Guitarlove

I have a friend who happens to be a “world class” luthier. Every time we talk, we exhibit our passion for music and guitars and tone and, quite frankly, a plethora of diverse subjects that one would expect between friends. Time spent together is always a joy.

One day I visited him in the “wood nest” as he affectionately calls his workshop and we were hanging out talking and drinking espresso coffee with the sun streaming through the panoramic windows of this loft space and I spotted a guitar that was fully built and stringed up and ready to go. Michael (almost) never has one of his guitars “hanging around” because all of his guitars are all pre-ordered two years in advance. Michael had to make a phone call and had to excuse himself for a bit. I asked if I could play the guitar that I was admiring while he was on the phone. He nodded and I entered a new world.

Like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, this guitar opened up into areas of creativity that were new to me. I played some single note melodies that I had been struggling with, and the lines were seamless. A particular chord sequence that usually required concentration and a shift in my arm and torso to play, just fell out of this guitar effortlessly. I played some Jazz Standards on it, my own compositions on it, and  then put it through the paces of songs I’d always wanted to play, but there was some technical aspect that I was not consistent. All of my limitations and barriers seemed to slip away as I sat playing. It was sublime.

Apparently Michael re-entered the room after his phone call, apologizing for how long it took, but if I heard him, it was not apparent. Some time later, I re-emerged from the trance and looked at Michael and said “I wish I hadn’t done that!” to which he responded “Why not? It sounded great and you were obviously enjoying it.” To which I explained: “I’m a teacher and a musician!” Neither income streams are huge. Michael’s guitars are handcrafted, performance level instruments and priced accordingly. “There is no way I could afford it.” He said “You’d be surprised! We’re friends, right?” I nodded. “It takes two years. Plenty of time for you to plan and save.”

I went home conflicted. I told Sharon of the experience and that Michael offered to build me a guitar. I was convinced that it is “too much guitar” for me and anyways I’d be 63 by the time it was made and blah, blah, blah. All of this negative stuff coming out of  my mouth. “I don’t deserve it!”

Of course, Sharon negated all of these arguments and got me to thinking about what another old friend told me about his Martin guitar. He said that it took him a few years to pay off the debt, but he said if you look at it as 50 cents a day to own an instrument that brings you joy and advances your art, why not?

A few months passed and I forgot about the whole thing until I opened an envelope on Christmas day 2016. The envelope had pictures Sharon had taken in the workshop printed on a paper with the news that she had made a downpayment on a new guitar from Michael. My heart nearly stopped,and my eyes welled up.

All photos by
Sharon Cheema

I went back to visit Michael and we agreed on the materials used and other details of the guitar that are standard options like Cutaway or no cutaway?

I started to save. I took on some extra work and co-incidentally with the ending of my car payments, it was not as hard as I had feared. A year passed. I was on track for my goal when I got another envelope from Sharon. Another instalment. Rare to have a partner that is so supportive of my art. I love her anyway, but this is an endearing quality for sure.

I started to get little notes from Michael in my e-mail with details of it’s progress. “Wood is selected for your guitar” and “body is glued” and “waiting for another coat” etc.

The build up mounting like a tantric encounter. Wait…not…yet…

how cool is that?

One of the last ones was: “she is built! She is a (strong word that rhymes with “trucking”) monster!” I phoned and asked what exactly that meant? “Even better than the one you played!” was his response. Nuances that only musicians or luthiers might notice.

It used to be that two years actually took two years. Not anymore! Like my trip to Narnia, time seems to have become fluid. Some years drag on and others flash by. Like Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” I want to drag my feet to slow the circles down.

Yesterday I received my guitar. She is beautiful. She feels just right, but hadn’t been played. I activated the molecules by playing her and she is continuing to be “broken in’ with every hour I play her. She will settle in in about two weeks as I get to know her and she, me.

First minutes with my new Greenfield.

I am so thankful to Michael and to my wife, Sharon for this beautiful instrument.

Bye for now, I have strings to play.

A great film about Michael Greenfield

Guild D40 Bluegrass Jubilee

I have always had an eye out for Guild guitars. Ritchie Havens played one and Ralph Towner as well. These are both artists that have ringing open sounds and chords that are not easily analyzed. Ritchie used an unusual technique with his enormous fingers and Ralph had a more intellectual approach to the guitar having switched from being a concert pianist. Two disparate and unlikely influences of two sides of my musical personality. and repertoire as well.

photo by Sharon Cheema

This “Bluegrass Jubilee” was hanging in the store on consignment, and I gave her a whirl. I was exploring alternate tunings around this time and had written a half dozen or so songs in DADGAD and/or DADF#AD tuning. I needed a second guitarIn concert this poses a problem. Either you play all of your dropped tuning songs one after the other and then retune the guitar, or you balance your setlist and retune each time you need to. Or you buy another guitar. 

Photo by Sharon Cheema

The D40 (built between 2003 and 2005) has a lovely ring to it despite it not coming from the “golden age” of Guild Guitars, but crafted in Corona, California. I like the antique sunburst and the Mahogany back and sides give her a sweet and rounded tone. Perfect for my songs. A handy partner to the loudness and clarity of my Martin.

