Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Gibson J-50, Photograph and Story

Click on the image above for a larger view

A life study of a poorly treated guitar

What this guitar was forced to endure, and how it failed to escape me, is quite a story.

That it was trying to escape seems a certainty.

This was the guitar that I got in high school, and brought to college with me. By then I was stringing it with electric guitar gauged strings, and using a sound hole pickup to play it amplified. Both during and after undergraduate school, I played with a band on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Story #1. We played a fairly rough bar on Route 301 near Kent Island. We did almost all original tunes, which is crazy when playing for a group that doesn’t know who you are anyway. These folks wanted something recognizable, played LOUD.

I was playing through an amp head (in fact, an old P.A. amplifier) that wasn’t properly grounded. At the end of a set, I started to put the guitar against the metal amp cabinet, and got a raw 110 volt shock, which immediately dislocated my shoulder. I had a bad shoulder until it was eventually surgically fixed.

The guitar skittered across the stage, still at full volume. My right arm always dislocated radically so I was screaming in pain. Suddenly the audience was standing, and applauding, the first and last time they did that evening.

I went out to the car to wait to be driven to the hospital, and the shoulder popped back into joint. I finished the night playing my Fender Mustang, which was thin enough to fit under the shoulder without causing much pain.

Old Guitar Stories 2

I had the J-50, in the original low quality case, on an added luggage rack on the top of my VW. At that point I was leaving the Eastern Shore for a stint doing mostly digging on a farm in West Virginia.

When I got to a stopping point, I noticed that the guitar case had pulled out from the ropes and was nowhere to be seen. Backtracking all way back to Chestertown did not reveal where it had blown off.

The VW was a very noisy vehicle. That’s the only thing I can say in my defense.

After ending up in West Virginia, I arranged to have a note in the classifieds of the weekly paper that came out on the Eastern Shore. About three months later a letter arrived from a farmer who had found it, still in its case, by the side of the road. I retrieved it on a trip back to the Shore. The case had taken the bulk of the road rash, and I just bought another case.

Story 3

After returning to live on the Eastern Shore after my stint in West Virginia, I had parked the VW in the parking lot of “Newts,” a local bar whilst I was in playing pool and drinking some beer. I had forgotten to lock the car, and the guitar was in it. I returned to the car and found it missing.

I was heart broken. I was down to the Fender Mustang for some time. About a year passed, and I had stopped thinking about the missing guitar. Upon coming back to the house I shared one day, the guitar was sitting in a chair in the living room of the house. I thought I had slipped a cog.

It turned out that one of my roommates was working as a teacher’s aide in the local high school, and had seen a group of students with the guitar in the parking lot. It was easy to identify as it was uniquely trashed by yours truly. He confronted the parties and offered not to turn them in if they turned it over.

So, that’s why I sometimes think the guitar was actively trying to escape my clutches. And it couldn’t escape.

Here's a very short sample of the sort of thing I play these days . . .(although I tripped over my fingers toward the end ;)


Anonymous said...

This is a little bio I wrote for my J50, Ol'Betsy, when I was trying to sell her last year... luckily the financial meltdown happened, nobody was in the market for her and she is safely at home again but it was a CLOSE CALL!

"Ol’ Betsy’s Story"

"I helped a friend of mine pick Betsy at a music store in Des Moines Iowa in 1966. I had a J45 at the time that I had been playing for a few years and knew Betsy was a good ‘un. My buddy took a few lessons and I showed him a couple of things but he never could get the hang of playing anything resembling music.

"Betsy did not come with the nice hardshell case she is in now but with a cheesy little cardboard thing with no padding… hence the broken neck. My buddy took her out in the cold and dropped her and that was it. My pal became disgusted with himself, he gave up on guitar playing completely and sold her to me for $20 bucks in 1969. I was living in Iowa City at the time and had a local luthier patch her up. He did a great job… she has held together just fine for over 38 years!

"Betsy is a Warrior, she has earned every ding in her, she definitely was not babied and was on the “front lines” with me every step of the way back in the day. She has been played on both coasts and from Canada to Key West. Her distinctive checking pattern was picked up by hitch hiking in the winter time.

"Other than my pal, nobody else has played her than me. I replaced the tuners because I wore out the old ones (I use weird tunings and I’m always re-tuning). A few years ago the adjustable bridge split so I had the replacement one you see put on…it sounds better anyway. In fact, I just had the bridge reglued and a neck adjustment and added the brass bridge pins (I think they make her zingier and look sharp, too). She has never played or sounded sweeter than right now!

"I have had lots of guitars but Betsy has been my “main squeeze” for almost 40 years. I don’t “play out” much anymore and Betsy is a little too big and brassy for easy chair playing. It’s time to let her go and have a new life… I hope she shows you a real good time!"

mr jimi
August 2008

"This Old Guitar"
by Neil Young

This old guitar ain't mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It's been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It's been up and down the country roads
It's brought a tear and a smile
It's seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar

This old guitar has caught some breaks
But it never searched for gold
It can't be blamed for my mistakes
It only does what it's told
It's been a messenger in times of trouble
In times of hope and fear
When I get drunk and seeing double
It jumps behind the wheel and steers

This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's mine to play for a while
This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's only mine for a while

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar

Ed Deasy said...


thanks for leaving the post. I got the J-50 either 67 or 68, a major christmas gift during my high school days.
I used mine for years with a DeArmond pickup in the sound hole. I still have the pickup, which is a big single coil with a great tone if played loud enough to distort a bit through the amp.
The crack in the front reduced the volume, but I was playing amplified usually. The scale length is 25", about a half inch shorter than some guitars. The neck isn't too thick, and really has a nice feel to it. I used to pull and push strings to pull the pitch up, so some of the frets are a little dipped. Still playable after all those years.
The idea of brass bridge pins . . . the mass and metal could make a real difference in the tone. Are
they for sale anywhere?

Thanks for the guitar buzz!


mr jimi said...

Sure, got 'em online from Musicians Friend. They are called "D'Andrea Tone Pins Brass Bridge Pin Set" for about $14. Great investment!

Anonymous said...

A wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.