Tip 5
$50 Box

I’ve owned many guitars…probably hundreds. Every now and then I run across one that is somehow special. This is the story of one of them.

I worked with Philip Hash at Melody Music for almost twenty years and I never ceased to be amazed at his quick business reflexes. A short aside I always tell about Phil that’s a good example of this happened one Christmas. A lady made a purchase and wrote a check to pay for it.

As soon as she walked out the door Phil turned to me and asked, “Can you watch the store for a few minutes? I’m going to run to the bank and cash this check. I’ve got a feeling that lady is going to spend more than she has before the day is out.”

I said, “Sure, I don’t have another student for thirty minutes or so.”

He grabbed his coat and took off out the door before he even had it completely on. About fifteen minutes later he returned with the biggest, mile wide grin I’d ever seen.

I asked him what was going on. He told me the check had bounced due to insufficient funds. The check was $134. Phil immediately asked the teller. “How much short?” When she replied, “$17.” Phil asked, “Can I make a deposit?” If that’s not thinking on your feet, I don’t know what is. Instead of having a cold check he had $117 in cash. I learned a lot from that guy!

How I bought that guitar went down just about as fast as that.

It was a slow day at the music store. Phil and I were sitting around drinking coffee and having small talk when a tall, skinny guy with bad teeth walked in with a beat up old chipboard case. He plopped it on the shelf in front of the window, across from Phil’s desk and threw it open. There was an old Fender dreadnaught in there with a couple packs of used strings and a Kyser capo. I was sitting to the side so I had a pretty good view of the guitar. I could see the neck was straight and the top wasn’t bowed. I didn’t really look any closer….I didn’t have a dog in that fight.

The kid turned to Phil and asked, “What can you give me for the whole package?”

Phil said, “We’re in the business of selling guitars not buying them. I’ve probably got a couple hundred guitars right now. I couldn’t give you hardly anything for it.”

The kid was acting nervous. He was picking at his fingernails and wringing his hands. He said, “Well, what is the most you could give me for it? I really need to sell it today.”

Phil looked at him with the look someone gets right before they pull the trigger and said, “$30”

I couldn’t believe it when the guy said, “Yeah, I’ll take it.”

Without batting an eye Phil fished three $10 dollar bills out of the cash drawer and threw them down on the desk. The kid grabbed the money and left without saying another word.

Phil calmly reached behind the desk to get a price tag (one of those little white ones with a string on it so it could be tied to one of the tuning keys) turned to me and asked, “What do you think, Flo, $125 or $150?”

Now this is where my mouth got ahead of my mind. I half wise-cracked a reply, “I was going to offer you $50.” I didn’t need the guitar. I had several at the time. And I really wasn’t a big fan of dreadnaught guitars. I was mostly playing Ovation super shallow guitars back then. They are comfortable to hold and they have action close to that of an electric. Most dreadnaughts have really stiff action and for someone of my stature they are way too big to be comfortable.

The words were barely out of my mouth before Phil smiled and said, “Done!”

I am a man of my word. I opened my mouth and was not going to back peddle. As I pulled out my money roll, peeled off two $20s and a $10 and laid them down where just moments before three $10s had been it dawned on me that Phil had made his normal 40% without even touching that guitar. Now that’s ‘business’ and that’s why I respected him so much!

I closed the case without even picking the guitar up or looking it over. It wouldn’t make any difference now. I had already bought myself a beat up old Fender.

It was a day or two before I got around to giving it a once over. Man! It was rough! It looked like it had lived most of its life in the floorboard of a coal truck or the bottom of a bass boat and then spent a year or two hanging in a pawn shop window in direct sunlight. The top had an almost reverse sunburst effect from the RV exposure and the back was as scuffed up as a pair of old brown hiking boots. The neck had a couple dings in the back but the fret board was in good shape and the neck was nice and straight. The nut had been shimmed with what I can only guess was strips of cardboard from a matchbook. And I mean shimmed…there must have been three layers there. So right from the get-go this guitar was not playable. Whoever last owned it couldn’t have been a guitar player at all. The bridge was shimmed too, although not enough to make it unplayable, but enough to make it difficult to play beyond the first three or four frets.

