Sunday, January 12, 2020

Dude, Where's My Guitar?

By Doug Vehle
For The Daily Bosco

So the sight of the guitar in the picture might not seem so exciting to you right now, but obviously I was a bit in awe of the moment as I was seeing this. I'm not saying this IS my old guitar from when I was a teenager, but considering how things turned out, I really don't know that it isn't. But it sure looks like the guitar that was in front of me at that garage sale I'd stopped at back in college: An Ibanez Les Paul copy, lawsuit edition.

As the only of the ten kids in my family that didn't get to take piano lessons, I branched out a bit in my self taught approach. I had a flute, until it disappeared. The same fate awaited my bongos, although I don't think Mom got hold of that, I'm sure one of the brothers or sisters sold it for me. Just like with the toy robot which, before I was ten, I guessed would be worth something someday and I stashed it away. For as long as it took for a particular older sister to learn it was already selling for over $30. And it was gone. I'm sure her dealer was happy about it, but I was pretty pissed. Something that happened a lot when certain members of the family were around. Remember this when I ask if you can guess where I'm going with this.

As least my stayed tuned about five minutes Toys'r'Us guitar had been safe. Nobody would give the others anything for it and I only played it in my room so Mom wasn't really aware I had it. Or maybe she just figured I wasn't getting anywhere with my autodidactic approach. And for a time she was probably right. I had to work on it some to make it playable, cheap guitars have all the same problems. Not sure why I suddenly watched the PBS special on Andre Segovia on Channel 28 that today, but my teen years changed instantly. The steel string guitar wasn't doing me any good anymore. I had to have a classical.

I wound up with a Yamaha G-55. If you search online you'll find people raving about that old guitar. I might guess they're wannabee dealers of classics. But it was, and still is, a perfectly good cheap guitar, no buzz, holds tune, etc. Not a bad tone, either. Big improvement over what the toy store sold for what was probably less than five hours of minimum wage at the time. So long as I was going to play in the Spanish style by myself I was in great shape at that point. My brother was helping me learn the piano, at least until Mom found out. (Ma had this evil plot to make me hate life so I'd become a priest, I guess expecting I'd want to torment others as she'd tormented me.) But I got him playing Malaguena on the guitar as he was learning it for piano, he'd helped me out with The Entertainer, it was going well.

Ah, but the day comes that most any teenage guitarist just HAS to be in a band. I mean, think of all the CHICKS. (Give it up, Ma.) The problem is, there was no way I was going to be able to afford that. Once I had the Les Paul I'd just have to have a Mesa Boogie, (so named by Carlos Santana) etc. This was going to really add up. (Groan.)

So I walked into Fullerton Music one day. This will be the 'Old' Fullerton Music, probably in its' final days. They sort of knew me, not only was I in there buying music to play on the guitar, but a brother and sister were getting serious beyond just their lessons, yeah, I was in there a bit. So they handed me an electric guitar.

Ah, this is not yet my precious Ibanez. But it really illustrates the story. Both Gibson and Fender ran off to Japan to build the cheapest versions of their guitars. In so doing they taught the Japanese how to build their guitars. And much like in China today, the Japanese had just learned how to knock off popular American products. You could now have literally the generic of just the guitar you wanted for around 20% the cost of the real thing.

That is, if it worked. The stores would open the package with a shipment of these knockoff guitars and find the bodies had cracked in transit. The Japanese hadn't learned enough about the wood. If it survived the trip, you might plug it in and discover the pickups didn't work. Double damning for the already cracked guitars. These stores would have someone to pull it apart and try to fix it, but could you sell the cracked one for what it just cost to fix it? Once they did, were the frets even enough to play it at all? Might the neck warping be next?

So, literally, as the guy held it out and said 'Here, kid,' there was either a replacement on the way, a refund, or just a discount on the next shipment in place, so it didn't cost them anything to hand it to me instead of throwing it out. Meanwhile, in much the same way as a one cent sale on paint sets the customers buying paint rollers, brushes, drop cloths, etc., I was going to need an amplifier, case, a supply of electric guitar strings---IF I could fix it.

