One of the strange benefits of being a tow truck driver is finding fun stuff. When vehicles are abandoned so are their contents. If the owner wants their personal property back they can have it but if they don't come and get what they left behind it becomes free game. Being a tow truck driver, Alex, our son, has found and brought home some pretty interesting items.
A couple of weeks before Christmas Alex called to tell me he'd found a guitar in an abandoned car. "It's got eight strings and it's got the words Zim Gar on it." I'm bringing it home, he said. It's pretty messed up but I think it's cool and I can't wait for you to see it."
At first glance I knew Alex was right. It was pretty messed up. It was an old twelve string steel that had certainly seen better days.
"Can you play it?" He asked.
There were eight of the twelve strings present but only seven tuners would turn. The screws in the headstock were stripped so the tuners themselves were actually bent and popping off. There was no way to tune it. Even the eight strings that were there could not be made to make music. I felt bad for Alex. He was disappointed when I told him I thought it would take somebody who knows what they're doing and a good deal of money to repair it.
Curious, we Googled the model and brand name and found out just about nothing. We did gather that it was made in Japan, probably some time in the sixties. It had been without a case, in an abandoned vehicle full of trash, for God knows how long. It was one sorry guitar. The old strap was tied on with one of the broken steel strings to the broken peg at the bottom end. I told Alex, "We should wash our hands." There was something sticky all over it and the strings smelled funny. God only knew where it had been or what it might have been through. It was sad and cold and had certainly been left for dead.
A couple of days later, unbeknownced to Alex, I took the guitar to a local music store to have it evaluated. The guy I spoke with was very helpful and rather interested in the instrument and it's unique qualities. He said it was an old sixties twelve string steel. "It's just a plywood top, he said, but that's the old kind of plywood, good, solid and strong." He also told me I would likely never find a set of replacement keys for it, "Because they don't make twelve string guitars with slotted heads anymore." My dad had a twelve string when I was little but never having owned one myself... I didn't know, "They don't make them like that anymore."
I told the guy I wanted to make it play in time for Christmas morning. I mostly wanted Alex to be able to hear what the twelve string steel guitar he'd rescued sounded like. The guy liked the idea but spoke honestly, "You can leave it here if you want but it will take a good deal of time and probably hundreds of dollars to fix it. Certainly more money than it is worth, he said, and with no guarantee that it will ever play."
I made the decision to buy a set of strings and see what I could do myself. I left the store a little sad but inspired to try. I wasn't about to give up on the bedraggled foundling. So, back in the car it went. Still without a case we headed for home. Out loud, I thought, "I'm not giving up on you yet." I knew nothing except that I would do my best.
I took the strings off first. That took a while and grossed me out a little. I wondered who might have touched those strings last and what were they smoking as they did. I worried a little when I was stuck a few times by the metal and started to bleed. Hand sanitizer, Neosporin and bandaids became an important part of my repair kit.
Having played accoustic, classical guitar since I was a little kid, I had plenty of experience changing strings. In my younger years, without supervision, changing strings led to taking the whole guitar apart every time; screws, keys, strings and all, just because I could. I don't know why I thought I should do that but it felt good. I enjoyed cleaning and polishing every inch of my guitar and putting it back together again. Perhaps my youthful experience was about to come in handy.
I removed the tuners and keys from the headstock, put toothpicks and wood glue in all the stripped screw holes and straightened the metal pieces. I used a solvent called Oops to remove paint splatters and Goo Gone took care of the rest of the unidentifiable sticky stuff. Even without strings this projects looks were improving.
The dining room table became my workshop. Each time Alex came in the house I shut the lights off and threw a blanket over the whole mess; the Dremel, the drill, the pliers, the Goo Gone, Oops, razor blades, tooth picks, glue and sand paper all made a difference.
The next day I reinstalled the tuners. I was surprised a generous helping of valve oil and some slight adjustments got the keys moving again. I thought getting the keys to move would certainly be a skill above my pay grade. One very major hurdle behind me, I was greatly encouraged.
Next step the next day; strings. I'd never strung a set of steel strings before... let alone twelve of them. For me, three nylon classical strings and three wound steel were no problem. Steel strings on the other hand, were a whole different animal, at least for me.
Note: steel strings are sharp. I stuck the heck out of my hands and fingers along the way but persevered. The process took so long my hands hurt from winding.
With one final string to go, the lowest one, I said a little prayer, blessed myself and began to wind. Inching ever closer to being in tune, the winding suddenly stopped. I tried one more time to turn the key and "Snap! Bang!" The stinking string BROKE!
I let out kind of a growl, an expletive and a sigh. Not knowing if I had done something wrong or if there was something wrong with the guitar, I hoped a new string would be the answer.
So close to done I made my way back to the music store to buy a single string. I was disappointed to be met by the store's owner. I call him, Mr. Scrooge. He's always crabby, impatient and condescending. For over twenty years I have tried to shop at his store because I like to support local business. As long as I don't encounter him all is well. Alas, there I was, stuck. As he was discouraging me, judging my project and my progress. I watched in silence determined to learn from his technique. With one last question from me and one last blank stare from him, I knew I would never be back. I was due a nickle in change. I told him to keep it. I retrieved my guitar from the counter and left the store. Although I was upset by the experience, at least the last string was installed. First thing I did when I returned to my "workshop" was post a scathing review of Mr. Scrooge and his ways.
I sat to make the last turn in tuning and believe it or not the same, dang thing happened again. Key stuck. "Snap! Bang!" The replacement string broke! I growled again. This time a little louder. I cursed Mr. Scrooge and headed to Guitar Center, a music super store at the mall not too far from my house. I purchased three single strings as potential replacement and an extra complete set just in case. In faith, hoping I would ultimately be successful, I bought a case for it. I spent considerably less money than I would have at Scrooge's place and left with wonderful encouragement and advice from the Guitar Center clerk. "Check for any rough spots." He said. It doesn't take much to break a string. He added, "That's a super special thing you're doing there, for your son and the guitar. Good luck and Merry Christmas."
I returned home and sat quietly for a moment. I felt for rough spots and couldn't find any. Slightly battered and a little exhausted, I said another prayer and tried again.
It worked! It not only played, it played beautifully.
Truthfully it sounds great. Actually... it sings!
On Christmas Eve night I opened the case. I admit I half expected to find strings snapped or the saddle separated from the body. No such thing. All was well. I fine tuned it a little and set it aside for the big surprise Christmas morning.
After all the other gifts were opened we told Alex he needed to close his eyes. My husband brought the guitar out, laid it on the floor and told him to have a look. When Alex opened his eyes he looked, at first, to be a little confused. When he opened the case his mouth dropped and he said... "What the heck?!" Is this that guitar? Did you have it repaired?"
"Nope, I said. I did it myself."
Alex suspected nothing, I'm sure, except for the fact that I had most likely tucked his "find" away in the basement in order to get it "out of the way" for Christmas.
Alex asked, "Will you play it for me, mom?"
I played it but couldn't sing through the lump in my throat. It was the strangest thing... not only was Alex floored but there was a feeling in the room that the guitar had found a family. A new home, new life and the opportunity to sing again. It was as though we had all found each other.
Here in lies proof that we get out of life what we put into it. Fixing up that guitar was not on my to do list for Christmas. I thought there was no way I would have the time or ability but I responded, "yes." When invited to enter the scene I entered with everything I had to give. The result has been one of heartfelt joy and great satisfaction. Another wonderful bonus... Alex wants to learn how to play and he asked me to give him lessons.