Good, Honest Wear

“Is this an old guitar, Paul?  I’ll bet it’s just one of those ‘relic’ models, isn’t it?”  The young man was genuinely mystified.  I had hung the battered guitar on the wall just last night and already, it was drawing attention.  Instead of answering his question, I suggested a test.  “Why don’t you tell me?” I asked, as I handed him the instrument.  He was game and held it for a moment, feeling the weight, hefting it up and down a time or two to get the feel in his hands.  “It feels right,” he declared.  I encouraged him to play it for a minute, which he did.  “Yep, it’s really what it looks like, isn’t it?  How old is this thing?”  The suspicion in his face was gone; nothing left there but admiration for the vintage instrument which he now cradled carefully in his arms.

I told you the other day about the fifty year-old guitar which Art had retrieved from its time of service on the continent of Africa.  This is the same guitar.  After our conversation, Art decided that my music store would be a trust-worthy place where the instrument would be valued and well cared for, so I was able to acquire the wonderful old guitar.  I have spent a good number of hours over the last few days, cleaning and laboring on the necessary upkeep which has been lacking over the last few years.  Late last night, I put the finishing touches on the instrument as I installed new strings and then I tweaked the harmonics as it came into tune.  For all of its battle scars, it is a beautiful instrument, sure to be a desirable addition to some happy guitar player’s collection.

It has what I frequently describe as good, honest wear.  The edges of the body are battered and scraped.  In a place or two, it appears to have been dragged over the concrete floor.  On the top, I would almost attest that I can see the mark of a shoe, where someone has walked on the guitar as they moved across the room.  It is dinged and scratched, and the neck is worn bare of finish where many hands have rubbed it again and again up and down the scale.  The fingerboard is cupped and worn from hours and hours of the strings being squeezed down to its surface.  It is a beautiful sight to see, as it hangs on the wall.

As I considered my young friend’s response to the realization that this instrument was indeed one due his respect and admiration, my thoughts were drawn inexorably to another guitar I have hanging on the wall in my store.  It too, is a beautiful instrument, worthy to be played by most any musician.  The guitar functions quite adequately, with excellent action along the fingerboard, and a good set of pickups, which will emit great volume and pleasing tones.  Still, the reaction which any number of guitarists have shown as they pick up this instrument is far different from my young friend’s show of respect this afternoon.

The guitar is suspended on a wall hanger with perhaps twenty more, much like it.  Yet, it stands out in the crowd.  The others are shiny and new-looking.  The hardware gleams and the colors are undimmed by time, unmarked by clumsy usage.  This guitar though–it shows years of use, the edges scarred, the paint worn thin, apparently by wear from many jam sessions and more than a few times of being dragged in and out of a case.  The eye is drawn to it, as is the hand.  Many have removed it from the shelf, handling it with awe and care.  The respect is only a momentary thing, vanishing in seconds, as if the wind had swept it from the air.  “Oh, it’s just a fake,” is the phrase I have heard over and over with respect to this instrument, still a very fine piece of music equipment.  The disappointment is too great a barrier for anyone to get past, so the instrument hangs there after months on the same hanger.

As great as my discouragement at not being able to sell this guitar, my wonder at the reaction of the customers is greater.  Why, you ask, would one look at this instrument and disrespect it, when the other instrument demands honor and careful handling?  The first guitar, the one with the “honest wear” has earned its place of honor.  Years and usage have gained it the high esteem of one and all, while this second guitar has undertaken to circumvent the whole aging process and fails miserably in the attempt. The “bare” spots are simply places where the finish was never applied to the wood.  The scrapes?  Ditto.  The back of the neck is discolored simply by changing the amount of coloration in the stain which was applied at the factory.  This guitar was actually manufactured to give the appearance of age, a process now known in the business as “relicing” (pronounced rel-ick-ing).  As the genuine players know, this is a fake, a wannabe, attempting to seduce the guitarist to accept a lookalike, instead of working his/her way to the real thing by actually playing the same fine instrument for the years it takes to achieve the good, honest wear.

I have seen many guitars which were given this “relic” treatment by their owners.  They have hit the instruments with chains, scraped them with tools, even dragged them across the sidewalk in an attempt to achieve this look.  If you follow the antique trade at all, you will know that many buyers have been fooled by new items made to appear old by similar artifices.  The experts always tell customers to look for the user wear, not for the peripheral wear.  I tell my customers to do the same.  If there is a lot of wear on the edges, do the frets show playing wear?  Do the marks match the actual playing position of the instrument?  If the evidence of age is only around the edges, but not in the places that actually are touched when the guitar is being played, it is likely the work of a charlatan.

Are you fooled by the fakes in your world?  I have been…more than once.  In fact, I will readily admit that, at times, I fear that those close to me will discover that I am just such a fake.  For many years, I dreaded the time when the Lovely Lady discovered that I really wasn’t a knight in shining armor after all.  I now fear that she may have already discovered it, but am encouraged that she hasn’t acted on her knowledge.  I worry that the people in my church will discover that I have secret sins and habits which would disappoint them beyond imagination.  I fear that you will realize that I don’t live up to my little morality lessons again and again.  I don’t know about you, but I do the best I can to give the appearance of respectability in the attempt to bolster the facade I’ve built.  From a distance, I think I’ve succeeded.  But, take me down off the wall and get a feel for who I really am and…well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty.

The lesson here is twofold.  I am encouraged to leave off defrauding those around me, to come clean and show who I really am.  If all of us could do that, the astonishment might overcome us initially, but we would all be better off to know that each of us suffers from the curse of being a sinner.  We might be more caring, more patient, even more helpful to each other.  You never know.  

The second part of the lesson is for us to be careful of what we accept as honorable.  In the business world, we have a saying.  “Buyer, beware!”  Don’t be fooled by a little wear on the edges, a scrape or two across the surface.  Honesty goes to the heart.  Respect and honor are earned, not manufactured.  Esteem and trust don’t belong to the newcomer, the upstart, but to the veteran who has toiled and paid his dues.  The rookie will have time to prove his mettle, soon enough.   

Mr. Peabody, an old instrument repairman I know, used to have a sign in his shop that sums it up for me…“Good Work Takes Time.” 

It might be a wise thing to remember that the next time someone offers you a vintage guitar.

Buyer, beware!

“It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new.”
(Tony Visconti~American record producer)

“Rise in the presence of the aged; show respect for the elderly.”
(Leviticus 19:32)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

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