I took off the mismatched strings, popped the nut loose and pried the bridge saddle out. Then I started soaking the whole thing down with guitar polish. I haven’t seen many guitars this dirty in my life. It took three repeats of soaking and wiping it dry to get through the built up grime. As I rubbed it down I wondered about all the people that had owned this old box over the years.

I could tell by the lack of fret wear that this guitar had never been a working guitar. When you play shows you play a variety of songs in multiple keys. This guitar looked like it had only been played in the keys of “D” and “G.” It showed no evidence of having ever played barre chords or scales up the neck. That struck me as being really sad.

I put strings on and started working on the nut. It turned out that instead of being shimmed up it needed to be filed down. The bridge did need a shim but one single Bakelite strip was perfect. It didn’t need all those strips of (Oh, my God!) cardboard.

Once the roughing in was done it was time to tune it up and see what I had. As I brought the low “E” string up to pitch I was struck by the pure warm tone this thing had. Continuing through the other strings the tone got even better. This old box sounded pretty good! I strummed a few chords and all I can say is, “Wow!” I have worked around music stores all my adult life and in doing so I have had the opportunity to play some of the most prestigious guitars ever made. I’ve played Martins, Taylors, Gibsons and so on and while I could tell they were good workmanship and had a reputation for being the choice of the so called stars, this old $50 box would give any of them a run for their money.

I could tell the nut needed a wee bit more filing and the truss rod needed to be adjusted but all-in-all things were working pretty well. Then I did something I never do with this type of quick turn over guitar. I actually played the thing….a whole set of songs. It was a bit stiff to play but the tone was awesome. And I know this sounds crazy, but it seemed to already know my songs. And there was something else. It felt like the guitar was thankful to be in the hands of someone that could actually play. In a word the guitar had found a home.

Over the next few weeks I tweaked the action until playability was equal to any dreadnaught I’ve ever played. It was going to be stiff but it was like driving an old standard shift, no power brakes, no power steering pick-up truck. Either you like pick-up trucks or you don’t. It was what it was, and being what it was, it had some quirks that came with it. The capo was one of these things. Up to that point I didn’t use a capo very much. As a teacher I had to deal with them fairly often…like “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash…it’s played with the capo on the first fret. I was aware that players did stuff like that but I had never experimented with it much myself. I started placing the capo here and there and songs just oozed out of it. I heard things I had never heard before. This was good! “It’s All Good” was one of the first songs I wrote this way…but it wasn’t “the” first song. That was a song I wrote for Phil.

It was a Saturday morning in February of ’06 when I got the call. I was already up and having coffee. I would normally be leaving about 9:00 or 9:30 to go teach guitar. I taught from 10:00 until 5:00 in those days…fourteen lessons in a row with no breaks. But at 8:30 the phone rang. It was Phil’s wife. He had an aneurism and was on his way into surgery. She said it was 85% fatal.

When I got off the phone I just sat and stared at the smoke from my cigarette for ten minutes or more. I was in shock and disbelief. I convinced myself that Phil was a tough guy and he could pull through this. I got out the student registry and started calling everyone to cancel lessons for the day. Everyone expressed their concerns and promised to pray for him. Some even went so far as to say things like “I saw it coming; he was just too high-strung for his own good.” By the time that was done it was close to 10:00. I needed a drink and the cupboard was dry.

In those days Somerset was still a “dry” town. The nearest liquor store was about an hour drive away. I didn’t figure I would hear anything sooner than that so I set out for Richmond. That two hour drive there and back lasted was seemed like a hundred years. My thoughts were spinning like a hamster on a wheel. Just north of Berea, on the way back, a blue heron flew across in front of me at a low altitude. It was framed against the winter sky so the colors blended into a grey/blue monochromatic that was heartbreaking. Don’t ask me how, but I knew Phil was gone.

