Ok, I like cheap guitars. When I was 14 years old, I started plinking around on an old, parlor-style Stella guitar because it was all my parents were willing to buy. It was laminated, ladder braced, boxy sounding, and as Doc Watson said, “fretted like a barbed-wire fence.” About eight years later, I was thrilled to be able to buy my first Martin D18 guitar, which became my most prized possession. I played it for years and used it to write several of my best songs. Later, I traded up to a Martin HD28, which I still own.
After a regrettable twenty-five-year hiatus from music, too complicated to explain here, I started playing again and nostalgically remembered my old, boxy, raspy, Stella guitar and the back porch country and blues sounds it made. So, when I picked up and played a Gretsch Jim Dandy parlor guitar at a local music store, I bought it on the spot for the princely sum of $159.00. Why? Because Gretsch designed the Jim Dandy after the Rex parlor guitars which, like Stellas, sold in mail-order catalogs from the 1930s through the early ’60s (later, I also purchased an old Stella, like the one I used to own, at a flea market for about $30.00). Indeed, because of a rapidly growing Americana roots movement, a number of major guitar makers are producing instruments similar to the Jim Dandy. There is just something authentically “rootsy” about these cheap, mail order catalog-style guitars, particularly when played with “homemade” instruments like dulcimers, cigar box guitars, and mountain banjos. They inspire a whole different vibe for jamming and even songwriting. It is interesting to play them in non-standard tunings and because of their higher actions, with anything that works as a slide.
Don’t get me wrong, I own two Martins and a Larrivee that I play and don’t intend to sell. But when I get into that nostalgic, bluesy, back porch mood, which at my age happens all too frequently, I reach for an old boxy sounding parlor guitar, metal fingerpicks, and a glass or metal slide. I just keep playing until it sounds and feels good. A skillful guitar player can bring out the unique character of any guitar that has a semi-decent action and intonation. Now, I own a number of cheaper guitars that I usually buy second hand when they grab my attention. So I no longer worry about the price tag or the name on the headstock. Every guitar has a unique character. That individual uniqueness is often undervalued and overlooked.
An artist’s connection with his instrument can almost be likened unto a spiritual bond in which artists can learn a lot about themselves based on the instruments they choose to play. Just ask Willie Nelson. “When Trigger quits I quit” Willie has touted instrument the past. Never mind the fact that Trigger buzzes and has an extra sound hole (you really shouldn’t play a classical with a plectrum, Willie).
Personally, I have owned hundreds of instruments ranging in price from $35 to $17,500.It is a sickness really—acquiring instruments only to become dissatisfied with them and sell them later.It usually goes like this. I’ll hear of an instrument, either new or used, that has received rave reviews. I go to play it and find that everything that has been said of the instrument is absolutely true—it sounds great and plays like butter, but in most cases I find that I do not experience a connection with it. On the rare occasion that I have a weak moment and do wind up bringing an instrument home with me; it usually winds up for sale inside of a week or two if I don’t soon experience that bond.
I have learned that one might have preferences regarding nut width; action; spacing at the bridge; d shape, c shape, or performance neck; etc., but when you get instruments in your hand you either connect with them or you don’t. All of the specs go out the window if the guitar doesn’t speak to you. If you do experience that emotional connection, it feels like a part of you, like an extension of your own arm.
In the recent past I had been a huge spruce/mahogany, pre-war, forward-shifted, scalloped X-braced Martin dreadnaught fan. Not wanting to take out a mortgage-like loan to acquire one, I went online and bought a brand new Blueridge BR-140a, an exact copy of the aforementioned holy grail of Martins. The day came when I received it in the mail. I opened the case, began strumming, and found not a thing to complain about. It is still probably the best dread I have ever owned. Sweet highs, deep bass, played like a dream, cut through a bluegrass jam like a champ. It had it all but I sold it anyway. My search continued. After all, I hadn’t married the thing so why not have another fling?
