At the age of fifteen or sixteen, I travelled outside the states for the first time to Mexico. My uncle lived in Mexico City. In the spare bedroom where I stayed for a few nights before we went to Puerta Vallarta, he kept a guitar which belonged to his first wife. At the time, I was taking a beginning guitar class in high school — just about the only class that really seemed worth a damn back then. So, I took it out, tuned it up best I could, and played it for a little while. It felt good, but soon went back into its case and was forgotten.
The following Christmas of 1989, which my family spent in Ohio where both sets of my grandparents lived, my uncle wrapped up that guitar as a gift for me. It still ranks as the best gift anyone has ever given me. I clearly remember opening it and being thrilled. I also recall the women of my mother’s photo-happy family insisted I pose several times opening it so they could get a good picture. I hammed it up for the pics, and my spotty career as a performing musician began.
When people ask me excruciatingly ignorant questions about music, guitar, and recording, I have to remind myself what I, the idiotic noob, did at first to this poor, helpless instrument.
After getting her back to suburban St. Louis, I got a pack of strings and strung her up. The tuning pegs promptly snapped off. For repairs, she went to Mozingo’s Music, owned by the husband of Mrs. Mozingo who taught at Westridge Elementary where I attended third to sixth grade. Mr. Mozingo fixed her up, and I enthusiastically re-strung her.
The tuning pegs promptly snapped off — again.
This time, Mr. Mozingo educated me. The guitar was a classical style guitar, set up for nylon-based strings. I was trying to put steel strings on her. That’s why she kept breaking. Wrong strings! I felt so stupid. He fixed me up with a set of nylon strings, though, and I was good to go. For about a year, I learned every chord I could from the Mel Bay books at home, supplementing my rudimentary learnings from the high school class.
Mrs. Rodgers taught that class in my sophomore year. Some people thought she was too tough. I didn’t care. In my book, Mrs. Rodgers was an angel! She took the time to help me learn the basics of an instrument which would transform my entire life. I wanted more than anything else in life to play the guitar, and that was true for many, many years. I probably would not have survived my 20s without the guitar as a creative outlet, and Mrs. Rodgers was my first teacher. I’ve attempted to locate her and tell her what an effect she had on my life. Despite being able to find almost anything on the web, I can’t locate her.
Mrs. Rodgers, wherever you are, you rule.
Eventually, I realized I would never get the rock and roll sound I wanted without a steel string guitar. I ended up trading in this axe for maybe $30. I’d probably spent $80 fixing it! And so began a long history of sinking money into my musical enthusiasms. But, it set me up with a little cash that helped raise $125 to buy a factory second (that means it had some slight defects) Fender Alexxus, a model now discontinued. It had a cool little wave in the headstock.
I bought the Alexxus at a music shop where my second and third music teachers taught me lessons for about a year. I remember one named Bill with a local band that had a song about a Mr. Jenkins, which was the name of my debate coach.
Bill taught me the intro to Hendrix’s ‘Killing Floor‘ on the Radio One album and launched me into years of gratuitous pentatonic minor double-stops in solos. Heck, I still pull out those licks from time to time. Above, you see a photo with the Alexxus on stage at a WCBN-FM Benefit Concert in Ann Arbor circa 1997 for a short set of three songs and some poetry between the headline acts.
The Fender Alexxus lasted about eight years until she was so beat up and burned out from travel, abuse, alternate tunings, inclement weather, and being tossed around that she was barely playable. I was never one of those guys to keep my guitar in a humidified room and polish it every day to maintain pristine condition. The guitar was meant to live life under maximum conditions, by my side through thick and thin. She did so magnificently, until she had nothing left to give.
So, I set her on fire. I set her on fire at the end of the road where I lived in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1998. Firetrucks came to put out the resulting blaze, and that’s about as rock-and-roll of an ending as she could get at the time.
Were I to tell you her full story, it would be a multi-volume biography. There’s a little pic here of her in my one-bedroom apartment where I workshopped early four-track recordings, learning the basics of overdubbing and soloing over different chord progressions, my neighbors blissfully ignorant on the other side of cinder block walls.
Guitars have come and gone in my life since then — and bass guitars, a drum kit, and all sorts of odds and ends. But, like your first love or your high school sweetheart, your first guitar always holds a special place in your heart. Here’s to you, Alexxus.