DATE: Sunday, April 26, 2020
RE: The Disbursement of My Beloved Guitars
DEAR FAMILY: Greetings. I come to you on a matter of personal note. That is to say, the disbursement of my three beloved guitars, should I be swept away by ‘The Rona‘ (as my daughter calls it).
First, I do not wish to make light of the losses that have occurred to families worldwide and the losses to come from Covid-19. My sincere condolences to the many grieving families and to front-line workers doing the job of angels. While this piece sounds whimsical throughout—we need some whimsy to get through this—it also is an actual set of instructions should mortality come calling, now or 20 years hence.
My dearly beloved wife and I both have files on our computer desktops, titled “I’m Outa Here.” The name pays homage to a file long kept on the desktop of Laurie’s father, Harry. The file listed his last wishes should he find himself incapable of voicing his final guidelines or passed on unexpectedly.
I realized while crafting my morning shot of ‘intenso‘ caffeination today, I had not specified who might be the adoptive parents of Michele, Gilda, and Blue whenever my time comes. I wish to rectify that oversight with this addendum to my “I’m Outa Here” file, while adding biographical details and backstories to each of these wonderful guitars.
I should note why this is so important.
It’s a known fact—at least to us guitar players—that guitars are living things, if not quite sentient. (Though the jury is still out on that.) After all, they’re made of living wood, held in dynamic equilibrium by strings and trusses.
They also get depressed.
Someone needs to write a doctoral thesis or conduct research. Yet we guitar owners know it. If a guitar has not been played for a period of at least three months, it begins to descend into a funk. Six months? Intense mopiness and incipient despair.
In order to avoid my Dear Stringed Ones’ descent into strung-out moods, I hereby make the following declarations.
GILDA the GUILD
THE GUITAR: Gilda the Guild
DESIGNATED OWNER: Son Lucas
BACKSTORY: This disbursement is a return to Gilda’s original owner. Gilda entered life as the guitar of my son, Lucas. We bought the guitar through Route 60 Music, a legendary West Virginia supplier of the musical equivalent of crack cocaine, in the form of instruments and other supplies such as picks, straps, strings, etc. (Route 60 has been known to hand out your first couple instruments for free, handing them out on street corners, hooking you for life.)
Lucas used the guitar in an heroic attempt to be a Classical Guitar Major in college. But you must be a musical monk to major in classical guitar. He does have monk-like qualities if you ignore his facial hair and generous sprinkling of tattoos. And he has grown up to become a notable electronic music composer on numerous small labels around the world. (Google “Lucas the Flow” and you’ll get the gist.)
What he did not grow up to be is a classical guitarist.
Thus, I inherited his Guild.
One day, Gilda revealed her name to me—perhaps telepathically from her need to be known and played again—after I heard one of the guitar’s strings ‘plink!’ in a deeply affecting, lonesome fashion, when I picked it up.
Guitars communicate in this fashion. The ‘plinks!’ and ‘plunks!’ may sound like stray noises to those unfamiliar with their language. Wrong! These are cries for help! It works the other way. If you’ve just delighted a guitar by playing well upon it—and put it back into its stand or case, and ‘accidentally’ plink or thrum a string, creating a pleasing tone—that is the guitar, purring in pleasure.
Now you know.
PS: Should Gilda the Guild not receive enough attention—given Lucas the Flow’s busy creative dance-card—joint custody of her is hereby awarded to Meagan, his fabulously-voiced partner, and a fine guitarist in her own right.
Meagan, meet Gilda.
PSS: Since Gilda’s classical guitar days, a Master Instrument Transmogrophier by the name of William Braveheart of Cowtown (who is likely not from this planet—I have my theories) has conducted major surgery on her delicate insides. She now has the superpower of amplification. You can play delicately on her. But you may also plug her in, crank her up, and rock the casbah.
MICHELE the TAYLOR
THE GUITAR: Michele the Taylor
DESIGNATED OWNER: Daughter Grace
BACKSTORY: First, let’s underscore how his—not her—name is pronounced: ‘Mi-KAY-leh. Michele is named after my Italian great-grandfather, Michele Napoli, husband of Luisa Nigro Napoli. Among the children they birthed into the world on a steep Calabrian hillside, was my grandmother on my father’s side, Caterina ‘Catina‘ Napoli, born April 9, 1899, in San Pietro in Guarano near Rende, Italy, who died March 20, 1992, in Lorain, Ohio. (NOTE: Here’s a piece of my brother David’s wonderful photo-essay memoir, about our 2003 visit to that hillside, a photo-essay we transformed into a video.)