Then last April, after a Lenten fast in which I prayed that God would free me from my perpetual instrument discontentment, it happened. I found it, or perhaps it found me (I still haven’t discerned that yet)—a 1954 Gibson Southern Jumbo. When I saw it, it just called to me. “I was made for you and you for me.” I knew this before I even played it or picked it up. Four hundred dollars later it was mine. Condition, you ask? Logo missing, finish stripped, bridge and tuners replaced, pickup removed leaving a “bullet hole” appearance in the top of the guitar, numerous repaired cracks and cleats (so much so that I’ve named him Cletus). I’ve had guitars that sounded better, played better, or were more “collectable”, but my relationship with Cletus is almost sacramental.
As you can see, cost is not as big a factor as you would think in all of this. My Uncle Junior is the only man I know of who has owned more guitars than I have. Time for a haircut? Time for a new guitar—that’s Uncle Junior’s philosophy (of course he also cuts his own hair, so….) He’s not exactly picky. He only has one criterion—the guitar must only cost around $100 or so (and a decent bass response helps). No guitar stuck with Uncle Junior quite like his legendary Yamaha FG-180; he owned it for over five years .Yamaha FG-180s are legendary due to their stability, sound, and low cost. However, Uncle Junior’s example is nearly unrecognizable as the legendary model that it is. The logo is missing, it has had numerous repairs to the headstock and heel, and the bridge and saddle are almost non-existent.Worst of all, however, is that it has endured all of Uncle Junior’s normal modifications—he slimmed down the neck and made it a speed neck, he removed all of the finish, and he sanded what was left of the saddle with a brick (he doesn’t own sandpaper), as well as other unmentionable and detestable desecrations. Uncle Junior loved his Yamaha and made it entirely his own. He traded it to me about a year ago. Must be time for another haircut.
The instruments with which you experience a spiritual bond can teach you a lot about yourself. I like old beaten up and cast off things. I don’t like new things, fakes, posers, or copies. I’ve often found myself drawn to people of the same ilk. For Uncle Junior, a few major repairs are OK even if they are not well executed. He likes guitars that have seen hard times, and a few modifications don’t bother him. Also, his guitars usually stink a little bit (what does this say about Uncle Junior?)
What is your connection to your instrument? How would you describe it? What about it calls to you?Comment below on what your instrument has taught you about yourself.
Songwriting: The Importance of Melody Hooks
During the late seventies and early eighties, I wrote numerous songs, some more popular than others. Most of them were accepted, demoed, and pitched by serious Nashville publishers. My strength was lyric writing. Tongue in cheek novelty songs, such as “Ugly Women and Pickup Trucks” (see YouTube) came easily. I deeply admired Shel Silverstein and songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” became benchmarks for the success of my early songwriting. But, my publisher and I both knew that something was missing. My songs depended too much on hard rhythm and fast witty lyrics. Songs with too many words and not enough melodic variation didn’t have real staying power. Topical lyrics, “in your face” hook lines, and almost complete dependence on rhythm seemed to create cute, “flash in the pan “songs with very little shelf life. My biggest concern was that everything I wrote starting sounding the same.
My publisher told me that I lacked patience. I went for the easy line, did very little revision, and didn’t concern myself with melody or emotional depth. I needed to push myself beyond superficial wit, and realize that it was an inextricable combination of original melody and lyrics that created a great song The way a song sounded was as important as the lyrics. Melody lines were at least as memorable as lyrics and maybe more so. Think of all the songs you hum to yourself, even though you may have forgotten the lyrics.
Anyway, what followed was one of the most creative periods I can remember, revisiting and rewriting my older songs and creating new ones, this time with an eye toward achieving a more universal, emotional expression, using both lyrical and melodic hooks. In the process, I considered songs that I liked that became not only super hits, but standards. Songs like Willy Nelson’s “Crazy,” Jim Webb’s “Lineman For The County,” Steve Gibb’s “She Believes Me,” Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” and even older songs like Hank William’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “ I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” gorgeously blend melody and lyrics. Sometimes teams of songwriters combine their lyrical and musical skills to create superb hits like Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark Jones who wrote “You Were Always On My Mind” and of course Don Henley and Glen Frey’s famous “Desperado.”
