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.