A Tale Of Two Guitars
My first guitar was a Kent 6-string, purchased from the Eaton’s catalogue, for $10. Whatever little money I had was earned from caddying for tips on the local golf course, and prior to that, delivering newspapers. I had that guitar for a few years until I could afford $90 for a nice 6-string Spanish-made guitar.
In 1976 I was in the market for a new guitar. Everybody played Martins or Gibsons, and that’s what I wanted and expected to buy. I visited the Toronto Folklore Centre, a small shop near Yorkville, the famous centre of music and counter-culture in the 60’s. Unlike regular music stores that carried famous brands, the Folklore Centre had a wall of guitars with no names emblazoned on the headstock.
I struck up a conversation with an animated bigger-than-life guy of about my own age who was working in the store. He told me these guitars were made by artists and craftsmen, one at a time, with care, skill and precision. They were unique, built to last, perform at the highest level. You did not just buy a guitar, you formed a relationship; if the relationship was successful, it would be constant for life. Is there a lover like that?
There was a guitar on display that had been cut in half, and I asked about that. The man told me that the maker, Jean Larrivee, had not been satisfied. It could serve as a sample of the internal construction, but could not as a guitar or a life-long companion. He then told a long story about an artist who spent a year creating a massive painting, then destroyed it when he felt he had not succeeded.
I slipped a guitar off the wooden pegs, and finger-picked for a while. I purchased that guitar, made by a local luthier named Grit Laskin. I had not heard of Grit Laskin, but for $550 I walked out of the store with a fine instrument. I still have that guitar; it has stood the test of time, and seen me through good and hard times. I recorded my first four albums from 2002 to 2010 with the Laskin. (“Sunflowers Light The Room”, “Candles on the Water”, “Breath in the Wind”, “Roots and Rain”).
I always loved the Laskin’s balanced yet bright tonality, its classic shape, the fine details of its construction. Grit Laskin would become a world-renowned luthier, and develop an award winning and highly original style of inlay.
The animated man in the Folklore Centre? Years later, I knew that he was the famous Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers. He was not actually working at the Folklore Centre, just hanging out, sharing his love of guitars, and telling tall tales. Years later, Grit Laskin would tell the story of how Stan Rogers, who played a Laskin guitar, talked them up and pre-sold them to other musicians he met on tour.
At the time I was writing on a free-lance basis. My article “Guitar Makers of Toronto” appeared in Sound Magazine. I interviewed Grit Laskin and other luthiers, and learned more about the world of these artisans. Forty years later, this same group would create a remarkable show at the McMichael Canadian Art Gallery, the Group of Seven Guitar Project.
But I digress. The Laskin is my main guitar. Over the years, I purchased other guitars, some of which I still have, others that I have sold or given away. I was always looking for a guitar that I could use at gigs, to spare the Laskin the rigours on the road. Never really found one that fit the bill.
Some years ago, I was at a Long and McQuade “BlowOut Sale”. One item that caught my attention was a small thin-body Epiphone (by Gibson) acoustic guitar, with a crack in the headstock. The damage had disfigured the moon and star inlay design. Steve Long, one of the family members who own this great chain of music stores, happened to be working in the sale. Steve said that if properly glued, the guitar would outlast me. I had no need for this guitar, but bought it anyway for the tiny sum of $200. I played it occasionally, and kept it around. It travelled here and there, sometimes piled on top of a load of other stuff in the back of the car, travelling to the country, open stages or elsewhere. It sounded nice, was easy to play, and was forgiving of being handled casually. Eventually I bought a soft carry case for it, to save it more dents and bangs. It had an internal pickup, with a balanced output, making it ideal for recording, The internal pickup eventually failed, and I added a Baggs pickup which mounts in the sound hole. I was told that guitar was a Nashville favourite, but have never seen another.
So the Laskin is my long-time number one go-to guitar. Strangely enough, but maybe not surprisingly, the modest Epiphone has become my recent companion. Here’s why.
In 2014, I suffered a spinal cord injury. My hands and fingers were frozen, and immobile, and I despaired of ever playing music again. A year later, I tuned the Laskin guitar to open D tuning: D, A, D, F#, A, D. Carefully, tentatively, I began playing open chords, trying harmonics, and exploring the fingerings available in alternate tunings. It is a bit like learning another language. The Laskin again became an important companion during the long lonely hours I spent with it. I could let an open chord ring and hear the richness of the fundamentals and overtones. Or play with harmonics. I loved that sound. But I could not move my fingers fast, or play barre chords. My playing was extremely limited, and it was very frustrating. My hands fatigued easily, and I could not play a full set of music, let along a complete song without difficulty.
I had reached the limit of what I could play on the Laskin at that time. I needed a smaller body, thinner guitar, with lower action on the fretboard; thinner neck, something easier to play.
In late 2016, and early 2017, when it seemed, against all odds, that I might record again, I went looking for a suitable guitar. But I had what I needed. Nothing sounded as good or played as easily as the cracked Epiphone.
In the studio recording “Hourglass”, Peter Moore, was initially not happy that I was planning to play and sing live. On a few songs, I “traced” over the original guitar part, and over-dubbed the vocals. But on the majority of tracks what you hear is exactly how the voice and guitar were recorded together in a single take. To avoid what Peter called “comb filtering” there is only one microphone for guitar and vocal.
This is my tale of two guitars. Each came to me by happenstance and chance. Each came at a different time in my life, and for different reasons.
The Laskin, dignified, aging gracefully, with a richness of harmonic structure that time will not erode, still sounds great. It came to me to show that the way of the artist craftsman is a true alternative to the mass market. Why else would I buy a Laskin in 1976 instead of a Martin or Gibson?
Guitars, like lovers, may come and go. But the good ones will stay….
Grit Laskin luthier
McMichael Gallery Group of Seven Guitar Project