When it comes to string instruments, I’m an acoustic player through and through. I toyed with the occasional electric guitar in my youth, but I learned to play on acoustic instruments, and that is what I prefer. I can walk right past the electric guitars, mandolins and violins in a store or flip quickly past them in a catalog, but I can’t pass by an acoustic instrument without at least checking the brand.
To me, an electric instrument is just a chunk of wood adorned with strings and deriving its sound from the electric pickups, whereas an acoustic instrument creates melody through the interplay of strings and a precisely fashioned wooden box full of air. I know many electric players will disagree with me, but that’s how I view an electric instrument. So imagine my dismay when I was hired to play out of town for a gig that quickly went sour.
I took the train to the gig, and I stepped from the train onto the platform carrying my guitar and mandolin, my knapsack slung over my shoulder. My employer’s driver picked me up and drove me to a tavern, where I met the owner, Rick Alan. I showed him a few licks on my mandolin and guitar, but he reached behind the bar and handed me a flame-blue electric guitar. “Here, try this, he said.”
“An electric guitar?” I asked. “What for?”
“It’s those blasted Irish musicians in the pub next door,” he said. Every night they drink their Guinness, and they squeak and toot and squawk on those dad-blame fiddles and whistles and accordions. I’m puttin’ a stop to it right now. I want you to crank it up to 11 and bombard them with blistering blues runs and punchy power chords.”
At first I was calm and said, “I don’t have much use for an electric guitar.” But my emotions quickly got the best of me. Alan was talking about my people, the players of traditional Irish tunes, so I slugged him. I’m a peaceful person, and I prefer convincing with strings to persuading with force, but I just reacted, and I knocked him through his own window.
“Nobody throws me out of my own house,” he declared as he picked himself up off the pavement, brushing the dirt off his sleeves, but I had already skedaddled.
Thus began a month of living in the hills as Alan’s men hunted for me. I took up with a band of SCA reenactors and disguised myself in baggy medieval clothes, and I learned to play a small type of bagpipe that still looked like the goat from which it was made. I even had the daring once to attend the Irish session next door to Alan’s tavern, but I was too paranoid to enjoy the music, and one sideways glance from a patron sent me back to the hills.
It all came to a head when Alan’s men tracked me down at the Penssic War reenactment encampment where I was teaching a class on medieval cloaks. I was demonstrating Celtic-style cloak pins when a bouncer dressed as Friar Tuck conked me on the head with a shillelagh.
I awoke a couple hours later tied in an upright position to the fence behind Alan’s tavern. The blazing sun blinded me and soaked my peasant shirt with sweat as I stood, unable to move, wondering what would befall me.
Eventually Alan smirkingly strode outside carrying matching Stratocaster shocking pink electric guitars, and I noticed an amp next to me with a long extension cord running to the back of the tavern. Alan handed me a cable and said, “Plug in and crank it up.” I obeyed, and he plugged in his own guitar and maliciously turned the volume past the point where it was good for anyone. “Now get ready to play,” he sneered.
His oafish sidekick counted down from 10, and Alan launched into a sizzling Led Zeppelin solo, but I knocked him onto his wazoo with Ralph Macchio’s devil-defeating solo from the movie “Crossroads.” As Alan lay whimpering in the dust, I threw the Strat at him and walked away, never to return. Looking back, I told him, “I said I don’t have much use for an electric guitar. I never said I don’t know how to use one.”