On December 2, 2020

Hello, old friend

By Dom Cioffi

It was an inexpensive, under-sized, tobacco sunburst acoustic guitar whose brand name is now long lost to memory. In essence, it was an incredibly forgettable conglomeration of wood and wire… but it was the catalyst for a lifelong obsession.

The guitar was a hand-me-down from my mother who took a stab at playing midway through her life, but abandoned the activity when raising three boys became too time consuming. Subsequently, the instrument sat untouched in the corner of our basement for years.

On occasion, I would grab the dusty relic in order to act out a fleeting rock star fantasy, but ultimately – like so many others – I believed musical prowess was something you were born with. And since I could not magically make the guitar sound pleasing, I assumed that I genetically did not possess the needed ability.

Several years later, I made my own stab at playing after watching my older brother air-guitar Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones tunes in his bedroom. My brother had an uncanny ability to mimic a hard rock guitar god without actually knowing anything about the instrument or how it should be played. Needless to say, I was impressed enough to want to attempt the real thing.

At some point in junior high school, I purchased a beginner guitar book and attempted to learn the basics. But it was an epic struggle – not only because the guitar is a difficult instrument to lord over, but also because this particular guitar’s playable days were long past.

Again, the guitar was relinquished to the basement where it sat for another few years.

At college, one of my roommates turned out to be a fairly accomplished musician, which reinvigorated my interest in learning. And again, I pulled out that clumsy old instrument and tried to play – with no better results.

As fate would have it, my girlfriend at the time (who probably harbored fantasies that I would one day serenade her) bought me an electric guitar for Christmas. I was shocked by the gesture, but also a little intimidated. Now I had to learn, otherwise she had just wasted a ton of money.

Over time I taught myself all the basic chords and a few choice licks. And eventually, I got to playing songs – nothing mesmerizing, mind you, but good enough to impress those with really low standards.

That guitar followed me back to college and into my first apartment, and later into my first home. It was my constant companion, even if it sat unplayed in the corner for months at a time.

Over the years my playing improved enough for me to feel confident punching out a tune in front of others, whether that was a campfire, holiday gathering, or impromptu night in the basement. In fact, it was at an office Christmas party one year that my boss suggested that I invest in a new, high quality instrument.

I loved the idea, but my expendable income wasn’t robust enough to warrant the kind of purchase he was suggesting. But he insisted it was something I needed to do and then upped the ante by offering to pay for a large portion of the guitar as a bonus.

And so began my search for a new axe.

At the time, internet shopping was just taking off, so I spent countless hours reviewing the websites of music stores from around the country. I looked at electric guitars from Fender and Gibson; I looked at acoustic guitars from Taylor and Martin. Whether they were new or used did not matter as long as the instrument was beautiful.

In the end, I kept returning to a honey blond, Gibson Custom Shop ES-335 semi-hollow body electric guitar. Guitar aficionados will be able to picture it; others unschooled in the intricacies of this world will draw a blank. But you can trust me when I tell you, it is an absolute glorious guitar both visually and in the way it plays.

I stare at this guitar as much as I play it and I can tell you that I clean it like a car enthusiast waxes a ’57 Chevy. Not surprisingly, it has become my most prized possession.

I’ve gone on to buy several more guitars, one of which I purchased after seeing an Eric Clapton clip where he played a signature green Fender Stratocaster. The sound he produced from that instrument enveloped me – all I could think about afterwards was reproducing his tone.

Needless to say, I purchased that exact instrument only weeks later (although that tone I was hunting for never seemed to materialize when the guitar was played by my hands).

Clapton has remained one of my all-time favorite musicians, so when a new documentary was released in 2018, I jumped at the chance to see it. I watched it again over the weekend and while it never reaches the heights of his autobiography, the film does give viewers an intimate look at Clapton’s tortured life.

Check this one out if you’re curious what drives some people to excel even when they are faced with extraordinary hurdles.

A harmonious “B” for “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars” (available on Showtime or YouTube for a limited time).

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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