The Old Guitar - Chapter 1


Douglas Cameron

The Old Guitar Chapter 1


On October, 2021. I received an email from my friend, Ken, with a story attached. But before we get to that a little about Ken. I've known Ken for a long time, we share a love of music. We attended blues camp together, and we pride ourselves at never being able to play the song Truck'n by the Grateful Dead, the same way twice.

We have graced the fairways and greens of the fabled Bandon Dunes golf club where Ken engaged in epic battles in every pot bunker on the course. We have smoked old stogies around the campfire by the shores of Lake Kashagawigamog where we've shared many a story. I should mention that Ken's stories usually involve a cousin from his seemingly endless family, which stretches from coast to coast, but I digress, perhaps more relevant to our tale, Ken and I love guitars.

And while I have a decent collection, Ken's is extraordinary. He has a man cave in his basement with almost every make of guitar imaginable, along with a collection of banjos and gitjos and amps and pedals, et cetera, and he has commissioned guitars from some of the most famous luthiers in the world. It seems like every time I see him, he's augmented this already impressive collection with a new edition, and of course each comes with a story.

Ken also has a unique attribute, his superpower maybe, he's an inquisitive fellow who never fails to ask his friends what they're up to. And after listening to what they have to say, he's zeroes in, on their passions and asks a number of questions, then files the information away in his rather big brain and goes about his life, and he does this with everyone. All these bits of information are like pieces of a puzzle, which he seeks to join together, when he finds the missing pieces. In this case, Blake has a podcast. He loves music and guitars. He's launching a new series called In the Company of Readers and Writers. I have a lawyer in my firm who's married to a well-known singer songwriter who also loves guitars, and he's written a story about a guitar. Ergo, I should send this along to Blake and see what might come of it.

Here's the story I received from Ken and the first chapter of the old guitar.... for what it's worth.

"I knew it would be a beautiful sounding guitar the moment I first saw it hanging on the wall. Tom O'Brien was showing me his room; the room I intended to rent when he moved out. The rent was spectacularly cheap, and even though I would later learn the house was overrun with cockroaches, I was hooked.

But the guitar hanging there was a much more tantalizing prospect. I asked what it was knowing. It looked like some kind of Gibson guitar from the twenties or thirties. In fact, knowing it looked exactly like the guitar played by Robert Johnson in the famous photograph and feeling certain inside that it would be a beautiful sounding guitar.

It was practically unplayable. It looked like it had been dragged through a war. Tom said something about it being his travelling guitar that it had in fact travelled all the way to, or from India. My mind is a bit hazy on that point. It had Calcutta stamped on the neck, near the heel, along with some other words I couldn't quite make out.

I said I wanted to buy it. Tom said he couldn't sell it. I offered him $500, which seemed like an outrageous amount of money, which I probably didn't even have at the time. Tom declined. I left it at that. If he ever wanted to sell it, I'd buy it. A few weeks later, when I moved into the old house on Beverly street, the room was empty except for the guitar, which was hanging on the wall with a handwritten note that said, "enjoy"

That one act of generosity by someone I hardly knew would fill my life for the next 40 years. At first, I kept it as it was. I tuned it up as much as I could and took it camping and canoeing. It didn't  even have a case, but then I thought I should fix it. By then I was working at the 12th fret in Toronto in the guitar repair department.

I'd already served an apprenticeship at Ed's music workshop in Peterborough. And though I probably wasn't particularly good at it. I laboured away doing refrets and setups and bridge replacements and all the rest. When I moved into a tiny apartment in a tiny house in Riverdale with my girlfriend, I set up a room with a work bench and started to do a few projects at home.The old guitar was one of them. 

I think I began by popping the back off in order to cleat all the cracks in the top and the back there were more cracks than I'd ever seen. Eventually I replaced the nut, the bridge plate in the fingerboard. I installed a non adjustable truss rod in the neck and did a neck reset and I made a pyramid bridge out of rose wood.

I know for a fact, I used a epoxy glue to smash the bridge and bridge plate together because there wasn't much top left underneath where the old bridge had been. And again, to glue the neck back on using a epoxy was a really bad idea, but the guitar was so beat up. I wanted to ensure it's stability. It still, wasn't all that great to play, but by then I knew what it could sound like. It didn't sound like any other guitar I owned or had played.

It had this kind of hollowed out delicate sound, the wood vibrated, like the guitar was alive thing under my fingers. I still used it for camping. I use my various other guitars for gigs and to record, but always in the back of my mind, was this old guitar.

