When I first started high school in 1982 there was a weird rivalry between students that had presumably never been behind a wheel, over which model of car reigned supreme; Ford or Holden. Kids proved their allegiance to Ford or Holden via the racing jackets they wore. Not being somebody that had ever paid attention to makes or models of cars, I really just didn't understand it at all.
A similar rivalry exists around Stratocasters and Telecasters. It has something to do with tone palettes and pick up selector switches and tuning and comfort and the two point tremelo system. I have researched it but it kind of filters in and then drips back out because I don’t care enough to hold the information in my mind. If it sounds cool, feels cool and looks good then really what else matters? I felt better when I read that Lucinda Williams is the same way and likes one of her guitars cos its ‘real pretty’ and has ‘shiny gold pegs’, doesn’t know what make her stage guitar is - ‘I’m so bad about that’ she says, but thinks its an ‘Everly Brothers guitar’. She likes it cos its ‘beat to hell.’
I feel the same way about guitars as I do about cars. I hold such pure love for the ones I love and yet the brands/makes/models escape me. My beloved guitar is just ‘White Chocolate’ to me. That's its name. I got a message from Kim Salmon the other day asking if he could borrow my Tele as a backup for his upcoming Sydney show with The Scientists, which was of course such a monumental honour, and I momentarily panicked trying to recall what make of guitar White Chocolate was.
But it's a goddamn Fender Telecaster Thinline which is a pretty fucking cool guitar. I mean, thats what Kim Salmon plays! And Keith Richards plays! And Lucinda sometimes, even if she doesn’t know it. I don't know what version of the iconic Telecaster I play, what year it’s from, all that jazz. What matters to me is that is was a gift from a dear friend (thank you Noah) that keeps on giving and providing a portal to the eternal beautiful mystery of sound and tone to me. It holds songs inside it. And it never goes out of tune.
Keith’s butterscotch blonde 1954 Tele was also a gift, for his 27th birthday from Eric Clapton. Keith named her ‘Micawber’ (after the eternally optimistic character from David Copperfield who always believes ‘something will turn up’) and recorded classics such as ‘Before They Make Me Run’, ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ with it. It’s on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art now. Naming your guitar seems to imbue it with a personality of its own. Bruce Springsteen calls his Tele ‘The Mutt’ and Jimmy Page’s Tele goes by ‘The Dragon’. Neil Young plays a ‘53 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, painted black, that he calls ‘Old Black’. After a fire broke out in a club BB King was playing in 1949 because of two guys fighting over a girl called Lucille, and BB nearly died running back in through the flames to rescue his guitar, he named her ‘Lucille’ - and every guitar he’s owned since - to remind himself never to do dumb things like fighting over women or entering burning buildings. Bonnie Raitt paid $120 for her main stage guitar, a 1965 Frankenstein Strat she christened ‘Brownie’. She hasn’t played a show without it since 1969. Willie Nelson’s 1969 acoustic Martin N20 ‘Trigger’ - named after Roy Roger’s horse, because he says it’s ‘kind of my hoss’ - is almost as beloved as Willie is. He says ‘it was a good day when I got him’. Great mini doco on Willie & Trigger here.
My first electric guitar was my brother's hand me down red Ibanez with an amazing whammy bar. It had really had gnarly kind of needly, tangy sound that sort of hurt your fillings and I played it with an old 70s wah pedal. It had grimy, rusty strings that I never changed because I loved the fact that they had my brother's disco sweat on them. God, I loved that cherry red Ibanez, but I didn't give it a name. And then I had to sell it to pay the rent. Damn.
