April 4, 2022

From the Vaults: Guitars

    By now, readers of these FTV ramblings are well aware that ‘drummer’ is my main musical gig.  I was inspired early on by the likes of Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark Five) to be a singing drummer and as such acted as the lead or co-lead singer in every band I was in.  I was in second grade when my sister decided she wasn’t really interested in learning to play the piano so my mother’s dream of having a piano player in the family got passed on to me.  I did okay but didn’t stick with it long enough to become a fluent player.  I remembered enough about the mechanics of playing to revisit my keyboard roots in college, but my mother had to wait until I married my church organist / piano playing wife, Christine, to have a true player in the family.  I am not complaining because the lessons I took in third and fourth grade helped me a lot when I started my  drum lessons in fifth grade.  Being pre armed with time signatures, notes, and rhythm pattern recognition (already in my brain from piano lessons) put me a leg up on the other drummer candidates who were starting from scratch.  

     I can also thank (or blame) my sister for my interest in guitar.  She talked the folks into getting her an acoustic guitar for Christmas after the piano lessons didn’t work out, but I am not sure how much she played it.  Around my sophomore year in high school, rehearsing with my future bandmates in The Twig sparked enough interest in guitar for me to dust off sis’s old Airline six string and start teaching myself the basics.  Bass player Mike was nice enough to show me how to tune the dang thing and some basic chords.  The Airline (a model marketed by the Montgomery Ward catalog store) had a rather thin neck which made fingering chords a little tricky.  The strings sat high enough so one could probably have used it to shoot arrows.  It was sturdy enough I could have paddled a canoe with it if necessary.   For a beginner like me, it helped build my finger strength and calluses up in a short period of time.  Noodling around on Gene’s Ovation electric before band practice one day, Mike said, “Hey, you have been practicing.”  I took this as a compliment until he added, “Raisanen, as a guitar player, you are a pretty good drummer.”  

     When we formed the band Sledgehammer four years later, Mike and I hadn’t seen each other let alone played any music together for quite a while (he was at MTU and I was at NMU).  In an almost cosmic replay from The Twig days, I was noodling around on Barry’s Fender Stratocaster when Mike started to say, “You know, as a guitar player . . .” I finished it for him, “I know, I am a pretty good drummer.”  Mike’s look told me he thought I had read his mind so I reminded him this was not the first time he had said this to me.  I wasn’t quite ready to move to the stage front and lead the band playing guitar, but I had improved.  Having carried that old Airline acoustic with me for four summers working while living off the grid (at the Huron Mountain Club near Big Bay and at Northern Michigan University’s field station near Munising), I spent a lot of time practicing.  I drove my poor HMC roomies nuts repeating riffs and chords between kitchen shifts.  My second year roommate said ‘If I ever hear that Moody Blues thing again (taken from The Story in Your Eyes), I will scream!”  I spent many weekends at the field station holding down the fort alone while keeping the generator running so I was able to practice without driving anyone else bonkers.  

     In between The Twig and Sledgehammer, I got some practical playing advice from my second band’s guitar player, Ray ‘the human jukebox’.  Ray wanted to learn a few acoustic numbers to play at bar gigs when the crowd was thin or they weren’t oiled up enough to want to dance.  He took the old Airline, tweaked it into better playing condition and gave me some pointers on playing acoustic rhythm guitar while singing.  We learned songs like CSN&Y’s Ohio, Teach Your Children, and Helpless and had a lot of fun performing them durning the odd slow set.  Knockdown was a band ahead of the times as the whole MTV Unplugged era was still fifteen years in the future.  I didn’t explain all this in response to Mike’s bit of deja vu, but I knew I had progressed enough to satisfy myself.  In fact, I had already begun thinking about upgrading to a new guitar.  When I arrived in Ontonagon to begin my teaching career in the fall of 1975, the old Airline acoustic came with me.

