News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

This month I would like to pick up where we left off a few issues back, writing about the certain mystique of the old guitar and what some people go through in seeking out that perfect prize: The one instrument the artist might happen upon that stirs the creativeness within each of us.

The story I will share this month is about the last time Jackson Browne came to Louisville to perform. I believe it was '95 or '96. Somehow, he got wind of our shop having a Gibson reverse model Firebird and also of our having a Weissenborn Hawaiian lap steel guitar. Now, Gibson Firebird guitars are not an everyday item, but they can be found. The Weissenborn, on the other hand, is a rare piece. Given the crazy schedule of a performer on tour, I didn't think it the least unusual when someone from Jackson Browne's camp inquired about the possibility of us opening our shop after he performed at Louisville Gardens. They figured around midnight would be good. Well, what's a poor boy to do but say "come on down."

You've got to figure that after leaving it all onstage for two hours, the last thing a performer wants to do is go shopping at midnight. Some good food, a shower and a bed seems more like it. But these darned old guitars. My, how they can tempt and stir the special ‘something' within. Perhaps it's the guitar's personal history, the life it has lived, so to speak, that's calling upon the artist to coax it out. Perhaps it's the certain tone, or the way it feels in your hands.

I should point out that not all old guitars are going to carry such an aura. Many of them have not stood the test of time. Maybe the previous owners didn't provide the proper care needed to maintain a vintage instrument, or maybe it just wasn't that good to begin with. Manyold guitars are just that - aging relics.

So with this in mind, we get back to Jackson Browne and his midnight quest. Weissenborn guitars are very unique instruments. They are similar to a dulcimer, except they have six strings and a raised nut. You play them with a steel bar, like a steel guitar. Their particular design, construction and materials give them a very unique and beautiful tone. David Lindley is someone in the current era who uses one. I would assume this is how Jackson Browne came to be influenced. They are very rare, made in California in the 1920's. If you want one, well, you are going to have to look around.

For Jackson Browne, food, shower, and sleep would just have to wait. Here was an opportunity that couldn't be passed up. So, sure enough, around midnight, the tour bus pulls up and Browne and company pile out and come on in. Like kids in a toy store, any hour is a good hour to play around.

The Weissenborn we had was frankly pretty rough and in need of serious restoration, which we had yet to begin working on. Jackson decided to pass on it, in the hope of finding one that was ready to go. The Gibson Firebird was another thing. These guitars, designed by Gibson in conjunction with ideas from automobile designers in the early 60s, were an attempt to design a futuristic eyecatcher. If NASA and Detroit got together, this is what they might come up with.

The Gibson Firebird was a muted space age Explorer with a soon-to-be-popular auto name tag. The result of all this was a guitar with an attitude. You cannot put this guitar on and not be noticed. A little awkward with its backwards, upside down headstock and tuners, and overall appearance that seems to be taking off while you're still holding it, the Firebird immediately changes your being. Like riding a wild stallion, you had better let it know who is in charge right away, or you will be in trouble. But once that is settled, what a charge it can be.

For an acoustic guitar/piano-oriented songwriter like Jackson Browne, the Firebird is just the catalyst for breaking new ground. By shopping at the midnight hour, he was able to strap it on and mess around a little while without an audience. He could get use to the awkwardness without having to feel awkward himself. Sometimes we need a little privacy while working out this stuff.

For Jackson Browne, something clicked just right and he left that night with a new old guitar. One that, hopefully, helped him create some new magic.

So, I guess that's all for now. Until next time, keep rockin'.