Country Hate Machine began as a solo acoustic side-project to record hillbilly versions of songs by Nine Inch Nails, whose first album was called Pretty Hate Machine. Eventually, CHM evolved into a punk-influenced hybrid mixing rage with humor. I recorded a bunch of demos in informal settings, but life got in the way of doing formal studio sessions. So, I’ve collected twenty of my favorite acoustic demo and concert recordings from twenty years of musical madness for your listening pleasure. They contain strong language and adult subject matter, and they might be inappropriate for children or any other form of mammalian life. Consider yourself warned.
Country Hate Machine: The Lost Years is now available as a free mp3 album including twenty songs, the album art, and a mini-booklet in PDF with credits for all those who contributed lyrical and musical ideas or were kind enough to share their recordings.
I have also added several other out-of-print projects as free downloads on my Music Albums Page.
A few years ago, I read a draft of a scene from the Meteor Mags stories to my workshop group. In the scene, our space-faring criminals turn on the ship’s radio in time to hear the DJ back-announce a few songs and say what comes next.
During the feedback session, one of my workshoppers asked, “How do you come up with all these crazy song titles and band names?”
I’m rarely stunned into silence on matters of writing, but that question hit me like the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. It took me a moment to realize that when it comes to music, I might as well be from another planet than some of my writing comrades.
My answer? “I didn’t make them up. Those are all real songs and real bands! And they kick ass!”
You can find a list of all the real songs the characters in the series have broadcast, performed, or just plain argued about on the unofficial soundtrack page of Mags’ website.
I like to think those songs might be played if Mags and Patches ever get made into a film or a cartoon. Nothing could make me happier than seeing and hearing Mags perform Porcupine Tree’s Trains as a solo piano piece in the dead of night by candlelight from Red Metal at Dawn, or her brilliant, butt-naked rendition of the Hoodoo Gurus’ Down on Me with a tribe of space monkeys and telepathic space octopuses in Small Flowers.
I have always felt that when the end credits roll on Mags’ first film, the song that must destroy the theater’s speakers is Bikini Kill’s Rebel Girl.
It’s a fuckin’ barnburner.
I don’t know if Kathleen Hanna and the gang in Bikini Kill had in mind an even older song to which Rebel Girl traces its roots: a pro-labor, feminist acoustic jam by Hazel Dickens called The Rebel Girl.
Decades before Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter became a country-music hit in the States, multi-instrumentalist Hazel Dickens was singing pro-union, pro-people, and pro-women bluegrass songs in a folk-music vein, advocating through music and direct activism for America’s miners. She also eulogized her brother in song after he died of black lung disease.
Born into a coal-mining family, Hazel died in 2011, and you don’t hear about her very often these days. But she loved rebel girls, and I love her for that. The social problems she fearlessly addressed nearly a century ago have not yet been solved in our country, and maybe they will never be. But music gives me hope.
Most songs on the unofficial soundtrack page have a similar bit of history behind them and a thematic or emotional relevance to the stories. They appear in the text for a reason—even if the only reason is because Patches is obsessed with gangsta rap.
But my workshoppers were right to suspect that I have been making up a hell of a lot of other songs for my imaginary bands: the Psycho 78s (named after a line in the Misfits song Horror Business), the teenage Dumpster Kittens (who are some of the nicest kids you’ll ever meet despite singing about suicide, murder, interplanetary death armies, and nuclear infernos), and the Sterile Skins (a ska-punk crossover band that filled its choruses with the British “Oi!” despite being mostly Chicanos from SoCal).
But what I’ve never told my workshoppers (or anyone else, until now) is that for every imaginary song whose lyrics appear in the series, I put together real music.
And for that, I blame Greg.
Greg was the awesomest drummer I ever had the good fortune to share a house with, and it was a unique pleasure to hear him bashing away for hours in the basement. He was in a number of ass-kicking bands whose shows I enjoyed, and we’ve kept in touch over the years despite being thousands of miles apart now.
I miss that guy.
Back in 2015 or so, I sent him a message about how I wanted my characters to have their own unique songs, not just other people’s material they referred to. He told me, “Then you need to write those songs.”
He always had a way of cutting through my apparently complex problems with straight-forward advice.