When I get my Greenfield, this guitar may be the “one too many” I have heard tell about. I am pretty sure I will play it less and use it less, so I may put it back on the market. 

photo by Sharon Cheema

Martin D28

Made in 2010, this instrument has been my “go to” guitar for most things. I had been in the market for a Gibson J 45, and I was looking at dealers who dealt in vintage instruments. I talked to my pal Joey at Audiomanie who has worked on most of the guitars that I own and is familiar with my playing style (s) and repertoire. He said “I know you are looking for Gibson, but I just got this D 28 from a Godin Guitars sales rep. who bought it in the American mid-west because it is an amazing sounding guitar!” I was skeptical at first, because…you know…sales people…. But Joey is a friend. He really did have my best interest at heart. Anyways, I picked her up and immediately was able to bond with this guitar. It made me want to play Neil Young songs, Joni Mitchell songs and Gordon Lightfoot songs. I had forgotten that these three Canadian artists used D 28s in their music making. Of course I had to own this guitar which was essentially new. Only slightly played by the Godin rep. I guess he didn’t want to be seen playing a guitar by the competition. like a Jeep salesman driving a Land Rover…..

photo by Sharon Cheema

My mum had recently died and had left me some money. Not much, but enough to  pay a few debts and to be able to purchase the guitar which is the most expensive one I have ever owned. I have recorded with her and performed with her almost exclusively when I have acoustic gigs. I often reference my mother when talking about this guitar, and am reminded of her love for me. 

I love just about all aspects of this guitar. I put a fishman pick up in it, and I ususally play it through a little pre-amp which gives me the right sound for both my fingerpicking and my more rhythmic strumming. She is great at low and high volumes and I have never had any issues with anything. She can never be replaced, but is going to become my “gig” guitar because the guitar that I commissioned two years ago from my friend Michael Greenfield is finally built and I am going to pick her up this week-end. The new guitar will most likely be my recording guitar and won’t see much road use. Too valuable.

Photo by Sharon Cheema

Hagstrom “Swede”

 probably built around 1970

I traded two “name” guitars (Gretsch and Fender) for a “non-name” guitar. The Hagstrom Swede looks like a Les Paul, but is not an imitation. I wanted something on which to Rock that could stay in tune. I was a big fan of Focus and their lead guitarist Jan Akkerman played a Swede (although vintage footage of the group usually shows him with a Les Paul..…) Around the time I got this guitar the French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was playing with Daryl Stuermer who endorsed The Swede. They both name dropped Larry Coryell whose music I don’t generally care for, but he played a Swede as well.

One of the main attractions for me was the truss rod. The Hagstrom used an I beam instead of the normal truss rod. The two guitars I traded both had warped necks, so I was getting a guitar that held it’s tuning. 

My guitar is no longer “stock”. I took off the pick guard for starters. I put in a Bone nut to further enhance the sustain. I also put in a brass bridge after having my hand chewed up some sharp ridges on the stock bridge. The machine heads are too beautiful to change, but are a pain when changing strings because they are too big for a stringwinder. I pulled the pick ups and put in some Bill Lawrence “blade” pick-ups. I had to rout a bit as the pick-ups were larger slightly than the originals. In the mid eighties I was very into fusin guitar. There were great advances in Analog to digital converters. I installed a Roland GK 1 pick-up and used the Swede as a controller. Midi required a really stable instrument for proper tracking. The Hagstrom is great that way.

I haven’t used the guitar synth part for ages as my ability to play keyboard has improved, but I still record with the Hagstrom. She is Heavy. I have flat wounds on her, so I can get top speed and minimal squelch. The biggest problem with the Hagstrom was the binding on the neck. Canadian climate (and probably Sweden as well) has times of great humidity and other times of great dryness. These two factors cause wood to expand and contract, but has no effect on nacré or whatever the plastic was that bound the neck. Most guitars don’t have this. Anyway, the plastic cracked and was unstable when reglued by the luthier.  Little bits of it would come off and the resultant gap on the side of the neck was disorienting and annoying. 

Eventually we just ripped them and Joey laid new binding meticulously and now she is better than ever. With all the changes I have made, it is probably not even considered a Swede any more.

I love to play her. Funny that I can’t find any pictures of me playing her. I know there are some….

Post Script photo by Sharon Cheema


Walden 12 String

A 12 string guitar is a special tool that I don’t use very often. Sort of like a spark-plug puller. Something you don’t use every day unless you pull spark plugs every day. I could have easily just borrowed one for the amount that I play it.

