Internet, Meet Raven (Misadventures in fancy, prejudice, synchronicity, etc.)

IMG_20170720_092205436Who likes a story?

This here’s a tale of love, frustration, and the rich rewards of a lifelong pursuit that turned up gold just when it seemed like the trail had gone cold.

Back in November I visited Guitars USA in Lexington. I’d been there once before for some unmemorable reason (I can tell cause I don’t remember it). The outing’s purpose may have been forgettable, but its destination was not. A beautiful, finely curated, drool-inducingly stocked music shop with a dramatic focus on really, really nice guitars. It was clean. It was gloriously air conditioned. It smelled good. It was the guitar shop equivalent of that new car feeling.

The second outing had definite purpose. Guitars USA’s annual Customer Appreciation sale is, as I now know, the stuff of legend. I turned out to buy a guitar at a silly, silly deal, from a brand I never saw myself owning. I’d been thoroughly schooled in the offerings of Paul Reed Smith by my friend Dustie Waring, a man of stupefying memory and talent as any member of Between the Buried and Me is required to be. Dustie is an uncommonly generous soul and his friends enjoy the benefits of the many blessings that his efforts have brought him (Dustie has his own signature US made PRS model).

All of the half dozen-plus models I’d played were very good instruments. That’s a conservative assessment and a true one. Intonation, build, evenness of “speaking,” clarity, playability- they’re just darn good guitars. You can buy any of even their Korean models and while perhaps not unforgettable, they will be a much safer choice in terms of “does it work?” than taking a similar crapshoot of even US made models starting with F or G. They take quality seriously.

So where’s the “but?” I’ll tell you where the but is.

PRS meant to me consistently well made guitars. BUT- I just didn’t dig ‘em that much. I couldn’t go all in. Dustie plays the tar out of his; I know other people who use them to great effect. His even have matte finishes and black hardware which takes a little of the fancy off of these famously fancy pieces. Boy it was the fancy that bugged me. (This will be fodder for many a thought on Yes, I was victim (willing) of the “lawyer guitars” perception. You know, guitars made so beautifully and so expensively that only guys having spent their whole life chasing things other than musical greatness could ever afford them.

Furniture guitars- pieces better suited to a glass case than a stage, guitars you’re so scared to put a scratch on and hurt the value that you play ‘em like a china doll. Stevie Ray Vaughan wouldn’t have gotten far on one of these, I thought.

And lastly, worstly, the “Swiss Army Knife” guitars. No one wants a Swiss Army knife when they’re cutting a watermelon. Or gutting a deer. Or doing leather work. Basically ever. But, carry one in your pocket, keep it sharp, and it’ll tear through whatever you need it to. PRS are beloved for their ability to cover a lot of ground, but in my mind, covering none of it perfectly well. Give me a Les Paul so I can be like Duane Allman or Randy Rhoads, a Stratocaster like Ry Cooder or Ritchie Blackmore, a Telecaster, plus maybe a pointy Ibanez with the Steve Vai tremolo for that Slayer number you’re covering at the wedding gig.

So, wasn’t I supposed to be saying something nice about Paul Reed Smith guitars? Yeah yeah yeah. Here goes.

So back to November 2016 and Guitars USA. I catch a killer deal on a Paul’s Guitar, the production model of the company founder’s personal guitar. It was royal blue, it had a spellbinding quilted maple top, it had oodles of sounds. It wasn’t my ideal guitar, but it was far and away the nicest I’d ever come close to owning, and it was a no lose situation- either I surprise myself and fall in love, or it becomes part of some future good deal for me. In the meantime, I get the experience of playing a top shelf instrument and deciding whether all my silly fancy guitar baggage held any water.

In the long run the second scenario came to pass. My suspicions were softened but confirmed, I thought. Great instruments, but not something my 60’s & 70’s heroes would ever have played even if they could. Not to be written off, but not for me. Moving on, where’s my 1954 Telecaster, etcetera.

Despite the brevity of my brush with PRS through that experience, the real indelible part was the association with Guitars USA as a great place to visit and do business. Technician/Teacher Evan Bloom is a die hard PRS man as is owner Chris Gregg.  They live for PRS, and though they would’ve love to see me join the family they both understand you either connect with a guitar or you don’t. On I went.

