Author: Sargent, Geoff

Lost Loose Strings or Lethal Weapons in Disguise

I have come to realize that my columns range from the silly to the mundane to just plain weird……and that they might occasionally reveal too much of my psyche, philosophies, politics, other personal thoughts….and touch on subjects generally frowned on in the world of welcome columns. But, I can’t help myself. It is a compulsion, kind of like a moth flying around a flame. Telling me I can’t do something makes it that much more attractive. And, if I look at my life and list the things I’ve done, attempted to do, and accomplished, then a theme starts poking out that I just like doing stuff different from many other folks anyway….which is even reflected in my bluegrass instrument of choice, the dobro aka resophonic guitar. According to Saint Bill, who is reputed to never had a dobro player in his band, the dobro is a whole bunch of nothing when it comes to Bluegrass…..or something similar. Thankfully the renegade disciples, Earl and Lester, had a different point of view and hired Josh Graves, also known as Uncle Josh, who became the patron Saint of Dobro. But, this column isn’t about the founders of our favorite music or forbidden subjects, it has more of a Martha Stewart twang and deals in part with that age-old question of “what do you do with your old strings”.
When I read various dobro forums it is apparent that string changing is an intensely personal and often delicate subject that evokes strong opinions about what strings to change, when to change them, the best approach to changing, and, heavens to Betsy, what brand, composition, size, cryo-treated or not, round, oval, brass, bronze, nickel, wound or not…..I’ve seen folks weep when confronted with the choices, riots happen when stores are out-of-stock, entire cultures have fallen when there are shortages of strings………..maybe I exaggerate bit here. One thing that is never discussed, though, is the fate of those poor, forgotten, discarded strings.

I don’t know about you but I have a major love-hate relationship with my strings. On one hand, new strings are shiny and pretty and bright and my-oh-my, my guitar sounds so clear and gets back all that lost volume. Keep focused, we are talking sound here not hair. So there are good incentives and immediate results that reinforce the positive results to string changes…but changing out those little devils extracts a heavy price in blood, sweat, and tears. Blood is the one that really bugs me….I can deal with sweat and tears, at least in the privacy of my room. Now, no matter how close I trim the ends of my strings, it seems like there is always enough of a nib left on the post to get a really good finger puncture and catch on my clothes. I sometimes wonder if Walgreens shouldn’t be selling guitars with old strings instead of those finger puncture kits. Makes sense…..folks wouldn’t be making all those weird faces while trying to draw blood….just change the strings instead and everyone comes out happy. The sweat and tears part usually goes with restringing. Stripping strings off my dobro is a little like the first part of changing diapers……taking them off Is the easy part…now comes the dirty work.

There are several ways to restring....and, like changing diapers, none of them come without certain risks. After several years, I’ve finally settled on the following process. First, remove one old string. With the dobro you don’t want to take off all the strings at once because your bridge can shift…or so I’ve been told. So first, remove one string and I usually go from the outside to the inside strings. It’s a symmetry thing. Second…clean all the dried spaghetti sauce off from around my bridge and clean the old blood-stains off from around the head posts. (I’m actually afraid to remove the well-cover off my dobro because I don’t know what I will find inside…there could be a mushroom farm growing on all the old bread crumbs. But Martha would probably encourage that as a way to home culture edible fungus.) Third, insert the brass metal ball-end of my string into the tail-stock and thread the free end of my string through the clean bridge and up the neck. Now it gets tricky. The little metal ball, it’s actually a little cylindrical piece of brass with a hole through the middle, has a frustrating habit of popping out of the tail stock, so I have to keep tension on it while threading the free end of the string up the neck. Finally, while keeping the string tight, so the metal ball stays put, wrap the free end of the string around it’s head post, and here’s the blood sport part, poke the free end through the hole in the post, and cinch up tight before tuning the string up to pitch. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be and I am sure some of you share in the same denial about that-that I do, so I often cover the end of the hole with a finger to feel that the string has threaded through correctly. Hence the blood sport part is poking that bloody tiny, sharp free string end through that bloody small hole without making my bloody finger bloody. There are six posts on the head of my dobro, and usually six blood stains at the end of the string changing chore.

So now there’s a left over pile of the gangly, awkward used strings that require disposal. At this point I have some regrets that there isn’t something useful to do with them. Just because they don’t sound good anymore doesn’t mean there aren’t other useful things in life for old strings. Hmmmmmm… this subtle metaphor time? Usually I try to roll my old strings up and put them back into the string sleeves. This is always a struggle. The strings never cooperate, constantly try to escape, and fight back by poking the bloody string end out of the sleeve to draw more blood. Old strings just don’t want to give up. So I’ve been thinking about what to do with old, out-of-work strings that have lots of experience and hours of perfectly good lifetime remaining. If you do the 21st century thing when stumped for ideas one word immediately comes to mind: Google. But if you Google “ what to do with used guitar strings” then you see a severely, disappointing lack of creative uses that can be summarized into jewelry, arts and crafts, cheese slicers, and picture hangers. Clearly if body piercing is your thing then there are untold opportunities for used strings as jewelry….they might not be as shiny as new ones but what the hey they would still make an impression to the viewer.

My personal ideas tend to be a little more functional than decorational. If you had a large inventory of used strings, they could be braided together to make an impromptu clutch cable for your car, lawnmower, or tractor. If you are into shark fishing then the wound strings could be used as a leader between your line and the hook. But my first thought when I saw my used string laying there on my desk was more sinister.

I have a history of reading trashy spy novels when I travel and Robert Ludlum is one of my favorite authors. In my used string I saw the potential for another life, outside of conventional music, of thrilling, suspenseful, and dangerous work; work that could be used equally for good or evil. I saw a garotte; a simple weapon that could be used for silently exterminating enemies. Ironic eh? I finally gave up on this when I realized that I really didn’t want to give my wife any ideas, and quickly and carefully disposed of my old strings.

Posted:  11/20/2011

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