Monday, January 7, 2013

Broken Guitars

It is hard for a non-musician to appreciate how horrible is the death of a guitar. Of course, the death of a violin or cello is just as bad (violas, not quite so bad) and much more costly. But since I'm a guitarist, it's guitars that I really mourn.

It's like this: you long for a fine instrument and one day you meet a builder who can make a really wonderful guitar. He chooses his materials carefully. Perhaps he even goes up into the mountains and chooses a high-altitude spruce and has it sawn just so for a tight, even grain. That's important for a fine guitar. Then it's Honduran mahogany for the neck, ebony for the fingerboard and detailing, Indian rosewood for the back and sides. Months of precision craftsmanship and careful design and finally, it is ready and you go pick it up.

Of course as it is a new guitar, its sound is still closed, but months and years of playing not only open out the sound, but also result in a bonding of player and instrument. You can actually train the sound to suit your playing. The soundboard develops partly with age and partly with the kind of sound you make.

And then one day you have to play a concert in a distant city and your beloved guitar is relegated to the baggage compartment. Horrible things can happen... Read this story. Or watch this video:

Some classical guitarists buy fibreglass travel cases that will resist most assaults. Unless you use a forklift! Yes, I have had a guitarist tell me he watched out the window of the plane as they drove the tines of a forklift right through his fibreglass case. And the guitar, of course.

Classical guitars are delicate! The soundboard of mine is so thin that in places the light shines through. Guitarists have a visceral reaction to damage to guitars because they know that often it cannot be repaired. Three of us were standing around talking and a fourth, a student guitarist, was sitting with her guitar on her lap and dropped her tuning fork right onto the soundboard. We all reacted with horror, which she found comic. But it's visceral, I tell you. I can recall slipping on the ice in the winter in Montreal and falling down and twisting in the air so that my guitar would fall on me and not vice versa. And I didn't even think about it.

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