Good News and Bad News

Despite the fact that I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child, majored in visual arts in college, and have spent the past 21 years as a textile designer, the sad fact is that I have almost no ability to visualize something in my mind unless I see it with my eyes. So it is, then, that since my last post I have spent hour upon hour Photoshopping pictures of Floyd onto pictures of Miller guitar headstocks and fretboards, trying to come up with even a general idea of an inlay design I might like. But alas, it was not to be.

Fortunately, I have had much better luck with my other idea. Throughout these weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to find several Tibetans willing to share their time and teach me to write “karma” using Tibetan characters. I found there are many words and phrases in their language that mean or refer to karma, and the project pretty quickly became a matter of winnowing down to just the right word for the task at hand. After much research and numerous emails to monks and scholars all across the country, I’ve settled on the Tibetan word “las” (in some contexts pronounced “lay”), which is the direct Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word “karma.” It’s a short word with the correct meaning, has aesthetically pleasing calligraphic lines, and is compact enough to fit entirely on the 12th fret. It will be the only marker on the fingerboard.

I am greatly indebted to Ganden Thurman and Tashi Delek at Tibet House in New York City, who got me started with several words and phrases; Pema at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association, who, along with Michael Dunn of the Asian Classics Institute, verified and clarified whatever information I found; and most especially to Karma Tashi at the Association Cognizance Tibet in Raleigh, NC, who methodically and painstakingly explained the words, meanings, grammar, usages, and punctuation until I got exactly what I was looking for.

At a point in all this research, I also contacted Ken Miller and brought him up to speed on the ideas I was working with. During our email conversation, he confirmed that work on my guitar would begin at the end of this month or the beginning of February. Niiiice!

So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that on Monday, January 12, I learned that I am among a group of peers at work whose salaries have been reduced in response to the ever-slowing business climate. As a result I’ve had to cut back my guitar lessons from every two weeks to just once a month. I don’t want to bellyache about this because clearly many people have taken much more severe hits than I have over these last months, and I know I am extremely fortunate that my situation is no worse than it is. Contrasted against the lost homes and lost jobs that many have been faced with, my current plight registers as less than trivial, and I know it. I mention it here not to moan and groan, but because this is meant to be a chronicle of all my experiences, good and bad, along this musical path.

What’s Happening Now…

Well, I seem to have let this blog go…unblogged?…for quite awhile now. That’s not an indication that I’ve eased up on any of these pursuits. I just eased up on the writing.

The lessons continue to go well. I feel that John and I have gotten into a good groove now. My ability to articulate my notions of what I’m doing and what I want to do has improved, and therefore so has his direction of my path from here to there. I’ve also gotten something of a handle on how much material I can cover in a two-week period, so we’ve streamlined our lesson time to some degree.

Practice sessions generally continue to go well. I know time behind the box is the biggest key to success, and with the ongoing daily rountine I definitely continue to see improvements in my technique. On alternate Mondays, though, my brain does go into a bit of a meltdown. I suppose because I’ve been so long removed from a classroom or teacher/student setting, there is a bit of what I can only call “test anxiety” that sets in during my final practice session before a new lesson. Of course there is no testing involved, at least in any formal sense. But for some reason, on those particular Mondays my perspective shifts from what I’ve accomplished to how far there is to go. But then the next day the lesson goes well and I bring home another batch of stuff to work on and all is well again.

As for the new guitar, there is no real update except to say that all my initial excitement over this project returned in full force when I recently read that Anita Hammond, a fellow member of the Flatpick-L online community, picked up her new Miller guitar, “Snowflake,” over the Thanksgiving holidays. Her own excitement was infectious and the photos she posted just underscored what a great experience this build is going to be.

It also occurred to me that my guitar should be getting started sometime pretty soon. I believe I read somewhere that Ken said it take him approximately 4 months to build a guitar. He estimated to me during the initial planning that I’d receive mine sometime around April of ‘09. This being the case, my math says it could get underway any time now. Very exciting.

I continue to wonder what I might want for my guitar in terms on inlay. Ken Miller’s wife, Virginia, does wonderful inlay work, and it just somehow seems right that a custom guitar needs customized decoration. But I’m having a tough time coming up with something.

After some contemplation early on I had almost shelved this idea, but at Suzy’s prompting I am again considering sending some photos of Floyd, the bloodhound we lost to a brain tumor in ‘06, to see if Virginia might be able to work from them. Floyd and I had a strong and unique connection, and he had a wonderful countenance that may translate well for this kind of project. And I think “Floyd” would be a great name for a guitar just as it was for Floyd himself.

