I was in Atlanta for a conference not long ago. After a long day learning about the latest in dentistry, I was ready for a break. I made some friends at the conference but no one was free for dinner. I grabbed a sandwich in the hotel restaurant and thought about what to do in Atlanta on a Friday night.
I asked the folks at the hotel desk to point me to the nearest music store. Big music stores are wonderful. You walk in and there are hundreds of brand new instruments on display. They have dozens of new trumpets and trombones shining in the halogen lights. Don’t even get me started about the saxophones and the drum sets.
I am always looking to test drive a new guitar. The bigger music stores will have a special room for the higher priced guitars. The rooms are controlled for humidity and temperature so the fine woods are not damaged. A good store will have the guitars in perfect tune ready for a buyer.
A taxi driver took me to a huge music store not far from my hotel. I was looking forward to the visit.
I walked into the guitar room and saw a kid with his girlfriend, Nathan and Jules. He was trying to teach her how to make a ‘C’ chord on a very nice Martin guitar. She was all giggles and smiles in a short skirt. I thought about leaving and coming back later but the guitars in the room just would not let me go. I walked to the other side of the room and picked up a Gibson.
“Why don’t you play me a song?” Jules asked her boyfriend.
The Gibson felt good in my hands. It had nice action and a nice bright tone. Nathan played some reggae songs as I picked the guitar. He looked at me as he played; an invitation to join in and I did. The chords were open and easy to play. We fell into the song.
After a song or two, he told me he was a college student and wanted to be an Engineer. He was from Kenya. His girlfriend told me she was still in High School but sang in her church. She smiled at him and said, “I really want to learn how to play the guitar.” This sounded like she wanted her boyfriend to give her more instruction but he looked at me and asked, “What can you teach me?”
I played some Beatles songs: Nowhere Man and Norwegian Wood. He picked up the licks quickly and before long we were harmonizing on the choruses. Just then the door opened and another kid came in. He was a thin with a farmers tan and torn jeans. He was wearing a tee shirt and a Georgia Tech hat with the bill creased and frayed. He picked up a Taylor guitar.
Nathan and I played some more Bob Marley while the new-comer tuned up. Jules was looking more and more bored as we played.
“You guys are pretty good.” The new guy said. He looked at me and said, “you are about my Dad’s age…he taught me this one…”
The new guy’s name was Fred and he played a flawlessly perfect cover of Sweet Home in Alabama. “Nice”, I said. Nathan had already picked up half of the introduction just by watching Fred. Jules fished around in her purse for something.
Just then, the door opened and the manager of the store walked in. Sometimes this means it is time to put the nice guitars down and play the lesser brands out on the main floor. I was expecting an invitation to leave when he said, “Wait a minute.”
The manager pulled down a beautiful Martin and gave it to Nathan. He took the guitar from Jimmy and gave him a very nice used Fender guitar that was on consignment. He handed me a Taylor guitar. “These are the best of them all. Give ‘em a try and let me know what you think.” Then he walked out. I couldn’t see the prices on the other guitars but the Taylor he laid in my lap was priced at over $6000! He didn’t even ask me to turn my belt buckle around so I wouldn’t scratch the wood.
I started playing Me and Bobby McGee. The chords were easy and Nathan filled in a nice high harmony. Jimmy played an awesome lead when we got to the part where Janice Joplin did her solo. Jules was texting someone, looking even more bored than before.
“What do you think?” I asked Fred.
“Nice guitar but very pricy. I liked the Martin better. It had a nicer bass tone.”
“I love them all.” Said Nathan.
Jules smiled sweetly and said she needed to go home. Jimmy put down the Fender guitar and drifted over to the electric guitar section. I picked at the Taylor a little longer. The Taylor was a one-of-a-kind custom job made for the owner of the store. I tend to be hard on guitars. Putting a scratch in a custom made guitar would probably give me sleepless nights for weeks.
When you give it some thought, America really is an extraordinary place. Where else in the world can you go to learn a couple of reggae songs from a Kenyan and some Lynard Skynard licks from the son of a farmer on a Friday night, on amazing instruments, for free? Music is a universal language and a music store, in an unfamiliar town is a good place to find folks who wanna “talk”.
Douglas Wright, avid guitar player