News From The Pit

This Old Guitar
By Jimmy Brown

For this month's column I would like to tell you about a guitar that I suppose qualifies as an old guitar, but isn't exactly what most people think of when the term "vintage guitar", or "collector's item", or other such term pops up. No, this guitar is just one of those old guitars that has been around long enough to sort of cultivate its own personality and create some history of its own. It exemplifies the why and where terms such as classic, or vintage, originate. Since all guitars start out as new guitars, it takes a while for them to develop into whatever they are destined for. Many guitars are purchased, plucked on a little, and stuck in the closet. Some are bought and used as stepping stones towards bigger and better things. But most guitars are bought, used by someone and then passed on to the next person, and then the next, and so on and so on.

Ok, by now, I am sure you are thinking, "well, get on with it"! So without any further ado, we will get on to this old guitar. It isn't really anything special, I suppose, but then again, the mere fact that it made me stop and think about it and reflect on it for what I know, makes it a little special.

This month's old guitar is a 1978 Fender Telecaster. Made during Fender's darkest days, really. The days of heavy, poly-coated, mass-produced guitars by Fender. It was at this period in the history of Fender that quality was at its lowest, and near-bankruptcy and the sale of the company was just around the corner.

Now, when I think of old guitars, I usually refer back to something that pre-dates the 70s, actually. But gee, if this guitar was made in 1978, that does make it 21 years old. A grown up. Legal. Older than perhaps its next owner. Wow! Makes me feel kind of old - no, I refuse to grow up. Well, at least to some extent. So I believe we can call this one an old guitar after all.

I have watched it pass through the hands of four or five people over the past few years. Each one special in his/her own way. Which may be what makes this guitar so special. In our music world, the proverbial question is and will always be asked: "Is it the guitar, or the person playing the guitar"? In my humble opinion, I have come to believe that it is the combination of both. This Tele started out as just another off the assembly line piece. Nothing special. Probably too heavy, like most of its siblings. But now, so many years later, the original polyester "thick skin" plastic-like finish is gone, and someone's amateur thin, black lacquer finish graces its body. Probably the result of an earlier owner's desire to make it better than it originally was or to put his or hers personal stamp on it. Anyway, I believe serendipity plays a part.

This process renders the guitar lighter in weight, and probably livelier than before. It does have a better-than-average curly maple neck, which is unusual for this period. And, to top it off, there is a large decal on the back of the body. It is a multi-color decal of an Indian Chief, in full headdress, looking very regal and sure of himself. How long it has been this way, I have no idea. The overall patina suggests that it has been like this for perhaps a decade or more.

Ever since I came in contact with this guitar, it has been referred to as the "Indian Head" Tele. I don't remember exactly how or when we first got it, but was probably five or six years ago. I know that my good friend Frank Dean, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter in the Steve Earle / Dwight Yoakum style, from Indianapolis, ended up with it first.

I believed we traded back and forth a couple of times. I am sure that while Frank had it, he put his own good vibe to it. It saw its fair share of honky tonks in Indy and made the trek to Nashville a few times.

When it ended up back at our shop, it caught the eye of multitalented and all around nice guy Jim Schweikart, and also the eye of our number one ace repairman and guitar picker, not to mention former bandmate of mine, Bill Barney. This guitar, you see, will have an effect on you when you first see it. The effect may be different for different people, but you will be affected by it. Not all may like it, with that crummy amateur black finish, mated to that beautiful curly maple neck, and the son of Cochise staring you in the face on the back.

But anyway, there it is, sitting in our shop, and Duke Robillard comes in, spots it and has to have it. Now, if you know Duke at all, you know that he just loves old guitars. He still has that wonderful youthfulness and daring, just the stuff to coax heaven-knows-what-out of this guitar. So now it is in the hands of Duke. And it travels the world, making blues and swing come alive.

And then it's time to travel down to Miami, where Bob Dylan has summoned up Duke to be his right-hand man while recording his Grammy-winning album of the year, Time Out Of Mind. And let's not forget a few stints over at Air Devils Inn, where the Indian Head is put through the test while Duke brings the house down, tearing it through his vast repertoire. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Duke had Bill Barney put his blessing on it with his expert re-fret job.

So, by now, a few years have passed since we first encountered the Indian Head Tele. It has made the rounds, and it is now time for Duke to trade it in on something else. And here we are again. Everybody in our shop is eyeing the guitar. Trying to tactfully and diplomatically figure out how to be the next in line. Looks like it is going to be Jim Schweikart's turn to spank the plank. Maybe take it down the rockabilly path blazed by Cliff Gallup, Eddie Cochran, et al. For you see, a guitar like this, being what it is, doesn't have any high monetary value. It hasn't become a "vintage piece" or "collectors' item". It is just a neat old refinished tele. Plays great, sounds nice and beckons you to pick it up and give it a whirl.

Just the kind of stuff that tomorrow's vintage guitars are made of.

Well I guess that's all for now. So, until next time - keep rockin'.