The Case for Cheap instruments Over Expensive ones

The Case for the cheap Instrument over the expensive.

 If I wasn't broke, would I record any differently? Would I still be drawn to old broken instruments or would I suddenly want expensive Gibsons, Martins, and Rickenbackers?

 I actually have a Takamine acoustic guitar. It is an excellent instrument but I rarely use it for recording purposes. Instead I use my Vantage guitar which is in the price range of an average Yamaha.

I bought the Vantage in Annecy, France over 20 years ago (1987?). It cost 1470 French Francs. I paid it up week by week to Veran Music, the local instrument shop, from busking money that I earned playing a little guitar I'd bought in Nurnberg, Germany. One day when I had almost paid the whole thing off, Patrick the harmonica player stopped by as I was busking the subway. He informed me that the man in the music shop wanted to see me toute suite. Very important. It could not wait. Some problem with the guitar and the money. Patrick offered to hold my pitch for me if I wanted to go and sort it out. My first thought was that this was an elaborate hoax to get me to surrender my pitch. But Patrick seemed sincere.

On arrival at Veran Music, the first thing I saw was a guitar case on the floor. The manager said, "Viola, votre guitare". I told him that it wasn't mine yet. I still had two hundred francs to pay. He shook his head and explained that a little man had come in about a half hour earlier and had paid it all up. I was confused. "A little man with a harmonica, I asked slowly? "oui". I shook my head in disbelief. Patrick. It must have been him. He had come in and paid it off. He had known how hard I'd saved for that guitar.

It was a tremendous act of generosity yet in some ways I resented his involvement. Somehow I now felt like I owed him a dept. I hate dept and I avoid it at all costs. It dents my freedom.

Patrick had had his share of problems since I'd first met him. He'd appeared one day and started jamming with me as I was busking. He didn't ask for permission or anything, he just slumped down at my feet and started playing away on his harmonica. His musical style was a bit crazy. The best I can describe it would be to say he looked like he was vigorously brushing his molar teeth with a harmonica. It seemed to get sucked right into the cheek of his mouth. He alternated it from left to right whilst ferociously blowing and sucking and frothing in a manner that made it squeamishly difficult to watch. Yet the sounds he made were actually quite musical. Sadly though, I wasn't hiring any band members. In the subway busking business, two was a crowd.

At first I ignored him and let him play. He was harmless enough but he returned again and again. Not that he was a bad player but he was always bursting into tears for no apparent reason. I felt sorry for him but I had problems of my own. Whenever I asked him to give me a little space, he'd become very gruff and angry and play louder.

My French vocabulary wasn't the best, so it took me a while to unravel his tale. There was a wife. A child. A separation. Alcohol. He missed his daughter. He was living in a tent. His unemployment money was dwindling. His tale grew more tragic each day. I think what he grieved most was the law enforced separation from his daughter. That was what really ripped him apart. What could I do? I was a starving homeless street musician who had nothing to offer but some half hearted solace.

Each day he would sit on the stone subway floor and play his harmonica. He actually was quite good but he always ended in inevitable sobbing. My earnings would slowly fizzle out as passersby accelerated past us, trying not to stare. I'd stand uselessly beside him and roll a cigarette, too polite to abandon him but with nothing to offer. Occasionally I'd play him a "P'tite Blues" and he'd blow along mournfully but content. Sometimes though I'd give up and I'd invite him for a coffee. We'd get away from the gloomy station and head to the Bar des Arts. He would be like a puppy who was going for a walk. We'd sit on the terrace and he'd fight back his tears while blurting out his dreams of better days. All he wanted was to be reunited with his daughter. I was never exactly sure what had transpired to ruin his marriage but those coffee terrace moments seemed to help him put his thoughts in order.

One day after months of this odd toiling relationship, he came by the tunnel and was so happy he almost cried again. Some sort of reconciliation had been negotiated. He was to see his daughter once a week but he had to stop drinking and prove it too. I never saw him after that for a month till one morning he appeared down the subway, grinning from ear to ear. Beside him, holding his hand was a little girl maybe 5 years old. "My daughter" he announced beaming with so much pride I almost needed sunglasses I thought he would explode with happiness. She smiled up at Patrick. He hunkered down beside her and said, "This is James. Il est mon ami".