Part of the back story here is I’ve owned something like sixty electric guitars in the past eight years (not all at once!). I’ve searched, tried, experimented, and tinkered always looking for something. I’ve found it, but only in pieces, and never in once place. I’d kind of given up. No instrument can do all things, and most don’t even do a few very well. To search for one that proved otherwise was looking more and more like a fool’s errand.

Fast forward to June.

I hear this wildly named PRS artist is doing a clinic at the shop. Boscoe France was news to me but Dustie assured me he was a bad man on guitar. I love the shop at this point and I’m always eager to learn and be exposed to new players, so down I went. Have you figured it out by now?

PRS representative Claiborne Lord was working the event. Clay is pleasant, down to earth, and knowledgeable- what you want in a sales man. He had brought his own arsenal of eye candy (that is a terrible mixed metaphor but it kind of works) to combine with Guitars USA’s stash. It was a formidable display of flamed top glory. I was excited, but not in a way that suggested anything was there for me. I saw the familiar fancy tops and now familiar body shapes and control layouts. I was there to support and I was there for the show (and Boscoe put on a heck of a clinic). I wasn’t there for guitars for me.

But…there was this one. It was black. It was plain. The simplicity of it acted as a silent roar amongst the din of shouts coming from the more glittery offerings. It had nothing to prove. Its awesomeness was not in question.

I plucked at it unplugged- hard to tell much in that environment other than it was a solid piece, and more lively than most. On I went to watch the clinic, still no thought of making the guitar move of a lifetime. Boscoe showed off his pedal steel licks (I’m stealing those!), his slide prowess, and his pretense-less country charm. An honest humility shone through his informal presentation that rang louder than any crazy technique some YouTube guitar king in the world could’ve thrown at me.

Boscoe has played the same green Paul Reed Smith since he bought it new in 1997. As conversation turned from guitar playing in general to his guitar in particular, an important philosophical priority sifted to the surface. Guitarists are notoriously fickle when it comes to their gear. They own more guitars than they can play and don’t get to know their newest amp or pedal even halfway before they’ve decided “it’s just not what I’m looking for” and their on to the next one. G.A.S. is what it’s called- Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Like so many of the dysfunctions we joke about as people, our nervous humor betrays our deep sense that something’s not right and we just aren’t willing to address it- or don’t know how. Whether he meant to address that particular phenomenon or not, Boscoe said something next that hit me right in the gut. It’s something I’d been saying to myself for years without having the words. It was a lot easier to hear from someone who’s not me.

“Concert violinists don’t have a dozen violins they play on stage. They have one.”

Each guitar differs not only in sound but in feel. Micro differences in the size of the frets, the space between the strings, the placements of knobs and a thousand other factors more and less noticeable mean that each guitar your hands touch is literally a different instrument. While it might be nice to have the right guitars on hand for both “Sweet Home Alabama” and for “More Than A Feeling,” how are any of us who are serious about playing our instruments well ever supposed to get any damn good when we’re changing horses every other song???

Boscoe spoke straight to my deep musical longing- to connect and commit to one instrument, get to know it inside and out, until it becomes, as he said, a part of me.

From the acquisition of my first electric guitar at age 16 (black Gibson SG Special) to the onset of guitar-swap fever at age 23, I had only one electric guitar. I never thought about having others. I never thought about what I was missing. I never wondered which one to practice on today. I just had my guitar. MINE.

All those sixty plus guitars between now and then, I’d been searching for the same thing. My guitar.

The clinic ended and a time of informal chummery and picking began. No thoughts of buying anything more than a set of strings. I figure what the heck. Pick up that McCarty and plug it in. It’ll be fun.

I did so. It was over.

Between hearing the “speak” factor of notes all over the fingerboard on my own (well, combined with the unrelated shredding of Gary Hawkins next to me- who picked up his first PRS that very night:) and eventually swapping licks with Boscoe himself in a fancy-free rendering of the Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky,” I realized I’d found it.

By accident.

Like all the best things are found.

I may not have owned it yet, but it was mine.

I look forward to many years of music making with this guitar, Raven, the most worthy of partners.

Greatest thanks to Dustie for laying the groundwork, Boscoe for inspiring me to make the connection, Clay for bringing it into my sphere (and for checking out my silly blog), Chris for working with me and Clay to make it happen, and above all to Antonina Whaples for helping me see and believe in my own value as a person, a guitarist, and as an artist- as one deserving of such a refined tool.

Me and this guitar are on our way to becoming great friends.

You’ll be seeing us.

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