Category Archives: People

My Life in Guitars – Part 7 (the Penultimate Entry)

I confess, I often act under the delusion that if I get a certain type of guitar, talent will somehow rub off on me. It’s kind of like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone—KAPOW! He’s king! Therefore, if I pull a certain guitar from its packing crate—KAPOW! I’ll be an awesome musician!

Alas, it doesn’t work that way (dammit!).

Having always enjoyed Queen, I was lusting over a reproduction of Brian May’s “Big Red” guitar. Brian (Dr. May to you astrophysicists) designed his guitar and with his father, built it. The body was cut from an old (and in England, old means something different than it does here) mantel piece. He apparently designed and built the pickups himself. The best part—at least to those of us who are geeks who love music—is that there are three pickups and six slide switches.

With most multi-pickup guitars, there is a single switch that lets you choose each pickup, or a combination, thereof. In other words, they are added together. Brian designed his so that he could either add any pickups OR put any one out of phase so that one is subtracting tones from the other(s). I cannot tell you how cool I find that.

However, I couldn’t justify it at nearly a thousand, once you add a case (Sigh).

Fathers’ Day arrived one year, and my wife took me to Guitar Center so I could choose a gift. I was worse than she is in the handbag department; I tried this guitar, that guitar, another, etc., ad nauseum. I told them that I wasn’t a soloist; I was a rhythm player (at best). However, I did like that “spooky” sound from Big Red.

The guitar I kept coming back to was an Epiphone SG. The luthier at the shop, noting my comments, mentioned that if I wanted that sound on the SG, all I needed to do was reverse the polarity on one of the pickups.

Epiphone SG

Being electronically inclined, I knew I could do it, so the SG was duly adopted and brought home. I did reverse the polarity on one pickup, but within a couple of weeks, I had rewired everything back to normal. Sorry, I’m no Brian May; I play rhythm.

However, the SG is a great guitar to play. Mine’s solid body, unvarnished red. I’ll leave Brian May to handle Big Red, I’ll play rhythm, thank you.

P.S. Speaking of Queen, if you bump into John Deacon, ask him if he ever did anything further with electronics (his major at university). Being a geek, I often wonder about that.

Almost, But Not Quite Done with My Life in Guitars – Part Six

I’m skipping out of chronological order so I can save two of my four favorites for last. You’ve already read about my green Peavey Predator Plus and the Peavey Briarwood 12 string, my other favorites.

My Deltatone Travel Guitar

I bought a used Deltatone, a relatively inexpensive electric guitar, which plays surprisingly well. I had looked on Craigslist for a bargain because I wanted a “travel” electric that might get banged up a little without making me feel too bad, and the Deltatone did a fine job. My two youngest have long played soccer, and until they began to drive, my wife and I shared chauffeuring duty. Mind you, I didn’t say we shared equally, but I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which soccer mom took the lioness’s share.

We had a minivan at the time, so there would usually be a number of soccer girls who rode along. When it was my turn to drive, after we got to the pitch (for non-soccer types, the playing field) I waited until they were far enough away so that I didn’t humiliate my daughter. I’d retrieve the Deltatone, sheet music, and a battery-operated amplifier from behind the rear seat and sit in the back seat, practicing. I don’t know if it helped make me a better musician, but it was the best way to utilize an hour and a half of time to myself. I’d work on whichever songs I was interested in, and when the weather was pleasant, I’d slide open the side door. Every once in a while, another soccer parent would park next to me before I could close the door. I think the expression they gave me was bemusement, but it might have been something less flattering.

And, before you ask, I tend not to sing when I play, especially when I’m not safe within my own four walls. I identify with Ringo Starr, when he was with the Beatles; I have a five-note range. Even worse, when it comes to singing, those notes are never in the key of anything I’ve learned to play—not that I am able to stick to one key for more than two measures. My singing voice is kind of a B—sharp(ish) without being a C, if you know what I mean.

Since the kids have outgrown the need for chauffeurs, the Deltatone doesn’t get much attention any more. I’ll soon be trying to find a new home for it via Craigslist. Maybe it’ll be the first axe for a future star.

