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Pat Kirtley - The Old Martin and Me

Excerpt Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars

"The smell of old guitars," someone once wrote, "is the smell of history." I'll never forget that.
Almost every guitar I've ever owned has meant something beyond just being a musical tool. They have hearts and souls. I'll always remember my first "real guitar," a $25 Stella purchased by my parents from the paint and hardware supply store in Bardstown. And the svelte red Silvertone three-pickup electric that was my first performance-level guitar-the first one that would make me some money. It cost $210, and I was proud to know I paid off the bank loan myself giving lessons and playing band gigs. And there was the 1965 Fender Jaguar, which had lured me with its sensuous curves-all promise and no performance. But the guitar that meant the most, and brings the sweetest memories, is the mahogany Martin.

Bardstown, Kentucky, 1964: My first real job as a teenager was working as a stage hand in a local outdoor drama The Stephen Foster Story during summers. The pay was low, but the work wasn't that hard, and I had a taste of "stage life"-working at night, with summer days free to mess around. It was also my first contact with theatrical performers, and I hung out with the cast at every opportunity. The show had hired a singer-guitarist, John, and it was cool because I knew a lot more guitar than he did, and ended up going to his apartment to give him lessons. One day we were hanging out there and I noticed an old guitar on top of a clothes cabinet. I took it down and saw an instrument in pathetic shape.

First and most obvious, it had been painted black, brush-slapped with poor-quality paint. I learned that the guitar had originally been used in the outdoor show-some long-ago stage manager ordered the paint job to kill an annoying glare from the lights. At a later time, layers of now-yellowing varnish were added over the black, in well-meaning reparation for the schlocky paint job. One couldn't tell how the guitar might sound, because the bridge was almost completely lifted away from the body, with two orphan strings still tensioned up, trying to finish the job.

Running my hands across the back of the neck, even a novice like me could tell it was a quality instrument. The neck shape was sleek, worlds apart from the crude contours of the old Stella. The tuning machines betrayed a decent manufacture too, which is why I began chipping at the old paint at the top of the headstock with the edge of a quarter. The squared-off, businesslike shape of the headstock didn't tell me who made it, but I knew there had to be a nameplate. Carefully scraping away while John sat hunched over his guitar, asking about fingerings, flat-fives, and major-sevenths, I began to uncover the edge of a gold-tinted decal. After a few more scratches I gulped at the prestigious "C.F. Martin" script, with its reassuring "Est. 1883."

By then my curiosity was scarcely veiled, and John said, "Why don't you take it with you and see if you can make it play again." He assured me that it had been cast aside by at least one generation of cast and management before-they had thrown it out and he had saved it from the dumpster. "I don't have time to fool with it-it could be a good guitar for you with some work." Some work? I had no idea.

I took it home, and carefully finished scraping the headstock, just to make very sure. Inside the body, visible through the soundhole, was the model, "00-17," but who could tell what that meant? And then under the dust I saw the C.F. Martin brand stamped across one of the back braces, and a six-digit serial number. Oh yes, this was a genuine article. I released the bridge from its tenuous mooring and put it aside. I saved the two bridge-pins, looking like yellowed teeth from a dead witch, and knew I'd have to come up with four more somehow. I carefully removed the six tuning machines and sealed them in a bag with the twelve tiny mounting screws. The pickguard was warped like a potato chip, and I knew it had to come off, too. Soon the guitar was oddly but satisfyingly naked.

I had no idea how to remove the finish without wrecking the guitar. My mom suggested furniture stripper (she was excited at the time about the prospect of finding cast-off furniture items, refinishing them and saving scads of money). But this wasn't furniture. Something told me that it would take time and some finesse to properly reveal the undoubtedly beautiful wood beneath. I read in a book that guitar makers sometimes use scrapers. I found a paint scraper with a razor-edged blade and gave it a try. Though my fifteen year-old hands were competent with guitars and confident with hand tools, I could tell that this approach wasn't going to work for the major finish removal. It was just too tedious-with a little too much force or the wrong angle, you might bite into wood. I sensed the solution would be some chemical substance, but not the take-no-prisoners concoctions my mom was fond of slathering on old wash stands and night tables.

I became an excellent sales prospect for the paint experts down at Shelton's Furniture and Home Center, and did most of my research through their informative brochures, inscriptions, and warnings on the backs of product cans. I had long discussions with the salesmen, who indulged me, knowing the ultimate sales receipt would be in single digits. With due diligence, I got a second opinion from the folks at Grigsby's Hardware, and a third from Settles' Home Supply, where the Stella was purchased for my tenth birthday. I listened closely, because the guys at Settles' obviously knew something about guitars.

The purchase order was awarded to Shelton's because my parents had an account there, and my mom said they had quality stuff. So I came home with a can of Porter Paints' best finish remover, guaranteed not to damage even the finest of woods. It became a messy job, with rags, gloves, and lots of newspaper. Because of the intense vapors, I had to build a rig out in the yard with two sawhorses and an arrangement of clamps to keep the guitar in the right position for every angle I had to turn it. I found that the work was best done in the shade of the afternoon, because the summer sun tended to evaporate the remover before you could remove the remover.

The work on the body itself went smoothly, as long as I took care not to let anything drip down inside to stain the bare wood there. The neck was going to be a problem, because I couldn't risk getting anything on the fretboard or headstock, where I knew the remover would obliterate the Martin decal in nothing flat. It turned out that the best way was to apply a little remover and then take it off with a scraper, carefully working on a small section at a time. Within a week or so, the job was done, and I could now see and appreciate the grain and color of an all-mahogany guitar. My mom, being smarter than I would have imagined, had identified the wood species for me. "I believe it's Honduras mahogany," she said, and I went to the library to learn more about this open grained, tropical wood.

