Observations: Something extra

Published on: October 14, 2015


A note my friend Jon had left for himself. What is your something extra? Mitch Traphagen photo.

A note my friend Jon had left for himself. What is your something extra? Mitch Traphagen photo.

The guitar looked like absolute hell. There were cracks in the finish; whole parts of the varnish were missing, revealing the raw, rough wood underneath. Based on the serial number, it was handmade in the Takamine factory in Japan in 1988. It appeared to have lived its life. Even the salesman felt badly for it, and for the $300 “used” price tag on the instrument. He took it away and handed it to the store’s luthier, who polished it — providing a temporary reprieve from its diminished state of glory. At least until the polish dried out.

The nut near the tuning keys was a hack job — installed by someone lacking skills, or perhaps done out of sheer desperation. The frets were worn unevenly. This guitar had been used. A salesman might have described it as “well loved.” I thought it “well abused.”

But I could see the potential in it. It wasn’t done yet; there was something special about it. The neck, so finely crafted, so strong yet delicate made holding my “hand-made in America” Fender Telecaster feel like I was holding a fire hose in comparison. Despite the thin, delicate feel of the neck, it apparently was anything but, as indicated by a healthy indentation and a crack in the finish that showed where the guitar must have fallen over once, landing hard on that neck.

The store didn’t offer the dignity of a case to go with it — something for which I was prepared — but I put my credit card down on the counter and said, “I’ll take it.”

I carried it out to my car by the neck, but cradling the body. I carefully placed it into a hard guitar case with a plush interior that I had waiting in my car, in anticipation that I would indeed be taking home that back-row beauty.

The hack job on the nut made playing it difficult. Near Tampa International Airport are luthiers, Guitar Repair of Tampa Bay, who restored some of the glory — and they did so in near magical fashion. They cut and installed a new nut, made from bone. They leveled the frets. The neck was absolutely straight — they provided a slight bend as needed. The guitar, once diminished, suddenly came to life in a most spectacular fashion. At the first strum of a chord, the sound poured forth beautifully. This guitar is definitely a player with a beautiful voice.

Technology advances in a continuous, frenetic motion, but true musical instruments such as guitars and pianos remain, even despite their own advances. Music, and the larger spectrum of art in which it resides, has been around for possibly 67,000 years. No smartphone is likely to match that.

The longevity of music and musical instruments reveals the importance they hold to humanity. Even when our far-distant ancestors struggled daily to survive, music was still important enough to invest energy and materials in. It was, perhaps, the doorway through which international trade opened. Instruments developed in one part of the world were seemingly quick to be adopted in other parts.

I’ve written before about this guitar and how it, along with my other instruments, have played a big role in staving off a depression that was setting in after too many losses in too short a time.

Now suddenly, I’m facing a different problem and finding myself in a race against time. I’ve been hearing-impaired since at least fifth grade, but lately my hearing has been markedly on the decline. The past few months, in particular, have been noticeable. And that guitar, with such a beautiful and powerful sound, is presenting a new challenge for me — it seems my ability to process pitch is diminishing along with my ability to hear. All of my electronics can tell me that the guitar is in perfect tune, but increasingly, my hearing, such as it is, doesn’t agree. The guitar or the pianos often don’t sound in tune. It makes it difficult to play, and singing even more so. I often can’t tell if I’m in tune, either.

My hearing loss may level off or it may not. On any given day, I don’t know what I may lose, or what I will have left. That’s particularly difficult since music has been a part of my life since I was a child, when my Dad surprised me with a gift of an electric guitar and small amplifier that he noticed me continually admiring in an enormous (remember those days?) J.C. Penney catalog.

I’m now afraid that music may someday not be a part of my life. But I will enjoy it for as long as I can.

After my friend of 45 years died suddenly last May, his wife and Mom gave me some of his older instruments. In among a gigantic stack of books that went with them, I found a note that he had written to himself. The note read:

To attain anything more, you must do something extra. Music is your ‘something’ extra.

From junior high through college, we played together in a band. In more recent years, as my Mom was dying, he would make the four-hour drive down from Minneapolis when I made my frequent trips to rural Minnesota, his car loaded with instruments so we could still play the songs we could remember. He was so talented. Music was definitely his something extra.

But apparently it’s not for me, although I do believe in his words of wisdom. I think we all, regardless of age or status, have something extra. We just have to find it, to nurture it to attain that something extra that our something can provide to us, whatever it may be for each of us.

I’m looking. And I’m still trying to listen, to find it. I hope you find or have found yours.