Sometimes a Guitar is Just a Guitar


Recently, a non-wooden, 21st century designed, all-black carbon-fiber acoustic guitar has been invited to take up residence at my house. This seemingly innocuous event has been somewhat disorienting for the Analog Man as it has taken his typically steady and principled moral compass and given it a rather vigorous and cognitively dissonant spin. And he likes it. Dr. Easy, on the other hand, is not quite so pleased.

I’ve already written about my being an Analog Man in a previous post (“The Advent of Analog Man” - February 2009), but I’d not described how this seemingly anachronistic state came to be. You see, I arrived at it early and often as I’d spent countless care-free hours under the influence and tutelage of the venerable Dr. Easy. Espousing the virtues of organic simplicity, he being from the old-school of “Use it up, wear it out, make do, do without” and “If you ain’t got the cash, you can’t afford the stash,” Dr. Easy carefully imprinted his values upon me.

Dr. Easy always took pride in his being ‘green’, long before ‘green’ was PC. Back in the day when most folks thought ‘recycle’ meant "Why don't you go ride your bicycle again, kid", ‘solar power’ was Flash Gordon’s dream and ‘wind power’ referred to the dry, pedantic ramblings your most boring teacher, the good Daktah was a green-living zeitgeist. I once saw him salvage materials from a demolished house and with help from his friend Samster he built not one, but two nice decks onto his house, never spending a cent for building materials. Two huge Anderson casement windows found curbside and destined for the town dump became resurrected and transformed into a wall of light and solar-heat gain for his small house. And, of course, there’s the SS Tamboura, the recycled sailboat in which almost two decades ago the doctor gave me my ‘nautical legs’ and taught me to harness the wind. He’s especially proud that he generates only enough trash to make a municipal dump run every month and a half with three small containers: one for paper, one for garbage, and another for plastics and metals.

He taught me to think about the food that I buy. “How much diesel you t’ink dem grapes from Chile use ta get here? For dat matter, why you eatin’ all dat foreign stuff ennyway...dey all got poisons on ‘em! You mus' be gettin' los' inna brain-fog again. It just ain’t natural! Gets yer food from de folks you know, or grow it yerself! You can fin’ good stuff to eat right in de woods if you know how.” I’ll leave that last part to those more adventurous (feral?) than I. One mushroom looks pretty much like another to me; besides, I’m not into trippin’ and am not quite ready for the ol’ dirt nap.

Modern merchandising and packaging drives the doctor nuts. “Why dey got to wrap everyt’ing t’ree times in plastic?” He is always crowing about ‘How big your carbon footprint, boy’ or some such guilt-inducing statement if I should let it slip that I enjoy riding my motorcycle, just to ride it to nowhere in particular. Sometimes the doctor gets a tad shrill about this stuff. Yet any thinking person has to admit, he does have a point. Have we not gotten a little crazy with the consumer culture we’ve created? And it does lead to even larger questions such as: Does capitalism work? Is it good for everyone, everywhere? How long can the earth support our madness? Where does lunch come from?

Egads, I've certainly digressed! I had no intention to tilt at these social windmills. I actually set out to write about the influence a new-fangled guitar has had upon me. OK, so. . .

It was the recent purchase of that 21st century non-wooden, carbon-fiber acoustic guitar - digitally designed by physicists, engineers and acousticians using the tool-of-the-devil (ie: computers) - that threw Dr. Easy into an apoplectic meltdown that nearly warranted a (long overdue) psychiatric intervention. When first he laid eyes upon the new Composite Acoustics “Cargo” guitar in one of my music magazines, the doctor was nonplussed.

“Umph,” he grunted, averting his glance from the petite, black instrument with the oddly-placed sound-hole. “It look like a midget canoe paddle.”

Then one day I happened to say, “I just bought one of those new 'Cargos'.” As this brief declarative pierced his awareness, the doctor’s jaw dropped and the little vein that appears on his brow when he’s excited began to throb ominously.

“Whatchu sayin’ to me, boy?” Dr. Easy hissed, craning his head towards me until I could hear his neck vertebrae snap and plainly see the hairs in his flaring nostrils.