It was time to consider putting on a finish, and it scared me to think how bad it might turn out. I had held several fine guitars in my hands, including my uncle's 1957 Telecaster, and my other uncle's late '40s Gibson archtop. I knew that a good guitar finish was thin, hard, and very shiny. I had no idea what it took to achieve that, though I'd heard the term "lacquer" used in talk about guitars. The eyes of the salesmen at Shelton's lit up when I went in asking about lacquer, because they also sold paint spraying compressors, and knew I was talking my way toward a sale in the three-digit range, courtesy of my parent's charge account. But I knew that I knew nothing about spray finishing, so I kept on looking.

I also knew that all the other finishes available at the stores in town wouldn't be right for the Martin. The most popular finish for re-doing furniture and the like was generic "varnish," and it always turned out soft, uneven, and dull. And you had to put it on with a brush, which I already knew from experience was the wrong thing to use on a guitar. It was during one of my treasured "music store expeditions" into the big city of Louisville that I found the answer.

My brother and I, accompanied by fledgling band-member friends, often rode the Greyhound bus from Bardstown to Louisville on Saturday morning and spent the whole day haunting the music stores downtown on Fourth and Fifth streets. We knew that this was where the big boys did their business, and though we had no money to spend on anything beyond guitar picks or a Beatles song book, it was our duty as burgeoning consumers to check out the guitars, and collect bountiful armfuls of handout literature from Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Guild, and the others. At Shackleton's (who had Gretsches a Chet Atkins fan would die for in a temperature-controlled vault downstairs) and Durlauf's (where a kind and friendly salesman with a big mustache named Ralph Lampton showed us Fender amps and guitars, knowing that someday each kid would grow up to be a real customer), we'd spend hours trying out all the new gear, in relatively unimpeded bliss.

But down a few blocks over on Fifth Street was Music Center-a welcoming name for such a forbidding place. There, amid displays of Guild Copicat echo machines, futuristic Mosrite guitars, and the Guild Zal Yanovsky signature guitar, was a most inscrutable gentleman, an immigrant from Germany named R. A. Emberger, proprietor and resident curmudgeon. Mr. Emberger had no time to think about kids growing up to become future bank-note signing, check-writing customers. He seemed happiest when we bought our picks, then grabbed our brochures and got the hell out. All of us were afraid to ask him to hand us a guitar or turn on an amplifier. We knew the store must have customers, but we were sure they weren't us. Then one day, out of my frustration over completing the Martin, I asked Mr. Emberger if he knew anything about refinishing a guitar, and behind his thick glasses, his eyes lit up. He almost smiled, and said with a wave of his finger "Come, I show you something."

As my brother and friends registered open-mouth astonishment, I, alone, followed Mr. Emberger behind the rear counter and into the area where he did repairs. It was a different world back there, and Mr. Emberger seemed to transform into a kinder gentler person when he entered that space, for in this domain he found his passion-repairing violins and other fine stringed instruments for the likes of the Louisville Orchestra. The shiny guitars and amps out front were just a mere show of commerce.

I told him about the guitar and what I had done so far. He seemed respectful of the diligence I'd shown, and said, "It's a fine guitar and deserves a good finish." He produced a small bottle with a hand-lettered paper label in German. The fluid inside looked like honey, but darker, the color of fine Kentucky Bourbon. As he held it up to the light, I didn't know if he wanted me to buy it or just admire it. It was a small bottle, only a few ounces, and it was twenty dollars. "This is violin varnish," he said, "the best." I was afraid to ask, but needed to know how four ounces of this stuff could do a whole guitar. For the first time in my experience, he actually smiled. "This is enough for twenty guitars!" and he proceeded to unscrew the top and show me how to use it. "You put a little on the end of your finger, and you rub it into the wood"-he demonstrated on a scrap of spruce from the workbench.

I felt trapped. Maybe it works for some old craftsman in the Black Forest on something the size of a violin, but I couldn't see spending the rest of my summer massaging the grain of the old Martin this way. "You will do this maybe seven times, with light sanding between each coat," (he said "vil" and "zanding"). Yes, and I could push a peanut to San Francisco vit my nose if I wanted to. Yet, in a state somewhere between unconditional faith and utter panic, I went back into the store and obtained loans from my brother and friends adding up to twenty bucks for the magical fluid. He put the bottle into a small paper bag and smiled again. "Let me know how it turns out!"

It seemed poetically fitting to use a special glaze from Germany to refinish a guitar that Mr. Martin, who came from Germany, built. The whole rest of the summer I rubbed the oily fluid into the grain of the wood. I knew nothing of grain fillers or sealers, which would have made the job much easier. The first application revealed the luster and depth of the formerly dull wood, and I knew my patience and faith would be rewarded. I hated sanding between the coats, because it removed some of the carefully applied finish, but I knew it was necessary for smoothness, and for the next coat to adhere properly. When I had built up seven coats and the surface was acceptably smooth and even, I used a rubbing compound for the final polish. It looked, and smelled, like a quality guitar. I had glued the bridge in place before applying the finish, reinstalled the tuners, bought some new strings and bridge pins in Louisville, and finally it was complete.

I played it morning and night, and it was my entry to the joy of acoustic guitar. Though I still played electric guitar in bands, and would continue doing so for years, this guitar represented my passion. When I recorded my first album some years later in 1974, it was the only guitar I used. I've thought about the guitar's history and how it was originally used to perform the songs of Stephen Foster in the show. It surely knows the chords to My Old Kentucky Home-and all the rest of those tunes-down in its wood fibers. I regret that I never took the guitar back to show it to Mr. Emberger, who is now long departed. I once took it to a Martin dealer who looked up the serial number, told me it was made before 1952, and shot me an offer. Sell this guitar? I'd just as soon push a peanut to San Francisco with my nose.

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