The old vintage guitar sits gleaming in its case. I am amazed at the condition. Over fifty years old and it is nearly impossible to see any wear on the guitar. The frets show no sign of erosion from contact with the strings, the back has no indication of any of the finish wear we call “buckle rash”. As I examine the pristine instrument, the question grows in my head. Where has this guitar been for the last fifty years? It was not an expensive instrument, not a famous brand name. No, it was a catalog store purchase, bought sight unseen for the purpose of being played, probably by some blue collar worker, or by one of his kids. It was not the type of guitar you would baby: carefully avoiding scratching the pickguard, wiping the strings clean after use. This guitar, you would play for all you’re worth, arms flailing, pick pummeling the strings at every up and down stroke, maybe even drumming on the big hollow body for effect. It is not a high-bred instrument, dedicated to quiet studios and recital halls. The working man’s guitar I hold in my hands shouldn’t have looked this nice for more than a few weeks after it was delivered by the postman and breathlessly torn free of its shipping carton and packaging.
Yet, here it is. The finish is as bright as the day it was hung on the rack in the drying room at the factory. True enough, there are the telltale signs of aging for which I have been disciplined to look. There is the “checking” in the varnish, a trait common to the old finishes. The metal pieces have some pitting from oxidation and a little discoloration from hands resting on them while playing. But, the wear which comes with long hours of use, the evidence of the instrument having made beautiful music for all these many years…there is none of that. I find myself almost sad, even as I realize that the condition is a boon to me as a reseller. Sad, because this guitar…which should have already had many years of soothing spirits with quiet ballads, of exciting the senses with the pulsing rhythm of pop songs, of eliciting the wonder at the virtuoso’s touch on the strings while the dazzling classical melodies and counter melodies fill the air…this beautiful instrument, has evidently been sitting in its case in someone’s closet or under their bed. What a waste!
The other day, a couple of ladies brought in a guitar they wanted me to appraise for them. It was about the same age as this beauty I see before me today. One of the ladies carried in the tattered chipboard case under her arm, since the handle had long since been torn off of it. I opened the shabby top of the case, half-expecting to find a junky Oriental-made instrument, probably unplayable due to abuse and neglect. It is what I usually find in old cases like this. But when the battered lid was lifted, the open case revealed a fifty-year old Gibson electric guitar, beautiful in its own right. The poor old thing! The top had originally been a beautiful sunburst finish, bright red at the edges, fading to a lovely brownish yellow in the center. There was no color to this top but a pale, sun-faded yellow…not a bit of red remained, except a faint pinkish hue right at the outside edge. The frets were worn, the fingerboard scalloped by years of use, from some old guy’s gnarled fingertips pressing strings down again and again, perhaps to play the chords of the rhythm guitar part seconding the more talented lead guitarist’s melody. Then again, who can tell? This might have been the guitar which carried the melody again and again as old friends got together to make music and enjoy each other’s company. The back showed signs of a buckle and more than a few shirt buttons rubbing against the finish as it moved with the player, the instrument and its owner both making beautiful music together. The tuning machines had worn out and been replaced; the replacements themselves showing serious signs of fatigue, ready for a new set to step in and help with keeping the strings up to pitch. The sight of this guitar made me smile, even gave me a warm feeling of joy at the success achieved by the makers of this fine instrument, now worn and tired.
The antithetical treatment of the two instruments gave me pause today, as I gazed upon the physical beauty of the pristine guitar and then remembered the sun-faded and scarred one I examined a few days ago. To the collector, as well as to the casual observer, the owner of the unsullied instrument will appear to be the smarter of the two. I will beg to differ. A musical instrument which does not make music is simply a composite of different materials. An instrument is not an instrument until it is used. The word we have for that is “failure”. The cloistered instrument has achieved neither the intent of the maker, nor the intent of the musician who purchased it. It may be an object of art and a thing of beauty, but as a musical instrument it is an abject failure until the pure, clear notes progress from its structure and vibrating strings.
Many years ago, I visited in the San Joaquin Valley of California. This is one of the most productive farming areas in the country, with the produce from this fertile valley being distributed in practically every state in the Union. I was saddened to note, as we drove through the orange groves, that in several places entire groves of trees were being uprooted. I commented on this and my passenger replied that this was something they did regularly. “After a few years, if the trees aren’t yielding the fruit as they should, they are bulldozed out and new ones which will produce are planted.” The trees were beautiful still, with full deep green leaves and strong, sturdy branches. They weren’t fulfilling their intended purpose though, and that made them unprofitable, a failure for the farmers.
I’m contemplating the sermon that could fill a whole lot of white (or blue) space below. What I think I’ll do is just shut up. You won’t fail to understand the lesson of the guitars or the orange trees, will you? I’m trying not to miss it myself. We’ve all been given gifts and have a purpose for being right where we are. If we don’t even attempt to complete the process, all we’re doing is using up air and taking up space.
I’m hoping that the next owner of this beautiful guitar will help it to achieve its purpose at last, after more than fifty years of waiting and taking up space. After fifty years of hanging around, I’m kind of ready to make some music myself. How about you?
“Every branch that does not bear good fruit, is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
(Matthew 7:19 NIV)
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson~American poet and essayist~1803-1882)