Carl walked in holding a guitar box under his arm this afternoon. “Hey Paul, you remember that pickup system we talked about the other day?” It could be classified as a miracle, but I did and told him so. “Well, I want you to install one in this guitar for me.” I opened the box and picked up the brand new acoustic guitar. “Looks like you just bought it.” Carl looked at me with pride. “I did. I spent a long time picking out that specific instrument.” I wondered aloud if the shop in which he purchased the guitar had any acoustic/electric guitars (with the pickup installed at the factory). He informed me that they did, but none of them sounded as good as this one did. “This guitar was absolutely perfect! The action of the strings feels great and it has exactly the tone I was looking for. Now when you get the pickup installed in it, it will really be everything I was hoping for!”
I took the instrument and told him to come back tomorrow afternoon and it would be ready. Late tonight, I made the necessary modifications to the guitar to change it from the lowly acoustic instrument it started life as into the more versatile instrument the owner wants. Now, instead of the plastic strap button at the lowest point of the body, there is a metal combination output jack and strap button. Other than that and the almost imperceptible fingertip volume control right inside the tone hole on the top, the guitar appears exactly as it did before I started the operation.
I began by removing the old strap button and taping off the area to avoid marring the laminated surface around the already existing hole. With the aid of a tapered reamer, the hole was quickly enlarged and the new hardware inserted. A little cleanup inside the body of the guitar and I was ready to move on to the next step.
The strings were removed and also the bridge saddle (what the strings run across) so a very small 1/8 inch hole could be drilled through the top in the saddle slot. Then the pickup, a flat, flexible piece of braided wire, was inserted into the hole from inside the instrument. When it was in place, the saddle was cut and filed to offset the added height of the pickup and reinserted into the slot over the pickup strip. It only took a few moments more to mount the battery pack and volume control into their correct locations and the installation was done!
With the strings replaced on the guitar, I tuned it up. No apparent issues, so I plugged one end of the cable into the output jack for the first time and the other end into an amplifier. All the strings sounded clearly, with none any louder than another, so I turned the amp up and played a little on the guitar to be sure that there were no unexpected glitches. Great tone, plenty of volume and the action felt just as it had when the patient went onto the operating table. I called the surgery a success and put the instrument to bed in its box. Another auspicious performance in the bag, I sat down to write this blog.
But something is bothering me. It occurred to me as Carl handed me the new guitar this afternoon; Why would you buy one product, just to convert it to a different one? He told me he bought the guitar because “…it was perfect.” If it was perfect, why did I just ream out one hole and drill another one, cutting a bridge saddle and attaching multiple tie-downs to the wires inside? Modification implies imperfection, the need for improvement. I’ve worked with guitars for a long time and I know guitar players fairly well. I’ve seen many customers walk out of my music store (and others) with the “perfect guitar”, only to walk back in a few weeks, months, or even years later, disappointed that the instrument didn’t live up to their expectations. I’ve also known guitarists who have owned the same instrument for decades. These guys are in love with their guitars, with absolutely nothing that they want changed or modified. I made the mistake once of offering to lower the action (get strings closer to the fingerboard) for one such guitar owner, when he asked me to replace the strings. He replied, almost angrily, “You leave that action alone! Put the strings on and don’t change anything at all!” If I had suggested that his wife was lacking in some way, I don’t think he could have reacted more strongly. Come to think of it, that’s just exactly where this narrative has been headed from the first. I don’t think I tried to make it come here, but it just steered itself to this point.
Why is it that we enter into relationships, thinking consciously that our spouse, or friend, or (fill in the blank) is perfect, but all the while making plans for improvement? I’ve told the joke before of the bride who entered the church on her wedding day, naming off things she saw as she came, “Aisle, altar, hymn.” (Read it out loud; you’ll get it.) Understand, I’m not talking about women and their husbands any more than vice versa. We begin our relationship with our own personal agenda, happy with a lot of the traits our partner exhibits, but there are just a few things that could be improved…And the pattern for life together is set. No wonder we can’t live with each other! While we say they’re perfect, we really don’t believe that deep down. We just think they’ve got potential to be altered. And, we’ve got a plan to make it happen! Unfortunately, the patient isn’t an inanimate object, like a guitar that we can put on the repair cradle and set up the way we like. Way too often the result is, like the fickle guitar player in search of the perfect instrument, the momentous decision that a replacement is in order.
For years, musicians and scientists alike have talked about one of the strange phenomena regarding musical instruments. The research (and legends) started with the old Stradivarius violins, but has migrated to most all instruments which have been in use for extended periods of time. I don’t really care what the scientists find out, because I think I understand perfectly what happens. When a musician treats his instrument with care and fulfills his purpose in the equation, which is to play music, and the instrument does what it is made to do, which is also to play music, the player and instrument sound better and better with time and use. Funny thing, you don’t have to make conscious changes, no braces removed, no wood shaved off, not even a refinish when it gets ragged looking. The player holds the instrument close and does what is required of him, and the instrument responds in kind as it functions just as it was designed to.
The result is nothing short of beautiful music which only gets sweeter. And, that’s food for thought for all of us…
“The ability to play the clarinet is the ability to overcome the imperfections of the instrument. There’s no such thing as a perfect clarinet, never was, and never will be.”
(Jack Brymer~Principal clarinetist~ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from 1947-1963)