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.

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