When I was first approached to blog for Guitar Player, my head filled with all sorts of things to write about— interesting angles, approaches, off-the-wall tips n' tricks ... then I thought, "No, let's start at the very beginning. All of us pickers start off someplace, so what better way to begin my blog series than with my own personal story of the relationships I've had with my guitars."
Strardate 1956. A nine-year-old kid (me) gets his very first guitar. It's a Stella acoustic, and off the top of my head I'd guess that it probably retailed for about $14.99. Knowing the incredibly varied demographic of Guitar Player, I'm sure that some of you are grinning broadly, remembering your own first Stella, and many others have simply never heard of one of those old hunks of wood and wire.
It was a horrible instrument. Once you got past the fifth fret, your fingers (especially if you were a youngster) were on the verge of bleeding. An action that reminded me of the suspension of the George Washington Bridge, a tone that was frankly unmemorable (I can't remember it, anyway). But here's the cool part—I had a teacher who made the experience fun. He kept my interest going, kept my excitement level high, even though my digital extremities were being tried to their limit. My teacher's name was Bill Suyker, and he taught out of his garage in Queens. I found out several decades later that he had at that time been one of NYC's staple session musicians ... so he must have really loved the teaching experience. Lucky me.
I stayed with Stella until my move into Manhattan, and to my second guitar teacher—the legendary Roy Smeck (a.k.a. "The Wizard of the Strings"). By the time I reached my 11th birthday, I graduated to a Harmony Broadway—an archtop acoustic which, while being worlds better than the Stella, and infinitely more playable, was just not the guitar of my dreams. Besides, by this time, the seductive sounds of the electric guitar had me totally in their grip. While I'd already been loving folk music with guitars—like the Kingston Trio, and been turned (very) on by masters including Segovia and Manitas de Plata (I was fortunate enough to get to see them in concert), it was Duane Eddy, the Ventures, the L.A. studio guys doing the Western TV shows that had my rapt aural attention. I needed an electric!
Roy suggested that my parents treat me to one (he endorsed Harmony guitars), so by 1961, I was the proud owner of a Harmony Meteor—a sunburst, single-cutaway with two DeArmond pickups. Yessiree, I was moving up! I stayed with that one for about two years. I played my first professional gigs on it (by professional, I mean "for pay"). All the while I was eyeing those beautiful Fenders, and watching guys like Buddy Merrill play them (beautifully) on the Welk show made me hunger in my soul for one. But I would still have to wait a while longer, and struggle a little with a neck that could just about double as a baseball bat.
By the time the end of 1962 rolled around, I'd saved up enough gig money to move up another notch in the guitar chain. My mom had a "connection" at Manny's Music Store, arguably the most famous music store on West 48th Street (Tin Pan Alley). I found myself on the top floor with a rather young Henry Goldrich (son of Manny), who talked me into staying with 2" width hollow bodies—this time a Guild Starfire Emerald III. It was a beautiful instrument (I still have it). It was admittedly more Duane than Ventures, replete with Bigsby vibrato handle, and a really beautiful variety of tones. It had the first neck that felt truly playable. It shone like a jewel, and I really loved it. The summer of '63 saw me playing every night in Greenwich Village, backing up groups including the Ronnettes (who were just breaking their first hit "Be My Baby"), and subsequently being asked to be the musical director/bandleader of the Capris ("There's A Moon Out Tonight"). At the tender age of 16, I felt like my dreams and aspirations were starting to come true.
Finally I was in a position to buy the ever-so-coveted Fender I'd been dreaming about. So it was back to 48th street, this time to Jimmy's Music (they were the authorized Fender dealer on the block). I walked out of there with a used-but-new-condition Fender Jaguar. I was in heaven. That state lasted less than a week. While sleek and slim, chromed up, and with a custom Fender color dubbed "coral," it was a dog. Sorry dog owners, no offense meant here ... maybe another adjective? Some solidbody electrics are made of very resonant wood. This one was not. There were too many switches. The rhythm setting (top switch and two control wheels) produced a sound that was character-light. You know when a guitar is right or wrong for you. This was plain wrong. I was soon rid of it, and back to loving my Guild. Besides, by this time I'd begun studying with famous jazzer Sal Salvador, and in his view even my 2" thick hollow body was at least 3" too thin!
But it served numerous purposes well: it delivered a good set of rock tones, looked dynamite, and came reasonably close to emulating some of the sweeter sounds a larger-body jazz guitar could deliver.
There's a 1963 Stratocaster right around the corner, and I'll tell you all about it, and bring you up-to-date with the other fine instruments in my arsenal, in the next installment.