That evening, I picked up an acoustic guitar and bashed out chords for the song that appears in the episode Whipping Boy. Ever since, I have done the same for every absolutely bonkers “imaginary” song that gets its lyrics printed in the series. It’s now a fundamental part of the creative process.
Whipping boy! What’s your name? Whipping boy! A life of pain! Maybe you should take the cash and run. Maybe you should get yourself a gun, before they kill your soul. Alright!
Most of the earlier songs can be played on a standard-issue acoustic guitar using basic power chords. After all, despite teaching several aspiring musicians about music theory and performing in small jazz combos, I still enjoy a straight-forward, punk-rock approach to songs you could perform drunk around a campfire.
But a few years ago, I got a baritone electric guitar from ESP. With its longer neck length and scale, and a weight that’s somewhere between a guitar and a bass, the baritone is designed to be tuned a fourth below standard guitar tuning, with a low A instead of a low E.
I tried that tuning, but after Wo Fat convinced me that C minor is the heaviest key in all eternity—and considering my love for Jimmy Page’s open-C tuning from Poor Tom on Led Zeppelin’s Coda—I tried a low C instead, keeping the standard string intervals from a normal tuning.
As far as C minor goes, one of my favorite heavy pieces in that key is Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. Ukrainian pianist Anna Federova brings even more life to it than my concert recording of the composer performing it.
When I ran my C-tuned baritone guitar through a Logan Square Destroyer distortion pedal, ultimate heaviness resulted: crisp treble and gut-punching bass. I bought this pedal because I am a raving maniac for the first four or five Queens of the Stone Age albums (and their predecessor, Kyuss), so I thought it might help me get closer to that sound.
It did not disappoint.
To push heaviness a little further, I sometimes keep the C-based tuning but drop the low string to B flat—just like how you would tune to Drop D on a standard guitar. That gives me a power chord on the low three strings, and if I throw on a capo, I get some stupidly heavy sounds from the ESP in a variety of keys.
I am all about truly stupid levels of heaviness. If your riffs don’t give me permanent brain damage, then you’re wasting my time!
Maybe someday I’ll produce an album of these imaginary songs. But as much as I love to sing them, we need Mags or her teenage friend Sarah on the mic—not me.
I’m no brilliant singer, though I’ve never let that stop me from performing or recording. But I often fantasize about hammering the hell out of my baritone axe while someone more talented than me takes over on vocals. I like to think we’d give Alice in Chains a run for their money.
Happy Thanksgiving, Martians! This year I am thankful for ripping riffs and brutally heavy jams, for that annoying pain I get while building up my guitar callouses again, and for music in general. It remains one of the great joys of my life.
My father died two years ago today, after a long bout with cancer that spread from his spleen to eventually his brain and his whole body. Dad and I did not agree on most things, and my teens were times of conflict, to put it mildly. But in my twenties, we were able to put most of that behind us and just hang out.
Dad never understood my love for playing guitar until I was in my thirties. Then one day, he started sending me emails asking about mandolins—and I’m an easy target for anyone and everyone who has questions about music theory and stringed instruments. I don’t know exactly what turned him on to the mandolin, but soon he got into guitar. Our relationship reached a turning point after he got his first guitar and told me, “Now I get why you were into this.”
All I could say was, “It’s pretty awesome, isn’t it?”
By then, we were separated by great geographical distance. But when I would visit, Dad stocked the refrigerator with beer and tuned up his growing collection of guitars, and we would play together for hours. I would show him a few techniques and answer his theory questions, and we played from charts he had for country and worship music he liked.
By the time I got into my forties, Dad’s arthritis made it increasingly difficult for him to play. But he still loved buying guitars, and trading them in later for other models, and getting on Internet forums to discuss gear, and trying new types of strings. He often performed at his church, accompanying his impressively deep bass voice with his ever-growing arsenal of acoustic guitars.
It was a massive about-face from his discouraging attitude toward my love of something which, for twenty years, had basically defined my entire life: playing the guitar. He eventually told me why he was so antagonistic toward my interest, and the reason is probably too personal to blog about. The important point is this: he eventually changed his tune.
