My musical experiences over the last couple of weeks have been varied but interesting, to me anyway. My wife and I went down to northern Virginia late last week for the memorial service for my sister-in-law’s step son. He was just 23 years old and suffered a long and awful decline as he battled a neurological condition called ataxia, which mimics ALS but is not that. What caused it to come on remains a mystery after years of tests and visits with the best neurologists to be found. The service was the saddest but most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. When one so young dies I think it hits their peers hardest of all on a certain level. Most have never encountered death in one of their friends. A couple of his friends spoke and you could see their hearts breaking. But music…. At one point a young soprano sang a stunningly beautiful acapella rendition of “Danny Boy.” The young man’s name is Daniel. The power of music was on full display and I doubt there was a dry eye in the church among the 200+ people attending.
My own beliefs are deeply felt but I consider them private. But I will say this. I sincerely believe in the “circle of life” and all that implies. Although I did not know Daniel I do know that he is in a better place, a place that we all will be.
On my way back to the Cape I stopped at a small independent music store in Mystic, CT, the town where I spent the first 20 years of my life. That store was not there when I was growing up but I often make a point to stop there and check out what they have in used guitars. They often list a few on Craigslist and I was particularly interested in playing two guitars. One was a recent vintage Gibson Hummingbird that was listed for a very good price. It was nice overall but looking down the edges of the neck it was apparent that guitar suffered from a condition that I’ve seen on many Gibson acoustics in the last few years. At about the 12th fret there was pronounced “hump” in the fingerboard. The action was good and sound was good (although I think most Gibson acoustics are much more appropriate for strumming rather than finger picking due to their lack of sustain or complexity of tone). That hump would certainly be something that would have to be dealt with at some point. But the stock on-board B-Band electronics sounded awful – this was no surprise. So in spite of the very good price I passed on that one.
More interesting was an Alvarez 5055 Bluesman. That model was made from the late 90s until the early 2000s but was apparently just too radical a design for general acceptance. It is a grand concert size but has f-holes instead of a round sound hole – but still has a flat top as opposed to most guitars with f-holes. When plugged in it sounded very good, a nice fat jazz kind of sound in spite of having extra light gauge strings with an unwound G string. There were two reasons I didn’t buy it though in spite of the fact that it looked great with a tobacco sunburst gloss finish, no scratches or structural issues and a very comfortable neck. Again, sighting down the edge of the neck there was a pronounced rise at about the 12th fret and that fret was also quite high. Now, this may have been fixable by my regular guitar tech but more disturbing was the electronics quitting from time to time. The shop owner stated that it had a new battery and he thought the problem was with the amp I was using (I probably should have asked to try a different amp) but this problem made me very nervous because I couldn’t imagine how a new pick-up could be installed with the f-hole design. So I passed on that one too. If I’m passing through Mystic again soon I may just bring my own amp and cable to try that guitar again if he still has it. The thing was intriguing and not often seem these days.
Another one that got away on purpose. I pulled the trigger on one of the new Martin Modern Deluxe series guitars a couple weeks ago, this one an OM-28. I love the size of this model and have owned a few over the years. I played one briefly at the NAMM show and was impressed although the playing environment there was far less than ideal. If you’re unfamiliar with this new line up from Martin they feature some very interesting and potentially innovative design features although the jury is still out on that. These include a titanium truss rod for lightness and strength; a titanium “sandwich” bridge plate for increased sustain and resonance; “liquid metal” bridge pins. The cosmetic features are gorgeous and understated: maple binding, traditional Martin logo on the headstock inlaid in mother of pearl, herringbone trim. Yes, it sounded fantastic right out of the box. But….the neck. Damn. It is a new profile for Martin, 1 ¾” nut width (although it felt wider than that) and the area from the nut to about the 7th fret is quite thin with a very slight V. The fretboard edges are slightly rolled. Above the 7th fret it thickens up quite a bit and is more of a low oval profile. I played it for two days, probably a total of about three hours and that neck profile just didn’t work for me. I tried to talk myself into the idea that I would get used to it, but why? This is a $4k guitar and I shouldn’t have to talk myself into liking it. So back it went. I guess the lesson here is not to be too impressed with a pretty face and a nice voice until you really get to know them.
Let’s end with a positive note. Yesterday at the Daily Brew was one of my most satisfying sessions in the eight years I’ve been playing there. Everything just came together. I played as well I can play (and my confidence grew as I played, knowing this was the case). There were a number of repeat customers there who had come to hear me – and they weren’t even my friends! And they clapped! I received many compliments too. The tip jar was full. And the staff were playing a trivia game between customers and when the owner Kathy Hickey came in to ask me if I knew the answer to two questions that had them stumped, I got them both right! I pride myself on being a wealth of semi-useless information so that was no surprise!
Peace & good music,