Journey with a Vintage Guitar:  New Life for an Old Friend

By Thomas LeFevre


It seems like IÕve loved guitars all my life. Though I didnÕt have one as a child, there was an old ukulele in the house that no one in my family could really play. But we did know how to tune it relatively to ŅMy Dog Has Fleas.Ó Everybody has to start somewhere.


Perhaps that primed my consciousness for a first close encounter with a real guitar. I was on a visit to Philmont Š the National Boy Scout ranch in New Mexico in 1961. By then, having an older sister, IÕd of course seen Elvis and the EverlyÕs on Ed Sullivan (also Bill HaleyÕs Comets now that I think about it.) But I didnÕt know anybody who could play like those guys. At the scout ranch, though, a counselor was sitting around a trading post, quietly strumming a few simple chords. And I was knocked out by the romantic sound and his seemingly magical ability to make it. I determined at that moment I would learn to play one of those things.


My parents were singers, and while my fatherÕs life work as C.G. ConnÕs and SelmerÕs chief electro-metallurgist was to craft some of the worldÕs best horns, we didnÕt have a piano in the house. So my legit music reading developed as a singer Š eventually a lyric baritone who would work with Stephen Sondheim and John Mauceri. But in the sixties, while always singing in choirs, I was a folkie. I used to sit on the front porch at night, lovingly picking and playing chords and learning the inversions and harmonics that would become lifelong friends. These quiet times alone with an instrument are the foundational experiences of any developing musician. Nathan Crow (later of Spirit, and a few years my younger) lived across the street, and I later learned used to listen in. He went on to achieve playing IÕd never have dreamed of. We never know whose imagination we might be feeding with what we think ordinary.


In several folk and later rock groups, we were big fans of The Kingston Trio, PP&M, The Limelighters, Dylan, and naturally, The Beatles. Trust me, the campy humor of ŅA Mighty WindÓ was not lost on us. Not knowing that one day IÕd meet Bob Shane (and treat him to some post-concert refreshment in my hometown), I zeroed in on his big Martin D-28 as the guitar I had to have. Why not aim high?


Having gone through several axes by the time I got my first real job in Stratford, Connecticut in 1969, I immediately took a loan and bought a 1968-made D-28 from LeDonneÕs Music Box in Bridgeport. It cost $350 Š hard case included. The salesman also happened to be the bass player in Steam (Paul Leka wrote and produced their hit ŅNa Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye.Ó) This guitar became my constant companion at countless gigs, as a minstrel at the Shakespeare Festival, to Folk City in Manhattan, even Richard NixonÕs second Inaugural in Washington (after Watergate, but before anybody heard about it.) I later did some writing and demo work with it in LekaÕs low-profile studio in downtown Bridgeport. The big gig, though, was playing and singing BernsteinÕs ŅA Simple SongÓ at my wedding Š with just the guitar as accompaniment. [A year later my wife and I were soloists in the Vienna premiere of ŅMass.Ó]


One gets close to a musical friend like this guitar Š even if it doesnÕt become a vintage collectorÕs piece worth more than all your used cars put together. Upwards of thirty years of caressing that neck makes for a comfort that no other instrument will quite replace. The fret intervals become unconsciously familiar. And thatÕs just the mechanics. The rich, chest-vibrating sound and feel of the famous dreadnought are a dimension unto itself.


With lots of use, it was once necessary to take it back to Nazareth, PA for a few new frets. That occasioned a memorable visit to the Martin factory Š still a great experience for a guitar lover. [Unfortunately, SyskoÕs family Polish restaurantÕs no longer across the street, but itÕs still worth the trip.] Even then, I knew the value of a lifetime warranty on a Martin guitar Š and the importance of keeping your receipt.


Over the years, through a couple career changes and family moves, and an auto rear-ending that totaled the car carrying my D-28 in its trunk (the case was cracked, but the guitar was unscathed and still in tune), it began to require serious work. Over time, the bridge began to pull up, requiring re-gluing. This, combined with some minor warping of the spruce top, rendered the action higher than could be compensated for by further lowering the saddle. Also the pickguard was curling up around its edges, and tailpiece trim needed work. All that plus some more fret work resulted in my leaving my friend in its case most of the time over several years. Having other less costly acoustic electrics (with modern preamps) to use in worship and other performance venues, I didnÕt realize how much I missed the feel and sound of this great guitar.


Now relocated to native Indiana, I connected with Martin folks at an LA NAMM show. I decided that enough neglect was enough, and it was time to get this axe back into prime condition. Martin now subs out its warranty work to regional luthiers, and Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan was highly recommended. Soon thereafter, I got in touch with their master luthier, Joe Konkoly. An enjoyable visit to Lansing (with the unavoidable lunch stop at Win SchulerÕs restaurant in Marshall) resulted in a formal estimate and appraisal. The D-28 required some major adjustments Š frets, bridge gluing, and mainly steaming off, adjusting and re-gluing the neck. I watched them steam off another MartinÕs neck Š amazing what they do Š and was glad I wouldnÕt witness the surgery on mine. Hospitals keep relatives out of the O.R. for the same reason.


Their workload was heavy, so I came back after about three months to pick up my baby. What a difference! Strung with Custom Light strings (.011-.052), and boasting new frets and a newly-speced action, it had truly never played better. And with the various trim freshly restored, it was like having a new guitar. Except it has the deep resonant quality that only 35 years and a premium rosewood body can give.


I keep my dear friend at hand now, although I donÕt drag it out in public too often. I really donÕt want it getting knocked off a guitar stand. So I keep it well-insured, and use it on special performance occasions Š such as studio recording, or a church retreat where pure acoustics are best in a small chapel. And I use a Seymour Duncan ŅWoodyÓ center hole pickup when amplification is needed. I donÕt plan on a preamp retrofit. All in all, IÕm really glad I finally bit the bullet and took it to ElderlyÕs. Total cost for the work was $660 Š of which I had to pay $50. The rest was compliments of C.F. Martin & Co.Õs lifetime warranty. Take good care of your friends, and always keep your receipts!


In addition to editing CS&S, Thomas LeFevre is a Christian singer and songwriter, and Music Director and Worship Leader at the United Methodist Church in Bristol, Indiana.


© 2004 Christian Sound & Song. All rights reserved. Churches are encouraged to reproduce for use in their ministries. For any other use, permission must be obtained from the publisher.