I love the sound of the 12 string. Gordon Lightfoot uses one for great rhythmic pulse. “Poor Little Alison” comes to mind. I also loved the sound in the popular music of my adolescence. The Beatles (George) used one in their middle period, and of course George’s “My Sweet Lord” The Stones also used a 12 string on tunes like “As Tears Go By”. Harmonium was a huge Quebecois group that revolved around the beautiful 12 string of Serge Fiori. There was also Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd who used it on certain ballads. All fine and dandy, but I got my 12 string because of “All Along The Watchtower” Dave Mason played the 12 string before Hendrix enters….Such a strong and forceful intro to a great song. chung chung chung-a-chung chung….. and of course The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn,Turn,Turn” and Tom Petty who made the electric 12 string Rickenbacker’s reputation. Ralph Towner’s 12 string music was also a colour I wished to explore.

I bought a “name brand” 12 string. It was a used guitar hanging in the rafters at one of the more disreputable guitar joints (Jack’s) on Craig Street (now St. Jacques). Kids would go up and down this one block of stores that sold musical instruments. Fun to browse and dream. The Easternmost store was Steve’s Music which eventually ate up the smaller independant stores and was recently forced to move.  Now the whole row of stores was expropriated and is slated for demolition.  

The “name brand” guitar I bought was absolutely untuneable. 

It reminds me of the old joke: 

Q. “How do you tune a 12 string guitar?”

  1. “Nobody knows”

They are hard to tune, but part of the charm is the slight wavering of adjacent notes that are just slightly out. like Lennon and McCartney singing in unison. Glorious, but unmistakably different timbral qualities to their voices. A chorus pedal can sort of fake it.

Anyways, the “name brand” guitar was a “piece of shit” It had a great booming sound in the store, but I had not tried it enough before buying. When I got home I found that if the G chord was in tune, D wasn’t and if C was in tune then perhaps A minor wasn’t. You get the idea. I bought it for the “brand recognition” factor which ironically I have forgotten. The neck also had a visible twist that I had neglected to see in my enthusiasm. 

I only owned it for a week before returning it to the store for a refund….easier said than done from the asshole that ran the store. He was open to a trade, so I checked out the Walden which was hidden away near the rafters at the farthest corner of the store.. 

He grudgingly pulled it down. “Jack” was not a man who moved a lot. “Grouchy old prick” describes him pretty accurately.

Anyways the Walden played better than the last one and so the swap was made. He tried to rip me off more by charging for the case, but I saw the hand written price tag on it said in small print  “case included”. He waddled, grumbling, to the depths of the store to retrieve the case. I left there vowing to never go back. 

On most 12-string guitars, the octave pairs are configured so each high octave string precedes its low octave mate when you strum down across the strings toward the floor. I reversed the bass string configuration to be like the Rickenbacker 12. I like hearing the bass string before it’s octave. Just a matter of taste. I had to have the nut and action changed to suit this. I also put a Fishman pickup on her. She still holds up well. I have made demos with it, and played her “live”, but never used it in the “real studio”. (yet).

Walden Six String

I probably never needed another steel string flat top guitar after purchasing my Walden G3030CE. She is a beautiful guitar. Top of the Walden line. Designed in the USA, but manufactured in China. I bought  it used. I traded some equipment (micro Moog) and some cash for it about 8 years ago. Before then I played only nylon string and electric guitars. I wish I had had it for my second CD “Boy Blue” which could have benefitted from the more robust sound of Steel strings for certain tunes. 

The Walden six string opened my playing up to sounds and techniques that are unique to flat tops and my playing and songwriting were definitely influenced by these new options. I love this guitar, and yet, she is nothing special.

The red cedar top and Rosewood back contribute to the overall depth and clarity of this guitar in all registers. The mahogany fretboard is facile and the ebony bridge contribute to a very fine and classy guitar. 

There is a stigma amongst guitar aficionados for guitars that are made in countries other than USA and Japan. I have heard horror stories and tended to student guitars  that have been shoddily made for the low end of the market. My guitar has been hand crafted. There is much craftsmanship in the Walden. It appears also that there is pride taken in the work. I was worried about how the materials would stand up after time, but she is still unwarped and true. 

I usually leave the Walden at school for accompanying the students. It is a real work horse. Because of it’s reduced perceived value, I am not as careful with it as I am with some of my more valuable instruments. 

The Walden also got me interested in other steel string guitars. Uh Oh!

Nobody Home by me. Recorded on the Walden 6

Fender Stratocaster

Fender Stratocaster(Road worn made in Mexico) sunburst.

Tarantula Dreams at Gigzz

I bought this baby as a companion for the Tele. Same sunburst. I always loved Strats. I had a white one when I was in Winnipeg, but I sold it. Funny, I don’t remember selling it, and I don’t remember being distressed at it being gone. I enjoy the whammy bar although it makes tuning precarious. I don’t use it much, but it is sweet. The in-between settings get really great tones like Robert Cray and Mark Knopfler and John Mayer. I don’t generally play Hendrix or Clapton per se, but the Strat is a war horse for rock and roll. I virtually never play my Jazz repertoire on the Strat. I lent it to my daughter for a while, so a stock photo will have to do.

strat
SOrta looks like mine, but the sunburst seems redder and there is no whammy.

The best feature for me is the sculpted body. the curve in the back can accommodate middle-aged gut spillover. the contour on the front is also easier on the forearm. Getting it back soon.