Searching for a Perfectly Good Guitar
The first time Pete Townshend smashed a guitar on stage, every guitarist not only cringed and got a little pissed off at Townshend for destroying an instrument that turned him into a great musician but also mourned the death of the music that would never more flow from that instrument. In his power rocker, “Perfectly Good Guitar,” John Hiatt captures precisely the anger, the regret, and the sadness of smashing a perfectly good guitar: “his momma wouldn’t buy him/that new red Harmony,” so he smashes his guitars as if he’s trying to “break his momma’s back.” The guitarist of the song “loves his guitar just like a girlfriend,” and late at night on the road, he “wishes he still had that old guitar to hold/he’d rock it like a baby in his arms/never let it come to any harm.”
As every working guitarist will tell you, the guitar that he or she plays casts a certain spell, plays a certain sound that no other guitar makes, produces a certain tone that his or her other guitars don’t have, and is so much a part of him or her that to leave it behind accidently on the road, to have it stolen, or to break it, feels like a bodily injury. Of course, some guitarists have collected a room full of guitars and can tell you why each one in the room is their favorite on certain nights, or how that one or the other came to be their favorite at a certain show or after a certain event. And every guitarist has a favorite instrument—maybe one given by a relative, maybe one bought with a first paycheck, maybe one found in a thrift store, buried in a corner under dust and dusky muslin.
Inspired by a conversation he had with a local musician about his worn guitar, photographer Chuck Holley set off on an eight-year search, “looking for professional guitarists who would be willing to recall how they acquired that one special instrument and why it grew in importance to them.” His lavishly illustrated A Perfectly Good Guitar: Musicians on Their Favorite Instruments (University of Texas Press) collects the stories of 46 guitarists, including Marty Stuart, Cindy Cashdollar, Carolyn Wonderland, Kelly Willis, John Leventhal, Bill Frisell, Eliza Gilkyson, Guy Clark, and Tommy Emmanuel, among others, as they talk about their favorite guitars.
Dan Dugmore tells the story of a night in 1974 when his 1968 Goldtop Les Paul was stolen. He was on tour with Linda Ronstadt at the time; she told him to go out and find another Goldtop he liked, and that she’d buy it for him. About two weeks later, he had still not found a new Goldtop, but he found a black Les Paul; as soon as he plugged it in and played it, he loved the sound and said, “I want this guitar.” “I’ve played a lot of Les Pauls,” he says, “but this one seems to have a voice of its own. I can’t really say what it is, but it’s a very pleasing tone.”
Rosanne Cash talks about her favorite guitar: “There are guitars that have always been special to me, but none as special as my signature Martin. Martin guitars have been connected with my family forever. Dick Boak, who was the director of artist relations at Martin, told me this great story about my dad. When Dick called him about doing a signature guitar, my dad didn’t even say hello. He said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this phone call my whole life.’ I felt like that when they called me. It’s like the best award in the world to have Martin call and say they want to make a signature model.”
Alejandro Escovedo tells a beautiful tale of how his 1956 Gibson J-50 became his favorite guitar. In the early 1980s, his friends Jim Strahm and Matt Kesler gave him this guitar. “That acoustic guitar changed my life. I wrote more songs on it than on any guitar I’ve ever had. Someone told me once about this old man who walked into a music store and started talking about guitars. He was asked why new guitars don’t sound as good as old ones. He said it was because they don’t have any songs in them yet. That J-50 has thousands of songs in it. You feel it. You can hear it. You can just look at it and know it’s been places. I don’t write on any guitar but this one.”
As these sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant stories illustrate that the perfect guitar is a combination of the “wood chosen for the body, the stain, the radius of the neck, the fingerboard, the strings, the bridge, the saddle, the pickups, and the action.” Each chapter features a picture of the musician playing her or his favorite guitar, as well as a photo of some part of the guitar itself.
These stories and photos also illustrate the love, tenderness, and healing that perfectly good guitars deliver. As Rosie Flores tells it about her song, “Working Girl’s Guitar,” which memorializes her ax, “I didn’t write it, the guitar did.” You can hear loud and clear the stories and songs emanating from the musicians’ guitars in A Perfectly Good Guitar, and they’re the guitar player’s equivalent of the Hallelujah Chorus. If you can’t afford to buy your favorite guitar player a new—or even slightly used—Martin, Gretsch, Guild, Taylor, or Gibson just yet, then giving her or him this book will, for a moment, at least, hold beauty in her or his hands.