Perhaps my fondest memories of Dad are the ones we created over a 12-pack of beer and 12 vibrating strings, jamming in unison. He never got to the level he wanted to with the instrument, but he kept trying and learning and improving. At the age of 44, I can tell you that journey never ends. One day, you pick up the axe, and something changes inside you. You’re never the same afterwards.
Sonic’s Rendezvous issued this live recording from 1978 twenty years later in 1998. It features the late Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, Scott Asheton of The Stooges, Gary Rasmussen of The Up, and Scott Morgan of The Rationals. It’s a bit of a who’s who of Ann Arbor rock and roll legends.
Though we can’t recall exactly when and where we purchased this disc in Ann Arbor in 1998, it might have been at one of Scott Morgan’s live shows. We caught him once at a basement party in the house of a friend from the radio station (WCBN), and perhaps once or twice at Club Heidelberg. If there is any doubt as to whether or not Scott Morgan’s blues-driven rock guitar impressed us, the not-so-subtle handwriting on the last page of the booklet should clear that up. It looks like we added our own graphics to Fred’s guitar on the cover, too.
Despite our enthusiastic vandalism, this album remains a favorite memento of Ann Arbor’s rocking musical history. Check it out. You can find it on Amazon in CD, MP3 (only $8.99), or vinyl as Sonic’s Rendezvous Sweet Nothing.
Note: Since the release of this album, more material from Sonic’s Rendezvous has come out of the archives. They are not all filed in the same place as this album on Amazon, but under “Sonic’s Rendezvous Band.”
We sold two paintings today. We had our doubts that anything would ever sell due to a Craigslist ad, but we were happily proven wrong.
Guitar #20: Frozen Coast caught an art lover’s eye on Craigslist. While she was here, she took a liking to Dream Journal #8: Night at the Lake. Good choice! We are very fond of that one, and miss it already.
Guitar #20: Frozen Coast
Acrylic paint, varnish, and texture media on gallery-wrapped canvas
24 x 30 in. (60.9 x 76.2 cm)
Colors: Prussian blue, anthraquinone blue, deep permanent green, white, black.
This painting is currently for sale on eBay SOLD.
I enjoy working at this size, even though building up the layers of color and texture on something this size takes approximately forever. Below, you’ll see a bunch of close-ups that show just how textured this piece is. The last half-dozen or so pics illustrate its long journey from blank canvas to colorfully tactile art.
As promised, some “in progress” photos. Yes, we did start off thinking this would be red, but got wonderfully sidetracked by blue instead.
Guitar 5. 11×14 in. canvas. Acrylic paint, texture media, and varnish with metal leafing.
Guitar 5 started out as something else entirely. Twice. Maybe three times. Sometimes, you run experiments, and they fail. Many of us fall into the trap of not experimenting or trying new things simply to avoid that failure. In life, people often respond to failure with powerful emotions of frustration, grief, or even guilt. But if you approach life like a scientist, you know you need to run lots of experiments to learn anything meaningful.
On the canvas, as in life, we need the freedom to explore and experiment. Learning and advancing never come to us without falling on our face a few times – just like when we learned to walk. Where would we be now if we had given up the first few times we failed to get on our feet?
I used to paint houses instead of canvases. Running my own painting crew included finding work for them. To find work, I walked from door to door all over the city of Ann Arbor, MI. My days often consisted of being told no and having doors shut in my face. But, enough people said yes that I was able to employ my crews, or at least find enough solo work to feed myself. My experience landed me a job with a professional crew that came out at my request to fix one of my crew’s mistakes. I had a great working relationship with them for years, and learned a lot.
In the end, people congratulated me on my success. I worked for myself, set my own hours, and got good enough at refinishing decks that I only had to work about 3-4 days per week in the summer.
What does that have to do with painting canvases? Take Guitar 5, for example. It told me no several times. It shot down a lot of what seemed like good ideas. But, I kept coming back to knock on its door. I ran some experiments on it and just had fun with it. What happens if we try…. this? Or that? In the end, it wasn’t what I set out to do — but it ended up rocking anyway.
As you can see in the detail below, a rich, complex, colorful surface resulted. My experiments with Croma Krackle led to even more confident use of this texture media in Guitar 7. I discovered some different ways to use water and alcohol in color washes, which served well for Guitar 15.
