music, writing

the care and feeding of guitars

I was on a visit to Florida recently – on a mission of mercy to help keep my dad company while my poor mother was recuperating from an accident that left her recovering in a rehabilitation facility for weeks. Long-time readers will know that Daddy is the one who got me into this music mess in the first place – he taught himself to play guitar back in the sixties, was a folk singer in Jacksonville for many years and passed along this heritage to me since I was knee high to a grasshopper.

So of course, on my visit there was a lot of guitar-talk and guitar-playing and then some guitar-buying when yet another eBay find washed up on Daddy shores: a Vega classical guitar circa 1964 – “The Limeliter’s Model”. The Limeliter’s were a popular folk group back in the early sixties – and this was in many ways a ‘poor man’s Martin’ – an affordable small guitar that sounded good and was easy to play.

The original label inside the Vega guitar

This one had an interesting face with dark threads streaking through the blonde veneer top. But upon inspection, Daddy realized the strings weren’t to his liking and the action was way too high (ie, the strings were too far from the fretboard for comfortable playing or good tone).

As it goes through the history of human families, I have had a long, sorry habit of brushing off Daddy’s vast realms of knowledge about acoustic guitars and the care and maintenance thereof with rolled teenage eyes. I kick myself now for all the times he wanted me to help him glue on a bridge or make some adjustments to one of his constantly rotating stable of American vintage guitars and I’d either help grudgingly or find some excuse like finishing some long overdue homework (which was likely true, but as Daddy liked to say ’never let school interfere with your education’).

So when Daddy mentioned that maybe I could assist him, I said ‘Hell yes!” and he set up shop on the back porch where the sign saying “Redneck Studios” is still slightly off kilter from last fall’s big hurricane.

As he snipped off the nylon strings and filed down the bridge, Daddy explained each step that he was taking while I helped hold the Vega at the right angle. I’d go fetch him tools that he needed from the rat’s nest of gear and tuners and bridge pins and other odds ’n ends nestled in jars and milk crates throughout his office.

First, he tried to dislodge the bridge (that ridge of bone down around where the pins are that keep the strings taut on the bottom end of a guitar). In this case, it wasn’t moving at all. He then tried a chisel and a mallet on the side and with gentle tapping tried to slide it out. But it just wouldn’t budge and you don’t want to force it so much that it’ll chip off.

So he decided to adjust the bridge in place. He started with a metal file, using it like a manicurist with a particularly tough hangnail, and started filing it down at an angle across the top. Then he realized it was taking too much time and broke out the Dremel, a little drill-like mechanism but with a round head with a sandpaper-like surface around the sides. This allowed him to gently grind away the surface of the bone, fine drifts of white dusting the face.

“Now hand me a #2 pencil and I’ll show you how to see where it’s still uneven.” He gently rubbed the side of the pencil lead across the top of the bridge and, sure enough, the sections that were still rising higher than the rest were a dark gray while the rest stayed relatively white. He finished his grinding and rubbed his thumb over the surface. Having done this for decades, he could eyeball the exact height he wanted so he went ahead and strung it back up.

Daddy getting ready to string the Vega back up.

He told me the story of the first guitar he’d bought. Over sixty years ago, he’d walked into one of the music stores in downtown Jacksonville, called American Music, with hard-earned money he’d been saving – it was time to buy his first real guitar! The salesman handed over a classical guitar much like this Vega but Daddy wanted a steel string guitar like the folk singers he’d been falling in love with. The man – eyes fixed firmly on the wad of cash in Daddy’s young fist – said “No problem!” and put on some steel strings himself to seal the deal. Daddy brought home his prize only to find the bridge had snapped off sure enough only a few days later. He’d brought the guitar back to get some satisfaction but the salesman said “That’s what you get when you buy that cheap stuff!” It was one of Daddy’s first – but not last – lessons in the dog-eat-dog nature of this world.

But now as he wound up the proper strings for this guitar, he was getting his own kind of recompense. Another stray guitar that he will fix and heal and love. There was still more work to do – a couple of the strings were buzzing – giving off “wolf tones” – and Daddy used a special set of nut files, one for each string of a guitar. Then he diagnosed a loose brace by pressing down his fingerpads on certain areas of the face while strumming – like a doctor palpitating a patient. Before long, that Vega was sounding better than it probably ever had and it fairly thrummed with happiness in Daddy’s callused hands.

