Me and the guitar: a love story

Lake Siljan, Sweden, around 2006

This morning I pulled out my old Martin D-2832 — a mass-produced model from the early 1980s, my first “serious” guitar — and got just as much joy from running my fingers over the grooved and smooth metal of its strings as the first time I played it, sitting on an amp at the Sam Ash music store in midtown Manhattan. Compared to the forgettable beginner-guitar I was using at the time, the Martin was a revelation. Once I held it, and heard it, I had to have it. Four hundred twenty-five dollars was a lot of money then, especially to me — a month’s wages. Measured in pleasure, it is the best investment I ever made.

Martins are not easy to play, but they reward the diligent. At first, I could barely make a decent-sounding chord. My hands had to strengthen, my dexterity had to become more precise. But I learned. I have strummed and finger-picked that instrument for 27 years now, recorded several albums with it, written the vast majority of my songs on it. To the extent that I can call myself a guitarist, it is thanks to that guitar, and I was known in my early days occasionally to sleep with it (when I snoozed off with the instrument still in my hands, late of an evening).

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The loyalty has paid off: even if I practically ignore it for months, my first-love guitar now reminds me how to find the chord, the pattern, the tone, just by picking it up again. It re-teaches me the songs I learned, or wrote, decades ago. It encourages repetition, which is the basic secret of becoming a musician (or most anything), by hinting at a nuance of tone or emphasis that I missed the first time around, which stimulates a longing to try again. And it brings enormous satisfaction when the nuance is found.

My guitar reminds me of places, because many of my strongest memories were cemented into my mind by the addition of a song, written or performed at the behest of a specific site. “Midsummer Island” was composed on Utö in the Swedish archipelago. “The Last Dice” assembled itself in Istanbul. “Goin’ to the Top” came out on a quay next the Sydney Opera House. In each case, I did not say to myself, “This would be a good place to write a song.” It was more like this: a song emerged in my mind and said, “This would be a good place to write me.”

My Martin was always my principal travel guitar, so it has been with me in dozens of countries. The accumulation of distance traversed shows in its many small cracks and dents, which mirror similar features that seem to have accumulated on my own face. These days I rarely travel with the guitar, because airlines have made that harder and harder, and because my work travel now (as a Swedish government official) never includes a musical performance, in the way that my work trips routinely used to.

But that is not a sad fact. That history of extensive travel is now a part of the guitar itself, part of its personality, part of what I automatically think about when I pull it out of the soft zippered bag that has always protected it just enough, but not too much.

I have other guitars, of course — a fine bright Taylor that I use principally for recording now, a relatively new classical that outclasses me and delights with its watery tone, and my old electric, an ESP strat, hand-built from parts by the legendary Mark Dann of Greenwich Village (a talented bass player who was a mainstay of the “Speakeasy” and “Fast Folk” singer-songwriter crowd).

I love all my instruments, of course. But not equally.

Approaching 60 years of age, I wonder now at the future of me and my guitars. Will they outlast me, or me them? If I live to my 80s, will I have as much pleasure in the composition or repetition of a song as I did sitting on a Greyhound bus in 1980s, crossing some piece of the US while lightly plucking the metal strings, creating whispers of sound so as not to wake the sleepers around me, finding the right progression or hammer-stroke to illustrate the ache in the middle of a moment of beauty?

There is a certain ding, a concave depression in the shape of a fingernail, on the lower face of my Martin that was acquired on that specific journey. The bus trip, the song, the moment when a loose buckle on my backpack smacked the soft wood of the Martin — I remember it all well.

And as long as I have that guitar, I always will.