The Guitar That Saved My Soul

By BOB WIRE

This blog was inspired by Clarence Worly’s tale of his beloved Frankenstrat, which I had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand in our first band, Rotten Tuna.

In late 1988, I found myself with no guitar.

I was a gunslinger with no gun. A Simon with no Garfunkle. A porn star with no Johnson. A Rush Limbaugh with no hate bone.

You get the picture. I needed money, I was unemployed, and as any musician or pawn shop denizen will tell you, guitars equal currency. They can readily be turned into cash for booze, rent, drugs, food, bail money, or any of the other necessities in a musician’s life. I’d been pushed into a corner, and had to sell my ax. I’ll explain why in a bit.

I’d spent the previous two years licking my wounds from a crashed starter marriage, a misguided union to my college sweetheart that came to an abrupt end when she had an accident at her office. The way I heard it, she tripped and fell on the sales manager’s penis. We split, and of course I told her to keep all our worldly possessions because I didn’t want anything that would remind me of her. Well, except her guitar.

See, we used to have some rather intense discussions, and during one of these spirited debates she smashed my acoustic guitar over my head. I am not making this up. I was a battered husband. Hell, I was battered and deep fried. So when we called it quits, she agreed it would only be fair to let me keep the shitty little nylon string Yamaha she’d inherited from her brother. It was a boxy piece of crap, but at least it was a guitar. During those terrible months of dejection, depression, and Carlo Rossi Paisano, that guitar frequently seemed like my only friend.

My life in Seattle collapsed like a Holiday Inn Express in a Haitian earthquake, so I pulled up stakes and hitchhiked to Denver.

It seemed at the time a logical move. After nine healing months in Denver I returned to Seattle to start over, moving into a big rented house with my good pal Tim. One afternoon, I hocked my ex-wife’s Yamaha to get tickets to a Beat Farmers show. Sure, it sounds like a bad country song, but I don’t think anyone who’s ever witnessed Country Dick and the boys hold forth would blame me, any more than Elwood would blame Jake for trading the Bluesmobile for a microphone.

But then I sobered up the next morning and realized I was guitarless.

Life took an immediate downturn. Instead of playing music every evening, I wailed in self-pity. Tim would come home from work and find me sprawled on the couch, stoned on his weed, watching endless reruns of M*A*S*H on our glorious 25” black and white set. With no outlet for musical self-expression, I became dead weight, a worthless piece of furniture Tim had to step around. A smelly hassock with a poor attitude.

One evening Tim came through the door and told me to put my coat on. “I found you a guitar,” he said.

“What? Where?”

Bob Wire's 1968 Lyle student guitar, aka, the Big Red Troublemaker.

Sure, it was a cheap Korean rattletrap, but it was MY cheap Koreanrattletrap.

“It’s in the window of a secondhand store down in Fremont. Let’s go.”

I pulled on a sweatshirt. “What kind of guitar is it?”

Tim shrugged. “I dunno. Red.” He smiled slyly. “But it is a hollowbody.”

My eyes lit up, and a huge grin broke across my face. Tim knew I had a tremendous hard-on for hollowbody electrics. From the big Gibson jazz box favored by Ted Nugent to the iconic orange Gretsch played by Eddie Cochran, hollowbody guitars had always represented to me the absolute essence of rock and roll.

We hopped into Tim’s Saab and rode down to Fremont. I saw my prize from a half a block away. It was a red thinline double cutaway, looked like a Gibson ES-335, the guitar played by Chuck Berry, B.B. King, and a hundred other guitar legends. I was in love before we even entered the store.

Fifteen minutes later I walked out the door $115 poorer, the proud owner of a slightly beat 1968 Lyle student guitar. The cheap ceramic pickups were cracked, the plastic nut was missing a chunk, and the plug jack was rattling around somewhere inside the body.

I took it back to our house and stripped off the rusty strings, replaced the nut, reattached the jack, and polished that thing until I could see my crazed reflection in the finish. Then I installed a new set of strings and played it for about four hours straight. This guitar was a much better fit than the woman I’d chosen to be my first wife. Plus, its jack hole had probably seen a lot less action.

The Big Red Troublemaker became my signature guitar, and it would lead me from the grunge-soaked environs of Seattle to the rockabilly and country horizons of Missoula, Montana, where I followed Tim in 1993. I took the Lyle down to the Union Club every Thursday night to play in the blues jam. I’d played Telecasters, Strats, Les Pauls, a Charvel, an SG, and numerous oddball off-brand guitars that looked like they’d been designed by Raymond Loewy, but nothing ever felt as right as the Big Red Troublemaker.

While visiting the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, I was inspired by one of Brian Setzer’s guitars on the wall, so I went home and emblazoned my Lyle with a bright yellow flame job. It might have been a cheap Korean knockoff, but the Lyle looked great—this baby oozed rock and roll attitude. As my Bob Wire persona began to grow larger than life with my band, the Fencemenders, the Lyle became an integral part of my image.

I played it to the hilt.

Bob Wire and his orange Gretsch

Man, if this thing is hollow, why is it so gol-durnheavy?

Here I was, some shit kicker in a cowboy hat and boots with a flashy Western shirt, playing a rockabilly machine that looks like it escaped from a hot rod show. Oh yeah, this was a marriage made in roots rock heaven.

Every great looking guitar needs to be set off by an equally striking strap, so I outfitted the Lyle with three feet of wide black leather that was studded with large silver conches. It was almost too much, which was just enough.

I was always the kind of player who was more into show than practice, so my actual guitar playing was, well, underwhelming. But I slung that bastard like a champion, wowing crowds with all the standard rock god poses, cringing and mugging intensely while I played my rudimentary leads and chunky Bo Diddly rhythms.

Eventually, through osmosis and Darwinian evolution, my skills actually reached a level where I recognized the need for a better instrument. I’d begun to notice the weak-ass tone produced by the cracked single-coil pickups. My ear improved enough to realize that the dime store tuners were not keeping the strings in tune. Reluctantly, I hung the Big Red Troublemaker on the wall and strapped on a Telecaster.

Some time in the mid-2000s, a young family friend was diagnosed with bone cancer. The boy, a bright, feisty 10-year-old, was one of my favorite people. I wanted badly to do something to help, but at the time I was strapped for cash. Guitars, I remembered, are practically legal tender. The Big Red Troublemaker went up on eBay.

It hurt to see my favorite guitar go, of course, but it hurt much worse when we lost our young friend a little while later. I only raised a couple hundred bucks, a drop in the ocean of medical bills his family was saddled with, and it kind of broke my heart that the guitar didn’t bring in anywhere near its value to me.

Guitars are living repositories of stories and secrets. I was but a single chapter in the long history of that red Lyle. We had a pretty interesting ride together, and I’ve continued to feed my hollowbody jones. These days my main ax is a big orange Gretsch, just like the one used by Eddie Cochran. It’s a blast to play, although it cost me substantially more than what I paid that Seattle junk shop owner back in 1988 for the crippled Lyle.

But, like the scar on my cheek left by a glass ashtray hurled by my first wife, I’ll always bear the mark left on me by the Big Red Troublemaker.

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Wanna laugh ’til your sides hurt? These ought to do the trick: Ice Fishing: The Aromatic Sport of KingsWho Will Save Rock ‘n Roll?, and The Facebook IPO: What’s Not to Dislike?.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blogarchive.

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Bob Wire left his heart in the Big Red Troublemaker.

Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers.