Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Ben F. Shops for an Acoustic Guitar

Franklin's talents also included playing the violin, the harp, and the guitar.
K. Sprang

Last month my 1973 Gibson J-55 acoustic guitar finally bought it. I took it in to Willie's Guitars to have them fix the binding around the top (it's plastic and it's decomposing) and reset the neck (the action is too high). They said the quality control on the 70s Gibsons was really bad and they see this constantly. One guy had the top of his 70s Gibson Hummingbird replaced under warranty two or three times and it always got a new crack. The repairs for my guitar would cost more than the guitar is worth (about $600).

So I've been doing a little shopping for an acoustic guitar. I have to say, I came out all right on this guitar from an economic point of view. I bought it at an auction in 1975 for $150. It was never a particularly good J-55, but it was a very good guitar for that price. And I've been playing it for nearly thirty years now. That comes out to about $5 a year!

The problem is, what to replace it with. Do any of you have the slightest idea what acoustic guitars cost these days? To begin to find an acoustic guitar that sounds remotely as good as this mediocre Gibson you have to spend at least a $1000. A really fine one you'd be happy to play until death do you part would run you from $1500-$3000!

When I was younger and played in a band all the time, I was convinced that Gibson acoustics were a lot more rock n' roll than the Martin guitars that all the folkies played. Gibsons have balls. To the ear of a Martin player, Gibsons are just crude and really don't resonate in the euphonic way that Martins do.

Being at Willie's Guitars to pick up my Gibson after it was rejected for repairs, I checked out their stock in acoustics. They had four used Gibson J-45s, a wider necked guitar than the J-55, but a guitar with a fiercely loyal following. They ranged from $1500-$3500. I wasn't charmed enough by any of them to put down that kind of money on one. A couple of them had their virtues. Maybe they just need new strings, but I wasn't feeling it with them.

A few weeks later, I went back in. They had a new Martin D-18 for $1500 and a couple of early 70s ones for $1350. These Martins have a beautiful tone, they almost disappear behind the strings with a very full and soft sound. I think the HD-28 like Lester Flatt plays was $3500. They had a D-18 I became particularly interested in which was custom-ordered with an Adirondack spruce top and scalloped bracing. These are features you normally find only on the D-18 Golden Era Martin which runs to over $3000. They were willing to let this one go for a little over $2000. They let me take it home for a test drive (actually Molly, the acoustic guitar person at the store, told a fellow employee she was changing its strings because it was going out on a date).

I gave it quite a workout that night. I got pretty sore fingers. I played a little Blind Willie Johnson. I played a couple of my own tunes. Some Paul Simon, because his stuff is so acoustic guitar oriented. I even played Mother Nature's Son and Blackbird (except for the intro which still needs some work) while the wife sang along. A lovely time was had by all.

This guitar was very easy to play and sounded beautiful. It was trying to move in with me and it was hard to think of a reason to resist. But $2000(!), I kept thinking. That's a hell of a lot of money for a guitar. You better really be in love with a guitar you spend that much money on. It really was a lot like a date with a cool person you are really attracted to, but something you can't put your finger on is missing. What should you do?

I was still deeply ambivalent as I packed up the Martin to take it back to Willie's. I had to go there anyway to drop off my Esquire. They had done a refret and the neck had dried out at my house and the new frets were sticking out a little too far. What would I say? Ask them to go down a little on the price?

As I was leaving, I decided I would do two things: I would ask them if they could sell my Gibson on consignment to help lower the price and I would ask if they could knock a couple hundred more dollars off the price. I drove a little out of my way to stop at Hoffman's guitars on the way there. Charles Hoffman is a local luthier who makes his own guitars by hand, one at a time. He has a tremendous reputation. I just found out this afternoon that Leo Kottke (who lives somewhere in town) played one for over ten years. I stopped in there to see if that would give me some perspective.

The first thing I had was sticker shock. The lowest priced guitar in the row was $3000. Next, $3500. The top two were $5000. I figured, well, I can't afford any of these guitars, but it can't hurt to see how they play. Maybe someday I'll find a pot of money and I can afford one. The first one I played absolutely floored me. It sounded just like my Gibson, only with a little more presence and volume. The note sustained in exactly the same way. Even the neck had a similar feel. I talked to him about the guitar a little.

"I have a J-55 and it's uncanny how Gibsony this sounds, only better." "That's exactly right," he replied. "My first guitar was an Epiphone Texan [which are made by Gibson--Mark]. I've always loved something about the sound of that guitar and thought it would be important to try to capture it in a guitar I made myself."

He sure did. A new Gibson J-45 straight from the company in Bozeman, Montana lists for close to $4000. I find it hard to believe one of the new Gibsons could touch this Hoffman. But I don't see myself spending $3500 anytime soon, either. So?

Playing this killer guitar by Hoffman made me realize I was holding out on the Martin because as glorious as it sounds, it just doesn't have the meaty sound of this Gibsonesque Hoffman guitar. I am going to have to save my pennies for a used Gibson that suits my fancy or buy one of these Hoffmans when I've paid off more of my student loans (still around $20,000, but $10,000 below where I started). "Sorry, Martin D-18 with the Adirondack spruce top and the scalloped bracings--you have to go back to Willie's." After I told her the story of my trip to Hoffman's, Molly was very gracious about the whole thing. "That's why we let them go out overnight," she said. "So you can figure out those kinds of things." They wouldn't put my Gibson up for sale on consignment, though. "It's decomposing. What if parts of it started falling off while it was here? We wouldn't want to be responsible."

On my way out, Woody, guitar tech to the stars according to my friend, was explaining to a customer why they don't work on guitars made in China, especially the ones under $200. I had seen the signs to that effect before and they struck me as a little snobbish. "Can they be that bad?," I thought. I was curious what he would say.

"We have a term for them in the industry: ISOs--Instrument-Shaped Objects. You start to work on them, and while your fixing one thing, something else snaps off. They are so poorly made, it's just not worth the trouble."

I have a friend with a beautiful Chinese harp handmade in China and lately they've started making some nice tube stereo stuff, but I'll take Woody's word on this. The guitars that we get here made by the transnational corporations in China suck.

The week before, when I was looking at the Gibsons, a customer was talking to Woody about the Gibson factory in Bozeman. They've been making some really fine guitars the last four or five years, he said. They've been doing really well with the quality control. But word has it Gibson is closing the factory and moving production to China. Woody said,"This just doesn't work with guitar production. How many guitar companies have gone out of business after they tried to move to China? Hamer, Charvel, Rainsong, Johnson, the list goes on and on."

Should we hope the Gibson Corporation's talents include the ability to make a guitar in China that isn't an ISO? Or not?