     Credit for scoring my new guitar goes to former Ontonagon Area Schools art teacher Tom Bugni.  About the time I began filling in as a drummer for Easy Money, Tom and I had begun discussing music over lunch.  He mentioned his friend was coming up north for his annual skiing vacation.  Tom said Larry Henrickson owned a shop called Axe-In-Hand in DeKalb, Illinois and on his last trip to Ontonagon, he had brought along a Yamaha six string acoustic guitar for Tom to try.  Bugni wanted to learn to play so he bought it.  I inquired if the same model could be purchased with a built-in pick-up.  One thing led to another and when Larry came for his next visit, he brought me the same model Yamaha as Tom had purchased with the requested on board pick-up.  The string action on the new guitar made it much easier to play thus allowing me to step up my guitar noodling a notch or two.  The old Airline ended up at camp and if memory serves me correctly, my sister reclaimed it.  I haven’t seen it in over forty years, but I still have fond memories of my first ‘ax’.

     When Knockdown would do our acoustic sets, we had to rearrange the stage a little so I could use my vocal boom mic on the guitar.  Later, the built-in pick- up on the Yamaha only required a guitar cord and a place to plug it in on the occasions when I got to step out front to perform.  The drums were still my main musical gig, but I had a lot of fun playing tunes with John Fischer and Bonnie Wentela at the old Hootenannies held at the Ontonagon Area Schools.  John liked the Yamaha enough to borrow it when he sang at weddings (including ours).  John always favored a 12-string guitar but said he liked my Yamaha because it almost sounded like his 12-string even though it only had six strings.

     The other purchase Easy Money made from Larry Henrickson’s shop was a Yamaha P.A. that Mark, Jerry, and I co-bought.  When my first stint with the band was nearing the end of the line, I paid off the guys and took the P.A. home to use for my stereo.   After a while, the idea of having a true electric guitar to run through the system began to percolate in my brain.  This plan was just being formulated when Bruce Johanson and I took our first extended JH Honors Trip bus tour to the Duluth area.  We turned the kids loose for lunch in the mall in Superior, WI where I happened to see a Fender Squire on sale at a music store.  The price was right, but it was too much for me to just buy it and surprise my wife:  “Hey, look what I found on our trip!”  The idea stuck with me and I proposed banking my JH Advisor pay for the next year and delaying the purchase until we went back to Duluth the next spring.  Armed with my checkbook, I entered the same store a year later only to find they had no Fender Squires in stock and nothing else in my price range.  Back to the drawing board.

     The internet would have been a great way to research the market for guitars, but in the late 1980s, it wasn’t yet an option.  My subscription to Guitar Player magazine, however, turned out to be just the source of information I needed.  If you are of a certain age, you will remember the old school method employed before everybody and their uncle had a web presence:  “Send a stamped self addressed envelope to this address and we will mail you back a list of our available products.” I found an ad in GP for Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.  The ad mentioned their unusually large inventory of new and used guitars, so I decided to give the old ‘SASE’ a whirl.  I got back seven or eight mimeographed* pages listing all the guitars they had in stock.  They included a stock number, the price, and whether they were in poor, good, near mint, or mint condition.  (*If you are old enough to remember ‘SASEs’ I probably do not have to explain what a mimeographed page is.  The rest of you will have to look it up).

     After scanning the sheet for a couple of days, I found my attention kept drifting back to a used Gibson S-1 that was in my price range.  An S-1 has a solid wood body shaped like a standard Les Paul and a pointed headstock like the early Flying V guitars had.  A new Fender Squire would have cost about the same amount, but in this case, the Gibson name made the sale.  I previously thought I would ever be able to afford a Gibson guitar, new or used.  I wrote the check and sent it off by snail mail hoping against hope the guitar I wanted would not be sold out from under me.  The only reservation I had was the description:  ‘near mint’.  Being new to the used guitar market, I really had no clue how big a gap there might be between ‘good – near mint – and mint’ condition.

     This all unfolded during the dark ages of shipping when there were no package tracking services.  After a few days, I stopped thinking about it and was happily surprised two weeks later when the mailman came up the driveway toting a box the unmistakable size of a guitar.  I held my breath when I cut the packing tape and popped the staples out of the cardboard shipping box.  When I lifted the lid, I found a black guitar case covered with wrinkled alligator skin vinyl.  It was scratched and torn in places and looked to have more than a few miles on it.   I remind myself the weather worn case was designed to keep the guitar safe.  I popped the latches on the case and opened the top cover.  The blond wood body was immaculate.  There were a couple of scuff marks on the pickguard, but as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find anything wrong with the finish.  I thought, “If this is in ‘near mint’ condition, I wonder what ‘mint’ would look like?”

