Very casually over the phone, my friend told me how he laid his Martin Guitar on the floor in his living room and in a fit of frustration and rage and with the boots on his feet, smashed his acoustic guitar into bits and pieces. After he told me this tale, I asked him to repeat it. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.
This was in the late 1990’s. This friend had also been a teacher of mine at a junior college in downtown Cincinnati some years earlier. He was a teacher, but he wanted to be a musician. He took music lessons for years, practiced hard and gave it everything he had — he honestly did. It simply wasn’t enough.
He liked hanging out with me and playing music — him on the guitar and me on the mandolin—because I had a good ear and playing came naturally to me. I didn’t need to read musical notes or see sheet music. I can’t explain this; it’s just how it was and also how it was for my brothers.
We took music lessons when we were little — me on the mandolin and my twin brother on the guitar. Our younger brother took banjo lessons. Our music teacher, Mrs. Eggleston, taught us for a couple years — would show up at our parent’s house once a week. When my brothers and I started playing songs by ear — started learning to play the songs simply by listening to them — Mrs. Eggleston stopped showing up. I figured she knew she had taught us everything she could by note which was no longer necessary. The notes were getting in the way of making the music.
Playing by ear was a natural thing for my brothers and I but that’s not the case with some people. Some people need to see the notes to play a song or need that sheet music. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I think my old friend, the school teacher, thought there was. When we would sometimes get together to play, it would frustrate him how I could pick up songs easily while he needed a little more time to learn the notes. I don’t think I was impatient with him, but he was impatient with himself. I think as a result of this, we would often go for months without having a jam session. That frustration he felt with not being able to play by ear lead to the destruction of his Martin Guitar and turned him into a music killer.
Marin Guitars are probably the best guitars ever made. They don’t come cheap. My friend killed a guitar that was worth over a thousand dollars at the time, but money really doesn’t matter when it comes to killing a music maker — an instrument. I consider anything like this to be, in a lot of ways, a form of murder.
When Don Felder of the Eagles smashed up his guitar after a Senator Alan Cranston fundraising event in California in 1979, I never forgave him. He was having a dispute with band member Glen Frey. He should have taken that up with Frey himself and not have taken it out on his innocent guitar.
Garth Brooks, in the early 1990’s, started smashing up guitars in his concerts night after night. That’s when I started losing respect for him. He was killing the instruments that were helping him make music. I remember this actually making me physically ill. I wonder how many of those musical instruments Brooks has ended up destroying. I wonder how many kids have had to save up money to purchase guitars that someone like Brooks just easily kills. How much better it would have been to donate those guitars to a charity instead of destroying them. What a musical waste.
Willie Nelson would never take this approach with his beloved guitar, Trigger, and can you imagine B.B. King laying Lucille on the floor and smashing her to bits and pieces? Of course not. I’ve had a number of mandolins over the years and I’m proud to say I’ve never smashed up a one of them. When they left me, they went on to be played in other musical homes. I’ve had Gibson and I’ve had Fender mandolins but I like none better than this Rogue Mandolin I’m currently playing.
When I told one of my musician friends I was going to get myself a Rogue, he said, “Save your money. Those things never stay in tune.” Well, I’ve been playing this Rogue every day for over ten months now (still by ear) and while it needs a tuning every once in a while, it’s not to the point where it’s a pain in the rear. This is something I think. I think inexpensive string instruments sound better if you put good strings on them. Sometimes you need to help your musical partner — your musical friend — out a little bit. I have Martin strings on my Rogue mandolin and they give it a nice tone.
After all these months of playing, this Rogue mandolin has become my friend. I would never, in a fit of frustration or, just because I can, destroy it. It’s a music maker and you don’t kill something that special — at least, not on purpose. I haven’t heard from my old school teacher for a couple years. The last time we talked, he wanted to get together for a long overdue jam session — told me he got himself another Martin Guitar. He started telling me about the model he had gotten and how it played, but I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about his old Martin Guitar and about how sorry I felt for it and also the new one he would probably end up destroying sooner or later.
And as I pretended to listen to his flapping gums talk about playing music, I knew I never wanted to see this music killer again.