What is it about musicians that makes them so stubborn? Oh, I’m sorry! I meant to say unique. Unique. I have spent a lifetime, both as a child and as an adult with musicians and while they don’t surprise me much anymore, they certainly do frustrate me. Wait! I meant to say annoy. No, no; bewilder…that’s it. They bewilder me. Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t know what to think about musicians. They’re a frustrating, annoying, bewildering bunch of people who can’t be pigeon-holed. And, I love being part of their world. Most of the time.
That said, I have been angry with some of them. I told you a few months ago about the man who cut up his vintage Gibson electric guitar while inebriated. I even shared about the fellow who just wasn’t happy with his brand new acoustic guitar until I drilled holes in it to install a pickup system. I’ve seen a five thousand dollar instrument which was ruined in a second because someone leaned it against a chair instead of putting it on the stand a couple of feet away. After it fell, repairs were made, but the value was decimated, and the owner could never be satisfied with the way the guitar played again. Over and over again, I’ve insisted to owners of classical guitars that they take the metal strings off and change them back to the original style nylon strings, only to have them look at me with a blank stare. Only after a lengthy explanation of the structure of their delicate instruments does the light come on and a sheepish look appear on their faces, along with assent to make things right with their guitars.
What is the idiot jabbering about? A guitar is a guitar right? Who cares if you have nylon strings (which are quite obviously only for children’s instruments) or big boy metal strings on a guitar? I’ve heard the arguments over and over in the thirty years I have been an evangelist for the humane treatment of the abused and exploited classical guitar. Many times, the tirade has come too late, only in time to relegate the instrument to “wall-hanger” status; no longer of any use to any guitarist, simply a decorator piece. The classical guitar, easily identified by its extremely wide, flat neck, the fingerboard devoid of any radius whatsoever, and the slotted headstock with its oversize plastic capstans, around which the strings are wound, was never made to withstand the pressures of the steel strings with which it is unforgivably tortured again and again. The delicate structure is specifically designed to facilitate a tone quality which is unmatched in the acoustic guitar family. As the mellow-voiced clear-nylon treble strings and silver-wrapped stranded-nylon bass strings are plucked by the bare fingers or tips of the fingernails (never with a pick!), the thin, lightly braced top responds with a flurry of vibration, resulting in the amazing sound that only this fine instrument can deliver. The lighter structure continues throughout the instrument, with many of the excellent vintage classical guitars showing no sign of the adjustable truss rod in the neck which is commonplace on the steel string acoustic. This truss rod does allow for adjustments to be made when the tension has overcome the natural strength of the wood and caused too much bowing, but its addition on the classical takes away from the tone quality by inhibiting the transfer of sound throughout the instrument from top to bottom. Even the bridge maximizes the sound, utilizing a tie-on design, essentially making the strings an integral part of the whole instrument, instead of just an add-on to the already tank-like structure of a guitar designed to hold the tension of steel strings.
Knowing that the average bystander has no interest in the structure and purpose of different types of guitars, I will move on quickly. I am, however continually frustrated by unthinking guitarists who can’t seem to fathom that a guitar-shaped instrument which has six strings could require anything different than the common, silvered steel and steel wound wires. Again and again, I hear them exclaim, “But it sounds amazing with steel strings on it!” My reply is simply to show them the gaping joints at the neck heel and the separation under the bridge, as well as the extreme “belly” the instrument has developed because of their abuse; all to achieve more volume and tone while they flail away with their picks. What they don’t seem to realize is that there is a purpose for each instrument, a reason behind the design and structure. I will grudgingly admit that the steel string acoustic is in no way inferior to the classical guitar – it’s just made for a different purpose. The same is true of the electric guitar, or the bass guitar. All of these instruments seem to have the same design and to the untrained eye, they are the same. But under the surface, the distinctions are legion; the intent of the designer, very different. Each has its purpose; accomplished in a similar way, but to ignore their diversity is to invite disaster.
I’ve made the point before, but the disparate objectives which our Designer intends for us to fulfill are much like those of the guitar family. As much as we don’t want to believe it, there is no “one size fits all” for life. When the Master Musician runs His hand across the strings, the result is amazingly different for me than for you. I may actually be a ukulele going “chink-chinka-chinka-chink” as the chords are formed, but if that’s the design for my life, its every bit as excellent a result as if I were the most beautiful rosewood and ebony classical guitar playing running arpeggios and melodies. Don’t try to be what you are not and certainly, don’t try to force someone else into a form in which they were never intended to fit.
Way back when, a musician named Steven Taylor recorded a song entitled “I Want To Be A Clone”, which made the point well. When all the dust has cleared, it turns out that we’re not clones; we are individuals, each with a part to play and a place to fill. It would be a cataclysm for us to try to be someone besides who we really are.
Don’t let anybody put the wrong strings on you! Make the music for which the Designer built you! Just one thing though…If you’re an electric guitar, could you turn down the volume a little? Or, maybe play in the next room?
I’ve learned enough to stay afloat;
But not so much I rock the boat.
I’m glad they shoved it down my throat.
I want to be a clone.
Everybody must get cloned.
(Steven Taylor~”I Want To Be A Clone”~1983)
“Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going gaga.”
(David Ogilvie~Scottish advertising executive~1911-1999)