Back in my years as editor of On The Water magazine I had a firmly held belief: all writing that came across my desk had to feel like the writer had a valid reason to write.
Over those years I saw an ever-increasing number of stories that were blatant product pitches, something that is prevalent in so many magazine stories these days, sad to say. With a change of publishers at the magazine a different attitude was increasingly evident. The original publisher was a fourth-generation newspaper man and while he was tough on me from time to time I did learn a few things from him, one of which was that the advertising department should sell ad space based on the quality of the content, not on promises of favorable stories about products. Unfortunately, the new publisher (who I liked and still do on a personal basis) came from an advertising background and the pressure I felt from him and the advertising department for favorable product placement in editorial content was one of the major reasons I resigned from my position.
OK, I’m a dinosaur I guess. All readers of magazines about activities such as fishing, golf, tennis, and yes, guitars and guitar playing want to know about the equipment that the writer uses to be successful, especially when the story is about a famous expert in one of those avocations. Where I drew the line was when the writer (with a bit of a pass to a sponsored professional) made a blanket statement that the products they use are the “best.” It was perfectly fine to say what he or she – the writer – used and found success with something, but making a blanket statement that such-and-such a fishing rod or reel or lure was the best was disingenuous at the very least and downright dishonest at worst. My feeling was and still is the reader is smart and sees right through that kind of statement. Yet magazines and websites allow this kind of stuff, more and more.
I made a few enemies among so-called “outdoor writers” by calling them out on this and demanding a re-write if the article had any hope of being published. Some of them still hate me to this very day. Probably because they could no longer get free rods and reels on the promise their stories would be published!
So what does this all have to do with guitars and playing? Over the last couple of years I’ve read many articles in well-known guitar magazines and on websites that go totally overboard in their praise of the latest/greatest guitars, electronic devices and amplifiers, strings, capos and just about every other piece of equipment they hope guitarists want to learn about. A very notable and highly recommended exception to this is the wonderful magazine Fretboard Journal. This high gloss, beautiful and classy publication has an obvious dedication to the best writing and in-depth stories, many quite long by today’s magazine standards about all things related to fretted instruments. I look forward to every issue and have learned much from each and every one.
For my part, with this blog I want to convey as much useful information as I can about guitars and related equipment, along with playing tips and the occasional long-winded story. I thank my small but loyal group of readers for indulging me in this! Fact is, there are a dizzying number of choices for the guitar buyer these days. I do my best to stay up on current trends, taking everything I read and hear with a large grain of salt and playing as many guitars as I can to form my opinions. And opinions they are! I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about acoustic guitars, but I do know a good one when I play or hear it. I absolutely promise that if I say something about any guitar or piece of equipment I do it only to help someone in their search for the right one. If that results in someone not making a mistake by being drawn in by slick marketing, I’ve done what I’ve set out to do.
Case in point: I have a relatively new student who by all accounts is an expert custom cabinet maker. He is an advanced beginner playing-wise and as enthusiastic as any budding guitarist I’ve ever taught but knew he needed a better guitar. He announced a few weeks ago that he had begun making a guitar (!). Now understand this. He had zero experience building guitars, and most amazingly, was using what he referred to as scrap lumber that had been lying around his shop.
To be honest, I didn’t have very high expectations but tried to encourage him as much as possible and answer as many of his questions as I could about wood, what constitutes a good guitar, a few small tricks that I know custom guitar makers use and basically everything I could think of to help him along. He read up on guitar making voraciously and also consulted with my friend Fran Ledoux of Bay Fretted Instruments, a local guitar tech of the highest caliber who is an authorized warranty repairman for Martin, Gibson, Taylor and Fender.
From the reports given to me by his wife who is also a student, Scott dove into the construction of his guitar with a vengeance, to say the least. He constructed his own jigs, made and remade various components and was never quite satisfied with the result (which I think is the true mark of a real craftsman!). Last week he showed up for his lesson with the guitar, modeled after a Martin dreadnought and the results were absolutely stunning. Constructed of solid red birch back and sides, with a solid Sitka spruce top, fine wood binding and herringbone trim it is just beautiful. But best of all, it plays like a dream and sounds just fantastic. If it sounds this good now I can only imagine how it will sound in a few months and years when it “opens up.” I’ve played guitar costing well over $1000 that didn’t sound as good or play as easily as Scott’s self-described prototype.
His plan is to make four guitars including this one for his children and a grandchild and then produce more to sell. I think his future in guitar building is very, very bright. When you combine superb craftsmanship with enthusiasm and a questioning mind that thirsts for knowledge the results can only be good. I am going to try to make an appointment for Scott and I to meet up with my friend Steve Conner, a world-renowned maker of classical guitars who lives nearby. Knowing Steve to be equally enthusiastic about all things related to the making of guitars I am sure Scott will learn much from him. It’s experiences like this that make me love playing and teaching guitar.
More blog entries soon. Promise! Thanks for reading.
Peace & good music,