This is my guitar.
Since I’ve owned it, it has travelled across the world with me. Whether helping me stave off boredom in a cheap hostel or making me a bit of extra travelling money in an open mic night, it has been a constant companion. I learned to play my first complicated finger picking pattern on this guitar (though I had it strung as a six-string at that point), used it during my first studio recording session and took it to Melbourne with me to record my Band’s first EP. I even busked with it on the street in Dublin the first night I spent overseas and away from home. It has done everything I’ve ever asked of it.
But before me, it belonged to someone else.
My parents bought it as a gift from its previous owner; an old man who sold it to them at a price which didn’t do it justice. He had owned it for the past thirty-two years, his chief acoustic guitar all that time. In the end, he became unable to play it anymore as a result of arthritis. Beyond this, I know very little about its history.
I know the last owner was left handed, because it was strung that way when I first saw it. I also know it was well-loved because for a guitar that was someone’s main guitar for over three decades, it is in remarkably good condition.
That’s as much as I can tell you for sure. But this is incidental. What is far more interesting is the story told in the wood and metal. Each imperfection in the finish of the wood is part of the history of this beautiful instrument. Each minute dent or scratch a different story. The strings must have been changed a great many times, but the tuning pegs are rusty from years of corrosive sweat and the wood has been impregnated with the acrid smell of a hundred smoke-filled pubs.
When I play this guitar, I can feel my fingers being guided by the wear from someone else’s fingers on the fretboard. It seems incredible to think that my own choice of notes is literally influenced by the history this instrument has shared with someone else. Likewise as I play, my own hand suggests new shapes for the next owner and the next, ad infinitum.
There’s something personal and romantic about the idea of a guitar more than say, a keyboard or a drum kit. Because of the nature of the sheer mechanics of playing, it’s something you literally hold quite close to your heart. It’s a very physical relationship to share with an instrument. There’s also something of the idea of a travelling musician which goes hand in hand with a guitar; one whose only companion is his instrument as he tries to make his mark on the world, to make himself heard.
More than that, to me my guitar became an identity. Instead of being good at sports or even passable at the art of socialising, it is so much easier to impress people by making a piece of wood sing to them. ‘The guitarist’ is an easy way to define oneself, an easy identity to adopt which doesn’t invite too much scrutiny. In this way, playing the guitar helped me to discover some form of self-worth. Music is a way of connecting with almost anyone. It transcends social barriers in a way very little else does. Ironic then that a guitar could also prove to be almost like a best friend.
I can remember where every little dent I’ve put in this guitar comes from, so I am well aware of the sheer amount the instrument must have been through in the last quarter century. Its history can be read almost like a book in its surface. It has spent more time on this planet than I have and seen at least as much of the world.
What’s more, you can hear it. Most guitarists will agree that age improves the sound of a guitar, a few of those more eloquent and more given to poetic musings might even tell you it’s possible to hear the history of the guitar itself. I don’t buy into that. But I do know that the appreciation of such a rich history as any instrument that’s been around for so long must have adds a completely new dimension to playing. It makes you feel a part of something. It makes you pick your notes more carefully.