URBAN GUITAR LEGENDS

Urban legends are widely circulated friend-of-a-friend tales, a part of our oral folklore. People swear that these stories - about alligators in New York City sewers, vanishing hitch-hikers and women who try to dry their pets in microwaves - are actually true. They always seem to have occurred with someone who knows someone, but when pressed, the source remains elusive. After twenty years of hanging around old guitars, I have heard some stories that can only be classified as urban legends. I will share a few of them here.


The brand new Stratocaster that didn't work

It was an average day at Joe's Guitar Shop. A couple of high school kids playing "Stairway to Heaven" to impress each other, an anxious mother trying to choose an inexpensive beginner model for her daughter, a local band stopping by to stock up on strings and cables. Just then a man walks in and demands to see the most expensive Fender guitar in the store. He is shown a nice, brand new Stratocaster. He doesn't even plug the guitar in, just looks it over critically, then pulls out his wallet and says "Okay, wrap it up". Because the store is having a special on cables, they throw in a free cable as a bonus.

The next day, the man comes in angry, dumps the guitar on the counter and announces that it does not work. The guitar looks fine, but when plugged in, it indeed does not work. The salesman politely asks the man to wait and calls the shop technician to take a look at the guitar. The technician takes it apart… and discovers that all the electronics in this otherwise mint, brand new instrument have been fried to a crisp.

"What have you done with this guitar?", the bewildered technician asks the customer.

"Why, nothing. The cable you gave me had the wrong plug on it. But no big deal, I just cut one end off and attached a regular two-prong electric plug. But when I plugged the guitar into the socket, it just wouldn't work. Now will you please replace this defective guitar?"

This is probably the most widely circulated of the urban guitar legends. I have heard this yarn many times over the years. You may have heard it too. Several dealers have even claimed that the above incident had actually happened in their store. Did it, really?


The D'Angelico under the ice

A bitterly cold winter evening in New York City, perhaps thirty or forty years ago. Manhattan is covered with snow. A jazz musician stands outside a Harlem night club, watching firefighters battle the blaze across the street. A local pawnshop is on fire, and, despite the snow, the fire rages out of control. By the time they manage to put it out, the entire storefront is one giant, gutted black hole that contains nothing but charred rubble.

The fire brigade leaves. There isn't much left to salvage, and the shop owner gives up, piles a few things into his car and drives off. The bystanders crowd in to gawk and scavange. The jazz musician also comes over to take a look. The water from the fire hoses has frozen and covers the floor in a solid block of ice, over a foot deep in some places. And in the back corner, under the deepest layer of ice, he notices… a guitar. A beautiful, blonde D'Angelico archtop that appears completely undamaged! He tries to break the guitar out of the ice that encases it, but the mass is frozen solid. He looks around, but among all the debris, he cannot find anything he can use to shatter the thick ice without damaging the guitar underneath. He claws at the ice, determined to get the guitar out, but does not succeed.

Darkness falls. Soon it is impossible to see. The freezing wind howls and the temperature drops, getting colder and colder. Some unsavory characters show up, and the man finally realizes that staying any longer could be dangerous. Reluctantly, he gives up and goes home. Up at dawn, armed with some tools and accompanied by a friend, he goes back. But, of course, by then the guitar is gone.

"Why, that jazz guy was a good friend of my pal Joe. He's gone now, bless his soul. But he's been telling me about that guitar for years and how the guy wished he could have gotten it out. You know how much one of 'em D'Angelico guitars goes for these days?" Yeah, I know. Except that the last time I heard this story, it had happened to a blues musician on the South Side of Chicago, and the unattainable guitar was a Gretsch…


The Wandering Gibson

There once was a brilliant young guitarist in Moscow who dreamed of some day owning a Gibson Les Paul. This was during the early 1980's, the era of total deficit behind the Iron Curtain, when owning a real American Gibson guitar was an impossible dream. But this musician wanted one really badly. He worked hard, he searched everywhere, and after some years, he got lucky. Somehow, a Les Paul found its way to Moscow, one of only a few in the entire country at the time, and, going into heavy debt, he managed to scrape up enough money to buy it. His happiness knew no bounds. He played it every chance he had, he woke up at night to caress it. But only a few days later, the guitar was stolen. His heart was broken. He got drunk and passed out in the snow. When they found him in the morning, he was delirious and suffering from frostbite. He lost three fingers on his left hand and could no longer play guitar.

Some older members of Moscow's professional guitar community remember a certain Gibson Les Paul. The guitar carries a curse: no matter who buys it, they cannot hold on to it. In those days, professional musicians and luthiers kept track of such instruments as they changed hands, much like an art historian can trace the ownership history and provenance of a Rembrandt. This particular guitar surfaced in Siberia, then was traced to St. Petersburg. It made its way back to Moscow at least twice. It was reportedly seen in several other cities. It was pawned, sold, given away, lost and stolen many times, under different, sometimes mysterious circumstances. It is almost supernatural, how each time something would happen. Having lost its rightful owner, the guitar refused to find a new home and settle down.

I have heard this tale from a couple of different sources, but the guitar was invariably described as an early 70's model with a natural finish, so perhaps the story has some basis in fact. The last time I heard it, the wandering Gibson had supposedly found its way back after making the rounds for over 25 years. The former musician saw it in the hands of another guitarist and persuaded him to sell it to him, even though he could no longer play it. But after a short time, something happened that forced the man to sell it. Nobody knows what, exactly. Perhaps this guitar's restless spirit was simply born to wander.


© 2003 JunkGuitars.com. All rights reserved.This article originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.

 

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