The Wrong Guitar

Randy: “2002 didn’t really have any guitars on our albums until Land of Forever. When we first began that album, a friend of ours at the record label suggested we add a guitar to our music. We discussed using a nylon string, classical style guitar, and I thought I might pluck it with a pick rather than the traditional fingers. I had been a guitar player from age 10, so it was not too much of a stretch to incorporate one of these into our sonic palette. But we didn’t have a nylon string guitar, so I went in search of a suitable one. As a professional musician, I knew that I might have to spend some significant money to get a quality instrument, it’s just expected. Flutes, harps, pianos, synthesizers… these instruments cost many thousands of dollars, so I expected the guitar to be no less hurtful to my wallet.

I went to the local music shops around town and played several instruments, ranging from $800 to $3500. In those days, the shops had very liberal return policies, so I even purchased a few of them over several weeks to take home and try out in the studio. They all played, sounded and recorded just as they should- too much so actually, and that was my problem. I needed something different, an instrument that could challenge the limits created by my expectations. One by one they were tried out, and returned.

I had been to all the local music stores except one, which was in a town further away, about a 45 minute drive. It was pretty much my last hope, and at that point I’m not even sure if I knew exactly what I was looking for anymore. When I got there, I found that the store was in the process of being moved to a bigger building a few miles down the freeway. The floors were bare, and nearly all the instruments were gone to the new location, but still packed away. The owner suggested I come back the next week when he was up and running, but I had driven all that way, so I asked if he had anything left that I could look at. He said, “Well, I’ve got those three up on the wall still, but those are lower-end guitars, Korean knock-offs, etc. – doesn’t sound like what you’re looking for, but you’re welcome to try them.”

I realized right away that two of them were too hard to play, and of those, one may have been a dead instrument. But the last one was very easy to play so I took it into one of the now empty practice rooms, closed the door, sat on the floor and played. The guitar was a Sigma brand, which is a Korean built Martin (Martin traditionally makes very high quality guitars in America). The front of the body where the sound hole is, or “top” as it’s called, was composed of two sides of wood glued together instead of one solid piece, so that when you look at the guitar front-on standing up, the left side is a slightly different wood grain and color than the right side. Hmmm.,

Something strange happened the moment I started playing. The guitar immediately spoke to me in no subtle way, as if to say “I was created for you, you and I belong together.” And then, even more astonishing, it gently said “No, don’t play me that way, play me this way.” Usually when you create vibrato on a fretted instrument like the guitar, you do it by stretching the string with an up and down motion on the fingerboard, as opposed to the side to side “rocking” motion you would use on a non-fretted instrument, such as a cello. But this guitar wanted the latter method, and would sing whenever I did it that way. Whenever I tried plucking a note and then sliding down the neck for a drop-off effect, the guitar seemed to help me down, pulling my hand just the right way to get that strange, throaty, sweet sound that only it can produce- like the sound of a dove cooing. Up to that point, I had never played an acoustic instrument that was that expressive and unique. It literally played itself, and had its own soul.

Intellectually, I knew that most likely something was mechanically wrong with the instrument to make it play and sound this way- but is wrong the correct word? If I was able to make such a profound connection with it, and if it was able to inspire me to automatically play in a style I had never practiced or even contemplated before, could it be that there is something very right about this instrument?

When I came out of the practice room I asked the store owner how much. It was $200.

That guitar, recorded with a special tube microphone is the one heard on nearly all 2002 records. When we did some live performances a few years ago, I had to purchase an electrified nylon string costing much more than the Sigma, because I was not willing to have holes drilled to electrify it and have strap pins put in. The luthier repeatedly assured me that it wouldn’t change anything sonically- but I felt I couldn’t take the risk, since I don’t really know why it sounds the way it does in the first place.”

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2002 Forum

I spent my college years in Cincinnati and Madrid. It seemed back then (pre-Internet) that people gathered in coffee shops to debate and converse. The coffee houses were generally equipped with dusty tomes upon stands (usually huge dictionaries or other reference books), globes, chess sets and even ricketty old pianos (I remember one painted dark green and having yellowed keys), antique, crooked wooden floors, ceramic tiled ceilings, stained glass windows, fireplaces… you get the idea. Lots of atmosphere and a sense of past. There was always a dizzying array of hot beverages – doubly appreciated on those icy winter nights.

To this day I cannot sit and watch TV. I have to be engaged in something a bit more active. I LOVE the Internet, but miss that connection with others that was to be found in those weathered places.

I started this forum/blog in the hopes that some of the very interesting people I have met on my musical journey might meet each other and hopefully find kindred spirits. This is your place to discuss, opine, dream and wonder aloud.

Welcome!!

What Books Are You Reading?

Although these days I can’t seem to get my nose out of technical manuals, I’m still a voracious reader. Books I have read more than once in recent years include “A Soprano on Her Head: Right-Side-Up Reflections on Life and Other Performances” by Eloise Ristad, “The Mists Of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley and “Savitri” by Sri Aurobindo. The technical manuals on my nightstand include topics such as Final Cut Pro and Flash 8.

What are you reading?

A First Flute

I receive a daily digest in my email from a local forum for moms. One of the queries really got me thinking. It was from the mother of a young girl who had decided she wanted to play flute. The school’s band director offered a list of recommended flutes from a couple of manufacturers. The mother was appalled by the prices of the flutes and wanted to know if the other moms on the forum agreed with her that spending very much on a first instrument was foolish. She felt she should get the cheapest thing she could find until certain her daughter would “stick with it.”

This is a subject that has always troubled me a bit. A poorly manufactured instrument will cause the music student to be unable to make a beautiful sound, and to abandon music lessons with the notion that the problem is the child, not the instrument. And a poorly made instrument usually lacks a soul… but more on that in a moment.

When I was 8 years old, I too decided I wanted to play flute. The school recommended that students rent instruments from a particular store so my mom dutifully did just that. It was a terrible instrument – but how could mom have known? She did not play flute. I worked with this instrument for a long time and never really made the music that I wanted to make. I learned my parts and played in the school band and later the school symphony. But was not all that inspired and basically accepted the fact that I was not very good.

I had always had a savings account and had been putting in any birthday money and money from chores. It had amassed $200! A graduating senior that I knew had decided to sell her flute. I offered her my $200 and she accepted. This was an amazing instrument. All the lights came on and a connection was made. The notes soared to the heavens. I couldn’t wait to play it every day. Songs, melodies bubbled up from some magical place. My breath went in and the flute sang back to me. It was a synergy of 2 souls, no longer 1.

Once a year, the school band had closed door competitions to choose “first chair” for each instrument. I was in ninth grade. It was the day of reckoning. The flute players went behind a closed door. Each flutist played in turn and the rest of the band voted on who was best – and who would be first chair for the year. They voted with applause.

As you may know, students form “cliques.” You’re either out or you’re in. I was always out. There was no hope of me winning anything but a closed door competition. I won hands down. Or I guess I should say “we” won – this wonderful flute and I as a team.

I still have that flute, although it’s past its prime and no longer my only flute. I parted with it recently for a day when a friend’s 11 month old son passed away from cancer and my friend’s brother, a band director who came in from out of state, was asked unexpectedly to perform at the funeral. February had been cold and gray. But that day, the sky was bright blue and the sun was warm. Through his tears he played beautifully, and I know that special flute offered up the magic and love I have always found in it. Although it has played in hundreds of performances, I know this was the most important one of all.

And even though it was not my first flute, it was my first special flute and led me to the path I am on to this day.