I had a roommate in college who owned a Gibson J-45 guitar. A flattop acoustic with a dark sunburst finish, famous sloping shoulders, and that perfectly plump Gibson neck. I spent hours playing it my freshman year, learning to love its reedy snap of a voice, trying to get my fingers over the changes of Led Zeppelin’s “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” It was so resonant that it felt alive, somehow, like I was just a conduit for what it had to say.
One weekend he went home to play in the praise band at his church. He left his guitar in the church after a Saturday rehearsal, and returned on Sunday morning to find that someone had opened the case and jumped feet first on the top. It was demolished. He considered it a write-off, eventually cutting little key chain tags from the shards of its sonorous spruce top, giving them to others who’d loved it as souvenirs, as memento mori.
He bought another J-45, but it didn’t have the same personality; it was no living thing, and everyone who played it knew that.
I’ve since spent hours watching guitar building and guitar repair videos on YouTube. If I could drop everything and pick another vocation, I’d want to be a luthier. But that’s just not in the cards I fear, and for numerous reasons. Perhaps chief among them is my general clumsiness, which means there’s always a risk, when power tools are involved, that I’ll remove the very digits that allow me to play the guitar in the first place.
I’ve learned in those YouTube videos that a catastrophic incident need not mean the end of the instrument. I’ve watched videos where headstocks are meticulously, seamlessly, glued back on, where large cracks are sealed with hide glue, and where entire tops are replaced. The writer Francis Spufford, in describing the breadth of the Gospel good news, writes “more can be mended than you know.” The same is true of guitar repair.
Mending a guitar and making it look new takes a kind of virtuosity; it’s a skill akin to being a player who always plays perfectly in time and in tune and puts the right notes in the right place.
Yet something gets lost in that aim for perfection, or least when what is sought is a cosmetic, aesthetic perfection. The things carried in the scars, the dings, the cracks – they matter, and I think they matter more and are more impressive than the most seamless restoration.
Willie Nelson’s guitar
There are loads of famous guitars-with-scars, but the most famous is of course “Trigger,” Willie Nelson’s 1969 Martin N-20. It’s a classical guitar, not a common choice for country musicians, but Willie thought it made him sound like Django Reinhardt, and he and Trigger have been a pair now for nearly 50 years, for something like 10,000 shows and recording sessions.
Scratched into Trigger’s face are the countless signatures of Willie’s friends, most of whom are country music royalty. Its finish has worn off where Willie’s right arm rubs against the lower bout, and the binding often springs free. The D tuner key is finicky and rattles loose, thanks to Willie’s nervous tic fiddling during performances. And, most notably, just southeast of the sound hole is another gaping hole, worn through by Willie’s enthusiastic finger picking. Once, when Trigger seemed like it was going to fall apart entirely, someone found him another Martin N-20, a relative a couple serial numbers removed. As close as you could get to identical – likely made from the same trees, by the same luthier. Willie stuck it on the shelf somewhere and forgot about it. He tells Trigger’s repairman: “keep my guitar going; as long as it’s working, I’ll be working.” And to his credit, the repairman gets it: “this guitar is a part of Willie” he says, acknowledging its faithful presence, acknowledging that perfection doesn’t demand a thing be pristine, acknowledging that the scars and the stories they tell are kind of the point.
You can watch this repairman work on Trigger on YouTube, and I’ve done so, keenly, like some devoted apostle, wondering what it would be like to put my hand on this enduring, scarred, living thing.
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