Other than for a few weeks, while it was in the shop for repairs a couple of times, I’ve played the same guitar in every concert for the past forty-one years. It’s a 1934 Martin 0-17 guitar. In 1934 it was the Martin Company’s most popular and least expensive guitar. At the height of the Depression it cost $30. I bought mine in 1974 for $300. Made of mahogany, rather than the more common spruce, mine has a darker appearance and a softer, mellower, yes darker sound than the more typical blonde wood, dreadnaught size guitars. My Miss Martin has a lot of scratches in the finish – most of them gouged by previous owners—but some, sadly by me. The ones on the back were made by who knows how many belt buckles. Ever since I started to play guitar, I’ve always worn my belts so the buckles can’t scrape the backs of my guitars. However, the fronts have been another matter. I inherited plenty of dents and scratches on my Martin, but I’ve also added to the damage. For example, I have the less than ideal habit of resting the heel of my right hand on the bridge. This helps me to play more firmly and accurately, but it does mute some of the resonance of the guitar. It’s a tradeoff I’ve been willing to make. My hand position also results in my thumb pick winding up behind the sound hole, which means I regularly tap the face of my guitars with the tips of those picks. A nice percussive effect that I sort of like, but one that leaves its mark.
I’m by no means the only one who woodpeckers his guitars. Have you seen Willie Nelson’s? Or J.J. Cale’s? Or Glen Hansard’s? Compared to theirs, Miss Martin is pristine! Of course I don’t know if Willie, J.J. or Glen were the ones who disfigured their guitars or if they inherited them in their present condition. Obviously the guitars still sound great, or each of them would probably be able to afford to repair or replace them. Speaking of repair costs, I’ll spend four times as much to fix Miss Martin as what I paid for her originally. And a rough appraisal says she’s worth ten to fifteen times what I bought her for. (Now if all our homes appreciated like that there would be no foreclosures ever.)
Miss Martin has been a very forgiving, very reliable guitar. Although there was one memorable moment in the late 1970s when one Saturday night, in the middle of a song (amazingly, I don’t recall which one) in the now defunct Depot Restaurant in Ann Arbor, her bridge became literally unglued, completely parted company from her top, and went sailing, all six strings attached, toward her tuning pegs. I was in shock for a minute and then she spent a few weeks of well-deserved rest and restoration at Herb David’s Guitar Studio. (In the interval, I played her nearly identical sister, a 1938 Martin 0-17 I have now again borrowed back from my daughter while Miss Martin the First is in the shop.) But mostly she has faithfully twanged out my chords and arpeggios, indoors and out, in 40 degree April weather at Holland’s Tulip Festival or in 100 plus humid degrees during several Texas and Florida gigs. She’s gotten caught in more than a few rainstorms, though I’ve managed to keep her out of snow. She’s survived all my flying trips, including the rare few when I could not finagle her into the overhead bins but had to trust baggage handlers as they put her in the bellies of planes. (Though she’s never ridden a baggage carousel.) She has patiently endured many small sticky fingered strums after children’s concerts and—before I learned to say no—a couple of experiences with adults that began with, “I’ve got one just like it at home. Let me try how this one sounds.”
She has always sounded as reliably in tune as I could get her, and other than new sets of strings, and that bridge re-gluing, has demanded nothing for over four decades.
Until recently. In March, at the Fretboard Festival in Kalamazoo, in the middle of our set, the peg holding my low E string popped out of the bridge and fell on the floor. The string stayed in the guitar, but of course detuned. When the song ended, I loosened the string, put the peg back in—as far as it would go anyway—and went on with the show. And then continued to baby it for several months, until a couple of weeks ago, when part way through a concert, every E major or minor chord I played turned into an unintended (and approximate) E seventh chord, and I was forced to retune after—and during—every piece.
She also needs re-fretting. I’ve played long enough, often enough that many of my frets have divots where the strings have been pressed down. Normal wear and tear for steel string guitars, but again, I’ve put it off as long as I could.
But, finally, to the guitar hospital we went, Miss Martin and I. On the drive there I remembered the day my wife and I took our two year old daughter to the hospital for hernia surgery; a very routine, old hat event for the surgeon and nurses, and a very, very big deal indeed for us. No, I don’t love Miss Martin more, or even nearly as much, as my daughter, but the resonance was there. When you’ve carried something, or someone, lovely in your arms many times over a long period of time, it’s hard to hand her over to someone—even when it’s absolutely necessary, and clearly for her benefit and yours.
You know those silly desert island questions, or the ones asking you to list what you would rescue if your house caught on fire? Easy. Miss Martin would be the only possession I’d deem essential on the island, and the only one I’d carry out of the flames.