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Sunday, January 9, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guitar Obsession -- I Wanna Hold Your Neck

IT'S FEB. 9, 1964, A SUNDAY NIGHT, Ed Sullivan, the Beatles. I am 11 years old. My big sister, face vised between her hands, screams at the blue screen. I stare, spellbound, at John Lennon, his legs solidly spread, knees bent, guitar shielding his stomach like a big, flat, electrified teardrop. I look at the hysterical girl beside me with her hair rolled in juice cans. I look at those three electric guitars, and I perceive a cause and impressive effect.

The next day I go out and cadge my cousin Chucky's cast-off, flattop Stella and purchase a thin stapled volume titled "Mel Bay's Introduction to Guitar" that contains everything I need to know to play "Little Brown Jug" and "Shoo Fly."

Despite this rough beginning I am not alone.

As it turns out, about a gillion (you could look it up) other kids similarly pursue guitars as if they were Holy Grails. We renegotiate allowances, take on paper routes, mow lawns, sit babies, accrue the most astounding disposable incomes in the history of childhood, and dispose of them in pawn shops and music stores from the Redwood forests to the New York islands. In this watershed week a moribund industry based on 19th-century production techniques, dependent primarily upon surf bums, singing cowboys and beatniks for its trade, copped a second wind and is still inhaling.

In 1992, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) reported $630 million in new-guitar and amplifier sales, with figures for a five-year period up more than 20 percent. Last year, the nation's music stores moved $80-million worth of guitar strings alone. The numbers on used and vintage guitars are anyone's guess, but plenty of dealers say that's where the real action is.

If the folks at NAMM faced Liverpool when they prayed in 1964, right now they're facing Seattle. Trends are being set here; it's hardly news. Scrub away the surface grunge, though, and the Puget Sound area reveals an intractable subculture of people who picked up the guitar, usually in childhood, and have, for better or worse, never been able to get it out of their systems. A few actually make a living at it; most play for free. Some barely play at all but just can't keep their hands off.

Guitar obsession by no means started in the Northwest or with us baby boomers. Guitar-shaped instruments called nefer date to as early as 1200 B.C. in ancient Egypt. Socrates played the guitar, as did Pythagoras. Louis XIV of France was so praised for his guitar playing that the Sun King may well have been the B.B. King of his time. Robert Johnson made it moan. Maybelle Carter made it ring. Chuck Berry made it shout. Elvis made it a fashion accessory. But the British Invasion, with a little help from Dylan, made it mandatory for any brooding social misfit who wanted to be taken at all seriously. By the late 1960s, the guitar had become not just the unifying voice of youth culture, but a powerful, quintessentially American fetish, a dream machine.

Danny Mangold's memories glitter with the romance of cars, stars and guitars. His childhood heroes were players like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, who personally advised him at the age of 14 to dump his Sears Silvertone and find a nice Gibson Les Paul. In another era, little Danny's idols would have been Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Gary Cooper, but in 1966 it could only have been a British guitar gunslinger. Although he's already been through a few, Mangold still searches for that cherry Les.

After years of grinding out a living in various rock bands, and customizing guitars for the likes of Prince and Janet Jackson at Knut-Koupe Music in Minneapolis, Mangold moved to the Northwest and opened Danny's Music with his mother, Marlys, in 1989. Now Mangold is known internationally as a premier dealer of vintage guitars. He loves to drop names and has plenty to drop. Danny's has sold guitars to everyone from jazzer Joe Pass to Rolling Stone Keith Richards as well as a constellation of film and TV stars.

His typical customer, however, is a man who's spotted consistently in music stores throughout the area. He's commonly referred to as "The Boeing Man," although he might just as well work for Safeco or a large corporate-law firm. He's an amateur musician 35 to 45 years old, and he's got money. "He's on this whole romantic, nostalgia trip," says Mangold, who knows a romantic nostalgia trip when he sees one. "When that guy was 14, he ate, drank and slept The Stones. Now he's a successful dentist and he can afford the real thing."

The "real thing" in this case being a 1939 Martin D-45 acoustic, a '59 Gibson Les Paul "flame top" or several others Mangold refers to as The Hot Half Dozen. The Boeing Man/dentist/whoever is paying five-figure sums for guitars that originally sold for $200, and he's scaring struggling musicians who crave these same instruments not for their collectible or nostalgia value but for their superior playability and sound.

