Guitars Have Souls

I first heard this theory upon reading Michael Azerrad’s Nirvana biography many years ago; Melvins and one-time Nirvana drummer Dale Crover had said it in protest of Kurt smashing his guitars on stage at the time. Here’s Crover in Azerrad’s excellent book Come as You Are

“It’s anti-climatic. Kurt trying to break a guitar—it takes him 15 minutes. By the time it’s over, it’s like, big deal. I think that’s guitar murder. I think guitars have souls.”

In his disarmingly insightful, well written memoir, One Train Later, Police guitarist Andy Summers observes the beat up-looking Fender Telecaster in his hands at the height of the Police’s career in 1983…

“It is with this guitar, this mangled old thing I bought in 1972 off a kid in L.A. for two hundred dollars that I have made the journey… There’s something about this guitar… I suppose I should have a shiny new guitar—I get offered one about every five minutes now—but I love it, this old relic: it has soul. Someone once said to me that like a woman, you get only one real guitar in your life. For me, it’s this 1961 Tele.”

Andy Summers' '61 Fender Telecaster

Andy Summers' '61 Fender Telecaster

For me, one of the worst things about being a musician is having to listen to colleagues drone on too long about gear: the various pickups, amplitude, wattage, tubes, pedals, Humbuckers, amps and mics we buy, sell and trade—especially when I’m waiting for my turn.

But seriously… Even I—a dedicated advocate of the low-budget, always-err-on-the-conservative-side approach to recording, a guitar player who only owns a mini Marshall practice amp at the present time—understand what fuels it, especially with regard to instruments and, sometimes understandably, amps. It’s the search for our gear soulmate.

The first guitar I bought in my early 20s was a red Fender Squier—basically a Japanese-made, imitation Strat—for something like $99. Once I got a bit more serious, I spent a bit more on a lower-end version of Andy Summer’s signature Tele, right down to the deep “sunburst” paint job. A few months after that I bought my first real Strat off a fast-talking local hero, but I didn’t realize at the time that the odd, cueball-white hue and back-breaking weight made it not right for me. A brand-new moss-green Strat followed, which, after our pleasant-enough summer fling, was soon dispassionately replaced by…

The point is, I probably went through about 10-12 guitars before I found my guitar soulmate—my precious sunburst Fender Strat—about 10 years after buying that first Squier. Not a day goes by where I don’t sweep her up off her Ultimate guitar stand, gently caress her frets and thank my lucky stars we found one another.

I've owned my Strat for over 15 years now. She's been on every record I've recorded from around 2001 to the present, and my only electric until recently. I recently got her back from the shop with my first modification to any guitar, ever—adding a DiMarzio dual humbucker, the same pickup Phil Collen played on most of Def Leppard’s monster rock hit, Hysteria. I was very anxious about making any changes to my beloved, but that bridge pickup had always been way too light and twangy for me, so I took the plunge. Not surprisingly, I love the heavier sound and the mod has only made our bond stronger.

My beloved sunburst Fender Stratocaster, my main squeeze for the last 15 years.

My beloved sunburst Fender Stratocaster, my main squeeze for the last 15 years.

It’s funny how finding your guitar soulmate is a process, and certainly analogous to romances: You have to keep searching until you find the One.

Anyway… apologies for droning on about gear…

Read more about gear—where to find it, what to start out with, how to hook it up, what to upgrade it and more—in the “Gear” chapter of my book, Indie Rock 101. And please feel free to post your gear story in the comments.