Ask Charlie...

Story Time, Part 3

Hello Troubadourians! When last we visited the saga of the Martin guitar, I was leaving Valley Music with the “White Rose” and blown mind. I had wanted a real Martin for many years but I had no expectations of when I’d be able to afford one. It’s not like I’d never played one; after all, I’d just spent about two years enjoying the company of “The Cash,” but to finally have one of my own was beyond my most fanciful imaginings. I remember putting the case in the passenger seat of my ’66 Mustang so that I could pet the black leather and gold latches on the way home. No trunk for the White Rose. No, it would ride up front with me whenever we went out to play. Of course, that vow didn’t last as it was completely impractical and not a good security plan. Old Mustangs are notoriously easy to break into and I didn’t want to tempt anyone with my most prized possession. It also should be mentioned that girlfriends don’t like to ride in the back seat while your guitar rides in the front.

A change of transport docking wasn’t the only thing that occurred with the guitar. That guitar taught me things that I was in dire need of learning and that are still as relevant today as they were back then. The first lesson was that no matter what a guitar’s looks, sound, or pedigree, it is first and foremost a tool for making music and for expressing all of those things that you can otherwise never express. Playing The Cash was like playing a piece of history that always seemed to transcend the immediate moment of making music. That might read as poetic, but I found that many times the legend of the guitar got in the way of my playing it. This was completely in my mind, of course, but I was constantly aware of what I was holding in my hands and was at times hopelessly distracted and a little intimidated by a battered old guitar with a famous past. I shudder to think about the responsibility that a classical violin virtuoso assumes when playing a Stradivarius or other priceless instrument. While I honor and respect the history and tradition of violins that outlive—and occasionally outshine the musicians who play them—the White Rose taught me that if I couldn’t fully engage with a guitar, I wasn’t going to make the most of the instrument, the music, and the opportunity to create. Truly fine music is a collaboration among musicians, instruments, and the moments in time that they are in concert with each other. Of course an attentive and participatory audience can heighten and enhance the moment, creating a synergy that feeds the creativity of the musicians. But one person, alone with their instrument and the universe, can be just as gratifying. I had many such experiences with White Rose both in performance before an audience and alone with my thoughts. A guitar can do that to you.

I remember the first rehearsal with the band after I had purchased White Rose. I had made a point of not telling any of my bandmates that I had a new guitar and I decided to introduce the guitar to the band by letting them discover it by surprise. We rehearsed at my house so I would setup the room before anyone arrived and have everything ready for when the got there. I purposely put White Rose in the case for my old Washburn guitar and left it closed but unlatched near where I normally played. Once everyone was there, I casually asked the banjo player if he would hand me my guitar. He gave me a funny look that seemed a cross between “get it yourself, you jerk” and “what is going on here?” I just smiled and waited for him to open the case. I watched as his expression changed from mild annoyance to cautious anticipation as he reached for the lid of the case. As he opened the case and saw White Rose for the first time, I’m sure that the look on his face and the excitement that was evident in his body language was at least similar to my own reaction when I first saw the guitar. Like I said, a guitar can do that to you.

For many years White Rose was my muse and nearly constant companion. As it taught me respect for instruments and music, it also taught me that I couldn’t be precious with it if we were going to be as good as we were capable of becoming. That was a hard lesson, given the enormity of the dollar value of the instrument. I knew full well that it was worth at least four times what I had paid for it and that there was no way I could afford to replace it. But if I was unable to get past the cost of the instrument, I’d never be able to dive deeply into the value of it. Think of the best sounding, best playing, most awesome guitars that are played and loved by famous and non-famous musicians alike. Chances are that 99% of them show the wear of the thousands of hours of playing that their masters have shared with them. The White Rose was no exception, but it did retain a great deal of its regal bearing and appearance while I owned it. Over time there were minor dings and scratches that were earned through playing and experience, but never through neglect. The pure white of the top eventually mellowed to a somewhat amber hue but never as dark as most guitars usually become. The tone, always rich even from the beginning, became burnished with time and playing, even more so than its appearance. As I put into practice the lessons that White Rose taught, it would become apparent that the student would surpass the teacher. That was probably the hardest lesson to learn: the time to let go. White Rose had more lessons to teach, just not to me. I wasn’t ready to let it teach someone else and I banished it to its case in the closet for a time. But, eventually, I realized that I was disrespecting both of us so I enlisted a trusted a friend to find a new home for White Rose and I chose not to ask who it was that would now be receiving its lessons. I don’t need to know. A guitar can do that to you.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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  • September 2016

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