Not to worry, says Mangold. American factories are turning out replicas of these instruments every bit as righteous as the originals, and the credit belongs to Northwest musicians. "Good old Seattle sounded the death knell for the Van Halen/glam-metal thing. Kurt Cobain, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, John Auer of the Posies - these guys single-handedly told the country it's not cool to wear Spandex and play a pointy guitar anymore," says Mangold, referring to the upstart brands of the '80s with complex on-board electronics and eccentric styling. The electric-guitar market has always been idol driven and the current idols are sporting timeless, rockin', American guitars from the '50s and '60s.

"If Kurt Cobain appears on MTV with a Fender Mustang, that means I sell 10 Fender Mustangs that week," says Mangold.

Although he's never worked at Boeing, Bob Jeniker understands the Boeing Man. They've haunted the same music stores and stalked some of the same prey. A couple of years ago, the 47-year-old owner of Park Avenue Records on Queen Anne Hill acquired a taste for custom-color Fender guitars and tweed amps from the '50s and '60s, and at this point requires a warehouse to contain the collection.

"I'm pretty deep into it," says Jeniker, with perhaps a weensy bit of understatement. He bought his first guitar at the age of 17, a Gibson ES 175 that cost him $145 at $10 a month. His guitar heroes ran from Tal Farlow and Charlie Christian to Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley. A cover-band player in high school and college, Jeniker still plays on occasion and lends some of his equipment for the recordings he produces. But these days his real kicks are in the hunt, networking with Fenderoids worldwide who are constantly on the prowl for upgrades, gaps in their collections and insider info.

The guitars he's interested in are unique for their original, deep-color, automotive finishes and sell for as much as $15,000, although making a killing isn't what keeps Jeniker in the game. "If I sell a guitar, it's to go out and get another one," Jeniker says, although there's a 1963 gold-plated, shell-pink jaguar and a 1958 fiesta-red Jazzmaster at the core of his collection that he claims are forever off the market.

Like Mangold, Jeniker understands how nostalgia plays in all this. "It's like hearing `In The Still of the Night' by the Five Satins. You see this guitar and it makes you think about where you were going to school or your old girlfriend. There's a definite return to childhood in there."

ON THE EDGE of a cedar grove in a North End trailer park, tucked away in her streamlined aluminum cocoon, Jo Miller composes cowgirl-heartbreak tunes for her country-swing band Ranch Romance. Surrounded by her small collection of road-worn guitars, she recalls distinctly different musical roots than the grungers and boomer retro-rockers hanging out at Danny's.

Miller, 33, grew up in Carlton, Okanogan County, a tiny town on the edge of the Okanogan National Forest. As a fifth-grader she harmonized on "Old Chisolm Trail" while her mother strummed the guitar. Though the old Silvertone was nearly bigger than she was, Miller picked up three durable chords and never looked back. "I had this little Joan Baez voice, and I could sing forever and just never get bored with the sound of my guitar and these simple things." She played in school. She played for the cattlemen's luncheons. She played to evoke an estranged father she idealized but knew only in bits and pieces.

"He played guitar and was a cattle auctioneer, a rounder, a storyteller, a cowboy poet, and because he was absent I had this mythical picture of my father with his guitar singing `Strawberry Moon' around the campfire. I think some of my taking up guitar was wanting to be near him, be like him in some way, because I thought he must be the coolest thing in the world. I didn't really know him."

By 17, she was performing five nights a week, four sets a night at the Sun Mountain Lodge lounge. "I was a big fish in a little pond," she says. "I considered myself a real guitar player, but I had no idea what a real guitar player was." A year later she came to Seattle, plugged into the lively folk/bluegrass scene of the late '70s, and found out. "I saw my first real guitar players, and I couldn't believe people could play the instrument like that. It was really exciting and frightening in another way 'cause up until then I thought I was really cool."

At that point Miller slowly began to discover that her musical strength was more in singing original songs and organizing an act than in flashy picking.

The guitar has always served Miller best as a partner in harmony, and Carlton was simply too remote to support a guitar culture with music stores and the ubiquitous older dudes who hang out and show you those big fat licks off the radio. Besides, Miller points out, girls often find that culture closed. "You have to be constantly proving your credentials. In the early days in Seattle, I'd go into these music stores and be totally ignored. There's this heavy, heavy boy vibe, and by the time I'd get out with my strings or whatever, I'd be a wreck." It's a problem women players speak of repeatedly. Girls get the brushoff or are condescendingly steered to the folk instruments while boys plug right in. "I see it changing, though," says Miller. "I see it in the number of women players - good players - showing up at the jams, which aren't nearly so male-dominated anymore. There are so many of us out there who know what we're doing, they have to take us seriously."

