Dueling D’s & Other Concerns

This past Saturday I returned to Mandolin Brothers to compare my trusty Martin D-28 to the Collings D3 that has, so far, been the frontrunner in my quest for a new guitar. I was pleasantly surprised — not by the Collings, which was everything I had expected it to be, but rather by my D-28. The differences in the two guitars were clear, but not nearly as radical as I had thought they would be. The Collings, to be sure, is more responsive, brighter, and has an overall fuller sound. But the D-28 very definitely holds it’s own. In fact, I would say the D-28 was the best-sounding guitar I played that day with the exception of the D3 and one used Santa Cruz Tony Rice Model with Brazilian Rosewood back and sides (which was priced way too high for me, anyway).

Of course, one advantage my Martin has over these guitars is that I have been playing it for about 27 years. Obviously it has “opened up” in a way that these guitars have not. Which speaks to how good the Collings (and many others in the room) will sound 27 years from now. At some point a lot of these babies are going to be absolutely smoking, no doubt about it. For now though, the D3 is the only guitar I’ve played in a price range I’m willing to entertain that also has a significantly better sound than the D-28.

As an aside, I made it a point to give another try to the Doc Watson model Gallagher they have in stock. I had played it on my previous visit and was quite disappointed in it. I believe my description of it in this blog was “boxy.” This was a surprise, because going into my search I had thought I might very likely end up with a Gallagher. My faith was restored with this visit. I’m not sure if the strings were changed between visits, or if my ears were a little cleaner this weekend, or what have you. But for whatever reason this guitar sounded better by leaps and bounds than it did when I played it last. It still didn’t outperform the Collings, but it’s clearly a better guitar than it seemed to be a month ago.

All this said, I keep coming back to the idea of a custom build.

As I have mentioned before, I have been somewhat taken aback to learn that there are many reputable, highly sought-after luthiers out there building fine custom instruments that ordinary mortals like myself can actually afford. For a lot of people this might seem like a no-brainer, but for me it’s more like a brainteaser. It opens up so many possibilities and calls so many questions to mind that I don’t know quite how to handle it. One part of me thinks this is my chance to commission a one-of-a-kind instrument, and another part of me thinks that may be just one step too far out of my league. I’m not convinced I know enough about what I’m looking for, or that I can articulate it clearly enough to communicate it to a builder. Not to mention simply getting my head around the idea of buying a guitar that I can’t play first.

In an effort to address this last concern, I contacted Ken Miller, a luthier in Tallahassee, FL, in the hopes that one of his guitars may have a home somewhere within reasonable driving distance to me. Or, alternatively, if I might have one of his “stock” guitars sent to me under his 7-day approval policy. Luckily, he has graciously offered to put me in touch with one of his clients in my area. If all goes well, the idea is that the client and I might arrange to meet so that I can get a look at one of these guitars firsthand. Assuming this happens, it will go a long way toward helping me determine whether to go custom or “off the shelf.” To be continued, as they say….

Making Up for Lost Time

Sunday was the first time I got back to practicing since traveling to the Canadian Rockies for vacation last week. Traveling plans didn’t allow for me to take along a guitar, and there wasn’t one available to me while I was out there. And I would not have had time to play anyway, as every day was filled with an amazing and breathtaking (literally) hiking/sightseeing experience.

As great as the whole experience was (and it was great), the long and short of it from a six-string perspective is that I didn’t practice for a full week. And man, what a difference a week makes!

Late Sunday morning I sat down to practice and was astonished at how much ground I had “lost.” I had been getting relatively smooth with all my new chord changes before leaving town, but today I was finding myself searching around and grabbing the wrong strings. Or, on the occasion that I found the right chord, I was dulling out strings to produce more of a thud progression rather than chord progression as I played along.

Gradually, after just sticking with it and REALLY slowing things down, I began to get back in the groove a bit. After about 45 minutes or an hour, I think I got back to roughly where I left off last week.