It was just a few years after arriving in West Virginia—in 1988—I purchased my first major-league guitar. It was a 1963 Martin dreadnought D-28, with a top made of Brazilian rosewood. I’d taken a job as a cub reporter at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va., covering the police beat. An amiable sheriff’s deputy named Larry Stephens, a guitar player and instrument repairman, suggested I seek out Fret’n’Fiddle, then on the city’s west side. I was interested in moving up from the Double AA/Triple AAA guitar ownership league—a Canadian Seagull that my parents bought me as a high school graduation present—to the Bigs.
The shop was owned by a friendly, extremely bearded fellow named Joe Dobbs. He looked like he might be Santa Claus’s younger brother. He turned out to be a legendary, beloved West Virginia fiddle player. He was also a purveyor of fine instruments, such as a classic Martin steel-string I spotted on the wall, fashioned from one of Earth’s primo resonant woods.
SIDE NOTE: That is West Virginia in a nutshell for you. The deputy sheriff you quote in the local newspaper tells you where to find a guitar he can fix for you, and that you can buy from the legendary fiddle player on the other side of town, who sells you a world-class guitar for a decent price—and becomes your pal for life.
Thus, I came to own a dream guitar.
It was the kind of instrument you bring out at music festivals and singalongs to ‘ooohs‘ and ‘aaahs‘ from learned folks. That’s another thing about West Virginia—every fifth person you pass on the sidewalk can play guitar like a mother …. um …
Like a guitar-strumming god.
The Martin’s provenance also helped conceal the fact I was a bounder from Ohio. And I could not, in fact, play “Whiskey Before Breakfast” at breakneck speed like everyone else around the circle. I’d distract from this fact by gazing lovingly at the Martin, saying something like: “Yeah, I got this from Joe Dobbs. The top is made of …“
That guitar almost got me fired
First, a shout-out to the first boss of my fledging journalism career, C. Don Hatfield, then-editor of the H-D. You are about to be quoted and appreciated, Don, for not canning my butt and dooming me to a life of public relations for a Don Blankenship-owned coal outfit.
One night, I was working the cops beat on late-shift, in the second floor newsroom of the Herald-Dispatch office in downtown Huntington. I had the guitar with me that day for some reason. Not wishing to leave it in my car, I’d brought it into the newsroom, sealed up in in its hardshell black case.
Doing police calls was an onerous, dues-paying task. It was essential training, in its own way, for any cub reporter learning the trade. ‘Cop calls’ could turn up any number of breaking news stories in the 50-odd counties spread across three states—West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky—the H-D laid claim to covering. A jail escape or dramatic fire could land you a Page 1 byline the next morning, which for a young-buck reporter was like going to prom with that cute Peggy girl across from you in study hall.
Working the cops beat was just as likely to be where a greenhorn out of college, fresh from covering deadly-dull student body meetings, might encounter a dead body for the first time. (I assure you, every reporter with a decent career can tell you about that first time.)
But far more often, making 50 to 60 calls at 11 p.m. in an empty newsroom—except for a harried copy editor doing last-minute page mark-ups and an Ichabod Crane-thin janitor emptying out trash bins—was as exciting as cleaning grout.
Equally bored dispatchers and deputies answered the phone out in some one-cruiser county in the sticks. They were specialists in deflection when news did break. Occasionally, they were poets of the laconic reply when all they had was bupkis to report.
“Hey, this is Douglas Imbrogno from the Herald-Dispatch. Anything going on there today?”
“Nope,” one dispatcher said, in an answer I can recall 30 years later. “Quiet as a bag of ice.”
The Martin was right there, beside my knees. I got her out. (I forget her name. We broke up so long ago.) I eased the dreadnought from the case. I played riffs. Maybe I played Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” one of the few tunes I could take to the finish line in the early 1990s. (Those were early days.)
She was a big beauty. A real boomer.
It must have been the copy editor.
He reported on me. Next day, the bossman requested I see him in his corner office.
“Doug,” Don said in a surprisingly sympathetic tone. “If I had my way, there’d be live music in the newsroom every day …”
But, of course, you could not have the cops reporter strumming Cat Stevens while needing to make sure the hardware shop had not burned down in Ashland, or that inmates were running wild from the county jail out Wayne.
I nodded my head, sagely.
We were not in Kansas, anymore. Well, Miami University (Motto: “In O-hio, GODD*!#M IT, OHIO!”).
I got it.
So, I thank you, Don. For being a way-cool first boss. (And check out his 2018 book, “Newspaperman: A Memoir.”)
And the Martin? A few decades later I traded it straight up for a Taylor on the wall at Fret’n’Fiddle, which had a new location in St. Albans, WV. I needed a guitar with a built-in pick-up system. I’d gotten better and was tired of pointing the un-amplified Martin’s soundhole at a microphone on stage.
I handed the Martin to one of Joe’s sons who worked in the shop. He handed me the Taylor off the wall—which I would later christen Michele, after I’d learned the guitar’s name.
He threw in a pack of strings.
That whole transaction, too, was Peak West Virginia.