     The strings were pretty well dead but I had a new set ready.  I swapped them out, added my own strap and plugged it in to my only amp, the previously mentioned Yamaha P.A. head.  It sounded just as good as it looked.  There was a toggle switch for changing the combination of three pick-ups and a five position rotary dial to give more tone options.  I finally found the one thing I thought may have prevented this S-1 from being listed as a ‘mint’ guitar:  one of the three positions on the toggle switch would occasionally need a little wiggling to get it to work.  Oddly enough, former Easy Money guitarist Norman Morin later bought an identical S-1 and upon comparing notes, we found his toggle switch also had the same flaw.  It didn’t really matter because I was more than ecstatic about my new toy.  I added a fuzz box and a wah-wah pedal to my gear and enjoyed all the new sounds I could coax out of the S-1.  Over the years the only modifications needed were a new paint job on the case (the vinyl was peeling off by bits and pieces) and a new plastic cap for the toggle switch (which got brittle and broke into little shards).

     During the year when I was asked to be the elementary reading teacher, I tried to mix things up by exposing the students in my classes to things that went along with some of the stories we were reading.  Working my way through an anthology of American folk tales, I happened upon the classic story of John Henry.  After we had covered several chapters of folk lore, I made it a point to end with the story about the ‘steel drivin’ man’.  The next time we met, I had three video versions of John Henry’s story, now set to music, cued up.  The original song dated back to around 1900 and since the advent of the phonograph record, there have been more versions of this tune recorded than one can shake a stick at.  The first example I played for them came from somewhere in the late 1940s.  The second one came from Johnny Cash’s 1963 album Blood, Sweat and Tears.  AI asked the kids, “Do you think anyone might still be writing songs about John Henry today?” Next, I  pulled out Joe Bonamassa’s 2009 recording, The Ballad Of John Henry, from the album of the same name.  This video version featured a full band doing an extended live concert version.  You need not wonder which one the kids liked the best.

     How do songs about John Henry relate to guitars?  The next week, I had my acoustic and electric guitars propped up on a front table in my classroom.  I reminded the students the first two videos they had seen showed people playing acoustic guitars.  The Joe Bonamassa video I had shown them last was taken from a Black Country Communion concert.  BCC was a band Joe had put together with some high profile musicians who also happened to be his friends (like drummer Jason Bonham and keyboard player Derek Sherinnian).  The clip featured quite a bit of animated stage behavior, particularly from the band’s bassist, Glenn Hughes.  “Have you ever wondered how much effort goes into playing music with a guitar strap slung over your shoulder?”  I asked.  To show them what I meant, I had each student ‘try on’ my S-1 to get an idea of how heavy some guitars can be.  I should have taken pictures because the astonished looks they gave when they found out how heavy it was were priceless.  I assume they caught my message:  watching people prance around on stage while playing guitar looks a lot easier than it actually is.

     Do not get me wrong.  Even though most drummers play seated behind a drum kit, a four hour gig takes a lot out of you.  With that said, I never had to spend a full gig standing with a guitar hanging on my shoulders so I can only speculate how much energy it takes.  In a recent interview with Guitar World, Steve Vai mentioned having shoulder surgery that kept him from playing guitar for many months.  Vai said, “The tendon repair was necessary because the doctor told me he had never seen that much damage that did not involve a physical accident.”  Add to that a more minor procedure to correct a ‘trigger finger’ condition in his right thumb and Vai contends he is just happy to be playing guitar again after many months of recovery.

     Instrument sales have been given a kick in the pants by the COVID-19 pandemic.  People have been looking for things to do while sheltering at home.  I won’t say this is a good thing, but if we are searching for any ray of light from the past two years, it would have to be the proliferation of new music and new players produced as we looked for ways to keep our sanity.  Sales of musical instruments have also climbed during the past two years.  Let us just hope the pandemic won’t affect the prices of used guitars like it has automobiles. 


Top Piece Video:  I will let you guess which riff in THE STORY IN YOUR EYES drove my roomies nuts!