The Perfect Guitar
I used to wonder why hard rock groups and performers were fond of referring to the guitar as an “axe.” Discussing this enigmatic topic with my friend Sal Raeli (who sometimes uses a dime for a pick and always seems to have one more guitar than I do), he suggested that the pop expression had to do with the predilection for wielding the guitar like an axe and smashing it on stage, a gesture given currency by Pete Townsend of The Who, among others. A Google search confirmed Sal’s hypothesis. These musicians like to conceive of themselves as born-again Vikings or Visigoths, plying their edged instruments and wreaking public havoc. They have come on the scene to take over the culture. They are a source of energy and “creative destruction” (to quote economist Joseph Schumpeter), redemptive heroes burning pianos, blowing up drum kits, and brandishing guitars with, ironically, self-splintering effect. Briefly, they are idiots.
I think of the guitar far more domestically. After all, it is shaped like a woman, and it is an exacting if beloved companion. It can be just as temperamental, is affected by changes in weather, and can produce sounds both dulcet and ear-splitting. I can’t say if I am promiscuous or merely eclectic, but I possess several guitars distributed in different dwellings -- a mistress in every port -- all of which I play with varying degrees of difficulty. The relationships I maintain with them are inevitably complicated: almost all are sternly imperious, and some close to impossible.
Thus I continue looking for the perfect guitar, by which I mean not a high-end Gibson or some unaffordable vintage specimen but one that is kind, hospitable and forgiving of my errors of execution. My three relatively inexpensive Fenders are viragos, buzzing like a nest of wasps unless my fingering is absolutely impeccable. My La Patrie is a real beaut, but don’t try to bar in the key of F unless your wrist and index finger have developed muscles of steel. When I venture on my Epiphone, my playing can sound like a poor man’s version of Jimmy Nolen’s “chicken scratch” technique, grating and chanky. Of my two (now discontinued) Ibanez lovelies, long the favorites of my seraglio, one has grown a little testy and unpredictable over time, but the other still treats me with approximate tenderness, taking my technical waywardness more or less in stride and generally accepting my peccadilloes with grace. When I cue her up, a song will sometimes sink deep in the pocket. Yet even she has her unresponsive moments, exacting her nuptial revenge when out of sorts. Perhaps, as Jimmy Buffett warbles in “Margaritaville,” “It’s my own damn fault.”
I recently came across a third Ibanez bashfully secluded on the rack at Steve’s Music Store in Ottawa, of different shape and glaze from her predecessors but with the same sweet action. Naturally, I could not resist her appeal. The quest for an ideal consummation, of course, is asymptotic, but the search continues.