Guitars R Us

They pick guitar as their instrument, and then they stick their necks out

I joined my first band when I was seventeen. We knew a total of four songs, but somehow we managed to stretch them into an hour-long set. We'd play make-out parties in someone's basement, with everybody stoned on pot or Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill, an alleged wine notorious for inducing immediate vomiting spasms and persuading more people to give up drinking than Alcoholics Anonymous.

My bandmates were usually among the first people at the party to pass out, occasionally in mid-song. Ever the per-fessional, I declined intoxicants with the excuse that getting high would affect my playing (as if it could have gotten any worse). To a bunch of incoherent adolescents in altered states of mind, however, repeated banging of the same three chords at ear-splitting volume with a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to distort the sound even more than the acoustics of a concrete cellar already had, I sounded great. I quickly acquired a reputation as a serious guitarist.

I never really thought of myself as a guitarist, just a regular doofus who happened to play. I don't know why I never made that mental leap, but perhaps it was because even as a snot-nosed, arrogant youth I realized that guitarists are funny people, not in the sense that Eddie Murphy or Jay Leno is funny, but in the sense that the old guy at the end of the block with the overgrown lawn is funny. Eccentric. Ask them what year it is and they start counting on their fingers, but ask them about their first guitar and they are miraculously blessed with total recall.

Singer/songwriter Jim Baumann got an Alvarez when he realized the catgut strings on his tennis racket wouldn't cut it. University of Miami music school instructor and one-time Dixie Dreg/Edgar Winter Group-er Randall Dollahon obtained his first ax via mail order, and played it for months before he realized he was supposed to finish the neck and had essentially been playing a raw two-by-four. And then there's the self-proclaimed Voodoo Child himself, Hendrix, who, apparently before the voodoo kicked in, unsuccessfully tried to string up a broom.

"Guitars are like children," explains Whistling Tin Head/itinerant picker Ben Peeler. "You can't just sell 'em." Of course, using typically convoluted guitarist logic, it is okay to trade them, as Peeler did with his first electric guitar, a red Vox Apollo with leopardskin pick guard. Those who practice what Peeler preaches include Not-Just-Guitarist retailer Jack Allen of the pop-rock band ECCO, who hangs onto a steel-stringed, three-quarter-size Winston with five of the original strings still on it. Mark Scandariato, formerly of Beat the Press and now with Mary Karlzen, maintains an anonymous old Fender clone salvaged from a thrift shop and given to him by his father, who oh-so-cleverly upgraded it by inscribing the word "Fender" with a felt-tip marker. Songwriter Shane Soloski's parents' garage harbors the yellow-with-beige-tiger stripes Japanese copy of something from an Elvis movie, and the family of Mavericks guitarist David Lee Holt still guards the '52 Gibson hollow body that Holt's father traded away a drum set to obtain.

Ironically, both former and current Mavericks axmen learned their chops on their fathers' guitars, Holt on the Gibson and Peeler on a 1950 Martin O-18. Peeler still has his second electric guitar, a "little red overgrown ukelele that cost me seventeen dollars from Sears." He's not the only musician who started where America shops. Kathi Gibson of Blizzy Nation cut her teeth on an old Silvertone, with aircraft cables on it that her dad brought over from Guam, Nuclear Valdez guitarist Jorge Barcala's first electric was a Sears SG copy, Fleet Starbuck's first amp was a Silvertone with a single ten-inch speaker, and Good Rockin' Johnny Wenzel broke in a Silvertone that his mom bought him when a friend of his received a drum set as a birthday gift.

Most thirtysomething musicians cite Elvis or the Beatles as early influences. My close personal friend, Bruce Springsteen, often alludes to the first time he saw Presley on the Ed Sullivan show as an epiphany. Once again, I was a little different. I started hounding my parents for a guitar at the age of six so that I could be more like my idol, Roy Rogers, who, after dispatching a few bad guys and shooin' some varmints, would round up his backing singers - Bullet (the loyal dog), Trigger (the loyal golden palomino), and Dale Evans (the loyal wife) - and croon a romantic cowpoke ballad while accompanying himself on his generic six-string. Roy spent substantially more time serenading his wife than he did driving cattle, even though Trigger was a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than Dale.

Then testosterone began skewing my view of the world, and the sight of all those cute girls swooning over a regular-looking guy named Michael Nesmith, the Monkees' guitar player, gave my desire for a fretted phallic symbol new urgency. I wasn't alone. Baumann went so far as to buy a green woolen cap just like Nesmith wore. My folks finally caved in and bought me a used Kent, and signed me up for lessons with the neighborhood maestro, a pudgy introvert with eyeglasses as thick as binoculars. My father, unlike Peeler's or Holt's, did not support my musical pursuit, and worried that the lessons might be the first step toward the abyss of long hair, bell bottoms, and rock-and-roll music. Privately, of course, I hoped he was right.

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