Then for once I thought that it was me who was going to start blubbering.

 As far as the dept that I feared I owed was concerned, it was wiped out. Patrick had clutched something that I had failed to see. When he payed the last few francs of my guitar for me, he had only handed me an attainable goal slightly earlier than anticipated. But to him that gesture was nothing in comparison to what he considered I had helped him regain. His daughter and his sanity. Both of which until recently had been so out of his reach. I hadn't really done anything. I'd just been there. I wasn't a marriage guidance consultant. I wasn't a very comfy shoulder to weep on. Perhaps he'd been inspired by my stubborn determination to get that guitar. I'd had a goal. I'd set my sights. Then franc by franc I whittled it down till I could almost grasp it. Patrick may have thought, "If James could do it, anybody could do it."

But Patrick hadn't wanted a mere guitar, he wanted his life. In the end, I believe it hadn't much to do with me. He achieved his purpose all on his own. The times he spent with me gave him a destination and also a friend outside his usual sphere. His harmonica provided a creative outlet as opposed to a destructive corner. Was it simply, time, distance and perspective that were the catalyst, hope and cure? Or maybe he just looked at me and thought, "Jeez, at least I'm not as desperate as that clown".


From the music store that day, I'd returned to the subway with the new guitar. Patrick was sitting cross-legged on the ground blowing his harmonica. I saw him glance sideways at me and pretend he hadn't seen me coming. When I stopped beside him, I didn't know what to say. All I could muster was, "Patrick… mais….pour qua…c'est trop. But Patrick looked up at me with the first true grin I had ever seen on his face. "James, he said, like he was talking to a child, "Tu est toujour gentile…sympathique. Ca suffis".

So from the beginning, me and my guitar already had history. Almost anything musical that I possess has some tale to tell. But even the best of friends were strangers once. I doubt I would drown my songs in technology even if I could afford to. I believe I would continue to search out unusual instruments and amps but I wouldn't mind a better studio. I wouldn't even crave computer software, just more tracks and some more space to walk around in. In fact if I could record outdoors, I probably would.

There is undeniable organic honesty in recording with the tools at hand. The same goes with my sketches. If I had only a blunt pencil or some charred wood from a campfire then that was what I used. The artwork becomes a blended balance of medium and subject regardless of quality.

As we all appreciate, art is never wrong. The bass guitar I used on the first few CDs was a nasty untunable affair. It became known as the Dead Man's Bass. I'd picked it up in Madison from Hil's sister (Xanda) who'd had it left over from a friendship with a musician who had apparently been murdered. Details were vague. The incident happened a long time ago. I think I met him once briefly. I believe he had unearthed the bass in a garbage dump probably near New Haven CT. It had been broken in two. He took it home and glued it back together. When me and Hil moved out West, we brought the bass along till I passed it on to Xanda's son who then presumably took it with him to Montana or returned it to Madison. So I guess it traveled coast to coast.

 I also have a mandolin that I bought from a music store in Regensburg called Picobello's. I'd seen it in the window as I was passing. I'd just been recording a song around that time and I quite literally bought the mandolin just for that one specific tune. I entered the shop and attempted to twang a melody out of it. After an hour I was still trying to tune it. I must have driven everybody crazy. The machine heads needed pliers to turn them. By the time I gave up, I was sweating. I still hadn't tuned it. I stood up, turned to the shopkeeper and said, "I'll take it".

Second hand instruments. Beaten up and broken. Lost and found. They all have tales. They are unique. They have their own voices. I derive great pleasure in recording these sounds. Recording my Takamine conveyor belt guitar isn't the same fun. It is a great gigging guitar. It has a great sound. But not a unique sound. There are countless Takamines out there and they all want to sound the same. If they don't have the expected tone, then they are considered inferior. I might be interested in recording such a guitar. In short. Professional instruments for gigs. Personalities for recording.