Internal Detours
Monday, January 01, 2007
  a little about mileage and a lot about guitars
I didn't ride Thursday night - life trumps cycling sometimes. Saturday's ride was shorter than normal - I got in 21 miles. Sunday, we rode muddy fire roads in the rain for 9 miles. So I wound up riding 4,483 miles in 2006, which is 483 more than my initial goal for the year, but 17 miles short of my amended target. I'm fine with it, and it's more miles than I've ever ridden in a year, and hopefully next year I'll top that and then some.

Friday we drove to Greenville for a little shopping trip. First stop on the list for me - Guitar Center. I'd never been to one, and I was feeling the hungries for a guitar, even if I was only looking. I'd been thinking I wanted to check out a Gibson ES-165, because I've been drifting into a somewhat jazzier sound since, oh, 1997 or so. The other guitar I wanted to check out was the Taylor T5, which has a pickup system designed by Dave Hosler, formerly my all-time favorite luthier and guitar problem-solver who once had a shop in Traveler's Rest, SC.

Yes, there were walls of guitars in the place. Once upon a time I could have spent hours and hours in there, but Friday I wasn't up for that. After a couple of minutes of walking around and seeing things like a "relic" treatment reissue '59 Fender Bassman amp and the tower of imported Fenders, we stepped into the "quiet" room.

Acoustics everywhere. Martins, Taylors, Breedloves, and who knows what else. And over in the corner, like a siren song, were Gibsons. I had to wait a moment to get around a guy playing his way down the wall before I could try the first one, a reissue of the legendary Advanced Jumbo from 1936. I had seen the original prototype of this guitar from 1935 at a guitar show a decade back, but I'd never actually held or played one.

Of course I had no flatpicks, so I went fingerstyle. It had power, sure, but it was boxier than the Taylor I've been playing for the last decade or so. I hung it back up, played a Breedlove just long enough to be underwhelmed by it, and then my hand just kinda went into the bottom corner and took hold of the plain-jane Gibson J-45 and lifted it off the peg.

I've only owned one J-45, a 1950 that had been professionally refinished before it came to me. It also had massive structural damage that I'd had (expensively) repaired by Bob McIsaacs' shop in Atlanta. Its power was compromised by the inevitable thinning of its top by refinishing. At the time I was still doing solo acoustic gigs using PAs, and fitting a pickup system to it would have been challenging.

All the same, it was a magical instrument that forever changed the way I heard and played guitar. It was my favorite instrument to take to Macon during the time I was visiting Steve Belew and soaking up all I could of his guitar style, and through him the style of the Rev. Pearlie Brown and other Georgia street-singers.

It opened my ears, too. I'd progressed from a Japanese Martin copy to a '60 Gibson LG-2 small-bodied acoustic to a Guild grand auditorium with a cutaway, the closest thing to Richard Thompson's Lowden I could afford. The J-45 lacked the sheer raw punch of the Guild, but it had the richest, smoothest bass I'd ever experienced, and had a lovely balanced quality to its sound the Guild couldn't match. All of that led to my having the Guild tweaked and tuned a couple of times by Hosler before finally breaking down and buying a huge rosewood Taylor 815C cutaway jumbo that has been my primary guitar since late 1995 and my only steel-string acoustic since 2000.

I wound up giving that 1950 J-45 to my brother Mark, who's a much better guitar player than I'll ever be. He hadn't had a really nice guitar since the late '70s, and I knew he'd give it a good home and cherish it and love it.

All of that flashed through my mind when I took the new J-45 off the peg Friday. The minute my left hand curled around that neck, I felt it. I sat down and played, experiencing a neck that felt soooo comfortable and handfilling, not at all like the sometimes-too-skinny Taylor neck or the extremely tapered neck on my old blonde Telecaster - no, this was a neck like the one my old J-45 had, a solid, substantial chunk of mahogany that invited hours and hours of playing without hand cramps.

The sound I sought was there, too. Yeah, it was still a new guitar, and the top still needed hours of playing in to bring it fully to life. Yeah, I only played it for a little bit, with other people playing in the room. I didn't use a plectrum to drive the top hard and see if it would go there - but in just a few minutes, it whispered to me of its promise of being an incredible guitar. Not really thinking too much about it, I hung it back up. I wasn't looking for another acoustic guitar, right? I had a big, flashy, well-broken in Taylor, right?

We walked back out into the noisy shop. Pat, a long, lean salesman, asked if he could help, and I mentioned Taylor T5s. He brought one out of the back, an amazing koa-topped number that I picked idly for a moment and handed back - $3,400 is more than I want to spend on a guitar, ever. He came back with its less expensive variant in a maple top that was visually stunning.

Ana thought it was a beautiful guitar, and when Pat mentioned that Guitar Center has its own charge card, she said, "You can do that if you want to." After a moment, I suggested trying it out in the quiet room.

Back we went behind the big glass door to plug it into a Roland acoustic amp. Apparently, the pickup system on the T5 cannot be safely played in all settings through a tube amp - a bit off-putting for me, to be honest. But I tried all the settings as best I could, fingerstyle again, playing mostly the jazzier bits. The acoustic sound was all right, but still pretty much the basic piezo quack. The neck pickup only sound was nice, the middle position was kinda reminiscent of a Telecaster, and the fourth position had a Gretsch-y quality that Ana really liked. The last position, meant to be a Les Paul-ish sound, might as well have been blocked off, as I'd probably never use it.

It had a lovely action, the usual fast, skinny neck that Taylor has built its reputation on, everything worked nicely, my wife was saying it would be okay if I wanted to go 3 grand into debt to buy it with an amp, and the salesman was ready to start paperwork.

An older guy who had been playing guitars in there the whole time we were in there caught me in a moment between playing and asked me to play a guitar he was holding so he could hear it better. I took the proffered instrument, a basic Breedlove, and played through a chord progression. It was a crap guitar, I thought - a big dreadnaught with no bass or punch and lots of tinny treble, with a low E that buzzed on the frets. It was a lot like the Washburn I'd gladly traded of many years earlier. The older guy thanked me and took it back, talking about how he really could afford anything in there, but he just liked the cheaper ones better. More power to you, I thought, and picked up the Taylor again.

It was pretty. Glossy. New-age, high-tech approach to a stage guitar and all that, and it would do a bunch of sounds which could be good in a home-studio setting. I thought about the salesman's comment when Ana suggested I try it out - "I'm married, and I already know it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so when she offers permission you jump on it."

I handed the T5 back and said, "I need to think about it." We chatted a moment more, and then we left the quiet room.

In the car on the way to the bookstore, I finally figured out why I didn't buy the T5.

"It's not just the money, and it's not just the fact that I need to be playing more to justify spending that kind of money," I said. "The Taylor didn't say, 'take me home.' It's a nice guitar, and maybe someday I'll own one, but that one didn't speak to me."

"Oh," Ana said. "I completely understand, and in that case, no, you did right not to buy it."

A moment later I said, "Now, that J-45? That guitar spoke to me."
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