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Guitar Greats

Of Fenders and Gibsons, GE Smith and Eric Clapton

     American music grew up on American guitars.
     Mississippi Delta blues rose from the spirituals of African Americans but found a voice on National Resonator guitars built in California. Jazz and swing evolved from Big Bands on Gibson Archtops made in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The lonesome hillbilly folk we know as bluegrass was played on Martin guitars from Nazareth, Pennsylvania. When blues and jazz had a baby, they called it rock and roll and played it on Leo Fender’s Telecaster.
     In modern times, guitars that were once simply tools are hard-to-find classics. I’ve made it my business to find the coolest pieces I can for customers both in the States and abroad. 
 
Buying in Crisfield
     Back in the early 1990s, I got a phone call about a couple of old guitars down in Crisfield. About the guitars, all I knew was that one was a Fender and the other a Gibson. But I did know that the old fellow who had owned them had bought both in the ’50s.
     With an address and the old man’s name, I gassed up my van, headed across the Bay Bridge and down Route 50 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
     Usually, my blood pressure drops as I cross over the Bay as the pastoral landscape and salty air are a potion to my soul. This day was different. I was on pins and needles with anticipation.
     No one was home, so I went into Crisfield to poke around. At a small shack with a hand-painted sign offering crabs and beer, I wolfed down an immense crab cake and washed it back with a sudsy Natty Boh. Then I asked around for the old fellow.
     It didn’t take long to learn he worked up the street as a mechanic. Luck was with me, for I found him, and we headed back to his house.
     When the old fellow pulled out a brown Fender case and a black Gibson case, it was hard to maintain my poker face. First, I opened the tight latches of the Gibson case to reveal a beautiful 1956 Gibson Les Paul Custom.
      1956 was a year of experimentation for Gibson. The pickups they used were a combination of the tried-and-true P-90 single coil and the Alnico magnet version of the same design. This guitar was in original condition, having never been altered in any way. And it had that smell that only an old Gibson has. It had a lovely patina, and, though it had the typical crazing lines in the finish, it was in splendid shape.
     The Fender had the so-called Thermometer case, named for the bulbous shape at the top and its curvaceous lines, covered in a brown fabric. A spider jumped out as I pulled the Broadcaster from its case. This guitar carried the signs of use.
      Fender, like many companies back then, named its instruments after popular themes. The Broadcaster was named for the radio and television icons of the day. That name got Fender in a pickle because the Fred Gretsch Company had trademarked Broadcaster for its line of drums. For a few months in 1951, the model was simply a Fender. Later that same year, it was re-named the Telecaster, a name in continuous use ever since.
     We agreed on a fair price.
 
Selling in New York
      Back at my shop, I restrung both guitars and called G.E. Smith, then music director and guitarist on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
      He agreed without hesitation to buy the Broadcaster and said that I could see the show if I brought it up on Saturday.
      On Saturday afternoon, I boarded the train for New York City’s Penn Station.
      Arriving at Radio City Music Hall carrying a guitar case and wearing my Wayfarer sunglasses, I was mistaken for the evening’s musical guest, Eric Clapton (I was much slimmer in 1992). Clapton is one of my musical heroes.
      Hearing Eric Clapton and the SNL band play was magical. He played through G.E.’s old Fender Tweed Twin amplifier, and the tone was inspirational.
      At the cast party in the wee hours of the next morning, I timidly went up to Clapton as he sat in a booth with friends and that evening’s show host, Debra Winger. I mumbled something about him being an inspiration and yada yada, and he asked what was in the book I was holding. It was a photo album of all the guitars I had for sale.
      Eric Clapton slid over and told me to sit down so he could see for himself. Like the couple of guitar nerds that we are, we spoke for some time about guitars — plus fishing and shooting pool.
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Rick Hogue, the owner of Garrett Park Guitars in Annapolis, loves music, guitars, travel and good food too. He considers himself luck in finding a job wherein he can combine these passions. Check out his songs at reverbnation.com/rickhogue