The first guitar I owned was a Gibson, small body, flat top with a round hole. I got it when I was a junior in high school. I think I paid $75 for it. The steel strings were kind of high and hurt my fingers. That was the one on which I learned the basic chords. I’d sit and play a record over and over. I’d slow down the turntable so that I could learn the guitar part. In 1967 in northern Illinois, I was visiting my girlfriend, Lilah, when a tornado hit her house. The winds blew a hole right through the back of the Gibson. It didn’t play right after that. I don’t know what became of the guitar, but if I had it today it would be worth at least $1500.
The next one was a Gibson L7 that I bought in Kalamazoo, Michigan. That one was stolen. I had left it in an unlocked car in Wisconsin while I went into a tavern. Unbelievably, two years later when I was living in California, a friend called from Wisconsin saying he’d bought my guitar back from the original thief. He’d bring it to me next month, but I’d have to buy it from him. I’ve had that guitar for 43 years. It sounds great. All those tones vibrating through it since it was manufactured in 1945 permeate the instrument. It’s got ‘stuff’ in it. It’s alive. Something of my person has been absorbed into it.
I had a Yamaha acoustic for a couple of years in the 70’s. I was playing it in a band in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, and I gave it to the drummer’s kid when he was eight or nine. I ran into him when he was in his 20’s. He remembered me. He came up and said hi and thanked me for the guitar. He was playing in a band and writing songs. I felt good about that.
I had a fiberglass solid body electric guitar. It didn’t sound very good, but when I swung it over my head in a parking lot in Fort Collins, Colorado, it kept Lilah’s college boyfriend from maiming me.
My friend Paul Filopowicz gave me a guitar that had been his first guitar. It was an Airline guitar that his dad got for him from either Sears or Wards. It was shaped like a Fender guitar with wings. Paul cut the wings off it and made it into a rectangle, then painted it Pepto-Bismol pink. It’s not a good instrument. The strings are too high; the pick ups are cheap and fuzzy sounding; the intonation is never right; tuning machines don’t hold and are always slipping out of tune. I love that instrument. It’s got ‘stuff’ in it.
It’s difficult to explain ‘stuff.’ I met a man who had been a roadie for a solo blues guitar player. To pass the time in a hotel room the roadie carefully cleaned all the dirt from along the frets with a toothbrush. When the guitarist saw what the roadie had done, he bellowed, “Man, what have you done? What you cleaned out was what gives me my sound!”
Doilies from the Target store don’t have it, but your Grandmother’s potholder—that’s got stuff. Marble steps in a building, all those shoes, all those people for all those years, put stuff in that step. My house in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, was built in 1929. The brass doorknobs were worn smooth. The wooden floors were beveled by all the footsteps. But it’s more than just wear and age. Grandpa’s pipe has “stuff.” The guitar has little pieces of flesh worn off by the strings. With some instruments I have a very real sense that there’s soul in them, life.
I play a guitar now, a classical nylon string. It’s loaded with stuff. It belonged to Frances, the caretaker of Lilah’s grandmother. I never met Frances, but I’m told she had been a professional violinist. Certain notes just hang out in the air. It’s a joy to play. Michelangelo explained that he didn’t create a sculpture, he exposed it. He chiseled away the marble and revealed what was already in the stone. That’s how it is with Frances’ guitar and with my Gibson guitar and with the pink Airline. I’m not so much creating music with it as I am allowing the notes that are there to come out. I am just freeing them. Paul, who gave me “Little Pinkie” said that on most nights he is playing, but that on a good night the guitar is playing him. It’s like that.