PS: My daughter, Grace, has grown up, literally, with Michele. When I was the designated parent, overseeing her evening bath as a toddler, I’d rehearse songs for my first CD with the Martin, seated on the commode, as Grace splashed her yellow rubber duckie and other bath toys around the tub. That’ s how she came to know—and sing-a-long enthusiastically—to the chorus of my song “I Never Slept With Allen Ginsberg.” (The song’s back-story is a whole other post. For now, suffice it to say it was once played on a public radio show in Princeton, N.J., called “Songs You’ll Never Hear on the Radio.” But you can hear it right now on Spotify at this link.)
PSS: In high school, we required Graciella to take a music lesson of some kind, to learn some musical skill. She chose—after much teen-mumblegrumble—to take guitar lessons from Route 60 (I tell you, that store is in-extricably woven up in my life.) That was almost a decade ago. As she is not (yet!) playing open mics, I thought the lessons had not ‘took.’ But she got out her guitar in quarantine recently to demonstrate she could still play a G chord. And a C. And an Am, and, I think, an Em! And another one, I forget which.
Whatever. I was impressed. Michele is hers.
BLUE the ROVER
THE GUITAR: Blue the Washburn Rover
DESIGNATED OWNER: Great-nephew Wes
There are all kinds of lightweight, miniature traveling guitars. You need a compact one if you wish to play one on the road or create international singalongs. I once borrowed West Virginia flatpick legend Robin Kessinger’s hard-shell, guitar travel case, to take the Martin to Ireland. It helped shelter the precious instrument on its way to-and-fro. It made an impression in Irish pubs, to pull out such a gunslinger guitar, even if I was barely competent to lead a pub chorus of “Country Roads.”
But between the already hefty Martin’s weight and the heave-ho of Robin’s thick, grey, fiberglass case, it was like hauling a coffin around.
So, I hereby make a claim that I invite other guitarists to diss, critique, or echo: the Washburn Rover is THE best traveling guitar for the price in the world. As usual, I got it from my dealer, Route 60 Music. I fell heads-over-heels for the dusky blue one you see in the photo above.
Here’s a quick vitae of Blue the Rover:
- Guitar and case (which, niftily enough, fits in an overhead airplane baggage compartment) cost me about $150 back in the day. Best money I ever spent on an instrument.
- I named it after a soulful, howling English setter named Blue. He was one of two dogs at The Farm where I lived my senior year at Miami, way out in an Indiana cornfield, an abode notorious-for-its-unbuttoned-parties (literally and figuratively).
- William of Cowtown—back in our solar system on a visit—installed rosewood buttons and a killer sound-system in a rosewood box inside Blue. It’s cleverly hidden behind a magnetic, heart-shaped, rosewood panel (which only 1 of the last 25 people I’ve challenged to figure out have grokked through the years).
- I once played “Country Roads” on Blue—I’d finally learned it—around midnight beside a canal in Venice, with some Australian tourists, who also were wandering the fondamentas with a guitar, looking to harmonize.
So, it happens that every time my niece, Louise, and her husband, Ben, bring their delightful children to stay for holidays, their youngest boy, Wes, plops himself beside me on the couch whenever I have guitar in hand.
I began to put Blue into his hands. I showed him how to play an easy G chord. Then an Am. And an Em. This was a couple years ago. He’s getting better. It helps that his dad’s a bass player, his mom’s got some pipes, and the whole family’s got it going on creatively.
This past Christmas, we gifted Wes and the family with a beginner’s guitar. (Purchased from you know who—my Connection.)
We hear reports that Wes and the guitar have bonded. I don’t know if the guitar has told Wes its name yet.
Give it time, son. Give it time.
Plus, Blue is waiting for you in the wings.
My only request? Please learn “Country Roads.”
And someday take Blue back to Venezia. And play “Country Roads” beside a canal at midnight.
Want To Hear What Gilda the Guild Sounds Like?
Any guitar you hear on the following tracks is Gilda:
MORE SONGS of COMFORT, SONGS of HOME:
~ “Bring Sunshine When You Come”
~ “Paradise”: “A John Prine Homage”
~ “Wild Mountain Thyme”
~ “A West Virginia Medley”
~ “Two Guitars, One Heart”
~ “Till There Was You”
~ “Minor Glory (draft ‘a cappela’ version)
Want To Hear What Michele the Taylor Sounds Like?
Type in the phrase “garagecow ensemble” into Spotify or click here, to hear my first CD, “Saint Stephen’s Dream.” My guitar parts feature the Taylor. These include the best solo I think I ever cracked off. It comes midway through my tune “Party In My Heart,” courtesy of my patient-as-Job CD co-creator and sound wizard, Bob “Buttons” Webb. PS: You can buy the CD, either digitally or a hard-copy on Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere by searching for “garagecow ensemble” and my name.
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