The trip to Gryphon Strings was an eye-opener, likely an expensive one in the long run, although the only thing I actually bought that day was the Really Good Book of Standard Bluegrass Songs. I met a friend there, a wonderful guitarist who is experienced in matters of instrument shopping and who was the first to introduce me to the idea that “guitars are not like girlfriends; you can have more than one at a time.” It turns out having a friend help you shop for a guitar is a crucial additive that was nowhere on the many advice websites I’ve become obsessed with. I snagged a friendly staff person who was eating a hunk of banana bread and explained my mission: I’m shopping for an upgrade, I may not buy anything today but I’d like to try some instruments out if you don’t mind, kind sir. I told him my budget (about $1000) and said I was looking for a smaller-than-dreadnought size, I played chords but not melody, and I sang kind of high, so I liked the sound of lower instruments. The staffer swallowed his breakfast and set us up first with a Waterloo guitar made by Collings that cost twice as much as I could pay, which sounded just luscious although my friend pointed out that it was made to look like a cheap Gibson, with a tiger-striped pickguard and an orange sunburst finish. I pretended to be Mary Lou Lord for a few minutes, but I was never going to get serious about a guitar that cost almost a month’s salary. Maybe on the next upgrade.
We both tried out the obligatory Taylor that every guitar store seems to have a burning itch to get you to play, and then we indulged in some trash talk about Taylors (my friend said kindly that they do what they’re made to do very well, but what they do is not her favorite. I’d listen to her, since what a Taylor is apparently made to do is be played by an ace fingerstyle player like her. Me, I just don’t go for all that ringy soprano competition). I tried out a pretty Blueridge that was a near relative of the one I’d liked so much at Guitar Solo, and like all the other instruments I tried out, my friend played it too so I could hear how it sounded from the other side. That, together with the handy fact that my shopping companion was also a woman and so we had the guy who was helping us outnumbered, was the genius of not being alone in a music store. You’ve heard me go off about being a woman in a music store. It takes an added shot of attitude to get through that ordeal alone. My friend was even awesome enough to play with a pick, which she never does, to help me hear how I would sound. But this time the Blueridge sounded too much like the Taylor we had just been speaking so cruelly of, too bright and high where I wanted darkness and mellowness.
And that was how I discovered my Martin problem.
I’d been suspecting it was there all along. Having listened to a lot of good and less-good players (like me) play Martins, I loved the even sound and the dynamic range and what they embarrassingly call in opera the “good bottom.” I loved the way singers sounded with them, like their voice was buoyed up but they didn’t have to struggle. I’d been on the brink of asking more than one Martin owner if I could play their guitar; only my fear of an etiquette breach was stopping me. Some people, not all but you never know which ones, can be funny about other people asking to touch their guitars. And I’m already paranoid that my friends are talking about me.
I should confess here that while I claimed to be shopping for a used instrument that had already been broken in and “opened up,” I was secretly lusting for a guitar that was made before I was born. Things that have already survived beyond my lifetime give me a weird comfort. It’s like looking at the Milky Way. Somehow you know it’s all going to be okay no matter how long it takes. Plus, mostly, the folkies I know and love have Martins, and mostly, they and their instruments were around before I was. So there was already some reverence for that that musical family tree. But I could tell after not too many research clicks that I’d never be able to justify the cost of a vintage guitar. Maybe if I ever get the kind of book deal where, when people tell me to quit my day job, I can actually think about that as a real possibility.
Maturity. It means being honest about the vintage Martin you really want.
So I got to play a few Martins at Gryphon. And I was ruined, I tell you. Probably for life. The banana bread guy (he had moved on to a burrito, which tells you how long we’d been there) was letting us use the back room, and I was merrily testing out all comers by singing the same way I would at home (not very quietly). I tried out the size I thought I would like, the OOO. It was light and cuddly to hold and my left hand didn’t feel as cramped as it does on my baby Taylor (which I do cherish despite the trash talk because it was a gift from my girl). And the voice was fuller than I’d hoped. But then I also tried out a dreadnought and that sound was even heavenlier, more muscular but with that same lovely balance and sweet lowness. And then my friend started hinting that bigger was better, and then I remembered my other ace fingerstyle friend saying he’d bought his smaller Martin for fingerstyle playing and how my mission was to find a guitar that would support my singing and sound good with my strumming and you will probably not find me transforming into an ace fingerstyle guitarist during this lifetime. And then I was getting that unpleasant buzzy feeling where I was no longer sure what I was looking for, and I didn’t want to give in to the pressure to buy something just to make it a successful day (even though I did go back to that lovely Road Series OOO Martin that already had electronics installed, more than once, I was conscious that I was being swayed by the faintly lower price). And by now my insides were complaining about the severe shortage of banana bread.
So I bought my songbook, and a handful of stickers (actually the clerk gave them to me for free) for my 9-year-old nephew who’s just started guitar lessons, and then we retreated to the café to be revived with sandwiches and cake. And then I had to be on the road home, but you should know that my friend went back to the store for another few minutes with that beguiling resonator she had been playing while I lost my head over the Martin collection. Which I point out with humble respect only to demonstrate the allure of Gryphon Strings.
I drove home trying to convince myself that I wouldn’t look like a dork with a nice Martin dreadnought if I don’t already look like one with my Yamaha, which is the same size but…it’ll always sound like a $100 Yamaha. It’s Kool Whip. That Martin D-16 I tried was crème fraîche.
Next tour stop: The used guitar listings on Craigslist!