I Play Wrecked Guitars: The Beast

I need a saga. What is the saga? It’s songs for the deaf. You can’t even hear ‘em!

There’s a lot to be said for vintage guitars. As a musician, a lot of pressure is placed upon me to have choice gear–fancy stuff, old stuff that other people wish they had. Which, when it comes to electrics, usually means mid-60s or earlier, and a model that was played by someone famous back in the day, like Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix. Those guitars can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

I don’t play guitars like that. I play old, wrecked ones. And this one’s my favorite. In the winter of 2009, I decided to get myself a project. I’d recently acquired a Gibson SGJ Gordie Johnson guitar that was just too damn nice to beat up, and wanted another one to teach on and smack around. I figured if I was going to gig and jam and ruin a guitar, it may as well be one I put together or fixed up that really wasn’t worth anything.

After a week of diligent craigslisting, a man in Scarborough contacted me and asked me if I was interested in… this:

Check the wrecked-ness. A 1971 Gibson SG Deluxe. An abused, in-pieces, busted-headstock Gibson SG Deluxe.

This model has been sort of a black-sheep guitar since they were introduced. Gibson changed a lot of features on this series of the SG guitar, and in doing so, pissed off a lot of the vintage guys who think that guitars attained perfection in 1959. They put plate-mounted electronics on, straightened the neck angle out so it was built more like a Fender, and replaced the 1-piece neck with a more stable 3-piece laminate with a huge volute at the back of the headstock. See, theoretically, these were all improvements. Gibsons, in general, have a reputation for having their headstocks fall off with as much as a stern look.

Anyway, it had been someone’s pride and joy in the ‘70s, and, over the course of its existence, it sustained a headstock break. As I already said, this is a common problem on old Gibsons.

What followed was… a really shoddy repair with Bondo or something that was meant more for cars than guitars. Anyway, it didn’t really play or tune or… look okay after that. Later, during a fight with his girlfriend—in which she left him—she threw it on the ground and broke the headstock off. Again.

Somehow, they lost the bridge and tailpiece and it ended up in the possession of the man the girl left the first guy for, who obviously wanted little to do with his spurned buddy’s pride and joy. So it sat in a case for 25 years until my ad went up on craigslist.

I show up at this guy’s house, and I’m really unsure about it. I’ve been burned buying weird shit off of craigslist before, and this seems like the perfect thing for me, so I’m naturally put off. Well, he gets the case open on his kitchen table, and I look it over, and I realize that I can’t really let it go back down into the basement.

All the parts are in an old watch case and a glass pill bottle in the moldering accessory compartment of the wrecked bass case he’s got the guitar rattling around in. Over the next few months, I slowly put it together using parts I could find, buy or cadge from Connors Music, where I work, ordered a new Bigsby from the United States, and tried to decide what to do with the neck.

Our options were apparently either we could fix the fresh break and leave the crappy repair or try to rebreak the headstock along the old repair, chip out the heavy epoxy they’d coated it with and try to fix it again properly, with hide glue or some sort of krazy glue concoction repair guys use sometimes.

Well, I elected to leave the old one—it’d break sooner or later—and fix the fresh one. My first neck repair, incidentally. I don’t think I did a bad job. It held, and once the Bigsby came, I put it all together and started playing the crap out of it. I took it to jams, I taught with it, I gigged with it. And it held up admirably well. It even acquired a nickname over the summer—The Beast.

Then, disaster.

While teaching one night, The Beast was bumped off of its stand by one of my students. I watched in slow motion as it fell against the chair and the headstock popped off like a bottle cap.

The Beast was out of commission for another 6 weeks while Dave Connors waited for all the gear to come in, then took his time fixing the neck. He chipped out all the old epoxy, then fixed it properly, sanded it smooth and asked me if I wanted him to restain the neck the original walnut color and refinish it, but I thought it looked fine with the wear. I’m not going to hide the fact that this guitar’s been broken 3 times. He just shot some clear sealer over it and handed it back. Here’s what I had:

Playing this guitar feels like playing a piece of history. The stories, the smoky bar gigs, the life in every ding and scrape make it feel alive. I used to play pristine guitars, but realized that as something gets played, it gets worn, scraped, and beaten, just like we do. As my playing’s evolved—especially in the last few years, where I’ve moved away from jazz and metal shredding and started to explore blues, country, and alternative music—my gear has had to, as well. My #1 guitar—a top of the line Fender Strat I bought new—doesn’t even resemble the instrument it left the factory as, what with the tricked out electronics, custom cosmetics and hot-rod pinstriping. But that’s a whole different ball game. I take The Beast out, and nobody’s seen anything quite like it. It’s ugly, but in the coolest way possible, as Mat Power, guitarist for The Median and a very good friend, has said. And it plays like it.

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