“I never thought I’d do it either, Doc, but when Miss Mary bought one of these little gems for her world-wide journey and I heard it sing, frankly, I was floored,” I replied, backing away slightly.

“You better stand ‘way back from me! All de way back! You has flipped over on me, boy! I raised you as a natural analog, not some damn, finger-flappin’, computerized gameboy! You always ‘sposed to play a real wood guitar made by a real man’s hands, not like dis dinky plastic imposter dream' up by some egg-head wit’ a slide-rule an' stamped out in some far’way fact'ry by soulless machines…like, like some sorta monsta’ freak! Tell me true...yer crazy Uncle Bubbel put you up ta dis?” Spittle formed in the corners of his mouth and he threw off his cap onto the floor. ‘Now this could get interesting’, I thought, positioning myself next to the door should a retreat be in order.

“Where dat l’il freak come from…China, right? Why you need such a t’ing? You got one o’ de fines’ soundin’ hand-made ‘coustic guitars in the worl’, made jus’ for you outta real wood, right here in Berkshire County by your frien’ Steve Sauve. At leas’ he use to be your frien’…he prob’ly won’t be speakin’ witchu now you got dis ugly t’ing messin’ up your senses. Ain’t nuttin’ good ‘nuff for you. Bubbel put you up ta it, right? I am sorely disappointed.” Dr. Easy turned his back on me.

I waited a moment until his breathing slowed and I was reasonably certain the doctor was finished berating me. I got it - this was new, different and perhaps it seemed to him that the pupil might be trying to teach the teacher. It would mean that he’d have to rethink a few things, consider another paradigm. Could he? Would he? What the hell…

* * * * *

“Uncle B. knows nothing about this, and I understand how surprising this is to you,” I said quietly, trying not to rile him up further. “And regardless what you may be thinking of me right now, it was also quite surprising to me, too. I really never thought that I’d ever do such a thing, but I’d like to explain to you how it came to be.” When the doctor fixed himself a rather large Dark ‘n Stormy (with an extra wee dram of Pusser’s black rum) and pulled out the kitchen chair and sat down, I figured it was probably safe to go on.

I told him about Miss Mary’s upcoming musical and soul-searching journey to Scandinavia, England, Greece, Switzerland, Italy, Morocco, culminating in Bali. She would need a guitar that could travel well. It would have to be small, very light, simple to carry and fit easily in the stowage bins of multiple aircraft. Ideally, it would be tough as a tank and would withstand extremes of temperature and humidity without complaining and requiring tweaking and adjusting. It would be a pleasure to hold and play and would not resist one's touch in any way. And, of course, it must sound musical while it holds its own amongst other instruments. This was a pretty tall order, indeed.

Then one day last Fall as we were poking around the 48th St. music district of New York City, we happened upon a small, though rather distinct looking guitar hanging on the wall of Sam Ash Music (which used to Manny’s, but that’s another story). I had read about Composite Acoustics, how they had created a polygamy of science, physics, acoustics and lutherie and they seemed to be converting stalwart, old-line wooden guitar afficianados - and 21st Century technophobes such as myself - at an alarming rate.

“Hey, check this one out,” I said to Miss Mary, pointing to Composite Acoustic’s “Cargo” travel model, thinking that like me, she would actually have no part of it.

“Wow, that’s cool! What is it?” she said making a bee-line right for it. I should have known. Miss Mary is no technophobe, and anything shiny, new, unusual, odd or otherwise interesting is totally fair game for her curious mind. (I suppose I fit into the ‘unusual’ and ‘odd’ categories.)

“Let’s try it,” says she, unhooking the guitar from its wall rack. She strummed a few chords. Holy Mother of Polycarbonate! What a sound! Though diminutive, this little instrument had a stentorian voice capable of summoning Zeus from Mt. Olympus! Others in the shop turned their heads to see from where the glorious sound emanated.

“Yup”, I said to myself, trying to curb my astonishment, “but what’s with that dorky sound-hole up on its shoulder? And everyone knows short-scale necks tend to be finicky to keep in tune. And they don’t like capos or alternate tunings whatsoever.” I certainly wasn’t going to let my allegiance to finely crafted wooden guitars be swayed by this perky little composite upstart.