Taking a different tack altogether, I have long held an interest in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and most especially the concept of karma. I had the idea to perhaps find the Tibetan characters for “karma” and have them inlaid at the 12th fret. But in the admittedly limited time I have spent researching it thus far, I haven’t found a definitive source for this information. I don’t want to wind up in the situation you sometimes hear about, where someone has the Chinese character for “Courage” tattooed on their chest only to discover later that they were mislead and it actually says “panties” or something.

And I must also point out that despite how much I’m intrigued by beautiful inlay work, my general less-is-more aesthetic tells me the best inlay could be none at all. I find this to be a completely acceptable —perhaps even preferable— idea, and will be perfectly happy with it if the guitar gets finished before I can settle on an inlay design.

Practice Points

As of August 26, I’ve had five lessons with John. I don’t know how to accurately describe what a great experience it is. Every two weeks I leave his house with some other aspect of my playing or some new concept to consider. Sometimes he’ll say just one sentence that will completely change the way I think about what I’m doing, or what I’ve been doing inefficiently or incorrectly for the past … 30 years. Even in this short time, my practice regimen (which previously was more or less non-existent) has become organized, focused, and demonstrably productive. I’m seeing noticeable improvements in the efficiency of my playing, most especially in the more technical aspects. And my brain is absolutely swimming in theory, even though I am sure at least as much of it is going over my head as into it.

On the topic of practice, I must say carving time out of the day really hasn’t gotten any easier. When I started out, I expected that after a week or two that hour would start to seem like a normal part of the daily routine and I would just do it without even thinking about it. That hasn’t happened. Perhaps it will with more time, but as it stands right now it is still a conscious decision and effort to make sure I get that time in every day. 

The practice sessions themselves generally go pretty well. I’ve established a routine where I “warm up” with a few tunes I know. Starting slow and gradually increasing speed, I begin by going over a few chord changes, and then running through a few repetitions of one or two fiddle tunes. I’ll also spend a few minutes going over older material from my lessons. Anything that I already have in my head, as opposed to the new material I’m working with at a given time. Out of an hour’s practice time, I’ll spend between 5 and 10 minutes on the warm up. Following that, I usually focus on two main “topics” in each session. Twenty minutes on learning new triad conversions, say, and then twenty minutes on a new chord solo. Working this way seems to produce results, and it’s an organized way for me to cover everything. On some occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve gone another 20 minutes on a third piece, or returned to the first item for further work.

Lately, no matter what I’m working on, I have been trying to pay more attention to my playing posture and hand position. During a recent lesson John suggested I use my guitar strap even when seated, as I have developed a tendency to use my left (fingering) hand to support the neck. Optimally, of course, both hands need to be completely free to move around. I also tend to hold the neck like a baseball bat, rather than resting my thumb on the back as I should. Paying more attention to that, I can immediately feel how much more efficient the proper positioning is when I’m learning something new. On the other hand, everything I’ve known how to play all these years seems almost completely foreign when I play from a new physical position. Logically I know it’s the right move to make in the long run, but it is a little frustrating to suddenly struggle with tunes I’ve known for years.

Another overall concern I’m trying to focus on is what John calls making my playing “sing.” A few weeks back he had written out a little single-line solo for Oh, Lady Be Good. In practice, of course, I basically used the solo like a drill. Not surprisingly, when he and I played it together at the next lesson, John said that all the notes were in the right place, but it sounded like an exercise. He was absolutely right, of course, because that’s how I had been approaching it. Since then I’m consciously trying to always play past the notes and get to the music. 

Out of all this practice, I’m definitely seeing a difference in how I’m playing. I’m not completely sure a person who’s heard me play in the past would necessarily hear me now and consciously think, “hmm, that boy’s playing has really improved.” But I feel a considerable difference in how relaxed I am, both in my hands and in my head. I also notice that I’m able to learn new material more quickly, and correct mistakes with less effort.

Another thing I notice is that I am practicing every day, but I’m not playing much at all. I very much need to find a way to fit in some time to just simply play, without any nod toward accomplishing this task or that. This is going to be tough, because my days are pretty well maxed out as it is. As I’ve said several times, finding an hour to practice is no easy task in itself. Finding time to just doodle will really take some doing.

Ahh well…. However hard it is to fit everything in, the real truth of the matter is I’m lucky to have this opportunity and I’m loving every single minute of the ride. Looking at the whole situation, I think I’m immersed in all this just about as fully as I can be. Every few days I learn something new, or figure out how to do something better than before. And each accomplishment makes me see how far I still have to go. If I were still in junior high school with nothing but time on my hands, or if I were, say, independently wealthy (send your donations to my PayPal account), I could very easily be completely obsessed.

