She’ll see it in your eyes, she’ll know
Yesterday, I bought a guitar.
That sentence is true and it’s important to record, but it’s entirely too dry and mechanical to describe what actually happened.
I posted a photo of my guitar on Facebook with the caption “my new boyfriend.” This elicited many comments from my smartass friends. “I hear he holds his lacquer pretty well,” said one. “He’s strung out,” observed another. I was joking when I posted it of course, but I also wasn’t. A new instrument is a new relationship. I’ve had my violin and bow since I was in high school and I still remember the process of buying them both. Now I pick them up to play and they are just part of me. I know them so well. I know what they will and won’t do. Every time I play is a conversation with them.
If you’ve ever tried to find a new instrument, really tried to find the right one, you know how intense and emotional the experience can be. Or at least, I hope you do. Or maybe it’s just me. But I doubt it.
Last summer, I had a one-night stand in the same shop with a Gibson LG-2 that I could not afford. I stayed in the store for over two hours just so I didn’t have to put it down. And then I had to put it down. This guitar, also a Gibson, is very similar, but it’s had a harder life and has sustained some damage. With expert repairs, you’d never know it to listen to it, but it makes it less valuable as an object. I don’t give a rat’s ass about that. So to whomever once put a fist-sized hole in the back of this instrument, I thank you. I’m sure it didn’t deserve it, but I’m grateful just the same.
To try out an instrument, you have to play it, really play it. I prepare some songs ahead of time, a mix of styles and tempos and volumes, a mix of things I know well and things I’m still learning. It’s important to have things you are still learning, because the right instrument will help you, not get in your way. It’s not just the way it sounds, but the way it feels and the way it supports you. A good relationship doesn’t just bring you something, it makes you a better person. I sing better with my guitar. It doesn’t help me sing. It has nothing to do with the physical act of singing, except maybe in that my fingers seem to know it already and I don’t have to think about it’s presence in the mix if I don’t want to.
But mostly I want to.
Trying out old instruments is also about trying out their history. I’ve played some very nice new guitars, but I gravitate towards those with a past. I played one yesterday made in the 1930s that had a nearly triangular neck because so many years of fingers had worn one side flat. To play a guitar like that is to walk into its world. You have to fit yourself to it, to be willing to throw yourself into it. In the end it was too dry a sound for me, the strings offered too much resistance. The guitar played me.
With the right instrument, you just know. As soon as I picked up my guitar, although I continued to give my carefully planned evaluations a try, there might as well have been nothing else in the room. I was done. This was it. It commands my respect, but gives me room to move, accommodates my needs. It doesn’t sing for me, it sings to me or with me. We do it together. I smile when I pick it up, smile when I hear its first notes each time I play. I smile just thinking about it. There’s a warmth to its sound that makes me feel like it loves me as much as I love it. Crazy? Probably. But there it is.
My relationship with my guitar may be even more physical than my relationship with my violin. I wrap my arms around it to play. And while my violin and I are an old married couple celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, my guitar and I are just starting our honeymoon together. It’s new and exciting. I am just starting to learn how it works, knowing where the invisible grooves in its neck, left by someone else’s fingers, lock now into mine. The angle of the curve of its waist, which fits me better than my last guitar. The stiffer weight of the neck, the smoothness of its tuning pegs, the rippled wood over a recent repair on its back. The sound of its voice sends shivers down my spine. The sound of its voice makes me grin just from thinking about it. Last night I dreamt about playing it, the feel of the cool metal frets against my fingers, the echo from its belly.
I think I’m in love.