New Strings Attached

Yesterday I realized that the strings on my beloved acoustic guitar, the Alvarez cutaway (serial number 132930) I bought for $611 in 2000—-it’s my most valuable possession, if the place caught on fire, I’d scoop up the guitar, the Freud notebooks, and run-—I realized that they were ragged, frayed, decayed, they were cutting up my fingertips. I hadn’t changed them in too long.

I knew why. I’m not a musician, so the simple, infrastructural acts of caring for the instrument-—the tool that sustains your identity and your income—-don’t come naturally. In fact, they’re difficult, they’re daunting.

My old guitar teacher, Neil Nemetz of Lou Rose Music on Route 27 in Edison, New Jersey, he’s the guy who sold me his Ibanez Roadstar II, built in 1979, for a hundred bucks in 1999—-it’s worth a fortune—-would gleefully restring the Alvarez every month or so, and make a spectacle of himself as he did it in the showroom. He’s a professional musician and he has perfect pitch, as they say, so it took him five minutes to replace the strings, tune the guitar, and make the gathered crowd applaud his virtuosity.

When I moved to New York to escape everything about New Jersey, including my marriage, I was on my own, but with strings still attached. It took me an hour at least to do what Neil did in five minutes, what with the pliers and the pitchfork, and the proper winding technique. So I let the strings stay longer than they could sustain the sound I wanted.

Yesterday I was frustrated with other compositional barriers, so I said, to myself, “Who cares except you that it takes you an hour or more to change the strings on your guitar? Do this for your own sake. See what happens to the sound of the thing.”

I rummaged around and found some Gibson Brite Wires my brother had sent me as part of a birthday gift a year ago, I put the Alvarez across my lap, and I changed those strings, tuned it up, and I cried when I heard the new sound the instrument made. It took me an hour—-why not, it’s taken me a lifetime to learn to hear what’s worthwhile—-but the sound of that guitar when I was done was heartbreaking, all I had to do was play a chord and every memory of everything I had ever wanted came rushing into my throat, choking off my voice, forcing me back in time.

But then I said, to myself, “Oh for Chrissakes, get over it.” I started singing along with the Alvarez, and we sounded good. At any rate we were in tune–good enough.


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