My first guitar I bought used from a classified ad, a Harmony acoustic for $100 with action so high it was for all purposes unplayable. Spending most of my early life woefully misinformed, and having no experience or guidance, I attributed the fault in the instrument to an inability in myself to learn. But I was nagged by a deep visceral desire for a guitar, and imagined one day I could play.
My second guitar, a fetching Fender Telecaster, blond finish, rosewood neck, requires this back story:
While I was growing up, my mother had a Finnish friend Mrs. Forsell. One afternoon we were visiting and Mrs. F praised her son Jan aloud for opening a savings account and faithfully depositing his work money, having socked away a sweet $25 already. The usual boring fare of Finn catch up ensued until about an hour later, when Jan walks in the door triumphant with a racing car set. Cost: $25. Where did he get the money? I filed this lesson away for later reference.
When I went to college, over the summer I worked at the National Civil War Wax Museum. My mother insists 50% of my salary go to tuition. Inspired by Jan Forsell, I had long awaited the opportunity to raid my savings account, which I could now do since I was 18. Every other cent I earned that summer purchased the guitar of my dreams, played by my heroes Bruce Springsteen and Chrissie Hynde.
The device was ordered surreptitious by mail from Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island. I went to the bank and got a cashiers check, all done on the sly. My mom was livid, but there was nothing she could do.
I named her Angelique after the witch on Dark Shadows. I always knew that’s what I would name her, and all my subsequent guitars were named after witches on television, then any fictional witches when I ran out of acceptable TV names. They are: Samantha, Esmerelda, Sabrinas 1 and 2, Willow, Lorelei, Hermione and Angelique 2. My go to bass is named Desdemona. I named my mandolin Mindy in honor of Mindy Jostyn, who could play many instruments well. People who can do that have always fascinated me. Mindy’s picture sits on my recording workspace to inspire and encourage.
Angelique is embellished with her name spelled out in NYC Subway letter stickers, and a length of lace presented by my creative school friend Angela. Over time she became difficult for me to play, as she has a thick neck, and my hands cheerfully developed carpal tunnel syndrome. I decided I needed a Fender Stratocaster with a slim neck, like the one Buddy Holly played. At this point, for the uninitiated, I should clarify guitarists typically prefer Fender guitars, twangy and trebly due to single coil pickups, or Gibson, which sport a fatter sound from humbucking double coil pickups. I fall solidly in the Fender camp.
Samantha, named for Elizabeth Montgomery’s character in Bewitched, is a Strat Plus, purchased with a winter’s slavish overtime from my first job in Boston. The Strat Plus is equipped with noiseless lace sensor pickups, which basically means you don’t get any extraneous sounds from the single coil pickups, the downside of them compared to humbuckers, and what you sacrifice to get the twangy trebly notes you might desire. Think surf music here. She’s a dandy instrument that I gussied up with a fancy decal of a flemish painting. After a period of time playing noiseless lace sensor pickups, I realized: I miss the noise. Hence Esmerelda, a green Strat that came from Mexico, who makes lots of noise.
Like any decent guitar, Angelique began appreciating in value. The more value she racked up, the more reluctant I became to play her. While dating a true and serious classical violist, I found myself one icy January night standing with her and the members of a posh quartet outside a concert hall at Harvard. She turned to me and asked, “Which million dollar instrument would you like to be responsible for carrying back to the car?” Before I assumed that responsibly, successfully I may add, I thought: I can probably just play that guitar.
I have grown less prissy about them, rationalized that since I paid for them with my own hard earned dollars, I can jolly well do what I like to them: modify the electronics, decorating them in appropriate manner reflecting their personality and, what was the biggest stretch for me based on my frugal Finnish upbringing, sand off the finish on the necks. I don’t mind much if they get beat up from use. I see valuable or famous instruments in museums in cases, and I think: that’s no fun. Instruments are meant to be played.