Guitars and their stories

I've been talking with people about their guitars since I was 13 years old. My first guitar was a copy of a Fender Stratocaster — gray with a black pick-guard. Its brand name was "Palmer." I didn't even know I wanted a guitar. My parents decided I should have one and gave it to me for Christmas.

The only other Palmer I've ever come across was a bass guitar — a copy of a Fender P-Bass (P for "precision") — that belonged to my oldest bass-playing friend, Chad. It was also gray with a black pick-guard. I met Chad in the ninth grade. He lived two miles away. Our moms must have shopped at the same store.

I talked to a guy recently who told me that he and his buddy went to the Fender factory in Fullerton, Calif., in 1957 and outfitted their band. They bought a P-Bass with a tweed Bassman 4X10 combo amplifier and a pair of Telecaster guitars with matching Deluxe amplifiers.

If you aren't worried about disappearing down a rabbithole of collectible Americana, go ahead and Google the amp models. You'll see that, to a collector, the equipment these guys bought 56 years ago reads kind of like a cross between a '57 Chevy and a '61 Mickey Mantle.

What's sad is that those old Fender guitars now have an artificial collectors' value that makes them remarkably expensive — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars expensive. They aren't guitars anymore. They are collectors' items. The fellow I talked to who bought all that good Fender gear in 1957 told me that it was all stolen out of his car after a gig back in the '70s.

Most longtime guitar players have stories about gear that was stolen, or lost, or that we never should have sold. I lost my first guitar — which would have huge sentimental value to me had I managed to hang on to it. I loaned it to a friend in high school and never bothered to get it back.

A friend in town who's performed around here for the better part of four decades told me about how, back in the early '70s, he briefly owned his dream guitar, an archtop Gibson. He bought it and took it to his next gig — where an audience member stood up and said, "Hey, that's my guitar!" He was right. It was stolen.

My oldest friend in the world lost a beautiful Martin D-28 acoustic guitar to burglars/squatters who broke into and inhabited his grad school apartment for two weeks while he was home for Christmas break one year. Oddly, they left a thousand-dollar American Standard Stratocaster untouched on its stand. We figured the thief was likely a homeless guitar player who took it to play rather than to sell. I'm not sure whether that was a comfort to my friend.

The first Martin guitars I ever saw belonged to a banjo player I knew in high school who came from a bluegrass family. He and his dad had "invested" in a few old guitars and banjos and were in the process of dealing up — turning their 1960s-era instruments into the gold standard of bluegrass gear collectors: "pre-war" Martin guitars and Gibson Mastertone banjos.

This banjo player brought a few guitars with him on a camping trip once, and we all sat around playing his fancy instruments and having a great time. I played a 000-18 model that was built before World War Two. This is a nice guitar, I thought, I'd like to have one like it.

Eventually I bought the closest thing to it that I could afford: a 1974 000-18 that someone had smashed and then tried to put back together. I paid $500 for it in 1993. For many years that was more than twice what I'd ever spent on another guitar.

The first guitar I ever bought was the second guitar I ever owned. For $200 I bought a cool little guitar called a Gibson Melody Maker. It was a utilitarian mahogany plank with a sunburst finish. I was 14 years old and I was proud — both of the guitar and of the fact that I'd had $200 to spend on it. I will never forget what my uncle said when I showed it off to the family for the first time.

"Two hundred dollars? Hell, you can't even drive it!" That was 25 years ago, and I have never since purchased any guitar or amplifier without those words running through my head.


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