It was just so beautiful. Oddly, no one else seemed to be very impressed with it. I couldn't identify it as an old Gibson because it didn't have the Gibson logo on the headstock to most people that look just like an old beat up guitar. Years went by after a very brief career, as a pop singer, and then acquiring a degree in music from York university, I eventually began to work composing music for television. The all guitar stayed at home. I didn't use it in my work. I've played it for fun and I didn't think it could be made much better. I had a couple of other old Gibson guitars in my possession, an old arch top called a special black and an L double o from the thirties that I bought as a present to myself when I turned 50. The arch top had been repaired by my friend, Edward, from whom I got it. That's another story. And then both it, and the L double O were repaired by my friend, Tony, Doug, and Smith. In fact, the L double O was completely restored by Tony from a pretty rugged state into a lovely guitar. Which I still have.

Tony had worked miracles and it dawned on me that he might, rescue the old guitar and he did. He slipped the back off near the neck joint and performed an unconventional neck reset. It transformed the guitar. It became more playable than it had ever been. I started to play it all the time at home. I wrote songs on it and eventually recorded a whole album using it as the only guitar save for one song that I used the L double O on.

I also began to use it when I went out teaching because it was the perfect size to cart around. I even lent it to a student for a while because it was a good size for him. After I got it back. It was my daily .Mainstay. I practice scales. I worked out arrangements and I composed on it and it regularly rode in the back of my car.

As I zoomed from lesson to lesson. And then one night when I foolishly parked behind the Transact Club in Toronto and left the car unattended for 20 minutes, it was stolen. The back window of my car was smashed and the guitar and my teaching bag were gone. I scoured the neighbourhood to no avail. I called the police, but there was no help there.

I couldn't even attempt to make an insurance claim because I had no idea what its monetary worth might've been or how I might prove it was even mine. So I gave it up. I figured that the hole in my heart would go away and that my soul would be comforted by the fact that I had it for so long and that I had loved it for so long. And after a year or so after my world both shut down and transformed due to the pandemic, I let it go. Resignation gave way to acceptance, and I even found a guitar to buy that though it couldn't replace the old guitar could at least fill in for it. I still had the and a beautiful new guitar that my friend Edward built.

I even had realized the lifelong musical dream by acquiring an upright bass and beginning the process of learning how to play it. And then almost to suddenly as the guitar had been stolen, it returned. One morning while looking at Facebook, I saw a post of a guy playing a song, playing my old guitar. It had resurfaced, it was the mascot guitar of a new folk festival in the Ottawa area.

After researching a bit more and finding a newspaper article about how it had been rescued from the garbage in Toronto and put into the possession of a fellow named George up in Ottawa, I was convinced that it was the old guitar. After a few messages and pictures back and forth. It was established as being so, and here's the thing.I'm not sure I need to have it back right away. 

Be assured I love that guitar and I've been a great lover of guitars, especially old Gibson guitars and that old guitar in my mind, the most perfect example that there could be of the kind of guitar I love and would want to possess. But it's found a new life with people who love to play it and who've made a folk festival around it.

I just want in on it. I want to be able to come and play it, play the songs I've written on it. Tell the story about how I acquired it. Introduce everyone to the person who had it before me, Tom and share in, the delight and whatever projects ensue. And maybe someday when I'm really old, receive it back so that I can be an old man with an old guitar and then bequeath it to someone else, someone who might look at it and just know how beautiful it will sound" (D.Cameron 2020)

When I first read the story by Douglas Cameron, I thought to myself, what is it about certain guitars? How they seem to reach out and speak to a musician, gently whispering in their ear. I'm the one, it seems that it has little to do with cost or brand name or condition. It's something more personal, kinetic and perhaps mystical.

Some say guitars remember. The wood retains the memory of every note of every song that has played through them, and the older the guitar, the richer the memories, which is why they need to be treasured and savoured as they are the embodiment of every musician that has ever played them. The guitar Robert Johnson had in his possession, the night he died was never found

Is it possible that the guitar that spoke to Douglas Cameron those many years ago, and more recently to George Tierney and the musicians who played at the folk festival in Ottawa, is "the one".

Join us for chapter two of the old guitar on the next instalment of, In the Company of Readers and Writers... for what it's worth.

Today's episode was inspired by the short story, old guitar written and read by Canadian singer songwriter, Douglas Cameron.

Link to the Episode 

The intro and outro music for Today's Show, "Resting Place”  and "For Old Times Sake" is written and performed by our current artist in residence, #HeatherGemmell. You can find out more about Heather by visiting our show blog and by listening to our 2 part interview with Heather.

The music for the intro and outro to today's reading, "Doctor" and "Nightfall" is written and performed by Douglas Cameron on "The Old Guitar"


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