Author: Campbell, Bruce

Where Do Old Guitars Go When They Die?

One of the things thatís really fashionable in bluegrass music is to have a good old guitar. Itís generally accepted that fine, handmade instruments get better with age, and if youíve ever played a 50ís or 40ís Martin dreadnaught, youíd be hard pressed to disagree with that premise.

But what about instruments that are old and broken down, but not of a sufficient quality to warrant repairing?

When I was 10, I decided to be a guitar player, and my parents encouraged me so long as I promised to take lessons and practice. I came upon this life altering epiphany upon being lent a cousinís guitar, and hearing simply that low open E string. I loved the sound of it. LOVED it. But it was a barely playable instrument, and once my folks elicited the promises of lessons and practice (secret code words for commitment), they bought me a new guitar.

If memory serves, it cost about $70, a not inconsiderable sum in those days. And the guitar was beautiful to behold. It was a little small (as I was), and it was so shiny, with wonderful woodgrain. It did not have a pickguard, so it looked quite pleasingly symmetrical as a result. It was easy enough to play, and it said Contessa across thepeghead. I think it was actually made by Hohner, or perhaps imported by them Ė Iíve never seen another since.

What I really wanted was to learn rockíníroll and play electric guitar, but I knew I needed to know HOW to play and I was willing to wait until I was a virtuoso to get my first electric guitar (I figured 2-3 weeks, tops). But right away, I found it was going to be a long slog. The lessons, using the Alfred Guitar Method, were methodical and dull. However, I didnít display any natural talent to indicate that a more accelerated curriculum was in order. And so, despite myself, I did get a good musical education from the experience (I can still read music Ė a rarely used skill in bluegrass!).

Eventually, I got an electric guitar (a 2 pickup Teisco), and the Contessa was relegated to the back of the closet, for the most part. When I moved away from home, though, it came with me, and made every move for the next 30+ years. Over time, the plastic-based finish cracked all over it, its shiny finish reduced to a bizarre mosaic, and the bridge pulled away from the body. My buddy Gene Tortora fixed the bridge (it took a robust brass screw through the bridge to a cleat inside), and it became what my sons would call The Guitar That Stays At Grandmaís House. It was nice to have it to play whenever we went to my Momís house.

It found its way back to my house, and then eventually my oldest sonís house. Recently, though, he called and said it had broken again. Split again, and it doesnít seem like there will be a repair this time. So, now it sits in my extra room, no strings, cracked, crazed and forlorn. Picking it up, I can instantly recall the thrill of when it was new, the little piece of green felt my guitar teacher (Mr. Dingley) had me glue near the nut to remind me to keep my thumb still, and the pain as my fingers slowly built up the callouses that are a permanent part of my fingertips. Through that guitar, I learned that diligent hard work will make a difficult song playable, and yield very pleasing results. That little guitar changed my life Ė what in heavenís name will I do with it? What would I do without it?

Posted:  2/29/2012

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