Dang, you're dealing with Doug, here. How much of what I had at the time did I get by fixing something someone else was tossing out? I pulled out all these wires and switches, etc., looking for bad connections. I had it working while it was inside out. Then I started figuring out the reality of wires not wanting to go back in where they just came out of. Which left me needing to fulfill the destiny of this little gift: I had to run down there and get an amplifier.

No, not a Mesa Boogie. For this guitar I could tolerate a cheap little Yamaha amp. And over the course of all this, I was discovered. Well, this guy I met at Fullerton Music had a band for me, turned out he already had someone I knew for another guitar, then I brought along someone else I knew for keyboards.

So this is supposed to be one of those exciting stories where I talk about lead on a cover of Steve Miller, 'Jungle Love,' with people getting all excited as we played. Well, it happened, but as one of my old teachers' pointed out, your average unknown band probably had 5-12 minutes of music its' ready to play in front of an audience. We might have still been there as I continued as lead with the Monkees' 'You Just May be the One,' but it was downhill from there.

A band, you see, needs its' definitive sound. At least at first. You can branch out later, but you gotta start with being clear to the audience. So once shred god Richard and finger pickin' hard rock flamenco player you know who got finished with our version of 'Jungle Love,' the audience just wasn't ready for that piece from Maurice I dubbed "Cosmic Jazz." You gotta be there to know what it's like to go from the crowd screaming 'Yeah' to quietly wondering 'Huh?'

So okay, the band didn't last. If I remember we broke up before that fateful day I walked into that yard, staring at that guitar. Imagine the medieval religious art with the shaft of light beaming down on some saint. You get the picture of what i was seeing as I'm locked onto the Ibanez Les Paul copy, LAWSUIT edition.

Ah, about that lawsuit. Ibanez was part of Hoshino Gakki, a Japanese company that dated back before World War I to a time when the legendary Spanish guitar Luthier (That what you call a guitar crafter) Salvador Ibáñez. So they did a knockoff of his name, just so nobody would know they were Japanese. And then at the time the American biggies were giving there secrets away to Japanese manufacturing, an American company decided to stop making their own guitars and to import from Japan.

Unlike so many bad knockoffs, Ibanez offered a trouble free guitar. The great myth of those old copies of the Les Paul was that they were 'Better than the real thing.' So I had one of them, it's just not true. Once I had it working my unknown knockoff was pretty good, but I might have done who knows how much better with the Gibson. The Ibanez was a noticeable improvement once I had it, working out of the box and not splitting its' properly crafted solid wood body. It's nonsense to call it better than the Gibson. But it sure could make you forget the original once you realized that for a Gibson you paid maybe $179 for the guitar and maybe $600 for the name on the headstock. You could save all that by just going with the Ibanez.

Gibson couldn't really sue for the shape of the guitar, so many of the knockoffs were safe. Ibanez, however, didn't stop at matching the size and weight to go with the color schemes. They even had the broken diamond pattern at the top. And other trademark images from the Gibson. Oops. It was nitpicking things that brought them down.

So it may have cost plenty to settle the suit, but for Ibanez I'm sure it was quite a marketing boon to be able to say 'It's the guitar Gibson doesn't want you to hear." Ibanez could now ship pretty much any of their guitars to the U.S. and the customers were already expecting it would turn out to be a solid piece of work that wouldn't disappoint.

It just wouldn't be a copy of a Les Paul anymore. That disappointed me, I hadn't snagged one before it was too late. I could just picture all those people who bought one expecting to learn to play, only to leave it on the stand, in the closet, etc., forever new.

At least until they decided to sell it at a garage sale for $40. This was no collectors item at the time, it might have seemed a bit archaic. But this was basically the alternative dream: If I couldn't have the actual Les Paul. . . .