My very first guitar was a gift from my dad's friend, Vytas, who whittled away at a nothing special nameless Japanese factory acoustic guitar and turned it into a lovely Spanish flamenco sounding guitar by virtue of hours of shaving away at this and fiddling away with that and adding his own vintage mother of pearl tuning pegs. This kind of instrument is colloquially known by musicians as a ‘nun's guitar’, terminology that is used to describe a guitar with low action. For those that are reading that don't play guitar, action is the space between the strings and the frets. High action guitars are really hard to play, you've got to have strong fingers - nun's guitars are low action guitars, nylon strings, they are soft and gentle and sound beautiful, and barely leave an indent on the fingers. Honestly, this guitar had a weird magic power. Every guitarist that walked through our house would pick it up and marvel at its beguiling charms. It kind of played itself.
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My dad taught me to play three songs to start me off. The first one was Wild Thing, by the Troggs, which on a nun's nylon string, acoustic little guitar probably sounded pretty silly. But man, was it gratifying to bash away at. The next one was To Know Him Is To Love Him - I was obsessed with girl groups at the time. That song was not really that easy but I loved it so I got there. The next song he taught me he was Willin', by Little Feat. That one's actually pretty hard, but it had a few great licks that were really satisfying to learn, and really set me off on that journey of loving to play guitar. But quite honestly, I haven't learned any anything fancier than what I learned back then - just all my basic chords, fingered correctly - when I was in school, and I had all the time in the world to practice. If I had not started giving birth to children at the age of 20, I know I would be a far better guitar player, because I think that the secret to mastering the guitar is just lying around and playing guitar for hours and hours and hours at a time. You’ve got to lose yourself in it to transcend it. I've just never had that luxury because I've always been really busy cooking, cleaning, driving and doing dishes. I wouldn’t trade that for the world but sometimes I wish that I had spent hours and hours crushing licks.
One of the most excruciatingly beautiful experiences I've ever had was when I was left a hash cookie while babysitting, aged 16. Maybe as payment, maybe just as a bonus, but it really sent me into another dimension. And after the child I was babysitting was asleep, I parked myself on a mattress with an unplugged electric guitar and started messing around. I feel like if you could have filmed my brain, you would have seen colours exploding. My jaw was literally dropping in amazement as I experienced what it was to have fingers that could do what Jimi Hendrix could do. Obviously I was out of it, and the truth of it was it probably sounded vastly different to my experience, but it felt like I tapped into a secret universe and it's one of the dreamiest and most exciting musical experiences I've ever had. My fingers knew things that my brain did not. If I could find a way to turn back time, tap into that maple syrup mindset and play guitar like that again, I would take a tape recorder with me and release a perfect ambient guitar album.
For a long time after I started playing guitar onstage, I was embarrassed about my lack of prowess until I started getting some nice compliments from people whose opinions I respected. I decided to stop being so apologetic and putting myself down cos thats just boring for all involved. I decided to think of the way I strum as ‘atmospheric guitar’ and that took the pressure off the idea of being ‘a guitar player’. I know that my timing is a bit off and my skills are extremely limited. But all that aside I really like the sound of my own playing. Isn't that what it all comes down to? It doesn’t sound like anyone else and it makes me happy.
I hope you can lose yourself in something that makes you happy today. x
Have two acoustic electric steel string guitars Lo, and a baby banjo named ‘Palm’ - which I inherited from my English builder uncle.
My smaller acoustic, goes under the name of ‘Blackie’ . . . & the mid sized acoustic Fender, has the name ‘Ginge’.
I took Ginge on a road trip last month to the city & back, catching up with our Lindy M, Lo
The plan was to sit in a lovely green park with a view, and have a strum . . but was a little too rainy on that day, so Ginge remained blanket wrapped on the back seat of the ute, peering out just enough to watch out for any parking inspectors about town.
Thankyou for another lovely story today, Lo
I always look forward to reading them & the topics you choose 👍 Fabulous !
Have a wonderful week x
I had (still have) one of those racing jackets. Mine was Honda from the 70's. I will only play Gibson or Epiphone. My 30 year old Gibson bass in cream is also called White Chocolate! How did we not share this information? I also love a low action. I don't think I could play without it. I'm going to lose myself in a cup of tea, I hope that counts. xox