Later in the day I caught up on some shopping, as well.

I had planned to go back to Mandolin Brothers on Saturday. I want to take my D-28 in to compare with the Collings D3 in the same room at the same time. And of course I’m also curious to see what other instruments they may have gotten in since I was there last. But, having just arrived home from our trip on Friday night, there were many things to take care of and Saturday got away from me before I had the chance to venture to Staten Island.

On the plane home from Canada, though, I had finished reading Clapton’s Guitar, a book about master luthier Wayne Henderson written by Allen St. John. In the back of the book is a listing of several vintage guitar shops around the country, including Lark Street Music in Teaneck, NJ. My cardiologist had mentioned this place to me once after seeing the Martin Guitar logo on the back of a jacket I wore to a checkup, but I had forgotten about the place. Late Saturday night I checked the web and found that Lark Street Music is open on Sundays. So Sunday after a late lunch (still a little off schedule from our trip), Suzy and I headed off to Teaneck to see what I could find.

While not as jaw-dropping as Mandolin Brothers, Lark Street is still an outstanding guitar shop. I played Martins, a Mossman, several Gibsons, including one from the year of my birth and another that sounded better but looked as if it might fly apart at any moment. (Of course, that’s probably why it sounded so good.) I tried out my first Blueridge guitar, a very pleasant surprise, and several models made by the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, by far the best of which was a curiously small-bodied baritone guitar.

The two guitars that stood out to me were a Martin and, again, a Collings. The Martin was an OM “Negative,” which I had never heard of. It’s a limited edition guitar with black body and white appointments, the most oddly striking of which is the white fingerboard. At first glance I dismissed it as flash, but eventually I took it off the wall and found that it had a great feel and a very nice tone. If there were no Collings guitars in the world, I would have been mighty tempted by this thing.

But of course there are Collings guitars out there, and the D2H I played at Lark Street was a real winner. Perfect feel and outstanding tone. This guitar rivals the D3 I placed on hold at Mandolin Brothers. I don’t think it’s quite the D3’s equal, but it’s extremely close. Once one of these guitars is in my hands, I just can’t seem to let them go. Beautiful, beautiful instruments. I can’t wait to get back to Mandolin Brothers to play that D3 again….

A Disappointment, Then Baby Steps Toward A Decision

This past Saturday I went to Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleeker Street. I was very much looking forward to it not only because guitar shopping is fun in general, but also because the shop itself is somewhat storied. Apparently Bob Dylan shops there, for example. Or at least he has in the past. But surprisingly, it was not as cool an experience as I had expected it to be.

First of all, there’s music playing over an audio system throughout the store. It was good music, but it makes it very hard to hear whatever guitar you might be playing. If you’re playing one at all, that is.

The arrangement of the store is such that you need assistance to try out any of the guitars. Of course I understand the reasons for this and I have no argument with it in principle. The problem is that none of the employees seemed very interested in helping me.

I made a pass through the entire store to get the big picture and see what they had to offer. Based on my experience at Mandolin Brothers a few weeks ago, I zeroed in pretty quickly on the Collings guitars. They were hanging on a wall behind a counter which was attended by two employees. One was doing some paperwork with a customer, and the other was talking with some friends. And talking some more. And then some more. 

At first I thought these friends were customers, although they were clearly not actually buying anything. But hey, I’ve got no problem with a guy building customer relations. I understand that. I gave ’em some time and space. And they talked some more. And some more. Eventually, having overheard some dribs and drabs of their conversation, it became clear that they were just hanging out, shooting the breeze. Meanwhile, there I stood, an actual customer clearly in need of relations, ya know? The Talkative Employee kept looking my way, but he never quite managed to tear himself away from his buds.

After a time, I spotted another employee who appeared to be free. As I approached him, he gave me a perfunctory glance and then walked into a back room somewhere.