At this point they're taking Miller and Ranch Romance seriously. The group regularly guest stars on Garrison Keillor's radio shows, has toured with country diva k.d. lang, and released its third album to rave reviews. It packs clubs in Nashville, Austin, Boston and L.A., and enjoys cult status with hometown fans.

For those Ranch Romance first-timers, though, Jo Miller is easy to pick out. She's the one smartly propping up a triple-beaver Queen of The Rodeo hat and hitting the changes on the big-box Epiphone a whole lot like the guitar her mamma played.

AS A TEENAGER IN Phoenix, Ariz., Steve Andersen had a feeling he would never be an accomplished guitarist. As he puts it, "I hit a wall." A lot of enthusiastic kids hit that wall. That's when guitars find their way into attics and garage sales, and kids move on to other pursuits like Super Nintendo, sex or particle physics. Andersen's musical interests lured him into the wood shop. That was nearly two decades ago. Now Andersen's tiny Fremont shop is the birthplace for some of the finest individually built acoustic guitars. "He definitely falls into that category," says Mangold. "He successfully copied the archival L5."

The L5 is the acoustic archtop designed by the legendary Lloyd Loar in the 1920s and built by the Gibson Co. The workhorse of the big-band and early jazz guitarists, it's considered to be one of the finest guitars made and, along with the equally prized D'Angelico New Yorker, provides the inspiration for Andersen's instruments, which retail for $5,000 to $7,000 depending on model and options. The skills required to build an acoustic archtop differ significantly from those required by the more familiar flattop folk or classical guitars. Essentially constructed like a cello, the out-bellied shape of the soundboard is carved from a billet of flawless spruce. A balance of structural strength and tone quality is achieved by varying the thickness of the soundboard. Too thick and you've got a thunker.

Like playing, it's a skill that requires profound coordination of hand and ear and is acquired only by years of doing it.

If there's a wall there, Andersen hasn't hit it yet.

Twenty-five years ago the custom-guitar trade was nearly extinct with only a handful of aging masters, mostly in the Northeast, keeping the craft alive. Now, according to Acoustic Guitar magazine, the Portland-to-Vancouver, B.C., corridor is fast gaining a reputation as a renaissance center for luthiers.

Although most of Andersen's instruments are shipped out of state, the Northwest and its frantic level of musical activity provide a great place to be in the guitar-repair business, and repairs pay a lot of rent for Andersen. Cartoonist/jazz guitarist Gary Larson goes to Andersen for adjustments on his archtops. Robert Fulghum, best-selling author, world-class explainer and mandocellist for the band Rock Bottom Remainders, discovered Andersen by word of mouth when he needed repairs on his instrument. "Steve is very clear, very bright. He really knows what he's doing. If I want an instrument built, this is the guy I want to deal with." True to his word, Fulghum owns two Andersens.

Anderson finds the issue of guitar investment collecting wholly beside the point. "If you want an investment, buy stocks," says Andersen. "I want my instruments making music for someone, not making money."

Why would an amateur musician - Andersen's typical customer (the Boeing Man!) - be willing to pay this kind of money? Better yet, why do people with no money at all cobble up guitars out of junk like the one recently spotted in an Olympia pawnshop made out of two cake pans screwed face to face and fitted with an old banjo neck? The answer for Fulghum is the uniquely democratic nature of the guitar. "It's the entry-level instrument," declares Fulghum. "It's a midrange voice and it's portable."

But so are typewriters. It's more than that, says Fulghum. "It's an instrument of heroism. Look, the person you really need to talk to is my son. He's the real guitar maniac in the family."

Christian Fulghum, 33, plays bass guitar in the Seattle band Sister Psychic, a group that combines the dirty-guitar sound of grunge with tight songwriting and almost literary lyrics. Their CD "Fuel" was recently released on Restless Records. Fulghum grew up in Seattle bingeing on Jimi Hendrix and punk and haunting the local music stores that hung signs like "No Geeks Playing The Guitars, Please," specifically for kids like him. "I still go to the music store to soak it up. It's what I do when I'm depressed," he says, only these days they let him play anything on the wall.

Like Miller, Christian Fulghum grew up in a guitar-playing family but used the instrument to forge an identity separate from his father. "We just don't play the same kind of stuff," he says pointing out why he and his father have never played together. The bond seems to form anyway. Christian recalls a melody his father worked hard on and was especially proud of. One Sunday when the younger Fulghum was playing meditation music for services at his father's church, he slipped in the song discreetly, much to the elder Fulghum's delight. Says Christian Fulghum, "It was a way of telling him, `Here's something you do that's ingrained in my memory, that I'll always play.' "

Christian's attachment to his instruments is decidedly intimate. "It's an irrational attachment. It's your best friend. It never lets you down. When you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, it's there for you," he says. With 15 guitars, Fulghum keeps a fairly large circle of best friends.