Ah, but my life was changing quickly. My father died just after I turned 20. Mom moved back home to Texas. Older brothers and sisters accustomed to moving back in with mom and dad were coming to me, expecting to be taken care of. And me without a fulltime job.I dashed from parttime job to temp assignment to even my initial freelance work in television, grabbing old tires from the side of the road if they could fit my car and prying them onto rims with a pry bar and a long, long screwdriver, and did other things trying to make ends meet. But I had to sell a certain dreadnought guitar (Oversized steel string folk guitar) I'd picked up, then the electric amp went with the free Les Paul knockoff, which I was fairly sorry to see go. Didn't have much time to play anyway.

But the Ibanez was going nowhere as far as I was concerned. I couldn't seriously play it without an amp, but I'd feel good knowing it was waiting for me just as soon as I could find a real job and get an amp. Perhaps at last a Mesa Boogie. Awww, the fulltime gig would just have to turn up in another month. Or two. Or. . . ?

So at last I did have my one and only fulltime job of my life, working at a cable network with its' own home shopping show. I was just master control, but I wrote a proposal for forming a band and playing the cheap shopping show instruments on the air with employees I'd already recruited. I'd played a Toys'r'Us guitar, how hard could this one be? And it was approved.

First thing to do was to get that Mesa Boogie and pull the Ibanez out of the closet and get playing electric again. But can you guess where I'm going with this?

So people love telling you the year of their old Les Paul or Stratocaster was made. 'Yeah, my '67. . . .' When I'd first started talking to coworkers at the network about playing, I'd bring up Ibanez, lawsuit, kewl. In a way, more irreplaceable than a real Les Paul would have been. But it was gone. Someone sold it for me. It was like those moments when you say 'Part of my childhood died.'

By then the worst thieves of the family had just finished moving to Texas so they could have mom take care of them again. Yeah, it was never going to be that good living with me. Especially since I'd about run out of things to steal. Here I'd finally bothered to buy an answering machine because it wouldn't disappear any more, etc. I was still talking to Richard, who might call and record himself playing onto my machine. But he was wanting to trade one of his Strats for some old television camera, life was moving on for him, too.

Well, I made it on the air of the shopping show. I had to do a little work leveling the nut and bridge of their what? $39 guitar? Maybe some adjusting out the buzz and tightening so it wouldn't lose tune. The toy store guitar repairs I first learned in grade school. The customers wouldn't really get one like what I was playing. These guys who got along just fine at work argued, wouldn't listen to me and told themselves they'd taken over the whole project. But we played on the air on national television, even if there weren't many watching our not long for the world network. We recorded a new theme song/promo for the shopping show, went on the air talking about the instruments, great fun, until the bad attitude of a few of them made the bosses lose interest. That meant I also got to go on the air doing characters such as the blues guitarist Low Down ("It's starting to feel reeeeeeeeeal gooooooooooood.") sunglasses for always looking up into the lights, bandana just for the fun of it. I also went Huck Finn, as others said, wearing a straw hat and overalls as Banjo Man. ("Ma'am, I'd sure be obliged if you happened to have a tooth pick handy.") The banjo was no slouch, they were selling the legendary Melody Chicago, the greatest cheap banjo ever made, complete with a BACK, which other cheap banjos lacked. People thought I actually knew what I was doing when I played it, but once you play classical guitar the banjo isn't hard, especially if you just make it up as you go. I wound up buying one of those.

Dang, whatever came of all that music? Here I was freelancing for people, sometimes doing the scoring and 'Sound design,' that musical sound that resembles music but isn't quite. Then it all came crashing down. Two words: Carpel Tunnel. Being a run and gun cameraman, carrying the camera by the lens while it was on my shoulder, a lot of us developed this problem. The fingers of the right hand just stopped moving very well. The stringed instruments became impossible right off, the piano efforts lingered but it was hopeless. Even an attempt to switch to the violin fell through when I broke the bow. I didn't understand you tuned the BOW and couldn't get much sound and destroyed it quickly.

