My Life in Guitars
I started playing guitar when I was 11. I would walk down the street to Ronnie Robbin’s house above the Food Front Co-op in NW Portland, with my guitar slung over one shoulder. Ronnie wanted to teach me all sorts of theory and details, and I just wanted to learn how to sing and play some Beatles and Creedence tunes. He struggled with me for about a year and a half and then I had a breakthrough. I could play an F barre chord. Not only could I play an F, I could switch from a C to an F to a G, without missing a beat. Screw lessons, I thought; I don’t need them anymore!
If I could go back in time and tell 11-year-old me to continue taking lessons and keep working at learning music theory, I would do it in a heartbeat. Alas, such leaps in time travel have not been made public yet. Nevertheless, those lessons were crucial for my love affair with the guitar.
My father is a guitar player and folksinger. His name is Morris McClellan, but he playfully goes by Mo Mack. He taught me a few things along the way. He gave me my first guitar – a Mountain brand parlor-size guitar with a very wide fret board. He strung it up with steel strings even though the slotted headstock is more commonly used for nylon. “You’ve got to learn on steel strings because nylons are easier on your fingers,” he told me. “Build up your callouses!”
That guitar is currently hanging on our living room wall, because every home needs a guitar that is accessible at an instant.
When I was 15 I took all my Christmas money, returned the bean bag chair I was given as a gift, went down to Artichoke Music in Portland, and picked out a deep blue Art & Lutherie guitar. I loved that thing. It sounded fine, not fantastic, and it smelled like campfires, probably because I was a summer camp kid. Her name was Babe the Blue Axe. I played my first ever gig on that guitar and it accompanied me through great gigs and shitty gigs until my dad gave me his Taylor 814 CE on my 21st birthday. Princess Buttercup, as I named her, then became my pride and joy. I slept with her in my bed more than a few nights in my first grown up house on 12th and Alberta, where my two best girlfriends and I lived like vegan queens. (I’m not vegan anymore.)
I toured the country for three years with Princess Buttercup in tow. Her case became covered in stickers, her frets worn and pitted. I wrote at least 100 songs on her. Then I met Bayard Blain. Bayard is a luthier in Fayetteville, Arkansas, originally from Gardiner, Montana – the small town on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park. He’s a fantastic picker and a builder of unique and glorious guitars, mandolins, bouzoukis, ukuleles, and more. He became a very good friend of mine and one year I gave him every dollar I had in my bank account to build me a guitar. I now have Bayard’s 23rd instrument – a 14-fret cedar top cutaway with the phases of the moon on the fretboard. I’ve played her constantly since February of 2008 and she’s held up like a champion. There’s something so sweet about playing an instrument that was made just for you.
In 2012, my husband, Andrew, surprised me with a wedding present: another Bayard guitar. He has never bought me flowers, but my husband bought me a guitar. She’s smaller and brighter with an Adirondack top and Padauk back and sides, and she’s number 99 from Bayard’s collection.
I am not a gearhead. I have a tuner and a DI, and that’s the extent of my pedal use. I have had the same pick (made of an illicit substance, please don’t tell on me) for over 5 years. Playing a guitar that smells like a forest, has birdsong still in her pores, and is shiny and smooth to the touch is one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced in this life.
I have no desire and no funding to buy another acoustic any time soon, but one time I played Glen Campbell’s J-45 when I was making a record, and I might like to play that thing again.