My First Guitar

Still dark on Christmas morning 1955, as the rest of the family sleeps, lights on the tree lead me from the bedroom.  I had made it pleadingly clear to my ma and pa that the only thing I wanted this year was a guitar, but I had been told it was ‘out of the question’.  I had failed my father previously with an unenthusiastic attempt to learn the dreaded accordion bought the year before. Unable to master sight-reading music, bored by dated Italian melodies and polkas, I finally asked my father to please return it to the music store.  He had been sorely disappointed.  No more money wasted on musical instruments!

But, in the twinkling light I saw it.  The stenciled name on the peg head said, “Harmony”.  In a paper bag, tied with ribbon to the neck, was a silken cord, a tuning pipe, and a small instruction book.  I couldn’t wait. I attached the loop of the braided cord to the peg at the bottom of the guitar and tied the other end to the peg head.  I stood to look at myself in the mirror, admiring the guitar, affecting an Elvis Presley pose.  Suddenly, the silk loop gave way and the guitar crashed to the floor.  The sleeping house was awakened by a wail.  Mother, father, and four brothers stumbled from their beds to witness a softly sobbing boy holding a guitar with a crack that extended completely around the lower side of the instrument.  Not a good start to a 12-year-old’s Christmas day. 

In the afternoon, somewhat recovered, but still feeling disgraced and disgusted, I retired to the basement rec-room and examined the tragedy.  I squeezed the two halves of the guitar together and used strips of masking tape to hold the pieces in place.  I opened the Nick Manoloff Five-Minute Guitar Book to the first page, fingering the chord diagrams, one by one.  I remembered the tuning pipe with its six notes.   I blew into it, turning the tuning keys until the notes were approximately the same.  The first song in the book was, Oh Susanna, key of D.  The strings were thick, the action high, and the pain in my little fingertips was immediately intense.  Determined not to disappoint my father again, I spent the afternoon repeating the chord patterns until blood spilled from my right forefinger as I strummed away.  Water blisters formed on each of my left fingertips.

In the ensuing days of Christmas vacation, the pain disappeared from my now-callused fingertips and I learned to use a home-made plastic pick to strum the strings.  The chord forms came faster and more fluidly, and I used some of the chords from Oh Susanna to play Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel.  I re-examined my masking tape repairs of the guitar.  The sound was acceptable, but the cosmetics bothered me.  The cheap plywood guitar had been made to mimic the look of a 1950s automobile.  Two chrome strips screwed to the top of the guitar bordered the two-tone paint job of copper and silver.  It was truly grotesque.  I found some white glue and carefully glued the two halves back together, using more masking tape as clamps.  Removing the chrome strips, I filled the screw holes with some plastic wood and, after masking off the neck, painted the entire guitar a glossy black.  Cool!  After the paint dried, I took white adhesive tape and disguised the glue joint with a ‘racing stripe’ on each side of the guitar.  The new look induced a new period of practice and improvement.  I sang and played for my family that evening with my brothers beating on kitchen pots and pans for percussion.  Love Me Tender…

Spring came and baseball season arrived.  The guitar went into the closet, instantly forgotten.  As the school year came to an end, one sunny morning I rode to class on a bicycle borrowed from my brother.  My thoughts were focused on after-school try-outs for the Babe Ruth League that began on the weekend.  Suddenly, a truck rushed through the intersection, skidding into the bicycle and throwing me through the air to land at the base of a large tree.  My right arm was shredded from the broken headlight on the truck and I lost consciousness.  Lying in the hospital with 55 stitches in my right arm, I realized that baseball was not going to be happening for me that summer or perhaps ever.  The doctor and my father advised me that perhaps playing the guitar would be good rehabilitation. 

A few months later, a small insurance check arrived.  The paltry 300 dollar award was shared between me and the needs of the family, 150 bucks for a new TV antenna for the roof and 150 for a new Danelectro guitar and a Gibson amplifier for me… guitar number 2.  57 years and 26 guitars later, the story continues.

 Almost 60 years of guitars

The list:  (does not include project and experimental guitars not used on stage)

1.  1950’s Harmony   (junked)
2.   Danelectro U1 single pickup, black (trade-in)
3.   Gibson ES135 single pickup electric (sold)"
4.   pre-war Gibson J-45 acoustic  (trade-in)
5.   60s Framus 12-string  (trade-in)
6.   1963 Martin D-28 (sold 1990)
7.   60s Univox electric (trade-in)
8.   60s Gretsch Anniversary model (trade-in)
9.   1967 Gibson ES 335 (trade-in)
10. 1936 National Duolian *
11. Bischoff custom 12-string (sold)
12. 1950s Epiphone Emperor (trade-in)
13. 1950s National ‘Map’ electric (sold)
14. Steinberger headless electric (sold)
15. No-name Travel guitar (Japan) (junked)
16. Warmoth/StewMac strat clone headless *
17. Ozkarpat headless acoustic  #1 prototype (junked)
18. Johnson arch-top Electric  (junked)
19. Ozkarpat headless acoustic #2  *
20. Ozkarpat headless electric 12 string  *
21. Eastman  910CE archtop jazz (sold)
22. Eastman El Rey electric  *
23. Eastman 804 archtop  *
24. Eastman El Rey A0 (prototype) *
25. Johnson Triolian  (sold)
26. Korean parlor acoustic (prototype)   *
27. Klein clone (custom built by Anothai Thititan of Bangkok)  (sold)
28. 70s Krafter 12-string acoustic  *

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