When I got home I was just getting in the door when the phone rang. I didn’t want to pick it up....but I did. It was Roger Lane, one of Phil’s best friends. Roger was a doctor so he explained what had happened in great detail but the bottom line was Phil had gone to meet his maker.

I spent the rest of the evening either answering the phone or making calls. It was after dark before I cracked the seal on that bottle of whiskey. It was going to be a long night. I picked up that old $50 box and did what I always do in times of grief. I tried to play my way through it. I kept thinking of Phil and how he’d almost tricked me into buying this guitar. I had bought several guitars from him over the years, but this one would be the last one. I remembered how he would always tune a guitar and the play a “C’ chord, a “G7” chord and end with a flourish on the “C” chord. I played that sequence and began what would become the song “And We’ll Be Friends”…..and the flood gates burst open. Now, that was the first song I wrote on that old $50 box.

I was never a gear head. I always had the impression that you just need enough equipment to do the job at hand. But back in those days I did a lot of club gigs and the amount of equipment it took to do that was a pickup truck load: three guitars, a P.A. system, assorted stands and the necessary cables to hook it all up. It would take me close to an hour to unload and set up and the same amount of time to tear down a load out. After fifteen years of doing that at least once (and as many as three times) a week, I was beginning to wear thin.

In ’06 I wasn’t very interested in folk music. I was aware of the big names but didn’t know their music that well. After I got the old $50 dollar box I started looking at those old players. From Bob Dylan to Woody Guthrie and on back to Jimmy Rodgers these guys would walk on stage (or in front of a radio microphone) and do their stuff on one acoustic guitar. They would retune or capo right in front of the audience! I decided that was the real stuff!

I remember the first show I did with this old guitar. It was on outdoor festival over in Casey county. When I set up the sound guy placed one mic on the guitar and another mic for my vocals. And as always, there is a quick sound check before you start playing your set. The monitors were way too loud! There was a roaring, screeching feedback! I began to doubt my decision to go acoustic. But then I remembered a show I had played at a couple years before. I was on the bill with Mike Seeger- he played totally acoustic and although it seemed eccentric at the time, he told the sound man to just turn the monitors off….he didn’t need them. Since I was already on stage and it was time to get on with it that’s what I did. I told the sound guy to turn off the monitors. He looked at me like I was crazy but complied. That was a breakthrough moment. I played as well as I ever did. I went through all the stuff I normally do in a set. I capoed a song or two then I tuned to open “D” at the end of the show and played slide on a couple songs. It went great! The freedom I felt was something completely new to me. I felt so much closer to the music this way.

From there I started looking at old Blues players. I had been into Blues almost as long as I had been playing guitar but it was mostly the electric styles of Eric Clapton and Muddy Waters. Even when I played solo I approached it that way. I was plugged up and basically playing the same way I would have if I had a band backing me. I changed guitars to change tunings or to change the tone. Now I began to think more like the players from the 1920’s and 30’s. I changed the style of my playing to get variations in tone. I used a pick for one song then would play with my fingers for the next one. It was possible to get a wide range of sound from one guitar! Of course this caused me to have to learn more styles….but that was a good thing.

For the next couple years I didn’t play my other guitars very much. The box did every thing I wanted or needed to do. I played it on recordings and videos. I performed live and on radio with it. I have written dozens of songs on it. It has taught me as much as any instrument I have ever owned. It took me places I would never have gone mentally or musically. I can honestly say this guitar changed my life.

I’ve still got the old girl although I have other guitars I play more often now. I have to “plug up” sometimes to do what is expected of me so the majority of my instruments have pickups. I even have to play electric guitars sometimes (either a strat or a tele) but nothing can take the place of my old $50 box.

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