Guitar Trips Great and Small

Our Trip to Mecca

Recently we bought my son a Martin guitar. Considered the Rolls Royce of guitars, Martin is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The factory is located in Nazareth, PA, somewhat off our beaten path, but we stopped for a tour on the way to Grammy’s. I wondered whether the factory’s location in this particular town had anything to do with the Scottish hard rock band of the same name, but decided probably not.

When we arrived and got out of the car, I was reminded of our arrival in Hershey, PA, only this time the air carried the aroma of rosewood instead of chocolate. We took the path of the giant guitar neck into the factory lobby, and a friendly receptionist greeted us with instructions on where to sign up for the tour. While waiting for it to start, we perused the museum, with its ancient-looking specimens, relics of company history and more modern models and testimonials, and listened to the guy playing in the lobby (factory employees perform on Fridays in the summer for visitors).

When it was time to begin our tour, we each got a little receiver and a pair of headphones (thoughtfully augmented with miniature cloth shower caps, I suspect, to minimize the spread of germs). Our guide, Roberta, spoke into a microphone so she could be heard through the headphones over the din of the factory machinery.

Bert, as her nametag said, surveyed our group of fifteen and asked, “Who owns a Martin?” One man and my son were the only ones, and she took great pains to remind Ben how very lucky he is. The tour took us through the manufacturing process – an entire month to make each guitar – including cutting the wood, inlaying Mother of Pearl and other embellishments, sanding, varnish and, of course, quality control. There are two QC people in each department who must bless every part of the process. If an imperfection is found, it either gets fixed or the guitar is trashed. Particularly interesting was a ventilation system in the sanding area which literally sucks the particles out of the area for bulk disposal later. This ensures no sawdust or other waste inadvertently lands on a guitar under construction.

As we stopped at each department, Bert explained what goes on there. Unfortunately, almost everyone was at lunch, so we couldn’t actually see them doing their jobs. During the course of her explanations of what each machine does, she took pride in pointing out which machines actually were designed by Martin employees. The other Martin owner in the group made the point that innovation in this case could lead to unemployment, for which Bert had no response.

It seems as if every factory tour I’ve ever taken has one person who is a total geek with regard to whatever the product in question is. Our requisite nerd came with his son, who seemed a little bored. Dad asked a million questions, some of which were rather obscure, and kept trying to get in front of me. The best part was when his son (apparently older than mine) was reprimanded for touching something. My child, who normally touches everything, was unrecognizably well behaved. Maybe he actually was listening when we talked about treating his Martin with care.

At the end of the tour, everyone got a souvenir that looks like an old record but is made out of spruce (I think it started life as a sound hole). However, all Ben was interested in was playing the guitars they had for just that purpose. Guitars favored by Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney were all fair game, and I began to fear we’d never get him to leave!

After the tour, we asked to see someone in Customer Service to talk about a squeaking noise Ben’s guitar made when he played it. A lovely man named Carmen came out, listened to Ben play and was blown away. “He plays better than I do,” he said, and I almost believed him. Carmen spent probably thirty minutes with us, and sent us home with a new set of strings. He thought perhaps a different type would work better for Ben, who plays pretty hard. He also started talking about raising the action – how far the strings are from the neck of the guitar – about which time my eyes began to glaze over. He recommended we see a luthier, someone who adjusts guitars, to have it set up and put on the new strings. We hope during this process to get a tutorial on how to replace the strings. The last time Ben broke a string, it took three of us an hour and about fifty-seven views of a how-to video on YouTube to replace it!

Not only is the tour completely worthwhile, the Nazareth Diner beats anything we’ve got in my area and rivals the best in New York.

Open Mic Night at The Big Kahuna (and a little P.S.)

My guitar-playing son once said, “I want to be like David Fagin and write my own songs.” When I told him he should, he refused.

Fast forward a few months to just before our New England vacation. Spouse discovers The Big Kahuna in Bridgton, ME, has an Open Mic Night on Thursdays, and there is no minimum age to perform. However, no covers allowed: Ben has to write his own song!

With his guitar teacher’s encouragement, he writes a song called, “Old Yankee Stadium,” about how dumb it is to tear down the historic stadium.

We arrive in Maine on Saturday, thus beginning a record-setting period of rain. The rental house is reached by a dirt road more than two miles long, which, in clear weather, is a challenge. Now, during monsoon season, the many ruts and depressions in the road draw varying quantities of water. Just to keep things interesting, it is impossible to tell if that little lake just ahead will be the nail in the coffin of our poor, tortured Accord hybrid. What a week this has been in the life of that car…but I digress.

The fear that we wouldn’t be able to get to The Kahuna or, worse, back home, was palpable as we began our trek. We’d phoned to make sure Open Mic Night was taking place as scheduled, but no one answered. We grabbed a bite at Ricky’s Diner across the street, and at 7pm, the advertised start time, The Kahuna was still closed up tight. We stood in the doorway to shield ourselves from the omnipresent rain, having decided to allow 15 minutes for someone to show before giving up.

Not long after, an affable hippie named Tom came to unlock the door, followed closely by Wayne, the sound guy. They made us wait in the musty vestibule while they went upstairs to turn on the lights. When we were allowed in, Tom started a list of everyone playing that night and explained that Steve was always first, because he was the first one there on The Kahuna’s first Open Mic Night ever. Well, Tom, that may be, but in case you haven’t noticed, Steve isn’t here…and neither is Jonathan Sarty, the host, or anyone else, for that matter.

When Ben saw the stage, he was suitably impressed, but even better was the promise of appearing on YouTube. “A dream come true” was how Ben characterized it.

After hearing our road story, Tom and Wayne took pity on us and commenced Open Mic Night early, just for us. Ben was truly in his element the moment the lights came up, thoroughly enjoying the sound check. He waited patiently as Tom set up the video camera, and began his song right on cue.

Unfortunately, he forgot a chord just after the line about Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, and stopped dead in his tracks. After some conversation about whether or not to start over, he just did, proceeding through the song perfectly.

Once his moment in the spotlight was over, he collected the CD Wayne burned for him and reluctantly allowed himself to be removed from the premises. Somehow, we (including the car) made it back to the house intact.

The next night, following an absolutely beautiful day of plentiful sunshine, we ventured out to H.A. Cassidy’s restaurant for dinner. As we arrived, I noticed Jonathan Sarty was performing. Turns out he arrived at The Kahuna shortly after we left, and Tom told him all about Ben and his performance. John was very sweet, and after meeting Ben, asked me if he’d like to play a couple of songs. Um, YEAH! But we didn’t have the guitar with us. John said Ben could play his guitar, which turned out to be a Martin!

And so it was that Ben came to play “Please Please Me” by the Beatles and “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival for the graying crowd at H.A. Cassidy’s. They loved him, including one of the restaurant workers, who pronounced him “phenomenal”. We asked Ben afterwards whether he had more fun last night or tonight…and the jury’s still out!