Monday, 15 June 2015

Clumsy Guitars

A good musical instrument is a wonderful thing to handle.  You don't need to be able to play it to appreciate the aesthetic and haptic qualities of its build, fit and finish, or even to get a sense of its acoustic properties.  A good instrument declares itself to your senses in the same way as a well-made, ergonomically-sound camera does.  It is fit for purpose.

I am reminded of a day when I was about 8, when a friend and I went over to a nearby recreation ground, just to knock a tennis ball back and forth.  It was deeply frustrating: he had a full-sized racket borrowed from his brother, half as big as he was, and I had a toy racket, downsized for a child.  Despite its unwieldy size he seemed to be able to effortlessly whang the ball, whereas my every stroke ended in a dull, wrist-jarring thud.  I was clearly no good at tennis.  We then swapped rackets, and I experienced a moment of revelation.  I discovered the joy of the good tool: the ball sang off the taut strings of the "real" racket, and the impact was damped to nothing by the cleverly-constructed frame.  It was the same difference, I subsequently discovered, between our plastic Tommy Steele guitar with its untunable strings and weightless body and our neighbour's gorgeous sunburst Epiphone Casino.

If you do play an instrument, you absorb a whole repertoire of tell-tales that announce the quality of any particular example, even before playing it.  Take an acoustic guitar, for example.  Is the soundboard made of one piece of timber or two?  What about the back?  How deep is the gloss of the varnish?  How well has it taken wear and tear?  Are the fittings -- the bridge, the nut and the tuning heads -- solidly made or cheaply mass-produced in plastic and pressed steel?  How much care has been taken over producing the paper label pasted inside the body -- is the instrument numbered, or even signed?  Are the "binding" and the sides of the frets smooth and flush with the body?  Does the whole thing exude understated class, like an Audi, or is it the equivalent of a boy-racer adorned with go-faster stripes and spoilers?

Which may lead you to wonder why I have been drawing these "clumsy" guitars, harps, lutes, and other imagined instruments which, as I said in earlier post, appear to have been made by blindfolded luthiers wearing oven gloves and equipped only with blunt Stanley knives.  I think the trigger for my current enjoyment in drawing these odd stringed figments was a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford last year. The instruments collected there are the very opposite of quality items.  They are the worst sort of ethnic tat from the global attic: warped, cracked, dusty, mouldered, and shedding pieces of wood and leather into the bottom of the cabinet.  They could never now be played, and probably never were played.

Such dud instruments turn up in museums everywhere.  All the musical life has slowly been dried out of them, until they have become a ghastly mummified parody of the original.  Instruments need to be played, to be loved, to have new strings fitted at least once every fifty years... I am reminded of the rubber bands our postman delivers most days, and which we cannot bring ourselves to throw away.  They hang on a hook for weeks, months, years until one day there is a need for a rubber band, and it then turns out that all the decent ones have perished, and break at the first tug.

And yet, these dead instruments have all the right bits in the right places, and somehow stand in for all the ancient music we shall never hear, but which was the fabled ancestor of all music.  Like them, these clumsily-drawn harps and guitars might be said to be playing that unheard ur-music, the song that goes on for ever, generation to generation, enchanting and holding together the universe.


Huw said...


Particularly like the first drawing, especially the patterning on the soundboard.
I bought myself a 'nice' (although only £500 - such things can become exponentially expensive) guitar for my most recent birthday and the overall quality is exactly as you note - it remains in tune and is a beautiful object.
Any cameras you think are particularly well made in this regard?

Mike C. said...


I don't get my hands on many of the more recent cameras, these days, but I have a great liking for my Fuji X100 and X-Pro, and always enjoyed the build quality of my Mamiya C330f. The most solid thing I ever owned was a Koni-Omega Rapid, built like a tank, with a pump-action film advance -- I think they were originally designed for combat use.


Unknown said...

Yes, a good guitar is a joy to play. However, I wasn't taking my Martin around SE Asia, so I bought a Thai made guitar in Bankok for 140€. It's solid wood, tunes well and doesn't buzz (much). Entertained some hill tribe types last night. They slaughtered a pig during my performance. I don't think the two events were related.

Mike C. said...

Hi Rob,

I've been following your adventures on the blog and on Facebook (it takes a lot to persuade me to visit Facebook) -- my preconceptions have been boggled by the thought of Vietnamese buses with wifi.

Take care,


Dave Leeke said...


I know next to nothing about cameras but appreciate that a good one would be a joy to own - even better, to use. My hand-built guitar, a Fylde, that I bought in 1977 is still my favourite item I own. It cost me a ridiculous amount of money then - £250 - but the nigh-on £2000 it would cost to replace now seems almost unbelievable.

As I am about to retire next month, I'm rather hoping that this beautifully aged concoction of wood and wire will reward me for looking after it for so long.


Mike C. said...


Actually, another motivation behind these guitar pictures, which I think I mentioned in a previous post, is my sadness at giving up the guitar because of various age-related aches and pains. I hope your joints, etc., last better than mine, and you get many years of pleasure out your beautiful guitar!

Somebody did suggest I might want to take up the electric guitar instead, but I can't believe that would be substantially easier where it matters. No, I've given it up, like smoking...