Author: Campbell, Bruce

Hello! Would You Like to Sniff my Guitar?

Happy Veteran's Day, and Happy Birthday, Dad!

We all know what dogs do when they greet each other. Bluegrass pickers have their greeting rituals, too. Being people, (instead of dogs), the greeting usually starts as a verbal exchange, ranging from mere “Hello, how are ya” to more flamboyant “GolDANG! I ain’t seen you since….” And the like.

But beyond the civilized greeting there is a more primal one, more akin to the canine response. However, instead of the fascination with the south end of the northern-facing picker, we are fascinated by each other’s musical instruments.

But sometimes, you can’t see the instrument at all, so you’re reduced to evaluating the instrument’s case. If it’s a Calton, you expect a fine instrument inside, because those cases cost more than a lot of instruments. Nothing screams, “I’m a touring professional”, like a Calton case with lots of stickers. The next coolest cases are the vintage hardshell cases, the more beat up, the better. Then, things deteriorate rapidly into thermoplastic cases and yikes! - gig bags.

The very first column I wrote for the CBA was entitled “Headstock Envy”, and was about how everyone, upon meeting someone at a jam, cranes their neck to see what everybody else is pickin’. For guitars, of course, the first destination for the eyes is the headstock, where the manufacturer’s logo will appear. This will give us the starting point. Once you know if it’s a Martin, a Collings, a Gibson or whatever, your next questions are: “What model is it?”, which is followed by “How old is it?”.

Depending on the people involved, the answers to these questions could easily spark a 4 hour conversation, because there are innumerable permutations of make, model, year and custom features to discuss. I can’t keep them straight, but I know many people who can. Or at least I think they can – they could be snowing me, for all I know. “Oh, yeah, Martin did have some special HD28’s in the Spring of ’47 with that special pickguard and the butter bean tuners, with that inlay. I used to have one.” Almost EVERY explanation ends with the statement “I used to have one.”

It’s the same for banjos, although banjo enthusiasts seem to be more into odd hybrids than guitar players. “Yeah, this baby has a 1928 Gibson neck, a ’41 custom tone ring, with the ’37 tuners, and a reworked 1971 tailpiece.” To which you reply “Oh yeah, I used to have one of those.”

Fiddle players have the most fun, because no story is too outrageous, and no pedigree harder to verify (at least at a festival), than that of a given fiddle. There’s the bragging about who worked on it (Antonio Stradivarius), who used to own it (Bob Wills, or Chubby Wise), or how little you paid for it (“Got this for 43 cents at a garage sale!”), or how old it is: “I had this appraised, and it turned out to be 875 years old! Apparently, Charlemagne played it at the Council of Nicosia!”

Mando players have a common holy grail. Once you check the headstock and see it’s a Gibson, the next question (in your mind or on your lips) is, “Is this a Loar?”. This question is often delivered in hoarse tones, and if the answer is in the affirmative, the asker will often sink to his or her knees and genuflect in front of the instrument. My advice is, play it cool, and say “Yeah, I used to have one of those.”

Posted:  11/11/2009

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