Lost and Found: A Guitar Gear Mini-Memoir
1. In this photo I’m in my late teens, playing at Gary’s Barley Corn on North Avenue in New Rochelle, NY. Gary’s was not even a performance venue, it was just a bar, long gone, where underage drinkers — and apparently underage bands — imbibed and frolicked freely in the ’80s (and then drove home, which is no laughing matter). The rig I’m playing through is completely ridiculous: a Gallien-Krueger head through a massive 4x12 cabinet, with a totally unnecessary rack of effects (delay, unwieldy digital reverb, zillion-band EQ) in a bulky road case. I actually carted all this stuff around to gigs. I liked the way the rack lights flickered and rose and fell while I played.
At this precise moment in the photo, our band might be playing “Next to You” or “What I Like About You” or “Just Like Heaven” or “Purple Haze,” or perhaps “Love Removal Machine” by The Cult. I won’t speculate as to why my legs are twice the length of my torso in the photo, or why I decided to wear an undershirt, parachute pants and hideous shoes to the gig. The hair is a whole other discussion.
I see my Crybaby Wah-Wah pedal down on the floor, dark brown Boss Octave pedal that I basically never touched, can’t make out the rest. So there’s a rack of effects and pedals as well, good grief. Choice of guitar not bad, a red Telecaster, even if a cheap one. But the 52-year-old me cringes and says: David. You don’t play Gary’s Barley Corn with this pointless ’80s nightmare rig. You play Gary’s with a Marshall 50-watt combo, two or three pedals at most and that’s it. And you would’ve sounded a thousand times better.
2. I haven’t always made the best decisions about gear, and that’s not a minor thing: a wrong turn at a certain fork in the road and you can land in a situation where you’re not presenting your best musical self. I still make mistakes in that regard, but I’ve become a lot more clear-eyed about what my sound is and how to make sure I get that sound and not settle for less.
3. It’s the mid-’90s, different band, and I’ve found a guitar tech near me in Alphabet City that I’ve started using. Thin, wiry guy on the short side, kind of spacey but frantic, works part-time at Chelsea Guitars on 23rd. Calls me one day from the store to say he’s got a weird Fender Strat, not that expensive, I should take a look. He explains that it seems to be a forgery: a Strat body with what could be a Jazzmaster neck, and a Stratocaster decal that someone slapped on the headstock a long time ago. It’s a very professional job, looks convincing. For my purposes it’s a Strat. It looks and feels and plays great even though the frets are kind of big and buzzy. The back-of-neck finish is completely worn and broken in, it feels like butter. I buy it. It looked more or less like this one (with an asking price in the five figures):
4. Fast-forward a few months, I’ve been playing the Strat on gigs and it screams. I won’t get into the whole heart-wrenching story, but that guitar gets left in a cab by a very dear friend. And the friend is devastated, and he justly compensates me without delay. It sucks, but I have no choice but to keep it in perspective and move on.
I go see someone I know at 48th Street Guitars to get a new axe in a hurry, and he directs me to a Schecter Strat copy with a very alluring natural wood finish. And here’s that fork in the road: 52-year-old me says, David. Slow down. You will get a new guitar. This is 48th Street: there are many, many guitars. Try a few. And 27-year-old me says: I need to get this done, the price is right, the sales guy is my friend, the Schecter it is. And I played that guitar at Mercury Lounge and Fez and Brownie’s and the Pyramid and Spiral and The Bitter End, even the Knit main stage, lots of places, and we had a good run. But was it the absolute best match? Did it scream like the Strat did? Should I have waited?
5. Hauling gear doesn’t just mean heavy amps. The Schecter came with one of those really terrible gig bags that’s triangular or whatever, with a single diagonal strap that you can’t really wear across your back. I carried that guitar around in that ergonomically disastrous gig bag for years until it was tearing at the seams and never thought to get a proper one that wouldn’t destroy my back and shoulders on the subway. And 52-year-old me says: David. My body hurts now because of you. You spent more on drinks in one night out than you would have needed to buy a decent bag. Take yourself seriously, set priorities, spend what you need to spend in order to be a professional.
6. It’s 2010, I’m playing a whole bunch of acoustic guitar, and the Schecter is sitting in the crappy old gig bag and not getting played at all. Occasionally I check it and get it set up, restrung, make sure it’s maintaining — who knows, I might need it.
7. It’s 2017, we’re leaving New York and moving to Athens, Georgia. The Schecter has indeed come in handy — I played it, for example, at a live-band karaoke in Brooklyn organized in tribute to my beautiful friend who died of breast cancer at 41. So the guitar has acquired more meaning, and it’s coming to Georgia with me. BUT: I buy a new gig bag. It finally seems too ridiculous to keep the old torn one. So I get the Fender gig bag I should’ve had all along, super comfy with actual back straps. It turns out that lugging around a guitar in pain with the wrong bag makes you less psyched not just about guitar, but about music. So, uh, why would you do that? Pay attention to decisions like those, and make better ones. Anyway, I’m liking the Schecter and its new bag a lot, but still, in 2017 it hardly ever comes out. I’m playing only acoustic and loving it, don’t need anything else.
8. It’s 2020, and there’s no need to elaborate about that here. But toward the end of it, I cave and start playing the Schecter a bit. And again, and again. And I’m feeling it. My sound is kinda there. Playing all-acoustic for years has made it even better, easier, more natural. But hmm, does it scream like the Strat did? I still don’t have closure on this.
9. It’s 2021, new possibilities, time to address unfinished business. It started to sink in again that many years ago, I lost my Strat. It was sunburst with a rosewood fingerboard. And it was a beast. Time to replace it for real, 25 years later. Same finish, about the same low(ish) price. Bonus if it’s a weird Strat, like the other one was. Not a forgery, but something a little off, a little different. Like this:
10. There it is, the exact right thing: a 2006 Korean-made koa sunburst with rosewood fingerboard, bird’s-eye maple neck and headstock. Killing Seymour Duncan pickups. Affordable. Fender logo on the headstock but no Stratocaster decal, which is odd. Almost like the one I lost: not a normal Strat, and yet every inch a Strat. And a lot nicer, more stable. Sounds incredible through a Joyo Maximum amp sim pedal straight to my very acoustic-sounding JBL PA. (The Joyo even has cool LED side-lights!) Full stereo from the PA, onboard reverb is perfectly fine, no ungainly rack or giant cabinets, no devices I barely know how to use. It screams. For the first time, a setup that responds to me note by note, chord by chord. It’s hard to describe but when it happens, you know: a sound that cannot be improved upon. Altered, supplemented, varied, maybe. But not improved. It was a journey but I found it.