A Decision, Leading to More Decisions

After meeting with Bob Kidd and checking out his Ken Miller guitar, there was no doubt left in my mind that having a guitar custom made was the path I was going to take. The following day I sent an email to Ken to ask how to get the ball rolling. I explained in very general terms that what I’m looking for tonally and in terms of playability is largely what Bob has in his guitar. Also, I made sure to say that I don’t know much at all about the process, the materials, or the techniques of guitar buiding, and therefore I would probably have many more questions for him than answers.

Later that same night, Ken responded and put my mind at ease. He gave me a general understanding of how this will work logistically, described a document which was to follow on which I would determine 16 main design points for the guitar, and even included a rudimentary explanation of different tonewoods and thier properties.

The Design Elements document was waiting for me in my email the following morning. I answered everything as well as I could, and asked questions about a number of concerns. There was a fair amount of back-and-forth over the next few days. Not knowing any more than I do about guitar making, I needed help and clarification about several aspects, and Ken’s explanations were always extremely clear. After several days of planning in this manner, we finalized a plan. I mailed a deposit on the 26th, securing my place on Ken’s list.

Sometime in or near April of next year, my new guitar is going to arrive. It will be a standard 14-fret dreadnaught with an Adirondack spruce top. Back and sides will be made of quilted mahogany cut from “The Tree,” a famous Honduran mahogany with a storied past which I have described in “A Few Words About ‘The Tree’,” linked in the column to the right. Bindings will be of Brazilian rosewood, trimmed with purflings of natural curly maple and a blue-green accent around the top. The rosette will be abalone shell. The neck will be 1 11/16ths inches wide at the nut, with a 25.4 inch scale length and stainless steel frets. Tuning machines will be chrome Gotoh 510 Deltas, with a 21:1 gear ratio, highly recommended by those who’ve used them. One last interesting feature: an “armrest” beveled into upper edge of the guitar’s lower bout. 

At this point, I’m undecided what, if anything, I might want any inlaid on the headstock or on the fingerboard. Ken’s wife, Virginia, does gorgeous inlay work, but so far I haven’t been able to come up with anything specific that I want. I’m still thinking on it.

 

New Friends

Several weeks ago I contacted Ken Miller, a luthier in Tallahassee, FL. I’d grown increasingly interested in looking into having a guitar built, rather than buying one “off-the-rack,” and Ken seems to be getting quite a bit of good buzz on some of the online forums I’ve been following. I decided to contact Ken and try to find out if there were any of his guitars in my general area that I might be able check out.

Ken responded saying that someone within driving distance owned one of his guitars, and that he would give this person my contact information if he were willing to meet with me. Before long, I got an email from Bob Kidd, owner of Ken Miller guitar #118. Bob had been traveling, so it had taken him several days to contact me. Then it took several more for us to make a plan. But finally we agreed to meet at Mandolin Brothers on Saturday the 16th.

We met in front of the store, and walked to Bob’s car for a look at #118. We found a shady spot to sit down, and opened up the case. Right away I could see this was a completely new ballgame. Everything about it was beautiful: back and sides of quilted maple, unbelievable bear claw adirondack top, rosewood bindings, shell rosette. And not only was it gorgeous to look at. When Bob strummed a chord on that thing, it was astonishing to me. Even outdoors, the volume and tone were simply amazing. Every note crystal clear, balanced, ringing…. This guitar instantly eclipsed everything that had come before in my search.

We each took turns playing the guitar, and Bob pointed out all it’s details. He told me what a great experience he’d had working with Ken, and going through the building process in general. The more we played and talked, the more convinced I became that this is truly the way for me to go.

After a good half hour, maybe 45 minutes, we put #118 away and Bob led the way to Duffy’s. I’d never been there, but Bob assured me this was the place where many a musical decision has been made. “Guys come out of Mandolin Brothers thinking they can’t afford whatever guitar they just fell in love with, and after a round or two in Duffy’s they come out thinking ‘I’m gonna do it,’ ” Bob told me.

We lunched on a couple cheeseburgers and got to know each other a bit. Then we made our way back to the store and tried a few of their wares for the next couple hours. I played my first two or three McPhersons. Nice guitars every one, but so completely different from instrument to instrument. We each played several older Martins, swapped around a couple Santa Cruz models, and of course the Collings D3 I’d had my eye on. I still think that’s a great guitar, but by this point in the day I was completely over the line and into my first build, at least in my head.

Around 3:00 or so, we decided it was time to head our separate ways. Bob told me he and a friend get together pretty regularly to pick, and that next time it was his turn to host he’d let me know and invite me over. I’m very much looking forward to that.

