Rory & Willie worn out

Posted on January 22, 2017

A column about well-used guitars. Written for Guitarist, 2012.  

“MISTER SCOTT, SIR, WE’VE FINISHED THE INSIDE OF THE SPACESHIP,” said the proud set designer on Alien. Ridley Scott had a quick nose inside and sighed. He told them they really ought to rough it up a bit. It all looks too perfect, he moaned. He’d just said more or less the same thing to the costume designer. It’s not believable! Scud it all up a little, he told them. Get rid of the shiny newness! Make it look lived in!

Maybe that 1979 movie wasn’t the first time something had been relic’d, but when Ridley enlivened his set with real-looking wear and hum and mire and dirt, it was something of a masterstroke. If you managed to take your eyes off Ms Weaver for a sec, you’ll have noticed, consciously or otherwise, that in the resulting flick all the space furniture and related gubbins definitely looked the part.

Guitar makers took a little longer to grasp that there are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke without a bashed-up guitar. Rory Gallagher was a leading role model in this parish: his ’61 Strat, which I have held and examined but dared not strum, was famously frayed and delightfully dilapidated. To say the least. Rather than put it away in a case overnight, like the rest of us, he used to bury his careworn Strat in the garden. That’s what it looked like, anyway. Worse, actually.

Now, Rory loved that guitar. He knew all about the theories that the less paint on a guitar, the more it breathes, and all that baloney. And then he’d just shrug and wink and tell you he simply liked the sound of it. He said it was his good luck charm. And sure it was for his music. But, sadly, it didn’t work as far as his short life was concerned.

Fender popularised the idea of the relic’d guitar in the mid 90s with what these days the Californians call the Time Machine and Road Worn series, and lots of makers do it now: new guitars with apparently knocked-about finishes, stained fingerboards, tarnished hardware and all the rest. It’s sort of a faux ramshackle affair, a look that makes it seem like there’s been a very naughty ghost in your machine. A ghost with a bloody big chisel.

This is in contrast to the kind of thing Rory went in for, where if you had a good memory you could probably account for every knock and every paintless square foot. That bash there, that’s when it fell down those stairs in Cork, remember? That bit: that’s where my elbow’s rested the last four-hundred-and-something gigs. And that, that’s where my favourite belt buckle’s left its signature. Instead, a relic is an ersatz axe, someone else’s idea of the upshot of handling, someone else’s take on the history of dings.

Is there anything wrong with Fender or Gibson or any of the other makers trying to entice us with these lovely new-old aged guitars? Perhaps we should blame vintage dealers. They’re the ones who first instilled the idea that old is good (and that old is good for business – or it used to be, anyway). Have you noticed how some dealers have taken to describing mint vintage pieces as “museum quality”? Prestige is the thing, and some items become more prestigious with age.

Or maybe, in fact, we should blame ourselves. We seem to like old, too. We are like Rory, after all. Not so much in our bottleneck dexterity, sadly, but more so in our pride in an ancient trophy. A worn guitar means we’ve played, like, oh, so many gigs, man, I don’t even know where to start. Ever seen Willie Nelson’s threadbare Martin? He picked it so hard he wore a hole in the body. Now, Willie could probably afford a decent repairer. But he never got it fixed. There was room for a hell of a lot of stories in that hole.

Guitars get old and so, unfortunately, do we. Perhaps when you play a fake-old guitar you’re saying something about your fake-young self. Kurt Vonnegut, that science-fiction writer who liked to merge the real and the unreal, said: “We are what we pretend to be – so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”