My First Guitar
OK, it wasn’t really my first guitar. My first guitar was a Stella steel string acoustic my family borrowed from friends to see if I would actually stick with the guitar. Then I borrowed a classical guitar from a relative. and on it went…
Me with my Stella in 1960 Me with the Stella in 1960
BUT, the first guitar I bought with my own money was a Gibson ES-335 TD that I bought in Fall 1966 from Fava Music in Detroit (where I studied with Joe Fava and Jack Montcrief).
I bought the guitar for $325 in the Fall of 1966, at age 14 and it became my first true love. OK, that sounds a bit weird but those of you who know me will understand. For the next 10 years I would play that guitar more than any other, for many, many, many hours. It was a great guitar, block neck Gibson 335, sunburst with a trapieze tailpiece. I fiddled with that guitar day in and day out, adjusting it, practicing it, playing it…
In 1971 I was playing with a band called Dark Horse at the Detroit rock club “Devil’s Den” which was downstairs from the jazz club “Angel’s Hourglass.” I left the guitar in my car while we set up the amps, drums, and PA. It was cold, and when I brought the guitar in to get started with the sound check it was already hot under the lights on the club’s stage. After the gig, we went to eat at IHOP, and I left the guitar in my cold trunk, and even left it there when I went home afterwards. Big mistake. When I opened the case that next afternoon, the finish on my beloved guitar had completely cracked. Not just the traditional Gibson “nitrocellulose checking” that is considered part of having a vintage Gibson guitar, but really cracking.
I took the instrument to my friend’s store “Lenny’s Music” and he sent the instrument to a fellow that was supposedly an ex-Gibson luthier in Kalamazoo Michigan. He removed the finish and to his (and my) surprise, the guitar had a very nice grain – usually sunbursts were finished that way to cover up woods that had knots or other imperfections. So I had him finish it in a natural light walnut stain. Unfortunately, it was not the most professional job, but it looked way better than I had feared, given how bad the cracks had seemed. And it was really different from any Gibson 335 on the planet, which had only come in sunburst and cherry red finishes at that time.
Ictus Promo Shot taken in 1976
Anyway, I continued to play and love that instrument until 1976, when a run in with a surgeon having a bad day mutilated my left hand and ended my guitar playing career. I continued to try to play for another year when a second surgery (by a different doctor) failed to help and I was told I would never play again. Looking for a way to continue making music, I decided to try synthesizer, since it was monophonic at that time, and you could play it with one hand on the keyboard, and I had enough use of my left hand to move sliders and knobs.
I sold all my guitars, except for the 335, in order to buy my first synthesizer – an ARP 2600 with a 16-step analog sequencer, and launched my new career as a synthesist (another very long story – but in short, that decision led to my eventually founding the Music Synthesis Department – now called Electronic Production and Design, at Berklee College of Music).
In 1978, my band Ictus started touring a bit more, and I needed a road case for my synthesizers. Reluctantly, I sold my beloved guitar for $350 to a student at Berklee to pay for the road case. I cried for days. But I couldn’t play it anyway, and I needed to get on with my life.
And I did get on with it. I became somewhat known as a music technology expert, working with some of the great pioneers in that world. See my website at http://www.mashine.com/Mashine/Pioneers.html for more on that. But I never forgot that guitar. And in 1986, by a strange coincidence, I went to see that second surgeon, Dr. Lewis Millender, because of an accident that hurt my right hand. He said there was nothing major wrong with my right hand, and that he could probably fix my left hand. Advances in microsurgery had then made things possible that were not before possible.
I asked him, “Fix it so I’d no longer live in constant pain?” and he said “Yes, I think so.” I asked, “Fix it so I’d could move my fingers?” and he said “Yes, I think so.” So I asked, “Fix it so I could maybe play guitar again?” and he said “Yes, I think so.”
And he did! He took a vestigial tendon from my left arm and repaired my left hand with it. And my pain disappeared. And my fingers could move. And once again, I could start to play guitar again. Amazing!
But my music technology career was really in high gear at that time, so I didn’t pursue the guitar full time, but my passion had been re-kindled, and in the 90’s I started practicing a bit and bought a classical guitar and a Parker Fly electric guitar. And every time I went into a music store, I would wander through the used instruments in search of my first guitar. To no avail.
In 2000, I discovered the fine guitars of Robert Godin, which had 13-pin outputs and could be used to control synthesizers. I started playing guitar again to the exclusion of the keyboard, and used it for both the sound of the instrument as well as to play synthesized sounds. I became friends with Robert, and have built up a collection of his guitars, which I love. He has even built a special lightweight custom LGX-SA just for me!
But still I would look for my guitar. In 2007 I decided to buy a 335. At first I toyed with trying to find a real 1966 model, but realized that it would a) be real expensive and b) I probably wouldn’t play it, so I decided to go for a nice re-issue. I found this one at Music Unlimited:
But I never really play it anyway, and it doesn’t have the nostalgic value of being MY guitar.
Then in 2012, I was demonstrating the Berklee PULSE music method to Little Kids Rock executive director David Wish, and since he plays guitar, I took him to the guitar practice room. There were a bunch of new guitar “One-on-One” videos there (the team is always adding fresh content) and I clicked on one about the blues form by City Music teacher Colin Sapp.
And there, to my surprise, was Colin playing MY GUITAR. After all these years of searching and not finding. Right there on the PULSE! A Berklee City Music teacher playing my guitar.
I emailed Colin, and after a few exchanges, we decided it was very likely the same instrument. He had bought it a few years ago from the guitarist in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And 46 years after I first bought it, and 34 years after I sold it, Colin brought it to my office at Berklee and I got to hold and play it again!
Boy, its been through the mill, and grindstone. Literally. I recognized it immediately, but it has seen much better days. I wondered what it would feel like to see it again. Would I want to own it? What would I pay to get it back? But in all honesty I felt happy just to see and hold it again. And happy that it has an owner like Colin, who is restoring it to playability – it does play nicely and has a sweet sound!
What a great day to see my first guitar again!
Thanks for reading…
Always great to read your stuff David.