Author: Zuniga, Henry

When Good Wood Goes Bad

One thing that all bluegrassers have in common is their love of fine, handcrafted, musical instruments. We love the sounds that emanate from the wood. The smooth, sensual contours of a guitar. The graceful curves of a mandolin. The delicacy of a fiddle and the strong lines of a doghouse bass. Even the banjo owes its soulfulness to the tone ring which is often made of select maple. Indeed, wood is a very special thing and it completes an organic circle of life that draws many of us in. Maybe that’s why we often have our best jams under the strong arms of giant trees!

Bluegrassers have long known about and sought out the best of these wooden miracles. At any given festival, you are probably surrounded by millions of dollars’-worth of fine wooden instruments. At the last “Loar Fest” in Bakersfield, there were an estimated fifteen million dollars’-worth of mandolins in one room!! Many people are very secretive about the value of their instruments, and who can blame them? You could put a kid through a good college from their sale!

With the advent of the world, we have seen the value of many things escalate. Ebay is now a common and well known 24/7 store and if you’re into window shopping, the merchandise is endless. Even though we have more guitars than we’ll ever need or use, we still love to look at, and dream about all of the beautiful instruments that people offer up for auction. You can find new and used instruments. Pristine and battered. Unique and antique. You name it, it’s out there. And then, there are the saddest posts of all: the “project” sale.

To open these links requires a strong stomach. This is like walking into the middle of an emergency room. Not really blood and guts, rather, it’s more bindings and glue, but, it is shocking and not easily experienced. Often these are instruments that have fallen apart due to age and neglect. A little glue here, a cleat there and some will be almost as good as new. Then there are the other victims. You open the link and see treasures that are now in pieces. Savaged and nearly destroyed, they lie there on the brink of being tossed into the fiery abyss. Tattered royalty whose reign never reached its glory.

At this point, I’d like to say that I don’t mean make light of true human misery and pain. It’s just that as a lover of music and the healing effect that it can have on humanity, it pains me to see a distressed instrument. Very recently, I had a relative who appeared to be semi-comatose with little chance of survival. After she had been unresponsive for about two weeks, I asked her sister if they had taken some music into the ICU and played some of her favorite CDs for her. No one had thought to do this but when they did, the minute that the music started, my cousin began to move first her toes, and then her fingers, and, shortly thereafter, regained consciousness. Music, and the tools that make music, did what no doctor or medicine had been able to do and that’s why I hurt when I see broken instruments.

It’s very hard for good wood to go bad. There are instruments that have lasted for hundreds of years. I suspect that most of our “good” instruments will survive us and become precious family heirlooms or be sold to other appreciative owners who can understand their worth. Then there are those instruments that will not be saved. One particular guitar comes to mind. I know a man who has a 1953 D-18 that is almost impossible to play. The neck has warped and he won’t invest for its repair. Selling it is out of the question because it was a gift from his father so it will go to one of his progeny when the time comes. The scary thing is that none of his children play and they are what some would call the “dregs of society.” Maybe the guitar will find its way into the hands of someone skilled in repairs, or it might be tossed into the trash. The possibilities are almost too sad to think about.

On the other hand, there are the miracle stories. When Bill Monroe’s priceless mandolin was smashed into a gazillion pieces, the late, great luthier Charlie Derrington lovingly and painstakingly restored it to its former glory. In fact, two of Bill’s Loar mandolins were mutilated, and Derrington had to sort and separate the hundreds of splintered pieces before he could begin the reconstructions. He rebuilt them to the exact standards that Bill Monroe asked, even down to the extra high action that most people would think was flawed. Just goes to show that you should never give up before you get an expert opinion!

When we play music, the instrument speaks for us. It’s an extension of our being, the voice of our inner soul. This is why we love these pieces of mother earth. Their purpose is clear, and our debt, obvious. Guard and protect, preserve and cherish, play and sing!
Posted:  4/17/2010

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