Harmony Nylon String

Today’s other guitar is “Custom Made by Harmony,” which I found it in a thrift store. Now, in all honesty, many thrift store items are priced at, or nearly at, the price for the same item new. This guitar was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Besides, all of my other guitars are steel string, while this one uses nylon strings, which are better for finger-picking. Unfortunately, I have numbness in a few of my fingers and haven’t finger-picked since my Hawaiian guitar days in elementary school, but I still hold out hope.

Two other quick notes:

I did briefly own a Squier by Fender bass guitar within the past year or so. I love the bass riffs from the Beatles, the Moody Blues, and Fleetwood Mac, but as the saying goes, “So many guitars, so little time.” It deserved better, so it’s now with another aspiring musician.

As you can see, I keep some of my guitars on the wall. I believe this is important. If some Hall of Fame musician breaks into my house in the middle of the night and wants to jam, I’m ready to grab a guitar for each of us and go at it.

Hey, statistically it’s more probable than winning the lottery.

If it does happen, I hope they don’t expect me to sing.

My Life in Guitars – Part 5 (We’re not done yet?)

Then there was the ukulele, and it would be unfair to skip over the ukulele. There was a group of wonderful people who set up “Ukes for Troops,” and sent ukuleles to those serving in the desert. Our group of about 1200 received a dozen or so Lanikin ukuleles from them—what a cool move. I confess, I kept one for me, and even though I do not claim to have mastered the ukulele, I still have mine, prominently displayed in the music room.

 

 

Thanks Ukes for Troops!

 

When I got back home, I was still very pumped up about music, and kept an eye on eBay for special deals. One day I found one—a twelve-string guitar that had a starting price of $29.95. No one had bid on it. I watched it, and as the time ran down, I put in a bid. With eBay, it doesn’t automatically jump to your full bid, but whatever it would take to win the item, up to your full bid.

I got it for $29.95 (plus shipping, of course). The seller had taken great pains to point out that it had a ding on the front edge, and when it arrived, after playing it for a few weeks, I went in search a proper luthier who could repair it. (Trivia alert! The term luthier hearkens back to when the most common stringed instrument was the lute.)

A 12 string is to guitars, what a calliope is to organs with an over-the-top sound all its own. Most people like the sound, but don’t grasp the obvious. I saw a Quora question in which the person asked why a 12-string guitar sounds so “jangly.” Was it the type of music people played? The answer pointed out that it sounded jangly because of all those strings.

After Tom Petty died, NPR replayed an interview with him on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked about the particular and special sound Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers developed; Petty replied that they were inspired by Roger McGuinn from the Byrds and his use of a 12-string. (It’s all those strings, man.)

By the way, if you have a 12 string, never, EVER tune it like normal guitar; back off at least one fret and use a capo as needed. Besides sounding jangly, all those strings put a tremendous amount of tension on the guitar’s neck.

Incidentally, the guitar turned out that the 12-string I had purchased was a “Briarwood,” with the label inside stating “Briarwood by Peavey.” Is it me, or is there a conspiracy? Doesn’t matter—the 12 string has been and remains one of my most favorite guitars. My wife concurs that it’s a great sound.

Travel Guitar

n.

 

My Life in Guitars (Part 4) More Desert

I do not have a “solo” picture of the next guitar that adopted me, because a few years ago, one of my co-workers was looking for a decent guitar. Somehow, we came to a deal that pleased us both (and lest you think I took advantage of him, he’s frugal to a fault, and describes himself as ADHD, obsessive-compulsive, and Aspberger’s syndrome; all probably true, but he’s a great guy and you just gotta love people like that). At this point, he’s probably far outpaced me on playing, but that’s better for the guitar).

We were still over in the desert. Emboldened by our Christmas concert, the USO coordinators, apparently desperate for entertainment, asked us (or maybe Rubin begged them) to do another performance around Valentine’s Day. I was on a roll, and since I knew that if I ordered a new guitar, the shipping line would say, “Thank you for you service,” I found a black Epiphone electric—complete with case. I got online, grabbed my credit card, and lo, another miracle occurred.

The Epiphone Limited Edition Les Paul Special Electric Guitar was a pretty decent guitar for being modestly ($150) priced. They still sell the same guitar today, so obviously, there’s something good about it if it still sells for the same price 12 years later. I loved it, and thought that the guitar would magically make me a better musician. However, there were two other guitarists in the group (not counting the bassist) who were far more talented than I. I’m not talking, “You’re good—he’s better.” I’m talking, “Stick with the acoustic, Nowak, and back away from the microphone, please.” Nevertheless, we had a great time playing typical garage-band covers from the Beatles, the Eagles, and other influential musicians from my youth. Unfortunately, that was my last time playing rock and roll with anyone. I miss it, but since I get up for work before 5:00 AM, staying up past 8:00 PM is just not in the cards.

