An Ironically Good Bad Experience…

February 25, 2011

I became an official guitar entity in 1971 when I paid the City of Berkeley $20 for a license to operate a Guitar Repair business. I was young and I’d made one guitar with the help of Irving Sloane’s book. I didn’t know anything. But I was willing to drive around to music stores and do guitar repairs for them — at my workbench in my own bedroom. I lived on a shoestring income, in a shared house with other struggling and confused young adults. But I’d found a way to make a bit of money and was off and running like a herd of turtles.

I did a lot of guitar repairs in the next few years, and I made a few guitars as well. A lot of this work wasn’t all that much to be proud of, really, but I didn’t know any better. But I got to call myself a guitar maker, which gave me a much-needed sense of identity.

I was making classic and flamenco guitars. This brought me to the attention of the organizers of the 1977 Carmel Classic Guitar Festival; it was the first guitar show to ever invite my participation. This was a genuinely important and prestigious event that would attract serious performers, teachers, and amateurs from all over California and even from the rest of the country — and even a few from Canada. I’d been building guitars full-time for five or six years by then and felt happy to be invited to show my work; I was going to be one of seven exhibitors. I should tell you that my friends had been unfailingly supportive and encouraging to me in my guitar making efforts all this while — even as my parents could not fathom what the hell I was doing making guitars when I could have had such a promising career doing something reasonable. In any event, I went to Carmel feeling a little cocky and smug, thinking to wow the people there.

Instead, I ran headlong into a brick wall. My work was the worst of anyone’s there, both visibly and audibly. It was amateurish and careless and everybody could see it. It was a disastrous, humiliating, and sobering experience. I returned from that event severely shaken and depressed. My friends had, in fact, been no help to me at all with their uncritical kindness: I hadn’t learned anything. And I was now faced with the inescapable fact that I’d been wasting my time in living out a hippie fantasy — without actually having the discipline, education, skill, experience, or motivation required to do good, serious work.

As my sense of shock gradually settled down it became clear to me that I had two choices: quit making guitars and do something else, or buckle down and do better work. It took me several weeks of re-evaluating to realize that I actually liked making guitars and that the path was open to me if I wanted to apply myself and do professional level work. That was my real starting point as a guitar maker — and it took that disastrous experience to arrive at this crossroads. And it was within a year of that decision to do the best work I could, and not let things slide, that I met up with the first of my Windham Hill contacts, who were to open some important musical doors for me. The rest is (my) history.

It’s sobering for me to think that if my work had been better — say, acceptably good — at the Carmel Classic Guitar Festival, then it’s likely that I would have continued to build guitars out of an essentially immature and complacent mindset, and never feel a need to challenge my own perceptions of the worth of my work. Really, doesn’t it sometimes seem to you that the basic building blocks of the