“Their placement of the sound-hole in the upper bout is such a great idea…the sound is much closer to your ear this way,” said Miss M, finger-picking a complicated tune in 7/8 time. “I kinda like it. I can really hear myself.” So much for my initial review.

“OK, but what does it sound like powered up through a PA system?” replied I-the-Skeptic, trying to find just something a little tiny bit wrong with it. “It probably sounds thin, kinda plinky-planky plastic sounding like one of those old Ovations.” Spying a Fishman SoloAmp standing nearby - exactly the kind of sound reinforcement we both favor - I dared, “Let’s plug it in. That’ll be the ultimate test.”

We plugged in, powered up and that little “Cargo” took off. Holy Lord of the Sonic Boom! That tiny black guitar was scary awesome! After a few moments of fine-tuning the SoloAmp’s controls, we dialed in a huge, balanced sound that was chock full of spunky-but-warm bass response, sparkling highs and a smooth mid-range. The little guitar played, as they say, “like butter” and put up no resistance, offering up tons of sustain on every string throughout all registers. The “Cargo’s” voice evenly filled up every corner of the room without earsplitting, distorted volume.

Miss Mary and I spent nearly an hour putting the “Cargo” through its paces. We strummed, we finger-picked, we capoed, we drop-tuned, we open-tuned, we played loudly, we played softly, we tried a slide. Neither of us was able to find anything it could not do. I was even beginning to admire the carbon fiber weave clearly visible through the shiny polycarbonate finish. What the hell was happening to me! In a last-ditch effort to preserve my loyalty to all my wooden guitars, I offered up the cynic’s last Piece d’Resistance. “It probably costs a fortune. At least two or three thou. At least. And then remember you’ll need a case for it.”

We asked the clerk what the bottom-line damages would be. “$799.00 with a case.” Again, I was astonished. The clerk went on, “These CA’s are getting really popular and we can hardly keep ‘em in the store.” For another ten minutes he sang the praises of the Composite Acoustics company, how their instruments are extremely rugged: “You could use this little bugger for a canoe paddle if you wanted!” (So, Dr. Easy called something right.) He told us that the strength of the carbon fiber weave allows the instrument to be constructed without the usual internal struts and braces used in traditional guitar construction, thus creating a strong, totally resonant top. They were impervious to temperature and humidity shifts, two mortal enemies of the wooden guitar, and because carbon fiber is so stable, the instrument’s neck has no truss rod and never needs adjusting. And as its “Cargo” name implied, it was a highly portable, rugged traveling companion that easily fell within the carry-on size criteria of the airlines. Most importantly, whether played acoustically or plugged-in, this baby got tone!

* * * * *

“So, doctor, maybe now you can understand why I did it? The “Cargo” will be perfect for my Caribbean tours with all the heat and humidity. And flying to Europe this spring with it will eliminate the huge anxiety I always have when I take my Sauve on a plane. Remember how it was lost for three days between London and Sofia back in ‘05? It really is peace of mind knowing I can carry it with me. And the sound! Loud as a cannon with tone-to-the-bone…I can’t find anything wrong with it except that it’s not made of wood. This little carbon guitar can sure stand up on its own!” I suppose the doctor will now have to rethink the meaning “carbon footprint”.

Dr. Easy tipped back his tumbler and finished off the Dark ‘n Stormy. He let out a long sigh, placed his cap back on his head, then leaned forward again in his chair. He squinted his eyes behind his dark shades, staring at me for a too-long moment. And then rasped, “Mistah, no matta’ what, don’ you evah t’ink you gwan be able to turn me ovah like one o' yer ol’ git-tar boxes!”

The above photo of the “Cargo” was taken outside when the temperature was 21 degrees F. with a windchill approaching zero. The guitar was taken from the warm studio (approx. 74 degrees F.) and exposed to the elements for around 15 minutes while the photos were shot. When I brought the guitar back indoors, it was still in tune and ready to be played, while I was frozen and not ready to be played.

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