Saturday, August 29, 2020

Sue’s Adventures in Luthiery, My Gain

I have to say this first: Sue wants me to tell you she is absolutely not a luthier. She doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a person not afraid to try fixing a guitar that’s otherwise destined for the dumpster.

Sorry that I don’t have any “before” pictures to show you, but when something is so depressing as my old guitar was, you just don’t take pictures of it. My old guitar was indeed destined for the dumpster. Or—perhaps—a ceremonial cremation in a backyard bonfire. The bridge had broken completely off of the top of the guitar; it was flopping around, dangling from the 5 strings that hadn’t yet broken. Also, the headstock had some scary cracks and looked like it was about to pop off the neck. The guitar was a goner.

But it was only a goner because it wasn’t worth fixing. This is an inexpensive, beginner’s classical guitar, made in Korea. Although the sound is pleasant, and I like it, it isn’t remarkably brilliant or resonant. No self-respecting guitar repair guru would touch it, because the fix would have been double or triple the worth of the instrument. So, the guitar sat around in its case, and I felt sorry for it. It didn’t ask to be made an inexpensive beginner’s instrument.

Indeed, this is the guitar my parents got for me for Christmas when I was in junior high school. I guess about 1981. I can still picture it, in its odd-shaped cardboard box, leaning against the wall next to the Christmas tree. (That was back when my parents used to put their tree against the north wall of the living room . . .) I would eventually get guitar lessons from a local bluegrass musician, who tried to teach me how to flatpick. (I didn’t quite understand it then, but it wasn’t my style, and it wasn’t the guitar’s style, either. But I learned stuff, anyway, and the lessons helped overall.)

Interesting fact: I’ve Googled this instrument—it’s a Lotus model LC-30, an entry-level classical guitar made from 1981 to 1989. Spruce top, mahogany back and sides, amber finish, black binding, rosewood fingerboard. (Back then, beginner's guitars were made out of solid wood, at least, huh?) Used, they sell for up to about $100 dollars. Most are $10 or $15, “as is,” or “for parts or repair.” There truly aren’t many of these left. I think it’s like a 1985 Ford Escort: everyone who had one, drove it until it fell apart.

But I have an attachment to this guitar, and I respect all musical instruments. They are each unique voices, each a potential channel through which music may sound. Golden potential aching to be fulfilled, even for a few moments of sweetness.

Sue has spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of various luthiers doing their thing. She finds it highly entertaining and interesting. So after she had watched about 2,000 of these videos (I exaggerate the number), she felt confident enough to at least try fixing my poor ol’ guitar. She hesitated to do so. I had to remind her: Look, this guitar is worthless as it is. You might as well try. If you don’t fix it, it’s no good to anyone, and it’s just taking up space. We have nothing to lose! Have fun with it! Blah, blah, blah.

So, she took it into the basement and went to work. It was basically a gluing procedure—a heavy-duty gluing procedure. That’s a lot of pressure the glue needs to hold!

In addition to regluing the bridge, she worked layers of glue into the cracks in the headstock. Then, she used finer and finer sandpaper to smooth the seams. It’s as smooth as a baby’s butt. (As they say.) She relacquered the headstock and made it shiny again. It’s not perfect, but this guitar has plenty of miles on it. I don’t care what it looks like (much). It matters more to me that it doesn’t fly apart and hit me in the face and put an eye out.

I’d say it’s like a new guitar—but, by golly, it isn’t. And that’s the real magic of it.

Because you see, this guitar has a unique voice. It doesn’t sound like my newer guitar—the one I bought the day I was told by a professional luthier not to bother trying to fix my old guitar. Indeed, my newly fixed guitar sounds exactly like it used to sound!

As soon as I’d put new strings on it, I recognized its voice. Wow, just wow. I hadn’t heard it for years. It’s the voice of the guitar I played in high school, tryin’ to impress my friends. It’s the voice of the guitar I wrote songs on, when I used to do such fanciful and fearless things. It’s the voice of the guitar I used to play out on my parents’ front steps on summer evenings when I was young—learning how to play songs by Carole King, Joan Baez, and Cat Stevens. I played it at the Wilkes Boulevard Methodist Church one Sunday with my friend Karla—we played and sang “Morning Has Broken.” I bet we we warbled adorably. I had a lacy, cotton white dress I used to wear back then, an off-the-shoulder, below-the-knees, broom-skirt, Boho-type thing from Penneys, and I probably wore that. I can't tell you what we might have sounded like (ergh).

The old guitar has a mellow voice, but I learned how to strum brightness from it. It’s the guitar I learned my first real song on—“American Pie”—I remember practicing it in the backyard at the picnic table. G, C, G, D, G, C, G, D . . . After ten thousand verses of “American Pie,” G, C, and D chords were always easy.

I had to play a few choruses of “American Pie” to celebrate this reunion with my old friend.

It’s such a gift to have it back.