The Hot Guitar
by Jack Wilkins
By 1982 I'd been playing my Gibson guitar for over 20 years. I love this guitar! I know her and she knows me. It's a relationship based on trust, understanding, and time. Don't tell her this, but she was not my first or even second love.
Imagine this scenario: Eighteen years old, just out of high school, and trying to decide what to do with my life. I knew I wanted to play guitar but should I go to college and get a degree "to have something to fall back on" as my parents used to say- kind of a built-in failure mechanism if you think about it- or should I begin getting experience playing?
Colleges in those days (1962) didn't offer degrees in jazz guitar. I couldn't see spending four years at a college where jazz wasn't accepted and you had to study classical guitar to get a degree. It wasn't for me. I decided to learn by playing local jobs, practicing and asking questions, which I still do today. To supplement my income, I took a job at a local music store where I gave lessons. Not bad for the time, about $8 an hour, and 15 or 16 hours a week.
Something was wrong though. I was improving my technique by leaps and bounds. Practicing 5 hours a day can do that. The guitar I had at the time was not up to my level of play, however. I think it was an old Kay archtop. It was all right before, but now I was ready for a great instrument. Mind you, I was still too young to realize I needed a better instrument. Things I practiced, however, would not come off quite the way I heard them in my head, and I felt as if I were coming to a dead end. The answers were never far away though.
One day, as I came into the music store to teach, I saw a guitar that spoke to me- a beautiful blond pre-war, non-cutaway Gibson L-5. Rare and exceptional! Where did it come from? Was it for sale? Could I borrow it for the rest of my life? When I picked it up to play it, I couldn't believe it! The things I practiced that couldn't quite come off before were now perfect! I had to have it.
I asked the owner of the store, "What's the deal here?"
He said, "If you like it so much, why not buy it?"
"How much?" I said.
"Fifty dollars?" I said, "Oh ok, I guess that's fine."
Okay? It was worth $500 dollars. I bought it and took it home and played and played and played. It was amazing. It wasn't just great, it was divine. It was really mine and like a part of me that was just beginning to be discovered. Still, how could it only be worth $50 dollars? I took it to my repairman, guitar builder and inventor friend Ray Mattey. (Ralph Matteo was his real name). He was kind of mentor to me and I liked him very much. He was always encouraging and helpful, you might say from the "Old School". I love people like that. A little like Fezziwig in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. He discovered a serious crack in the joining of the neck and body and told me it had to be fixed or it would fall apart some day. I trusted his judgement and said, "Okay Ray, see what magic you can perform."
Magic is the only word for people like Ray. I didn't care how much it would cost and Ray would always be very reasonable with me anyway. I remember that it cost $200, but it was worth every penny to have my guitar in good shape. It would be a massive repair job, however. The problem was that I wouldn't get my guitar back for about two months. That hurt!
At about the same time in my life, I took occasional lessons from another wonderful person named Sid Margolis. Between Sid and Ray, I had two of the finest mentors a young man could have. Sid taught me many valuable techniques and shared a certain awareness that only a seasoned professional can give. Sid hadn't heard about my new guitar so I was very anxious to tell him about it. As usual with Sid, he was very kind and listened with care and interest. As soon as I started to describe the guitar, his face went ashen. As gently as he could, he said. "Jack, that sounds like the guitar that was stolen from me some time ago."
Now it was my turn to be ashen. I kind of panicked. If it were Sid's guitar, I'd have to give it back to him. But what if it wasn't? The only way to find out was to bring it to him. There was no serial number on the guitar to prove anything but Sid would know. Co-incidentally, Ray completed the repair on the guitar that day. I left Sid's not thinking about the lesson and raced to Ray's shop. The guitar was ready and it was beautiful! It seemed to glisten and almost seemed alive. (Wood is alive) I told Ray what a masterful job he did and explained about Sid. Ray said, "Oh no, it can't be true. This is your guitar."
When I arrived back to Sid's with the guitar, my heart was beating so fast I thought I'd pass out. When I opened the case, I focused on Sid's face to see his reaction. It was joyful. Then it was sad. I knew he felt badly about me. I realized I must give up my guitar. I suppose some people might say, "Well, you bought it fair and square and there was no proof of ownership" and so forth, but the truth was, it was his and he was my friend. The details about the man who owned the music store aren't really important. Suffice to say the shop owner had purchased the guitar in an unsavory fashion. That's why it was only $50.
Sid settled with Ray. Poor Ray! He had put his heart and soul into fixing the instrument for me, not that he wouldn't have done an excellent job anyway, but somehow when you do things for someone who's especially close, it seems to have more meaning. I felt sort of lost after that. I couldn't go back to the music store, and I couldn't go back to playing my old guitar.
Sid called me a few days later with a solution to everything. "Teach for me," he said. I wasn't sure he really needed me but I readily accepted. He would give me invaluable guidance and I would make some money. Sid had another idea. Why don't I buy this other Gibson L-5 that he bought to replace the stolen one. It was a sunburst 1961 cutaway with a floating DeArmond pick up. Nice guitar! Very nice! "Okay," I said, and he sold it to me for $250, the amount I would have spent on Sid's stolen guitar anyway. Everything worked out perfectly. I taught at Sid's and learned a great deal. I played my new 1961 Gibson and learned to love it as much as my first love. This 1961 Gibson would qualify as my second true love.
Sometime after that, a good friend named Burt Linden gave me an old Gibson L-7. It needed repair and as usual, Ray Mattey did his magic. I hardly played the L-7 because of my second love, the 1961 L-5. I kept the L-7 as a spare guitar. Of course, this L-7 is now my third and true love. What happened to my second love, the once new L-5 that Sid Margolis had sold me? Six years after I purchased it, it was stolen. I'd like to think that someday someone will give it back to me the way I returned Sid's guitar to him. "What goes around, comes around"- right? I'm waiting.
Photo courtesy of www.jackwilkins.com.