I find it really difficult to throw things away. I endow inanimate objects with backstory and feelings.
The toaster will break. I will get a new toaster. And then I pause… I imagine all the hard toasting work the old one has done for me and I feel guilty about callously dumping it and consigning it to a lonely, unloved existence with other broken appliances. You feel sad now don’t you? Or maybe you’re wondering why I have been allowed to write another article for She Shreds?! Stay with me…
When it comes to guitarists and their guitars, I’m not alone in feeling a disproportionately strong connection with my instrument. While some just wouldn’t understand—It’s just a lump of wood and strings—most of you, I would expect, feel that your guitar is much, much more than that. Sometimes when I’m nervous my guitar is my anchor, it’s familiar weight is reassuring; other times, when I’m defiant, it’s my weapon, wielded with passion and fury. It’s my most valued possession and not because it cost a lot but because it’s my partner in crime.
This begs the question why do our guitars elicit such strong feeling? Surely the answer is in our passion for music itself. As a creator, your guitar is your co-author and your inspiration; its voice can define the tone of the song and lead you towards magical happy accidents or allow you to manifest the intangible ghost of an idea in your head into something that lives outside of yourself. It is a conduit between imagination and reality; a divining rod to the mysterious world of music itself. We love music above all else and our guitar gives us access to that music.
Patti Smith has Bo. A beaten up, black Gibson acoustic, 1931 Depression Model that her then-partner Sam Wagstaff gifted her. She fell in love with it when she saw it hanging in a shop; it was beat up and rusty, hanging forlorn alongside newer, flashier models. In her dazzling novel Just Kids, Patti writes, “… something about it captured my heart. I thought by the looks of it that nobody would want it but me.” (it does make me feel a bit better that Patti Smith also anthropomorphized inanimate objects…) “Bo which I still have and treasure,” she writes, “became my true guitar. On it I have written the greater measure of my songs.” The connection runs deep. In Patti’s hands, Bo transforms from wood and metal to be a snarling conduit for her punk poetry.
Photo by Rupert Hitchcox
Willie Nelson has “Trigger,” a Martin acoustic that he got in 1969. It has a hole in the body from his picking style, hundreds of famous signatures on its soundboard and its own Wikipedia page. “When Trigger goes, I’ll quit” Willie famously grumbled. A partnership that has lasted a lifetime. Another guitar gifted with a name is Lucille, B.B. King’s Gibson. A fire broke out at a show he was playing and he risked his life to save the instrument. He found out later that the fire was caused by two men fighting over a woman named Lucille, so he named the guitar to remind him to never do two things: fight over a woman or run into a burning building to save a guitar (you would though, wouldn’t you?).
If you’re a She Shreds devotee, then you no doubt will have seen that Annie Clarke took it one step further: she birthed her own instrument. Made to fit Annie’s body, playing style and aesthetic preferences, the Ernie Ball St. Vincent guitar is twin to Annie herself. A mark of true brilliance, I think, is those guitarists who make their instrument an extension of their body. They make it speak, as it were, with their voice. Annie becomes as one with her guitar on stage and it’s lovely to see.
So, my own guitar love story: The first electric guitar I bought was a Yamaha RGX42ODZ. With a name like that (Yamaha laugh in the face of Romance!), it was never going to be the one. It had a Floyd Rose so I could be like my heros Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai. I enjoy the thought of me going to Vibes, the local guitar shop (it didn’t have much of a vibe, to be honest), as a small 13-year-old girl and choosing a shredder’s guitar. It was a toss up between that and an Epiphone Les Paul Zakk Wylde Bullseye custom. The Yamaha was not the one, but you know what they say, you’ve got to kiss a load of frogs or something…
And it did happen. I had not been in London long, my student loan was burning a hole in my bank account, and I had been scouring Denmark Street eager to buy an electric guitar. I found a 1961 Hofner Verythin on, of all places, Gumtree (ask any London band where they met and they’ll give you a mysterious story, but we all know it was on Gumtree…) It was just beautiful. All original parts, except the tuners, and at a price I couldn’t quite believe. It was being sold by a man named Bill.
I bombed down to Hove and pulled up outside a big, detached house. I rang the doorbell. Bill was a charming, Hofner collector with a vast collection, endless information and stories, and an absolute sweetheart of a wife, June. I found out, over tea and cake (British people conduct all important business over tea and cake) that he had been a prop builder and had built Babe the Pig when they needed a less unpredictable electronic pig for the tricker scenes. But I digress!
Photo of Kitty Arabella playing the Hofner Verythin by Scott Chalmers
Much like Patti with Bo, I knew it was my guitar. It was just perfect. Perfect in all it’s imperfection. It’s quirky noises and string buzz only add character to it’s dreamy sound: full and resonant with that pure 60s chime. It’s got two mini-humbuckers and, because it’s broken, changing between them does very little now. But I like that: it is what it is and I have to make it work. It really is very thin, like ridiculously thin and light, when you first pick it up it feels like it might snap in two but I’ve done some truly horrible things to it on stage (and played some pretty nasty fuzz through it) and it’s been remarkably resilient for something that is over fifty years old. I love that it’s old and battle scarred. I always think of the lives that it’s passed through and the journey it must have had to reach my hands today; it’s battled to survive the scrap heap. And I’m giving it my own scars.
This article, I guess, is a love letter to my guitar. And even though I did recently buy a brand new silver sparkly Danelectro because it looks like a guitar from 60s space films, you, Hofner Verythin, will always be my one true love. Guitars come and go, but when you find the one you know you won’t part with it. If you’ve loved and lost, you have my sympathy. If you’ve not found the one yet, it’s out there friend! You’ll know it when you play it.
Kitty Arabella Austen is a guitarist/vocalist for London blues rock band Saint Agnes.