A person I know named Sam posted on facebook yesterday saying he was selling a student-quality acoustic guitar for $120. I'd been thinking recently it would be nice to get a basic guitar for a couple of reasons.
Until now I've just had my Guitar Works dreadnought, a gift from my parents on my sixteenth birthday. It's not fancy, but it's my baby and it's the only guitar I've ever played for any real length of time. However, I'd been thinking lately that it was time to either upgrade to a professional quality guitar (which would be a big investment), or to get a basic guitar to take some of the weight off my baby.
I teach voice lessons and I've always let my students play my guitar in their lessons if they needed one, but lately I've been feeling more protective over my instrument. I've wanted a guitar I would feel okay about letting my students use, even if they were rockers who liked to bang hard on the strings, or beginners just learning their way around how to hold a stringed instruments.
I've also wanted a "beater" guitar for other reasons: I haven't taken my guitar when I go camping or on other trips because I've worried about it getting dirty or spending too much time in a hot or cold car. And my good guitar has some cracks I've been meaning to get fixed for a long time, but I'm always reluctant to let it go because I haven't had a backup to play while it's in the shop, which can take a week or more. So this seemed like a great opportunity to get a decent guitar that could take some light abuse, and to put some cash in my friend's pocket for his move.
I headed over to my Sam's house and there was the guitar, an Epiphone PR 200. I sat down in the living room to play it and sitting on the couch was Essy Redbird. Essy is a great singer and songwriter I got to know a little bit when she lived in the Bay Area, and I'd played a show once with her duo The Goat and the Feather. Essy does a lot of improvisational music and has an incredible stage presence.
As I sat there playing away to get a sense of the guitar, we chatted about her life in LA and how she's trying to figure out how to make the connections to license some of her music for TV shows and make enough money to record a professional quality album. I played the chord progression for a new song of mine called "Strong and Tender" and Essy started making up melodies over the chords in her beautiful, husky voice. It was fascinating and fun to hear what another musician came up with over my song's guitar part, and that sealed the deal for me -- if this guitar sounded good enough to inspire Essy to sing, it was good enough for me!
We got to talking about the importance of having a beater guitar, one you don't have to be too careful with. That's when Essy told me the story:
Essy was once on a bike tour down the coast, taking a 3/4 sized Taylor guitar along for the ride. Suddenly as she came around a curve the guitar went flying off her bike and into the ocean! She said she was very sad to see it go, but ever since then she's imagined it floating all the way to Japan, where a young boy might pick up some guitar-shaped driftwood and be inspired to become a sculptor as a result. Sam and I agreed that that sounded like a great idea for a song, but Essy said she doesn't write story songs like that; her writing is more emotional and abstract. I said maybe I'd write it, since my style is often very narrative. I was half joking, but I filed away the image of the floating guitar and the sculptor boy.
As I left the house with my new Epiphone, I thought it would be nice to see what songs this new guitar had in it. Even though I haven't played a lot of guitars, I do feel that every instruments has its own songs, if you're willing to discover them. I write very differently when I'm at the piano than when I'm at the guitar, and maybe the same would be true for this new instrument.
So I drove out about a half mile to Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley, which juts right out into the bay near the marina. As I pulled up around 5:45 the sun had recently gone down, and the fog was starting to roll in. My car thermometer said 54, and though I'd originally hoped to take the guitar out to a bench and mess around, it was clear that it was too wet and dark outside for that to be a good idea. So I stashed the guitar, pulled on my puffy coat and strolled off on a path along the water.
The fog was really remarkable, going from a translucent mist to a much thicker cloud as I walked farther away from the lights of the parking lot and the marina. I passed some people on the path, but eventually I got to where I could hear only the water and the wind. The fog was dense around me now and I could only make out the hills and trees of the park as dark shapes. I tried taking pictures of the lights of the Bay Bridge in their halos of fog but it as too dark for my phone camera to catch much at all. I knew San Francisco and Marin County were across the water, but my view stopped out about fifty feet into the water. I kept walking for a ways, singing to myself until I came up on a big blue metal sculpture.
At the sculpture I went inside and stood on a rock where I've often seen kids playing. Water from the sculpture dripped down into my eye from where I touched the cold metal, and I started getting a bit nervous. The longer I stayed out, the darker it got, and with all the fog even shining a light wouldn't help me see very far. I hadn't seen people in a while, and though it was only just after six, I figured it was best to get back toward my car.
As I walked back along the path, I sang to myself to keep myself from getting too scared. I do this often, a habit I likely picked up from my mom, who often whistles softly between her teeth when she's nervous or distracted. The song that came to me was about spirits and saints, and how they are real whether you believe in them or not. It's not something I would say I consciously believe, but in that moment, surrounded by wisps of cloud and the wind off the water, it certainly felt possible that I was being watched or supported by spirits, ancestors, ghosts of some sort. It was both a comfort and a concern.
I got back to the car in a few minutes, checked to see that the guitar as still happily nestled on the passenger seat floor, and drove home. I knew I had a song to write.