People in the guitar business invariably analogize guitars as friends and even lovers. Rob Eagle, owner of Guitar Emporium in Ballard, says, "Choosing a guitar should be like choosing a significant other. It could be with you for 15 years!" Michael Crouse at American Music in Fremont, says, "I leave the customer alone with a guitar, and after a while I see that glazed look - a little sweaty - I see they're in love with the instrument."

Lust, Michael, that's lust. There's a difference.

WHEN MICHAEL POWERS PLAYS, he creates the impression of guitar not as significant other but as an extension of himself. Often called "the hardest working man in Seattle jazz," it's a rare weekend when fans can't catch Powers somewhere. The Northwest Area Music Association named him Best Electric Guitarist in 1991.

If Mangold is the poster boy for guitar obsession, Powers is the poster boy for the unrestrained joy of playing. And he shows it, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, perched on a stool at Olympia's Columbia Street Pub, stamping out time on the rungs. He starts out a cool "Moondance" and works it inevitably into a monsoon of sound. He rolls back on the stool, faces the ceiling. He squirms. His feet kick free, and he comes nearly unglued, taking fantastic leaps across the fingerboard, threatening to run himself out of guitar before he slams back into the melody with stunning precision. And he smiles. Not because he got it right, but because he knows he turned loose without losing it. Is this a man fulfilled in his work? "Oh yeah, man," says Powers, "I'm having way too much fun."

It started with a skateboard accident and a fractured wrist 17 years ago. A Berkeley, Calif., teenager, Powers took up the guitar to recover his strength and flexibility. A friend showed him a lick from Jimi to "Crossroads" and . . . well, another one bites the dust. Powers moved to Seattle in 1977, and when his federal job grant ran out, followed by his unemployment money, he decided to make a commitment to music. "I just practiced and practiced and practiced until I got good enough to get a gig," says Powers. "I started late so I had to play catch-up.

The catch-up game eventually led him to the Cornish School for the Arts to study under Miles Davis confederates Gary Peacock and Gil Evans. By then Powers was solidly into jazz. His upcoming album, Full Circle, contains two original songs dedicated to Davis. "It was the saddest day when he died," says Powers, "because it was like, man, I'm never going to play with him. These tunes are me working that out of my system. It's like when your father dies and you tell someone, `I always wanted to say this to my dad,' and they say, `Well, then say it to me.' "

Powers believes the whole thing comes down to a search for a genuine voice. An important part of that voice is his custom acoustic guitar built by William Laskin of Toronto, which he plays both clean and through a variety of electronic enhancements. Declares Powers, "That's my voice, my own instrument. It only sounds like me."

But his voice also echoes his father's, his African-American traditions. "Hey, this is in my blood. The essence of this is the blues. Those are the ABCs. You can't make sentences without them. You can't even make words. Once you take them and start writing novels, then you're talking jazz."

And it all comes out of this box that looks as natural on Michael Powers at rest, in silence, as it does in song. You almost feel that without the quality that was so compelling in the Beatles that night in 1964. It wasn't the fetish of the guitar or even its power to reduce my annoying sister to Jell-O.

It was the big jangling voice like nothing I'd ever heard, shouting with the kind of abandon that's only possible when the hands know the work and the head gets the hell out of the way. That's what was so seductive and subversive about those guitars and what was so devastatingly absent from my tortured attempt at "Shoo Fly." Once found, that voice can topple governments, win you a love, call up the dead, or just keep you company through a long night.

It comes from the heart. The hardware is the least of it.

Ray Kelleher is an Olympia freelance writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

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Danny Mangold's Hot Half Dozen: The Six Most Valuable Guitar Makes In The Universe

D'Angelico New Yorker or Excel (post World War II), $40,000.

Gibson Les Paul Standard (flamed-maple sunburst finish, late 1950s), $35,000.

Martin D-45 or D-28 (pre-World War II), $30,000.

Gibson L5 or Super 400 Archtops (circa 1939), $20,000.

Gretsch White Falcon (late 1950s), $12,000.

Fender Stratocaster (custom color, 1950s), $15,000.

Price estimates are for unmodified instruments in perfect condition. Instruments with celebrity associations are another matter entirely. A Martin D-18 used by Elvis Presley on his Sun recordings was recently purchased at auction by the AEI Music Network corporation in Seattle for $155,000. Condition is a minor issue with such instruments. In fact, most musicians would find the Elvis D-18 unplayable.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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