my purchase. Did it on a Friday, and reflected on Sunday that I wasn’t once wondering what it would be like if I’d bought the Faith instead, but I could easily imagine wondering if it had gone the other way around, playing on the Faith and thinking, Did I make the right choice? I wonder who’s going to buy that Guild? Instead, that’s not the question. It’s not the one that got away.