Guitar Thirteen. 10×10 in., Acrylic paint & varnish on canvas.
When I lived and worked in San Diego and La Jolla in 2000 and 2001, every corporate office had some kind of art based on beaches and palm trees. On the one hand, it got to be cliche. On the other hand, I was inspired by all the different ways artists chose to represent these themes.
I pay tribute to those inspirations with Guitar Thirteen. Using blues and greens that remind me of La Jolla, and some paint scraping techniques I picked up from a video on Gerhard Richter, Guitar Thirteen abstracts all my pleasant memories of living in Southern California. The square shapes bring to mind the buildings. And, if you look hard enough, you might even see some highly abstracted palm trees on the left!
Guitar Fifteen. 10 x 10 in., Acrylic paint, media, and varnish on canvas.
You might be interested to see how we built up this painting layer by layer. Below, you can see some of the lower layers of the painting. Using Ultra White and Titan Buff in a composed arrangement, then letting them bleed together and/or separate, created a rich and varied wash. Below that layer, a thick series of washes makes a nearly solid dark purple background. Putting light colors on top of that will let the colors of our top layers shine.
Next we blocked out the shape in white, because white paint covers better than anything else. It will get a couple coats of white and then one of black before we move to the final layers. At this point we almost went with copper for the background, but our art teacher suggested silver. Good call.
Below, you can see our shiny new palette knife coated with silver paint and ready for action. We applied a mix of Payne’s Grey and Silver. We dipped our knife in each color separately, then blended them on the canvas. Next, we crumpled up a plastic bag and smooshed it onto the surface. When lifted, it creates an interesting raised texture. You might see interior decorators do ‘faux finishes’ with similar tools, like a sponge or rag.
As a final step, we went along the outline with Payne’s Grey, pulling out the excess paint into the dried silver area to create something like a glow. After two coats of varnish, it truly does seem to glow in natural light.
Guitar Fourteen. 16 x 20 in., Acrylic paint, media, and varnish on canvas.
Guitar Fourteen celebrates the unique shape of a double neck guitar. Its rough surface texture and lightning strikes of color across the body suggest energy, electricity, and power.
Gibson’s double neck SG electric guitar became well-known in the 1970s when Jimmy Page used it in concert performances of Stairway to Heaven. About that same time, John Mclaughlin broadened its popularity in his pioneering jazz/rock fusion band, Mahavishnu Orchestra. Why do they have two necks? One has twelve strings, and one has six! Page typically used the twelve string for the pretty chords of the first part of Stairway, switching to the six string for the power chords and guitar solo at the end. The SG’s distinctive double cut-away, often imagined as horns, gives the guitarist unimpeded access to the highest frets on the neck.
Guitars with two necks came into being well before the 1970s. Junior Brown, for example, plays his aggressive brand of Hendrix-flavored country licks on a double neck guitar of his own design. His incorporates a standard electric guitar neck with a second neck set up for slide guitar playing, the kind you would expect to see on a pedal steel guitar.
Even farther back in time, unique instruments called harp guitars added sets of unfretted strings to the guitar’s standard set. Gibson in particular blended harp guitars and regular acoustic guitars into some interesting double neck designs. You can find many of them on eBay at collector’s prives these days. If you want to see them in action, check out the Harp Guitar Society. Phoenix guitar virtuoso Bill Dutcher often performs with a harp guitar and recorded a track for one of the Society’s compilation albums.
Guitar Fourteen began as a purely abstract piece. Here you can see it before it became a guitar:
It also went through several stages before the final background. Here you can see it in the stage we almost decided on, with a darker background of deep grey.
Guitar Seven. Two 10×10 sections; Acrylic paint, media, and varnish on canvas.
I get a bit sentimental about the layers that go into one of my guitar abstracts. Today’s post shows you the stages of my latest one, along with some thoughts on creation and destruction in the process of making it. Besides acrylic paint, I used Kroma Crackle to get the crackly white effects. It isn’t Kirby Krackle in a tube, but it’s still pretty awesome.
Usually we think of art as a creative process, but art also destroys. In other words, making art requires destruction. We also think of these as two different things most of the time, creating and destroying. But really, they represent two aspects of a single, unifying force: transformation.
