Friday, February 06, 2015

Sons, and Fathers, and Bleeding Fingers

As I was finishing college, my father, whom I hadn't seen or heard from for 15 years (most of which time he was in prison) contacted me.

He had been out of prison a couple years, and was now off of parole and a free man... And he wanted to know... Would I please come and visit him, because he loved me, and missed me, and wanted to be a part of my life again.

So that Christmas, I packed up and flew back to Boston... And  suddenly, I had a father again.

That was... Well... I can't exactly put it into words... I can just tell you that family is extremely important to me.

After reconnecting, one of the first things my father and I bonded over.. and very deeply so... was our love of music. In particular our mutual love of the blues, soul, classic and hard rock, and great guitar work. After all, we both played guitar and sang (he even played and sang at my parents wedding).

At that point though, I didn't have any guitars (my guitars had all burned in my mothers house, when my brother burned the top two floors down, on my 19th birthday).

He did though...

One particular guitar, and amp, that he had wanted since they'd been introduced.

It was a 1994 Fender Stratocaster Ultra (40th anniversary). It had a maple neck, ebony fingerboard, lace sensors, and a custom fit gold tweed hard case, which matched the tweed of the Blues Deluxe amp wanted to go with it.

So he searched, and called in favors, and pestered friends and shopkeepers, and drove a couple hundred miles... and finally he found them, and bought them as a present to himself.

The one he found was in a special color, a deep metallic pearl blue (they had to stop using it because of changes in environmental regulation. They only ever made 400 guitars in that color), that looked great with the Ultra neck, pickguard, and hardware.

Unfortunately this isn't the guitar, I don't have any pics, but it's similar:

He loved that guitar, and he played the hell out of it...His fingers bled on that guitar... It was the guitar he wanted to keep for the rest of his life; his single most prized possession.

Until his guitar playing son came back to him... and didn't have a guitar to play.

So... to celebrate our first Christmas together since I was a little kid, he gave me a special Christmas gift:  His guitar.

His fingers had bled on that guitar... the guitar he wanted more than any other... and he wanted me to have it.

It was the best Christmas present I'd ever had... Both the guitar, and the meaning of it.. Having a father again... getting my family back...

Again... I can't put into words...

I truly loved that guitar. It was one of the few possessions I actually gave a damn about. My fingers bled on that guitar.

Unfortunately, I left it in storage in the U.S. (along with most of what I owned) when I moved to Ireland (originally I was going to send for them later, but my first marriage split, and I decided to leave the stuff in storage a while... which ended up being 3 years). I say unfortunately, because while I was in Ireland, even though I prepaid a year at a time; the storage company was purchased, and the new owners mistakenly auctioned all of my possessions, without notifying me.

It was the second time I'd lost all my guitars. I was so devastated, that it was actually years before I picked up a guitar again. Not until my wife bought me one in fact, for our first Christmas together as a family.

Fast forward...

15 years later... 15 years with my father, after 15 years without him; I was looking to get my father a rather special Christmas present, to celebrate that.

I knew what it had to be of course: A guitar... But not just any guitar, it had to be exactly the right guitar.

I wasn't just trying to be cute and clever... It was important.

So, I spent that entire year searching for exactly the right guitar. Late in the year, I found it.

Oh boy did I find it... 

What I found, was an extremely rare, very limited production, 100% perfect mint unplayed condition, vintage, masterbuilt select (meaning hand built, from hand selected special woods), Strat Ultra... but something even more rare... it was a full custom shop Ultra, built outside the normal production run... and it was another 1994, 40th anniversary guitar.

Now... from here until the last bit, I'm gonna get all guitar crazy for a bit, and obsess over the tiny details of wood and metal and electricity and the like, that go into making a guitar. If that's not your thing, feel free to skip ahead to "it was a beautiful thing".

The Ultra was a limited production model to begin with, as the absolute top of Fenders Stratocaster line from 1988 to 1997. On top of that, this was a custom shop masterbuilt select guitar; hand built by one of their master luthiers (who signs the heel of neck, the underside of the pickguard, and in the trem cavity; so you know it's all the original parts as they built them).