These days, I am drawn to the old country music I heard during my early years in West Virginia and the blues and jazz music I heard growing up in Pittsburgh. I am particularly fascinated with songs that seemed to combine these idioms. Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” combines the feel of country and jazz. Harlan Howard’s “Busted,” famously recorded by Ray Charles, has a soulful blues and country feel. Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorell’s “Georgia on My Mind” combines the feel of blues, jazz, and even a bit of country. I like Delbert McClinton and Gary Nicholson’s ”Somebody To Love” combing a rock, blues, and jazz feel, particularly when recorded by jazz/blues singer, Etta James. Listen to Buddy Guy’s “Skin Deep,” written by Buddy Guy, Gary Nicholson, and Tom Hambridge, that combines so many musical genres that it will take your breath away. Yet, in spite of fusing traditions, none of these songs lose their authentic or artistic integrity. More importantly, the melodic possibilities explode.
Now that I am taking music seriously again after thirty-six years, I sometimes regret severing Nashville ties completely (at the time, other opportunities seemed more stable and lucrative). But, with the advent of the internet, and web platforms like YouTube and Facebook, good original songs can be written, promoted, and distributed from anywhere without commercial formulas to interfere with creativity. However, the critical phrase is “good original songs.” Such songs, where every word and musical note evokes an emotional response from the listener, are rare indeed. But, they are unforgettable.
Written by Mike McCauley
I am a little over 70 years old, a child of the 60’s, and up until recently an unabashed fan of solid wood dreadnaught guitars. I have owned (or presently own) a Martin D18, a Martin HD28, an Alverez MD60, a Takamine F350-M, and an Art & Lutherie HG Hi Gloss. My first step away from dreadnaught orthodoxy was to purchase two parlor guitars, A Gretsch Jim Dandy, and a Larivee PO-3ZW. My latest wood purchase is a Martin 000-15M, which is currently my very favorite piece of wood (solid mahogany).
Then, a friend of mine introduced me to his Composite Acoustics Legacy dreadnaught. Admittedly, I am a little hard of hearing, but I was surprised at the richness and clarity of the sound produced by an instrument without a stick of wood in it. The action was also superb. He explained that his guitar made of carbon fiber, was completely impervious to climate, built to the finest tolerances, and never needed any adjustment. To my mind, carbon fiber was associated with high end bicycles, fishing rods, golf clubs, and Ferraris –not acoustic guitars. But, hearing was believing. I was lucky enough to find a mint condition Composite Acoustics OX guitar online. Not a dreadnaught, but I was over my dreadnaught fixation.
To make a long story short, I love the OX and play it now almost exclusively, particularly when I play out somewhere. I leave it in the car in all weathers without worry. It has a strong bass, bright trembles, and a superb balance of tone. It is extremely comfortable to hold and play. The action feels like an electric guitar. It rarely needs tuning. Everyone who plays it loves it as much as I do. In fact, Frankie Revell, a Howlin’ Kitty recording artist, went right out and bought one of his own. I would be interested to know if anyone else has had experience with carbon fiber instruments and what you think of them.
So who is Ty Crawford? Simply put, he is Howlin’ Kitty Music’s secret weapon. Without his talent as a graphic designer, website developer, photographer, animator, and cinematographer, Howlin’ Kitty Music would be a feeble, pathetic shadow of its current self. He single-handedly designed our logo, developed our website, created our social media presence, and produced our current video on Youtube. Since he is also a highly qualified audio engineer, we rely exclusively on his artistry for all of our recording, mixing, and mastering. We cannot thank him or sing his praises enough. He is an indispensible part of the Howlin’ Kitty family, and we are fortunate to have him. But, we are willing to share. Get to know him yourself. Check out his website at www.tycrawford.com.
Cigar Box Joy! Larry Cuddy, a cigar box guitar maker from Washington PA, and friend of Howlin’ Kitty Music, creates hand made cigar box guitars that are absolutely superb in their craftsmanship and wonderfully playable. Each one is an original work of art, right down to his hand crafted fretboards. His selection of woods and even cigar boxes is meticulous. Even if you have never played a guitar before, in just a few days you will be playing blues with the best of them. This instrument is something you will be proud to own. If you are interested in a purchase or more information, please message us at Howlin’ Kitty Music.
Howlin’ Kitty recording artist Rev. Frankie Revell displayed his unique “mountain blues” style in a Saturday night performance at the Clatter Coffee Shop in Frostburg, MD. Check out his homemade banjo!