I like to build rich, complex layers of texture and color into my guitar abstracts. That process, combined with blacking out the silhouettes, requires the obliteration of some things that looked pretty cool to begin with. Every time you add a layer, you bury some of the previous layers. You create something beautiful, and then you destroy parts of it.
My art teacher warns about the trap of falling in love with your backgrounds. If you do, you will never end up bringing the subject to life. Maybe an especially colorful or interesting thing happens during a layer. Before the next layer goes on, you stop and wonder, “Should I just leave it alone? What if I wreck the pretty part that already exists?” Some people will stop right there and just leave it. Afraid to risk destruction, they shy away from taking things as far as they can go.
You make that personal choice. No one made it mandatory to go all the way in life or art. But, I like the thrill of taking it further to see what happens. I like to think about how no one ever cared about that little splash of color that catches my eye as I go to cover it up. That patch of incredible texture never had any love from anyone. But for one brief moment, it mattered. For a short time, it meant enough that the thought of losing it mattered to someone.
And then, I sacrifice it to the true subject of the painting. It dies to bring out the beauty of the true subject, but its brief existence and loss have meaning. In the end, when the subject stands revealed, it carries all those meaningful moments with it. They helped bring it to life. The meaning they brought to the piece lives on with it. Both created and destroyed, they live on: transformed.
A pretty awesome thing happened at Martian Headquarters last week. We spent the better part of a day studying techniques for washes of color with acrylic paint. This hands-on experience was a slice of art heaven for us, and only convinced us more of our teacher’s genius.
We have been experimenting a bit, tracing outlines of guitars over them. It’s fun, and they look nice on the wall. They seem to work because A) the washes are pretty and B) people can latch onto the concrete idea of the guitar instead of being lost in abstraction. Dig some in-progress shots of pieces that are busy drying or getting additional coats, plus some details of the washes.
This Gibson J-45 comes from the World War two production days when Gibson did not put serial numbers on them. I suspect it is from 1944 but the year could be slightly earlier. You can see it has the banner on the headstock, “Only a Gibson is good enough.”
The top was damaged and repaired many decades ago. It looks very rough as a result. Although you will see evidence of cracks in the photo, I believe these are more like scars. I have an old Epiphone with a cracked top, and this top doesn’t behave like it is cracked. It’s a solid piece now, after those repairs. The whole guitar has scuffs and dings, including a worn patch on the back. The finish on the neck has been practically worn off in many areas by the original owner’s hand. 80 years of strumming have worn patches above the sound hole where the grain of the wood is exposed.
In terms of playability and sound, this is an amazing instrument. It is LOUD and has a punchy tone with a big bottom end. Whether you are strumming open chords or pounding out power chord riffs, you can expect a big, strong sound. I find it handles pretty jazz chords and drop-D tunings with equal sonic beauty. The neck is a bit thicker and wider than many acoustics, but even my relatively small hands feel comfortable there.
The original tuning pegs were in terrible shape so I replaced them Rosewood. The original Kluson tuners were also in bad shape and have been replaced. I have Grover tuners on it, which are extremely dependable and accurate. A serious collector will probably want to install new Kluson tuners to regain the look of the original.
I am a 40 year-old guitarist who has been performing and recording for more than 20 years. This guitar has been with me for about seven. It’s been on stage with me a few times. Every musician that plays it for even a couple minutes wants a guitar just like it. I am only selling it to bridge a financial gap in my student income for the summer as I complete classes before beginning my Masters coursework. When my finances get ironed out, I intend to get another J-45! Despite its rough looks, I have been thrilled every time I play this instrument.
Similar guitars with all-original parts and unmarred finishes sell for $4000 to $8000 on eBay. See the sold listings to compare. While this rough-looking behemoth of a guitar can’t match those perfect axes in collector’s value, I believe a serious player will get a lot of enjoyment and inspiration from her. I certainly have. She has a lot of history and a lot of character – and a lot of sound!