Basically, with a masterbuilt select guitar, the luthiers see an interesting piece of wood, or they have a special idea for what might make an interesting guitar. Then they hand pick the special wood and parts (or they modify or custom fabricate parts if they need to), and hand build and finish, one or more guitars from it (usually from one to four, sometimes as much as ten, but that's very rare).

The guitar has a AAA+ flamed and quilted maple body (not just a top and back plate, the whole body), in a special hand tinted and finished custom sunburst on both top and back. It's kinda like the antique sunburst, but with a bit of dark reddish brown blending into the brown and amber, and the amber has a more neutral darker maple tone, rather than a more yellow tone. Also, it goes dark but not black or opaque on the sides. All of which is specifically to show off the figured body better (you can see the figure on the sides straight through the wood to the back).

The chatoyance of this wood, in this finish, with this figure, is just gorgeous. The guitar looks like it's on fire, and the flames are coming out at you out of the depths of the wood.

The neck is a special extra thin, compound contoured profile, in AAA+ flame figured maple, with AAA+ figured headstock plate matching the body, an inlaid abalone Fender logo, a compound radius ebony fretboard with superjumbo frets, abalone inlays and sidemarkers, roller bearing string nut, and locking tuners. The neck also has a special truss rod system (to prevent both twist and bow, and to bias the relief from bass to treble without warping the neck), and the Fender neck angle adjustment system.

The guitar has a special shielded pickguard with four special lace sensors (two of them wired together as a humbucker in the bridge position, and two different tonal spec in the neck and center), special shielded wiring and control options including the Fender super switch with S1 system (meaning you can select any combination of pickups, including any single, two, three, or all four at once,; or wiring the neck and middle together as humbuckers to get double humbucker output), built in 3 band EQ (cut and boost for bass, mid, and treble are hidden in the original tone controls), phasing, coil tapping, and midboost, It also has a special stabilized two point tremolo, with graphite impregnated saddles. It even has special strap pins (for a straplock system). Finally, there's additional matching abalone inlay in the pickguard and control knobs (nothing gaudy, just picking out the text and a couple little accents).

Oh and it has it's own custom fit special hard case, lined in blue velvet, covered in black tolex; with real leather ends, straps, and handles; and chrome hardware and fittings.

Basically, this was the finest Stratocaster Fender could make in their custom shop that year, with every possible option.

As near as I can tell, it is the only guitar Fender ever built in that exact configuration, one of only 4 in that select series, and one of only 10 guitars hand built by that master luthier that year.

A standard Strat Ultra, runs $1100 to $3500, depending on the year, finish, the options, whether the case was with it etc...

This guitar, originally would have cost about $9,500 (about $15,000 today).

Today, it's probably, conservatively, worth about $8500; priced for a quick sale to a knowledgable buyer.

The guitar would be worth a LOT more, except that the lace sensor pickups have an undeserved, and undesirable, reputation.

An aside... a rant about pickups... 

For some strange reason, many people don't like how clean and "quiet" lace sensors are... 
...or at least they THINK they don't, based on what they've read. Most folks have no idea what lace sensors sound like. Even when they try a guitar with them, they don't know how to get the sound they want out of them. The "collective wisdom" says they're "cold", so people think they're cold. 
Lace sensors are very high output, and get very loud, with ultraclear and even response across the entire dynamic range and sweep of bass, mid, and treble frequencies, and almost no noise, distortion, or hum (unlike conventional pickups, which do have noise, distortion, hum -- even humbuckers -- and very uneven frequency response). 
Critically, lace sensors don't get dirty, hum, or distort (or spike impedance, or have weird inductance or microphonic issues, or many of the other normal problems of conventional pickups), through a clean amp, even at very high volume. 
You also get better sustain, better overall tonal clarity and definition (clearer chording and soloing, less "mud"), higher overall dynamic range, and higher clean output  (for a given volume and tone setting, and given force on the strings) out of a lace sensor, than a conventional pickup. 
This is a GOOD thing, because now YOU have total control over your tone. You decide how you want to sound, the limitations of your pickups or amplifier don't decide for you. 
But... Some people think they sound "cold" or "flat", and want a "dirtier" or "crunchier" tone by default.