I felt so much pride in this demonstration of decades of love and care – and regret at how much I had disregarded it as a youngster. Daddy was and always will be a teacher – whether it’s the social studies and history of his public high school career or the care and feeding of guitars.


a season of the new

First month of the year, ’tis the season of turning over a new leaf and for me that includes lots of new things: new photos, new website and most importantly…new music! Yes, those demos have been taking their sweet time coalescing into something resembling the kinds of new songs I’ve been hearing inside my head – and willing to send off into the world. But the time is nigh!

But first, the photos. I just did a shoot with fantastic (and fascinating) photographer, Jimi Giannatti. Go click the link and see all the great work he’s done with really cool people! Here’s a sneak peek at of some of the pieces of my soul Jimi captured.

FYI – the building you’ll see in some of these shots are from a beautiful mission-style building called San Pedro Chapel. You’d think you were out in the middle of the Sonoran desert but this chapel – standing since the 1930s – is actually in the heart of Tucson in one of the oldest neighborhoods – originally called El Fuerte (the Strong) and is now Old Fort Lowell. It’s a tiny road surrounded by isolated adobes, ranches and native landscape that I didn’t have any idea existed just a mile from my house.

Cristina Williams by Jimi Giannatti

Cristina Williams by Jimi Giannatti

Cristina Williams by Jimi Giannatti

Cristina Williams by Jimi Giannatti

Cristina Williams by Jimi Giannatti

New website coming soon!



a short holiday playlist for these times

Befitting this season of longer nights, when my thoughts turn to the more magical, love-based aspects of Christmas and other winter holidays – I think about one of my favorite messages in most seasonal movies and songs: fellowship and goodwill toward all.

So many people are so heartbroken and scared right now – myself included – because we had hoped that rhetoric that demeans so many our fellow humans and historically leads to the worst of human nature was a deal-breaker. Others are in a lot of pain and not feeling listened to and threw in with someone who promised a lot of things that sounded damn good. Both sides reject the top-down establishment but both are being pitted against each other.

So I want my left-, right-, whatever-leaning friends to just take a moment and stretch up. Look up at the winter stars that have been there far, far longer than our scrambling around like ants on this young planet in this oh-so-young nation. Continue Reading

music, writing

how the magic happens

Sitting in my sonic bubble. Headphones on, bass plugged in, staring at a sheet of glass – sucked into the vortex of 21st century recording software’s infinite possibilities (Logic, if you’re curious, and the irony of such a name for something that helps birth so many imaginings is not lost on me).

I pour one piece, a three-minute snippet of my analog soul, into this magic box, one take at a time. Notes and melodies and chords alchemized into ones and zeros.

screenshot of Logic

I used to resist this – longing for the “good ol’ days” of 2-inch tape and the legends of Abbey Road, but I now embrace my new electric overlord that lets me massage, prod and nudge these rainbow-colored sound waves until they more closely resemble this auditory loop that constantly runs through my head and won’t let me sleep.

And it’s overwhelming. I’m closer to the ‘rank beginner’ end of the spectrum than I wish when it comes to recording demos – bringing them to proto-life before I share them with the other wizards who will complete the metamorphosis.

So I have a process, a method that I’m sticking to for now. Don’t know if it’s the right one yet, but it’s something to follow so I Have Something To Do when I sit down:

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good day, sir, and thank you

photo by STEVE WOOD

Photo by Steve Wood (1979)

Gene Wilder is gone. To be fair, we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him in a good long while and I admit he had slipped my mind. Though every now and then I tend to gravitate towards some YouTube clip from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Young Frankenstein. It’s like I have this innate need to look into his sparkling eyes, into a child-like face grounded in a bottomless sense of wisdom and a devilish grin.

That frizzy, cumulus of hair always trying to lift off from his head. That perfect sense of timing. Those moments of gravitas that flip into silliness and back again. How can you not love that? How can you not need that in this world?

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