Sunday, July 18, 2010

I need to make a decision...

... Oh, but I'm not good at that. Maybe I'll put it off.

So... last Thanksgiving I was at my grandparents' house in Kalamazoo, and they were trying to get some of their children's things out of their house. One of those things was my dad's old guitar that he hasn't played since he was very young. My dad is not really a musician — any time he tries to lead a group in song (Christmas carols, Happy Birthday, etc.) he hums a pitch, then starts singing in a key seemingly unrelated to the pitch he hummed. I have to say "seemingly" because I think there must be some logic to it — I don't think he's the kind of person that would hum a pitch before starting to sing just because he's seen other people do it, not knowing why. My best guess is that he intends to start on the pitch he hummed, but he always hums a pitch way too high (most songs start at or near their lowest pitch, and he usually hums toward the high end of his comfortable vocal range) and naturally reverts to something more comfortable.

So anyway, my grandparents didn't want the guitar, he didn't want the guitar, and I was just starting to learn guitar, I didn't have one of my own, and I love random free stuff. So I have this guitar. It is a Stella Harmony, the classic beginner guitar of its day, made in a factory in Chicago. I also love old instruments. My clarinet is from the 60s also, but it's the classic professional clarinet of its day, a Buffet R13.

This guitar has some unusual features compared to many of the guitars I see around. It's built on a short scale (24-inch) and has a compact body, to ease handling and playing. This makes it easier for me to take it places, and also makes it quieter than most guitars, which is nice when I'm singing, because I don't have a booming voice. It has a tailpiece, which probably affects the sound in interesting ways, but I like it because it makes re-stringing easier (no push-pins... while re-stringing Jess' guitar before RPM those damn pins made me curse more than any other aspect of the job aside from my own incompetence). It has a twangy, plucky sound, but that could be for a number of reasons. It's just perfect for some songs (this one and, um, this). It also had a floating bridge until I, not knowing that it was supposed to float, glued it down. And this might sound weird, but I really like the way it looks. Which is like this:



Unfortunately the bridge came to me broken, I broke the nut trying to restring it, and I decided I didn't want to have a professional fix it because a minor repair would cost more than the value of the guitar. That's not a rational way to make economic decisions, but I felt it was part of the ethic of getting a free old guitar that I should figure out how to fix minor stuff like that. I made a new notch in the bridge with a letter opener and fixed the nut with some glue. The poor quality of one or both of these repairs may be why the low E string sounds really lousy, but the low strings generally don't sound very good on this instrument. This seriously hampers my ability to play songs like Hiding (electrified version notwithstanding, it sounds good on Jess' acoustic and terrible on mine). Apparently aside from my bad repair, the nut is also “grabby”. This means if you, say, adjust a string up using the tuning pegs, there becomes extra tension on the head-side of the nut, which slowly equalizes, causing the string to slowly get sharper over time. All the strings do this at different rates, so it's hard to keep the guitar precisely in tune. The most effective way to perform fine tuning is to stretch the string on either side of the nut, which is just weird. The tailpiece also affects tuning — any time you tune one string up the others go down slightly, and vice-versa. As far as ease of playing goes, the advantage of the short scale is eaten up by the bulky neck. It's both thicker and wider than any other neck I've seen (it's probably not as wide as a 12-string neck, but that's different), though I bet most cheap acoustic guitars in the 60s had bulky necks.

So I might want to buy a new guitar. But I'm not sure, because I hate buying stuff, and there's so much I like about the old one. It seems silly to have a professional fix and set-up my old one, given its lack of potential and flaws, but that's an option, too. Realistically I'm limited more by my lack of technique than my instrument at this point, so if I get a new guitar I'll have to commit to really learning the instrument.

1 comment:

olyphant said...

i'unno why you'd have to commit to *really* learning guitar if you got one. unless it's very nice and/or very expensive, you can think of it as a guitar to learn on, when and if you get there.

maybe cruise craigslist for a used guitar? it sounds like you don't want a brand spankin' (hee. spankin'.) new guitar so much as you want one that isn't broken and constantly throwing your strings off-pitch.

alternatively, have a confused old man total your car and sprain your ankle, and you too can have an oscar schmidt dreadnought! booyah?