The great search: on the addiction to collecting guitars
“She didn’t look like too much
Just a Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe
But a lady has never fared as well
Who traveled through so much.”
-Jerry Jeff Walker
Over the past few weeks, I have been blessed with the postings of several old acoustic guitar finds on Facebook – beautiful ancient guitars that suggest stories and song even as I look at their aged golden tops. Forgive me, but there is something wonderfully erotic about the shape and look of an old guitar that will always “send me.” I am not a big collector of acoustic guitars. I have eleven guitars these days. Several are out on loan because I can only play so many. At the same time, I do not judge those with big collections too harshly because I understand how deep the addiction can be. My only caveat is that these guitars should be played.
This past weekend, my addiction was rekindled with the purchase of a beat up Gibson B-25 12-string circa 1964 with a flying bridge. I got it at an interesting guitar store near Pefferlaw, ON. I know it is not a Gibson “Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe” or a “Nick Lucas Special” like one I used to own, but still. It sounds great, like a small stringed orchestra, and because I can tune it in standard tuning, I find it more adaptable than the Gordon Lightfoot model. I know just where it will fit into the next project I undertake. It was a rare find made even rarer by the intrusion of eBay and others on the scene these days.
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My addiction to old guitars, or perhaps, the search for old guitars, began with a story, probably apocryphal, which then became a full-blown fantasy. I was living up in Thunder Bay when I asked this guy, Bob Leggett, about his old Martin – a New Yorker, parlour-style guitar. It was about 70 years old. He said he had been working for a reno team in Cabbagetown, Toronto, gutting a house, when he and a fellow worker tossed an old cupboard out the window into a dumpster below. When the cupboard hit the bin it literally struck a chord. He ran downstairs, hopped in the bin and opened the cupboard. And there was, a Martin New Yorker in a case, only slightly worse for wear. You could find a guitar this way? From that point on, I was on the look-out for the guitar waiting in the cupboard!
The search took me to old barns and abandoned farmhouses along Highway 7, to pawnshops in North Bay, Sudbury or Edmonton. I scoured Sally Anns and Goodwill stores across the country, especially small-town shops. And though I was never rewarded with a guitar in a cupboard, I sure did find a lot of neat old instruments. I found a number of great “resophonic” guitars, Canadian versions of Dobro guitars. Some were made in a very homemade way by a Canadian metal worker named Carl Brassher. One of them sounded great, and I played slide on it for several years. I found lots of old mail-order guitars in the stores as well, ones that sounded just like the old blues and country records I loved at the time.
It was also during this time (late 70s) that the Ottawa valley was being cleaned out of old Martin D-28s to be sold to a burgeoning bluegrass craze in Japan. However, as a by- product of that craze, there were many old Gibson’s found that nobody at the time seemed to want. This was where I picked up two very inexpensive guitars – an early 50s J-200 and a 1928 Nick Lucas Special. The J-200 went to Ken Hamm, and in turn, Big Dave MacLean. The Nick Lucas Special now belongs to Garnet Rogers. Later I found an old Dobro Bros. National Duolian in Ottawa. I told Ken Hamm about it, and he let Dave Gogo know about it. So it goes round.
Although I love the old Gibson sound, I did not stop there. It was the searching that was as much fun as the find. I loved browsing old pawn shops to see if I could pull a jewel out of the back room. They were often there. You just had to engage the owner a little longer. There was also a cult of old guitar collectors whose company I enjoyed – each one with their own area of addiction. Thom Roberts used to love the parlour guitars, perhaps a Regal or Martin. There were dozens of other mail-order guitars to be found, and among them, Mauers or a Stewart – occasionally a gem. Chris Cuddy became a collector who focused on Guild guitars, especially the F-30, the model played by Nick Drake during his tragically short creative life. Dennis O’Toole loved cowboy guitars – Gene Autrey astride a rearing horse, lasso twirling. None of us were particularly interested in a Martin D-28 or D-45 herringbone. They were out of reach and in the hands of a more moneyed class. I became fascinated with Harmony guitars. It seemed no two were alike, and yet, they were one of the best-sounding, affordable guitars you could buy. I still have three – the most recent old one I found had “Mario and Denise” written on the top in red nail polish. I took the names off the guitar, concerned that it had been given up during some domestic fracture. It is a great guitar, and I play it all the time through an old Sunrise pick up. I recently spoke to Terry Tufts, who has recently found an old mandolin like the model Tom Thomson, the painter, used to play.
It is harder now to find old unsung and affordable gems these days and that is why the find off Highway 12 was such a beautiful thing. eBay has transformed the great search into the global village, and it seems you can now Google and buy a Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe right out of the hills of Kentucky if you want. Of course, the global village has brought with it the astronomical price tag. It has also turned the remaining pawnshop owners into price experts who know they can get two grand for a dubious Gibson J-45 with a plastic adjustable bridge! Bah Humbug! Where’s the fun factor!
But if you seek, you will find. Last year I was visiting Dennis O’Toole in Peterborough. He has a great collection of absolutely unplayable and playable instruments. He is way better than I ever will be in “the great search.” I was down in his basement when I noticed an ancient mail-order guitar with a piece of one-by-two stuck through the body of the thing. It looked like the guitar had been crucified. The top, however, was beautiful golden spruce. It had been defaced – defaced by two concrete nails hammered through the top and into the board, now holding the guitar together. The back of the guitar suffered a similar injustice. One side was shattered where the one-by-two had been shoved into the body of the guitar. I thought no guitar deserves this sort of ignominious end, and I bought it for two bucks. I ain’t no guitar repair person but I spent a month putting that poor instrument back together. I then had Brian Dubbeldam, “the Guitar Fixer,” reset the neck. Resurrected, that 100-year-old guitar came back to life and is just the best damn thing you ever heard. I used it on a recent album. Songs like “Hard Times,” ”Migration Blues,” and “Taxes on the Farmer” simply spill from that little guitar. It is calling me to play it right now. The great search continues.
I am writing this story in the hope that others will contribute their adventures in the great search. I hear great stories from David Gogo, Michael Dunn, David Wren and John McIlwain about guitars they have found. I notice that there are a lot of male names here, and I wonder about women who may have been engaged in the great search. Seeking out old guitars is often a story that does not necessarily go from A to B. It is as often about the journey itself, the digression and diversions that make the search so interesting. Still.