Here I couldn't have explained the circle of fifths, but I'd followed the principle on sheer instinct. And how did I know to shift from maybe the F major if I wanted a tense sound to the more depressing F IV and then the F V7? Is it really supposed to be scary? Should I be using the Phrygian scale? I didn't know what that was but I was doing it.

Soon even the memories were gone. Or at least the recordings and photographs. The one family of relatives that moved it weren't ones to sell my stuff, but the mom decided she wanted to use the closet I had tapes and stills in, when I wasn't home they were gone. Talk about putting the exclamation point after "The end!" It just seems as though that was the worst thing stolen from me.

Ah well, eventually I went to this chiropractor others from my gym went to. He didn't just crack your back, he used some self taught shiatsu massage on you. And my hand loosened a bit. I wound up getting spinal decompression at Salem Chiropractic, feeling the hand opening while it seemed as though I'd hit my funny bone and the feeling was coming back. I wound up at Guitar Center on a Sunday morning when you find the retired guys who sure can play trying out every guitar in the store. But even with their help the hand wasn't up to it.

Next came the rolfing with Joshua Malpass. And another trip to Guitar Center. Whattaya know, I was sort of playing. But before I could talk myself into really trying to play came what should have been a minor shoulder injury and a serious case of frozen shoulder syndrome. I don't think the limp arm was near so bad as the pain, I couldn't breathe for the shoulder pushing so far forward and choking me. As it eventually reached the point of seeming normal again came a somewhat mysterious fall: The kid who worked so hard on landing and even jumped off the roof managed to get seriously hurt tripping while running, not sure I understood how. But the faces of paramedics as they wanted to put me in an ambulance a few weeks later when my condition worsened and I couldn't walk, they said the only thing the hospital would do was give me pain killers and. . . I WALKED! No way I wanted any painkillers, that's the kind of thing that made the others sell all my stuff. You should have seen their eyes bug as I pulled myself up. I could guess how much that would have hurt if I'd just fell again. Oh, I'd already dislocated both elbows and my left wrist in the original fall.

But it was another long recovery. If you walk bad you're at least walking, but if the hand doesn't move right it doesn't let you play, well, all my thoughts of that went out the window.

So during my recent efforts to learn some math so I could take engineering physics I wound up in an electronic music class, learning to program the computer to just play music. This led to a fundamentals of music class to at least learn the basic things I'd have learned if I'd had lessons as a kid and to learn the Recorder wind instrument. And Mt. SAC had a new recording program coming. I wonder if I could be the first to actually graduate with their 2 year degree, all the kids weren't finished with their general education as we completed all the first time classes. And I couldn't help myself, I was still there and wound up with 'A's in piano and guitar, an 'A' in music theory, gee, gaining on an actual music degree. None of this was required for the recording program.

I still have my Yamaha G-55 guitar, still have one of my electronic keyboards, violin, oh, where is my banjo? No one has been here to sell it, except maybe on one of the few visits from out of state. . . .

Ah well, if I'm not going to be working full time maybe I need a new electric. That Ibanez just never turned up in some squirreled away location I hadn't looked in. I might have to settle for a Fender Affinity Strat, the Stratocaster equivalent to the broken guitar they gave me. But made by Fender nonetheless, they and Gibson (As Epiphone) learned their lesson and make their own cheap knockoffs of their popular equipment. I should take up bass, too, there's this cheap American made Dean. A better keyboard with weighted keys, a Venova wind instrument much like the recorder. A whole bunch of stuff I can get cheap but seem like it holds up. Lets not forget a serious MacIntosh package with the recording software, one no longer needs the huge 16 track recorder with 2" tape I first learned to use at Fullerton College. Assuming I at least get to work some I could go right on making use of this.

Recently I met an old man at a drum circle who told me of his retirement and just learning to play every instrument he once thought of playing. He has his own music room in his house. Well, I have 5 bedrooms and relatives aren't moving in anymore. And that means there won't be anyone to sell any of it for me. . . .