[15 November 2012]
Most everyone remembers firsts: first loves, first dates, first cars, first apartments. Good, bad, and sometimes indifferent, the first experience of anything is nearly always memorable.
For musicians, one’s first instrument retains a kind of initiatory aura, the material key unlocking emotional, spiritual, if too rarely monetary potential. First guitars, especially, carry an intimate force. You can’t take drums or pianos to bed with you—well, I suppose you could, but it’d get pretty crowded—and as for brass and woodwinds, they’re just too cold and rigid for snuggling.
But most guitars are shapely. Whether nestled in one’s arms like a baby, hugged and caressed like a lover, or wielded like a gun, a guitar is handy.
In My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords, classical guitarist and music journalist Julia Crowe interviews numerous artists from different genres—blues, rock, flamenco, classical, jazz, punk; in short, guitar music. Yet rather than interviews in the standard Q&A format, the book consists of 70-plus answers to one essential question: What was your first guitar? Seventy-plus because we also get Crowe’s own guitar story, as well as many peripheral offshoots within the interviews themselves, as each artist elaborates his or her answer into a sort of mini-biography or guitar-essay.
Many of the guitarists speak of the instrument’s virtually infinite and mysterious potentialities:
Guitar pioneer Les Paul: “[The guitar] is full of surprises. If you play the piano and hit a key right there, that note is fixed on the keyboard and never moves. But on the guitar, that note is everywhere, absolutely everywhere…”
Elvis Presley’s guitarist Scotty Moore: “What I love about playing guitar is that there is no end in sight to what can be done on the instrument.”
Experimentalist David Tronzo: “It is the most cryptic instrument—it gives you nothing. You can play the same pitch on it in six different locations.”
Others speak of the guitar’s more-than-musical powers, ranging from psychological:
“Guitar… seemed to be a vehicle for seductive protest […] like it had an ulterior motive outside the realm of music. A guitar was on the make.”— Julia Crowe
To familial: “I was an only child, so the guitar was my role model.”—Seymour Duncan
To restorative: “I like to sit when I play the guitar so I can stomp with my feet. It’s a vehicle of expression that is good for my health.”—Blues guitarist Rory Block
To chemical/celestial: “The cells of our body are vibrating, and they are responding to the vibrations around us. So when we play music, we are not only listening with our ears but with every cell in our body […] We are using the same properties that god uses in creating life and matter.”—Muriel Anderson
To a similar sentiment expressed in somewhat earthier terms: “Going ‘rocka rocka rocka rocka’ on a Fender Telecaster is as close to sex as you can get with your trousers on.” —Graham Parker
My First Guitar is a book with multiple tributaries. One artist leads to another leads to another. As with the guitar itself, the possibilities seem endless. For this reason, the book is a rich vein of practical information from which one may extract a huge surplus of musical inspiration. I was raised a rocker, so most of the classical guitarists interviewed are completely new to me. I’ve been on a criss-cross mission of discovery ever since: read an interview, listen to an artist, read an interview, listen to an artist.
Because of the outstanding quantity, caliber and international scope of the interviewees—guitar players, teachers, builders—the book is also a kind of parallel, oral history of the instrument, from the specialized woodworking techniques of builders/luthiers Richard Bruné (who made his first guitar out of wood from a dining room table), Bob Taylor and Christian Frederick Martin IV, to the electronic inventions of Les Paul and Seymour Duncan.
The book is also like a global gabfest/jam session. Where else are you going to hear jazz great George Benson, Megadeth’s Marty Friedman, Tunisian-French composer Roland Dyens and the guys from Spinal Tap together?
As stated earlier, Crowe weaves her own story throughout the interviews: her own first guitar, her hyper-diligent and determined globe-trotting effort of putting this book together, and her coffee date with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Classicist Crowe, as well as a number of other interviewees—not just the rock guys—experienced Led Zeppelin epiphanies at some point in their lives. Amazingly, Page’s own first guitar was left behind in his new family home by the former tenants, kind of like Santa Claus’s cane in the film Miracle on 34th Street, only more magical and with more lucrative results.
Besides lending welcome breaks to the sometimes-similar guitar stories, Crowe’s first-person excerpts invest the interviews with a greater sense of professional purpose and personal urgency. She has lived and lives her subject.
Despite, or along with this quasi-narrative, My First Guitar is also the kind of book one may delve into at any point and be rewarded with an illuminating guitar fact or some bit of tactical advice, such as this from surf legend Dick Dale:
“My advice to people who want to play the guitar is simple: Perfect practice makes for perfect performance. Empty yourself, and you will find the humility to ask, how does one learn? You do not play for the acknowledgement—you play from deep within. Picture in your mind that you are creating awareness as you play, for you can create with your talent or you can destroy with your talent.”
For the record, my first guitar was an acoustic Applause (as the name indicates, a lesser Ovation). I took it on a plane once, before anyone had told me about the effects of air pressure on a strung, tuned guitar. When I opened the case upon landing, my heart sank. The guitar was so bowed I could shoot arrows with it.
I mention this because, along with all the inspiring anecdotes, My First Guitar contains some very sad cautionary tales of lost, sold, stolen or broken guitars, including this heartbreaker from Argentinean classical guitarist Jorge Morel:
“When I opened the case and touched my guitar, I was surprised that it felt hot. And when I picked it up…crack! Crack! Crack! What I had thought had been a table had turned out to be a radiator.”
The lesson for first-time guitar owners: Guard your babies.
My First Guitar also includes photographs of many of the players as young beginners, such as a ten-year old Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Gods & Monsters) already getting the girls. Plus there is an appendix-list of the guitars mentioned in the book, and a glossary of redolent, euphonious guitar terms like dampit, scordatura and purfling. Buy the book and look them up.
I’ll leave the last word to Les: “The one thing I can say about a guitar is that as soon as you hit a note, it sounds sweet and nice. You can’t say that about a clarinet […] If you give a kid a clarinet, you’ll want to kill him for the first five years […] But a guitar is very sweet, very apologetic, a very nice instrument.”