Lace sensors don't actually sound cold, or dead, or flat, at all by the way. How they sound, is neutral, by default. In fact, they can sound however you want them to, depending on which one you choose (there are several different versions with different base tonal qualities), which ones you switch in, how you set your tone EQ, and how you set your amp (and your effects if any). 
You can get warmth, you can get heat, you can get jangle, you can get burble, you can get scream, you can get growl... But you'll never get dirty, or noisy,or distorted in way you don't want to, at times you don't want.
Of course, being able to get any tone you want from them, means that you actually have to know how to get the tone you want from them. To be aware of how your tone is created and shaped and changed, as part of your playing. Most don't want to bother. 

If the guitar had been originally built with the custom shop hand wound pickups instead of the custom shop special lace sensors, it would be worth north of $12,500... between $15,000 and $20,000 to the right buyer, looking for the work of that particular master luthier (who has now retired).

I paid $1150, plus shipping.

On ebay...

The guy had NO CLUE what he had. He knew it was an Ultra, but he had no idea about the rest. He was the guitar guy for a pawnbroker who had bought out the inventory of a high end music store when the owner died.

I recognized what it was from the pictures and the posted details, and bid, fervently hoping that no-one else would know what they were bidding on. They didn't. There were other bidders, but no-one else bid over the reserve. I sweated it out until the auction was up, and no-one outbid me.

Now... normally, I would tell the seller if they had a much more valuable item than they knew they had, just as a matter of ethics... But this wasn't another player, this was a professional guitar seller, clearing out an estate sale. My conscience was clear.

After I got the guitar, it was clear it had never been played, or at least not enough to leave the slightest mark. It was perfect, and I was pretty sure it was as special as I was hoping.

I checked the signatures under the tremolo plate and pickguard (don't take a neck off unless you have to; too much potential for damage), and confirmed the provenance with Fender (as well as I could anyway. Fender doesn't provide a complete detailed history or build sheet for non-original purchasers. I was able to get more by internet research and the websites of some Fender fanatics).

It was what I thought it was from the description... and more. The level of detail and workmanship on this guitar is just staggering, and only half was in the auction description).

Unfortunately this isn't the guitar, I don't have any pics, but it's similar:

It was a beautiful thing...

More importantly, it PLAYED. I played it through my Fender 2x12, and it was a beautiful thing. Weight, balance, action, tone, feel... It's an amazing instrument.

I played it, and I loved it, and my fingers bled on that guitar.

Most importantly, I was able to give my dad the best Christmas present I could ever have given him.

I managed to make my father cry with happiness.

I am in no way joking, when I say I consider that a major achievement in my life, and one of the best things I have ever done.

It's not just the guitar... It's what it meant.

My dad played that guitar... that special guitar that we both spent so much time wanting, and searching for... He played it, and he loved it, and his fingers bled on it.

So here we are today... 

A little while ago, I was sitting on my bed, playing my six string bass guitar, when my almost two year old son came into the room because he heard me playing.
I should mention at this point, that my father is Chris the Third, I'm Chris the fourth, and the boy is Chris the fifth. 
The boy smiled and ran straight over and climbed up to me, then climbed up and over my arm and wormed his way in between me and the instrument... Then reached down and started trying to play it with daddy.

And I thought about all of this... this... and I cried with happiness.

My father and I agree: The guitar stays in the family. My father played it... His blood is in it. I played it... My blood is in it. I hope to God that some day my son will play it, and his blood will be in it, and his son...

S'cuse me... It's a bit dusty in here at the moment. I think I have something in my eye.. s'a little blurry.

I think I'll go play some guitar with my son.