Been in the desert with a band with no name

So, here’s the only picture I have of that particular Epiphone–our Valentine’s Day concert at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. I’m the short intense looking dude (never could remember lyrics) on the left.

However, as you will see in a forthcoming episode, the reason I was willing to part with it was because my wife orchestrated my getting another Epiphone as a Fathers’ Day gift.

WARNING: More guitars to come, which is why my wife got me a tee-shirt that showed rows of guitars with the caption, “So many guitars, so little time.”

My Life in Guitars (Part 3) – the Desert

I’d been quite happy with my Peavey Predator, so although I looked—and occasionally drooled, I didn’t seriously plan to buy another guitar. I became a geo-bachelor in Oakland, California, and had my Peavey, but no amplifier. In my teeny-tiny one room apartment, I could hear my playing well enough to keep my sanity.

Then I got the word that as a reservist, I was being recalled and would soon be in Southeast Asia. Obviously, the military pretty much dictated what would go on the plane, so the word was—mail yourself the survival gear you’d need in a plastic footlocker, with the fiberglass reinforced packing tape in every direction. Contents included books, electronic games, civilian clothes (sometimes referred to as “mufti”), and, in my case, a small ham radio station. If the footlocker was shattered, the tape would keep everything together.

What? No guitar?

No guitar. I did not want my Peavey damaged, and, besides, the military exchange system was there to take our money and send us whatever we desired. I’d just order a new guitar once I got there.

I did.

The order was cancelled.

I placed a second order with AAFES (Army and Air Force Exchange System)—the store for our men in women in uniform who are deployed.

Cancelled again.

I called the AAFES command—I mean, why be a senior officer if you can’t call the military’s retail headquarters? As a civilian I can call Radio Shack headquarters—never mind.

When military are deployed their mail is routed through a system to an FPO (fleet post office) or an APO (Army post office) so that mail to overseas bases is treated—and costs—like it’s within the continental United States. However, AAFES claimed they didn’t ship to APOs or FPOs.

Huh? Isn’t that why the Military Exchange System exists?

I suspect that items like musical instruments are “drop-shipped” from the manufacturer directly to the customer. If the manufacturer was not located in the USA, then it couldn’t be sent as US mail to a US APO/FPO address. (Damn bean counters!)

Fortunately, I realized that the horse was dead, so I should stop whipping it, and went over its head, straight to . . . . . .

eBay!

Peavey Acoustic

I found a nice used acoustic guitar in the “Buy it now” section. I even talked with the seller (if you could dial back to a US base via the military system, you could then use your prepaid WalMart 5 cents-per-minute account to make a prepaid call elsewhere within the US). The seller was a nice guy who told me that he had changed out the bridge from white to black for a customer who changed his mind. Did I want it changed back?

No—just send it to me.

The vendor was either Music 123 or Musicians’ Friend—it doesn’t matter, they’re all part of the Guitar World now. The neat part was that for deployed military (you know, those with the dreaded APO and FPO addresses), these vendors, replaced the shipping cost with “Thank you for your service.” (To this day, they’re still my primary source for anything and everything musical—thanks, folks!)

For my new guitar, oddly enough I had picked a Peavey acoustic (imagine that). It arrived in short order in perfect condition. When I was “home” I tried to practice regularly and I also played at church. St. Augustine said that “He who sings, prays twice.” If you sing at a service at which I’m playing guitar, your prayers are probably worth a hundred-fold. On the other hand, one could always count dealing with my playing as penance.

After Mass one evening, Rubin, a fellow officer, approached me and asked if I wanted to play in a Beatles band. I laughed and pointed out my general (if not total) lack of talent, but Rubin (and I’m spelling his name the way I THINK he spelled it) said, “No problem, it was just for fun.” I thought about it, and figured that at the very least I’d get free guitar lessons out of the deal, so I agreed.

