D’Angelico Excel: Very Serious, Very Gone.

So there are several theories on instruments vs talent.  The bottom line I feel is this:   The greatest player in the world will sound fantastic on a 25 Dollar Wal Mart Guitar.  You can’t prevent that.  To the other end, a shitty player will sound better on a multi thousand dollar Les Paul than the aforementioned Wal Mart ax, but still, they will not sound good.  I believe there was a Nike or something commercial back in the day which said something like “Talent will only get you so far, you need the right tools”  And this too is true.  Now take that great player, remove the Wal Mart instrument, insert the multi thousand dollar instrument, and to borrow a phrase,  its business time.

I’ve been part of many theoretical discussions on price vs quality when it comes to instruments (as may be evidenced by my previous post on NY guitar stores).  Lets say the breaking point is $1000.  Anything for that price should have reasonable quality control, have solid components, and was at some point touched by human hands during the building process.  You can certainly get some badass stuff for less, but you would have to do serious research, and try the exact instrument you are purchasing (since quality varies greatly on less expensive instruments).  But once you get up into the crazy price ranges, it starts to get a little iffy.  What really is the difference between a $1000 guitar and a $3000?  As price increases, quality increase becomes more marginal.  I’m sure there is some economic term in there, anybody know it?

I bring this up for a reason, not just to talk about guitars more.  Come on, who do you think I am?   The point is, I have recently returned an instrument to it’s owner which was on loan to me for many months, and my life feels a little more empty.  It was a 1930’s D’Angelico Excel Archtop.  These guitars are pretty much mythical in the instrument world.  John D’Angelico built every instrument by hand, in a small shop at 40 Kenmore St in Manhattan.  He had very few employees, and made at most 35 Instruments per year.  He made maybe 1500 instruments total.  As you could imagine, the value of these is around that of a small Honda.  Its worth more than my Honda Fit, look up the MSRP, homes.

Playing an instrument like this changes your whole approach.  It plays a game of chess, or Uno, with you every time you pick it up.  It puts weird ideas in your head, it challenges you to do things differently.  Its like “Come on man, stop playing major bar chords, you’re holding  half a years tuition at an Ivy League College, turn it up!”  and you go “Ok, lifeless piece of wood and other components, I will listen to what you have to say”  and it says things!  Obviously I’m getting slightly philosophical here, but only slightly.  An instrument like this carries some history, it lived through WWII, The Jazz Age, Jimi Hendrix, Hair Metal, Everything!  These factors cant help but play some mind games with you.  All you can do is fight back, and hope to not pull out any lame ass jazz shit.

There are no words to explain how a well made instrument performs, though I will attempt to translate.  Maybe its like driving a sports car, I dont know, I don’t like cars.  Maybe its like eating a fantastic meal over and over?  But food changes every time, so that’s not completely accurate.  It’s probably all science, but not an exact science.  The combination of wood, lacquer, paint, and whatnot, can have amazing results.  Some claim, the thinner the finish, the more a guitar can breathe and the more sustain it will have.  Is that true?  If you can tell me the difference between a guitar with paint and a guitar with thin nitro cellulose lacquer on it purely by sound…then dear friend, I owe you a cheesesteak.  But back to the matter at hand.
Upon returning this instrument, I missed it dearly.  Maybe its the mythology I associate with it, but nothing I have played before or since has replicated it.  Well, I haven’t played much since, but you get the idea.  While the band has been recording several tracks, I relied on the D’Angelico heavily.  It sat perfectly in a mix.  A traditional acoustic can sometimes have too much bottom end, and just not work.  But the archtop is the secret weapon which I will use from here on out.  I guess it’s not really so much of a secret now, but I trust you to keep this just between us.

Instruments have a “Vibe”.  You can’t deny this.  A 1950’s Telecaster plays differently than a 2009 Telecaster.  They just feel different.  Its the years of playing which impacts the instrument not just physically, but lets call it “spiritually”  It makes you play different and appreciate different sounds.  This particular guitar made me feel like I was wearing a tuxedo, sitting behind a big band podium, comping some chords behind some tenor sax.  I don’t think you could get this feeling from an ESP Screaming Skull.  So now, the quest begins for a replacement.  It will be a long arduous road, but we, dear reader, will persevere together!  OK, here we go.