One thing I plan to do over the next couple of months is lob up the occasional piece of fiction. This piece was written for the Scottish Book Trust’s Treasures anthology, but for some reason didn’t even make the website – I didn’t think it was that bad! Many fine pieces did, including my Dad’s story, which I would recommend to you.
Anyway, it kind of fits the theme of what I’ve been rabbiting on about recently, so here it is.
My treasure is two guitars.
The first is a copy of a Gibson J-200, made by a long-gone Japanese outfit called Kiso-Suzuki. She’s a big, booming acoustic guitar, blond wood body, abalone inlays on the fretboard and a red pickguard, decorated with a floral motif. Various people from Elvis downwards have played a J-200.
My Mum and Dad gave me it for my 21st birthday. Having made no impression on the world of piano and violin playing, I decided for myself to take up guitar when I was about 17. The J-200 was my reward for four years of hammering away on my brother’s nylon string, shoe-horning muscle memory into my hands.
The J-200 served me well in bands at university, then jamming with others over the years. I swapped my dream of being the next Dylan for being a part-time Hemingway, but she was still there, my main guitar of choice, when I started to combine music with spoken word, first at the Free Fringe, and then the Book Festival.
She’s always been a harsh mistress to play. Even with the action – the gap between strings and fretboard – lowered, you needed a firm hand for barre chords not to buzz like crazy. But she was a beautiful beast, with a great big body, and a pair of lungs to match. She was loud enough acoustically; but fitted with an old Schaller pickup, she was a foil for any electric guitar.
The Suzuki started to fail around the same time Mum died, in 2011. The bridge had cracked along the line of the pegs that hold the strings in place. Brían, my guitar repair guy, shook his head. After thirty-odd years, the string tension was pulling the guitar apart. The Book Festival gig was the J-200’s last.
Dad arranged things so that the family all got some money from Mum’s estate. While it was being wound up, a music shop opened for the first time in town. I haunted it and its acoustic guitars, asking for one, then another, to be taken down, so I could try them.
I told the guys about the J-200, about how it was beyond repair. I even told them about where the money for the replacement was coming from. I think I told them so much because I thought they’d think I was a tyre-kicker.
The money eventually came through. For reasons I couldn’t quite explain, I wanted it in my account before I bought the new guitar.
My replacement treasure is a LAG T100 ACE. She’s smaller and quieter than the J-200, designed to be finger-picked rather than strummed. She’s an original design, by the French luthier Michel Lag, rather than a copy of an American classic. She’s thick honey gold and warm caramel colour, and that’s a pretty good set of words to describe how she sounds.
She’s not without her quirks, mind. The on-board pick-ups are fussy beasts, and need a proper acoustic amp to bring out the tone properly. I’ve recorded with her now, and played her live. I don’t expect I’ll need to replace her.
The J-200 hangs on the wall of my study now. I’ve left the strings on – there’s something indefinably lost to me about a guitar without strings – but I don’t keep her in tune. She still has a voice though.
The study doubles as a recording studio. Conventional wisdom has you record everything ‘dry,’ that is in a small space without too many hard surfaces that would reflect the sound and give you echo, or ‘reverb.’
But every sound in the study goes into the Suzuki’s body and comes out again, creating the faintest of echoes of whatever is played or said in the room. The J-200 lives on, adding the ghost of reverb to any recording, or ringing out when I raise my voice to answer someone downstairs.
That’s why my treasure is still two guitars.