We didn’t get a lot of USO activity at our location, and what little we did always happened when I was on the road. There was a fair amount of excitement when a women’s volleyball team stopped by (so I hear) and Charlie Daniels performed, after which he autographed the guitar of one of the other Beatle band members. He had a black guitar with a mother-of-pearl Statue of Liberty inlay on the fretboard that had been custom made when he was stationed in Korea. Charlie signed it with a bold silver marker of some kind. The final result couldn’t have been more awesome.

But I digress, although I’m digressing about guitars, so it’s okay.

Just before Christmas, after weeks of rehearsing in a warehouse, WE became the USO show and did about 30 minutes of Beatles music for a crowd of fifty or so (after all, there was not much else to do if you weren’t on duty). However, a good time was had by all, and I had my 30 minutes of fame.

Next—a different guitar for an encore presentation.

My Life in Guitars (Part 2)

It was a few years, a marriage, a move or so, and a son and a daughter later before I got my next guitar.

We were living in Cheyenne, Wyoming—a wonderful place, although you do have to get used to the wind—the Wyoming Wind Festival runs from 1 January through 31 December—and they sell the tee shirts to prove it. In other words, when you first move there, the first priority is to figure out how to bungee cord the lid to the garbage can.

Cheyenne was small—about 53,000 people (in a state with 500,000, or 5 people per square mile) so it was a bit modest as far as shopping opportunities. For example, the first year we were there, the newspaper declared Sbarro’s Pizza as second place, in the “Best Restaurant for Lunch” category.

We’d regularly go to Fort Collins, Colorado for “real” shopping, but there were definitely places in Cheyenne worth visiting. One day my wife wanted to go to a craft store. I think I went in, and “finished” much earlier than she did, so I decided to go next door.

To a music store.

The music store had guitars on sale—the previous year’s Peavey Predator Plus. They had two, both green. Apparently was not fashionable (aka “cool”) and therefore, not a big seller. The guitars were marked down to half price or so. (Not actively shopping for guitars, I can’t say if it truly was a great price, or if they merely boosted the “original” price. Nevertheless, at the time, it seemed like a great deal.) I picked one up and I loved the feel; I mean, it was like, “Even I could play this!” I was hooked.

Peavey Predator with practical padded plain black guitar strap

 

The Predator series is supposedly inspired by Eddie van Halen, with a shorter neck to allow people with talent (like him) to move more quickly around the fretboard; it also allowed short under talented guys like me to feel cool, which is pretty awesome in itself. I mean, think about it. Playing a guitar, roughly the same color as my 1972 Ford Pinto could make me feel cool. How weird is that?

My wife walked in, realized that fate had spoken, and there was no use in even raising an eyebrow (she’s wonderful that way). So, with the guitar, a generic hard sided guitar case and a practice amplifier (Peavey, of course) we headed back home. When I told my parents how excited I was, they were so impressed, they offered to pay for the guitar. I decided I was neither too old, too wealhy, nor too proud to decline

Cool guitar. Wife supportive. Parents paying. So, who cares if it’s green?

I used to download chord charts and play rhythm along with Eagles CDs. Fortunately, none of the Eagles ever found out. Don Henley would have been most unhappy. Timothy B. Schmitt and maybe Don Felder might have even been willing to play along with me, so long as no one told Glenn Frye or Don Henley. However, if Glenn and Don found out, even though Joe Walsh and I have a lot in common (ham radio, northeast Ohio, etc.) I don’t think he would have dared to rush to my defense. Nevertheless, I had fun.

So, 15 or so years later, the green Peavey Predator Plus is still one of my favorites. The machine head has a locking system to keep the strings in tune. It’s got great pickups that can be switched in and out. That short neck does work well for me, and I have to admit, I’ve never thought—even once—of having it painted.

Incidentally, we returned to that same music store just before I deployed to buy a piano for the kids to start their music education. We still have the Peavey and the piano.

Good memories of Cheyenne.

Too Close to Home

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it just causes us to ignore things.

Google “tourist attractions” and the name of the place where you live.

Go ahead—I’ll wait.

There will be a variety of listings, with most claiming to be the “top ten” or such. Jot them down. Now go back and open the next list; you’ll find that while some attractions are repeated, there are also new ones. Add them to the list.

Now look at the list. Are some of the sites interesting? When you were younger, did you ever wish you could see any of them?

Now that they are nearby, have you ever actually gone to any of them?

See what I mean?