By request, I made a five-minute recording of her running through some basic chords so buyers can verify her tone and dynamic range and so forth. You can find it on my file sharing site here for listening or download if you like. It’s an mp3 of about 9.5 MB: https://www.box.com/s/eigr2w36qhtdz2a1cadr
Guitars. I can’t even imagine what the last twenty-five years would have been without them. The Pathmaker and the Invert got their own tribute posts because, as stage guitars, they got photographed the most. This little gallery of cherished odds and ends wraps up our nostalgic guitar trifecta. Some of the most interesting ones never got photographed: the Stella from the 1930s, the Harmony from the 1940s, the two fretless basses. Then there are those guitars you only play once at a party or some dude’s house. Well, this gallery is far from that extensive! Frankly, it’s a small miracle any of these images survived.
In 2006-2007, I rented a house with an addition that made a fine jam room. I set up a drum kit in there and invited musicians over. I met most of them through Craigslist, and became great friends with a few of them. Some guy told me he had an endorsement deal with a company called Halo, so I looked them up and applied for their program.
So, yes, I had an endorsement deal for 2008. It makes you feel like a bad-ass. Of course, it was largely a sales arrangement. You would first buy a Halo guitar at a steep discount…
…And let me say this axe I got for a couple hundred bucks was the equal in looks and playability of much more expensive guitars I’ve played. Other than what seemed a somewhat weak output from the stock pickups, she was a real joy to play. I learned two-handed tapping on it and thought I was Joe Frickin’ Satriani.
With a little adjustment, it got a very sweet tone for my jazz gigs. But kick on the distortion and you could cut loose with it. I did a handful of small combo performances at galleries, coffeeshops, and art houses where this little guitar really shone. Since it was so ridiculously easy to play and learn on, I could finally achieve the extended, trippy guitar solos I had been trying to nail for about 20 years.
Anyway, if you didn’t buy another discounted guitar in the next annual cycle, you lost your “endorsement” deal. I didn’t mind. It makes you feel awesome to say, “I endorse these guitars” for a year. Just don’t post on the internet about how its kind of a sales thing, and no one will be the wiser!
Halo guitars had a bit of a branding problem, sharing a name with a popular video game. I would wear my free t-shirt ALL THE TIME. Even though it had a punk rock chick slinging an electric guitar, people would still say, “Durrrrrr, I thought it was the video game.” The endorsement program was a pretty sharp idea to get the name out there and get people aware of the brand.
I sold her for a slight profit when I needed funds to start college in fall of 2009. Although I missed the Halo Invert, I replaced it with an Ibanez Iceman ICT-700 once my finances got evened out. The Iceman is a dream guitar. It plays well, like the Invert, but seems to have a lot more juice in the pickups. If there was a moral to the story, its that sometimes when you have to let things go in your life, something even more awesome comes in to fill that void.
Ah, my little Wechter Pathmaker. Such a fine axe. I might have to sell it this summer, so let’s eulogize it in advance. Around 1996, I played one of these at a music store in Ann Arbor. Abe Wechter has a shop in Paw Paw, MI, so these guitars made their way into local shops. It instantly became my dream guitar, especially as I focused on acoustics at the time. I have always liked the double-cutaway of the Gibson SG, and the Pathmaker brings that awesomeness to acoustics. Having 19 frets clear of the body means you can play more of the rock stuff that uses that area of the neck.
Thing was, it had a price tag of about $1600. I think that was my annual income in 1995… so it wasn’t happening. I did take a postcard of the instrument and carried it with me for a decade. That’s right. I would put it on my desk at little temp jobs and dream of having the required cash flow someday. Silly, I know.
In 2005, I had a steady-paying office gig, my last full time employment outside the home since. By then, Wechter had subcontracted a lot of the initial assembly to Korea or somewhere, saving the final set-up for their shop to ensure quality. This brought the Pathmaker’s price down to something more reasonable in the $400 range. I ordered one on Amazon, sprung for the extra hardshell case, and had it delivered to Cisco Systems where I ran the front desk.
Over the next six years I played it at dozens of small acoustic and jazz gigs — cafes, restaurants, galleries, art & private parties, etc. It also works great in the studio, thanks to electronics that mix three different pickup systems to get just the right tone. I liked to play it with its natural tone, but it works as well as any electric with effects and distortion.
It has been a wonderful guitar to enjoy for so many years, and worth every minute I dreamed of her before.
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.