Old Friends

Sometime in the mid-nineties I met a fellow by the name of John Reilly. We lived in Pennsylvania at the time, and my wife worked in a handcrafted jewelry store where John and his soon-to-be-wife Cindy came to have their wedding rings made. At some point Suzy discovered that John was a guitar player and a bluegrass fan. Over time we got to know John and Cindy better, and John and I became picking buddies.

For a while we just got together whenever we both had a free hour here or there, but eventually we formalized things a bit and worked up something of a repertoire. Before we knew it we had ourselves a handful of gigs. Photos and business cards, even. We billed ourselves as “The Ordinary Humans.” It didn’t last long, and I suspect we probably spent more on gasoline driving back and forth across town to practice at each other’s houses than we ever made at all our gigs combined. But it was great fun and we enjoyed every minute of it.

As often happens, though, other things cropped up to take our attention away from playing, we both moved, and over the years we mostly fell out of touch.

Then a few weeks ago John sent me an email. Interestingly enough, though we’d had almost no contact at all for several years, our paths had continued to parallel. Each of us let our playing time slip away to nearly nothing, and then both of us realized we needed to change that. I started up my lessons, as documented here, and John bought an older Guild F50 to get himself going.

Long story short, we made a plan to get together. He drove up to Maplewood, we visited awhile, and off we went to Lark Street Music to check out some guitars. Not a whole lot of new items had come in since I had last been there, but I was content to revisit some of the instruments I had played before, and it was a real blast to stumble our way through some of the old tunes we used to play together.

Another fellow there joined in with us on St. Anne’s Reel, and before we all left he invited us to the Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association of NJ’s jams every third Sunday down in Little Silver. I imagine John and I will make our way down there sometime.

Back to School

Went for my third guitar lesson this past Tuesday evening. My schedule got a little off-track when I went on vacation, so it had been a full four weeks since my last lesson. Despite the fact that I still feel a little overwhelmed, John tells me I’m doing well.

I’m still trying to make it a point to get in a minimum of one hour of practice time every day. I can’t say that always happens, but I haven’t missed by much. I feel sure this regularity is as important to my improvement as is the material I’m covering. There’s no telling how many years have passed since I last made it a point to play guitar every single day, not to mention structured practice

I’ve gotten to a point where I’m “off the paper” with the chord solo I was working on for All of Me. I’m certainly not what you’d call fluid with it, and there are at least three definite problem areas. But given that it’s a whole new ballgame for me in comparison to the styles I’ve played in the past, I suppose it’s coming along as well as can be expected. As I mentioned in an earlier post here, we also started work in William Leavitt’s method book. This has been the worst and the best for me up to this point. I’m finding it exceedingly difficult to read even the simplest of the beginning exercises. But then, of course, when I finally do have a breakthrough it’s just that much more rewarding. One night late last week while working from this book, I was concentrating so intently, almost hynotically, that I literally jumped, as if I had dozed and jerked awake. If I hadn’t caught myself when I did, I believe I may have been only a minute or two away from drooling into my guitar.

So anyway, back to Tuesday’s lesson. We went over everything I’ve covered so far, playing together on All of Me and on the duet pieces in the method book. As I say, I haven’t exactly mastered all of it, but I’m headed satisfactorily enough in the right direction for John to press onward. We went over the next few pages in the method book, which brings sharps, flats, and/or accidentals into the picture. We (or I) played through some of the new exercises, and others we only discussed.

Then I pulled out the songbook I had bought. He paged through it more or less randomly, checking out this tune and that. He stopped at Giant Steps, which I didn’t know by name, and said I should be able to play through the lead sheet based just on what we had covered up to this point in my lessons. He played the chords, and lo and behold, I did indeed play the melody. Well enough that I even recognized the tune.

Finally he zeroed in on Oh, Lady Be Good, which he says is a favorite jamming tune at Kauffman Kamp, the musical-instruction intensive hosted by Steve Kauffman every summer in Tennessee. As he had done with All of Me, John wrote out chord diagrams for this new song. This time, he pointedly specified chords consisting of three notes, and those three notes are always configured on the 3rd, 4th, and 6th strings. The idea being to pare the chords down to their most basic structures, while still providing a backbone on which to hang the tune.

And speaking of tunes, he took time to write out the beginnings of a single-line solo for the song. Besides serving as a basis for eventual jamming, this little ditty, repeated over and over, is a great little exercise for left- and right-hand technique, tone, dynamics, etc.

So far, practice with these three-note chords has been much easier than anything we’ve covered up to this point. I feel certain this is due in part to the fact that they are all very similar in configuration, and in part because I’m getting more accustomed to being in “practice mode.” The solo is coming along nicely, too, although I have not yet spent quite as much time with it as I have with the chord progression. I’ll be concentrating more on that today, as well as working on the exercises in the Method book.

Forward motion…

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.