So I walked back to Mr. Talkie and just inserted myself into his life. I asked if I could take a look at some of the Collings guitars behind him.

“Which one?” he asks.

Truth to tell, I would like to try more than one, of course, but by this point I was pretty put off by the whole vibe and just wanted to get on with it. I asked him which he would recommend.

“Well, these are VERY specific guitars,” he tells me. “What kind of music do you play?”

So I tell him I play lots of different kinds of music, but mostly bluegrass, folk, and maybe a little country-blues.

“Well, now, bluegrass and country-blues are two completely different things,” he says.

?!?!?!?

I feel pretty sure this guy knows his business, but I’m guessing I’m not the only guitar player in the store who plays more than one kind of music. I’m not sure exactly where he was going with this interview. But anyway, just to get my hands on a guitar I said, “OK, what I normally play is a D-28.”

“Then you’ll like this one,” he says, handing me the D2H. “It’s the most like your D-28.”

Of course, I’m not shopping for something like my D-28. Why would I want something like my D-28 when I already have the D-28 itself? But by that point I had become pretty disenchanted with the whole process, so I just didn’t argue.

I took the guitar he handed me, found an out-of-the-way stool, and played for 10 or 15 minutes. Nice guitar, but, as he said, pretty much a copy of the guitar I already have. From what I could hear, at least, given the music playing throughout the store. Suzy concurred, though, that it was far inferior to the D3 I had played at Mandolin Brothers, and as I have said in previous posts, she has a great ear.

I handed it back to the guy and we walked up the street to find some dinner.

I’m sure I could have gotten more attention in the shop if I had asserted myself more, but I don’t feel like it’s expecting to much to have one of these guys simply say “Can I help you?”. I don’t want to be hovered over when I’m shopping, but I want some attention.

I’m not prepared to say I’ll never go back to Umanov Guitars, but my expectations are going to be pretty low if I do.

In the meantime, I have not been able to get that Collings D3 from Mandolin Brothers out of my head since I played it last month. Even Suzy still talks about it once in awhile. I have to go back and hear that one again. I called yesterday morning and put it on hold via their “right of first refusal” policy. I won’t be able to get over there again until next weekend, and I wanted to do all I could to make sure it will still be there.

Lately, though, some of the postings in the Flatpick-L archives have gotten me awfully interested in Ken Miller Guitars. Ken is a luthier in Tallahassee, FL, who makes stunningly beautiful guitars. And folks on the list who’ve had the opportunity to play them are unanimously impressed with and enamored of their playability and tone. Now I’m thinking I have to figure out a way to get my hands on one of these before I finalize any decisions.

Diggin’ A Little Deeper

Yesterday evening I had my second lesson with John. I’m feeling like now we’re really getting into it. I’m sure from his perspective we’re just getting started, but to me it’s like we’ve already jumped into the deep end.

First, we briefly ran through “All of Me” together. While he played the lead lines, I haltingly played through the chord progression he had written out for me last time. He gave his approval at the progress I had made, and then we moved on to some listening exercises in which I had to identify by ear the differences between major, minor, diminished, and augmented chords played on a CD. I did pretty well except for one D minor chord, which I was pretty sure was augmented. Even when he played it back for me I couldn’t quite grasp it. Weird that just that one chord seemed to throw me.

The biggest part of our time was spent with him working out and showing me a chord solo for “All of Me.” That is, a combination of chords and single note melodic lines to be played as a lead. Sort of the jazzy counterpart to the “Carter scratch” in old-time and bluegrass music. In the same key as the previous progression, this little lead part nevertheless contains only one of the same chord forms as the progression I’ve been practicing. Again, we’re just moving right along.

To finish up, we cracked the cover on A Modern Method For Guitar. We played through several of the first exercises together, and John marked the pages I should concentrate on for the next few weeks. Sometime in September, he says, we’ll probably be ready to move into Chapter 2 “where the training wheels come off.”