March 05, 2014

Guitar Saga


As you may know, I've been posting pictures showing the progress of the custom acoustic guitar that Jason Ingrodi has been building for me over the past few months. This wasn't something I'd ever expected to do, especially since I've recently come off several years of being dead broke. But Jason noticed me complaining about my guitars on the internet and offered to build me one at around the same time I finally finished my book and had a little cash to work with. The ensuing process was really not like I expected. It was much more emotional and personal than you'd think it would be. I learned a lot about guitars and, corny as it may sound, about what's really important to me in an instrument, which is kind of like learning about yourself.

Previously, I'd just pretty much taken guitars as I found them, adapting to their idiosyncrasies and making do with their deficiencies and not really thinking too much about how suited they may have been to what I wanted to use them for. And in the case of my preferred electric guitar, the mid-60s Epiphone "batwing" Coronets I usually play, that has worked out quite well. (It was Kent Steedman of the Celibate Rifles way back when who introduced me to them, saying in his Australian accent that I can still do a fair imitation of, "eh Frank ya gotta get one of those Epiphones, P-90 pickup, they scream." I randomly acquired one and he was right, it screamed, and everything clicked.)

Acoustic guitar was another story, and these days quite a lot of my guitar playing is acoustic. For most of the time I've been alive, my only acoustic has been a Yamaha that was a Confirmation present from my parents. It was a great present for a 13 year old and it served me fairly well considering but as I started to play out more solo I was always very conscious that I was usually the worst-sounding guy on the bill. I recently played with the Smoking Popes and was completely devastated by how much better his guitar sounded in the solo bits, and when I toured Europe with Kepi using his swell sounding Martin all I could think was, boy, Doctor (because I actually do call myself "Doctor" in my head) you need to get your act together. So that was the source of the complaints I'm talking about. I subsequently acquired a couple of other acoustics, an old Gibson B-15 with a lot of character that is kind of challenging to play, but which I love anyway, and a more modern Gibson J 150 that is beautiful and sounds great, and totally works for the purposes of replacing the Yamaha. But in the meantime the idea of having my own bespoke guitar had been planted and grew, so once things were a little less desperate with the rent and such, I decided to spend a bit more of it on a guitar instead of a sword like I'd been sort of planning to.

I've been doing a lot more fingerpicking lately, and one thing that I've never liked is how feeble and indistinct it can be in comparison to strummed songs. If you've just played a loud strummy song, it's kind of hard, psychologically, to switch to the quieter sound and not worry you're just going to lose everyone's attention and look kind of lame. But I had been going to stores and trying out guitars and it turns out there is something that can be done about this. Out of everything I played, the best sounding overall by far was a (had to be custom built) Santa Cruz L-00 sized guitar with a cedar top and maple sides. And in my "let's just see" conversations with Jason, he mentioned that cedar tops are known to be better for fingerstyle and are used on classical guitars for that reason. (See this seems like very commonplace knowledge to me now, but at the time I was utterly clueless.) So even though I was still considering things, it was the cedar that did it for me. It felt like a crazy thing to do, and it felt really weird even to be considering it, but the back of my mind had already decided that we were going to go through with it, and it let me know in no uncertain terms later on. So we decided to go ahead with it, bought a pile of wood, and commenced the guitar-making. (For anyone who is interested it's the cedar top, rosewood back and sides, ebony fingerboard, mahogany neck, and flamed maple binding: pretty much all the "tonewoods" no plastic, on the basic Martin OM style model. Plus a fun Dr. Frank logo inlay that is a saga in itself.)

What followed was a long, dramatic process of incredibly fast progress, delays, setbacks, breakthroughs, and triumphs that stretched over several months. I grew to look forward to the almost daily progress reports and pictures to the extent that now that it's over I feel a kind of loss. It provided structure to my day at any rate.

As for the guitar itself, it arrived yesterday and man is this thing incredible. It is much, much louder than you expect from a small bodied guitar, louder even than the jumbo Gibson. And yet it also has that classic slightly "boxy" parlor sound as well, which is just what I was hoping for, as in my mind I see much of my guitar playing future as basically settin' back and playing for my cat on the porch, though the porch is actually a couch as well as clubs, bookshops, cafes, etc. (It's compact enough to be easily portable, which is one thing I liked about Kepi's guitar, and which will help in taking the porch on tour.) It is hard to describe sound in words, but the tone is very rich and very alive sounding, and has a character all its own, quite different from any other guitar I've played. In "quality," whatever that means, it is comparable to the Gibson, and I think also comes pretty close to matching the awesomeness of the Santa Cruz I mentioned above. I'm still getting to know it and no doubt will have more to say as time goes on (not that anyone would really be interested in hearing me babble on like this again!) It has an old-style retro neck that feels a little bulky at first, but that's something I'm quite used to and in fact it plays like a dream. And those individual plucked notes really do ring out, both the highs and lows very present within each note.

So basically it came out great. Jason Ingrodi did a fantastic job, something he should really be proud of, and it's something I'm proud to own. So glad I took the plunge.

(I can't say the same for the US Postal Service, who managed to deliver it with a puncture through the shipping box that went all the way through the case, causing superficial damage to the lacquer finish of the guitar -- at least, I hope it's superficial. I'm told it takes something like an act of Congress and several pleading visits to the postmaster to get USPS to pay anything on its insurance, but I guess we'll find out about that. So yeah, that's another thing I've learned: close enough for government work isn't the standard you want for shipping a priceless, one of a kind, fragile object. Best advertisement for UPS/Fed Ex ever.)

(Oh and also, pre-order my book.)

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 5, 2014 10:19 PM