The Handwork Epiphany

A few weeks back I was visited by an old band member I hadn’t seen in decades, a wonderful guitar & steel player I gigged with in a commercial country band in the early ‘90s. You don’t know this, but if you’re into Birdsong or anything I’ve done as a designer or builder over the past 20 years, this guy is partially to thank.

The handwork epiphany happened to me in three stages; 1987, 1989, and 1994. In ’87 I scored a ‘70s BC Rich that needed some work, and during my time with it I ran my hand over the body edge and realized “Somebody made this.” I could feel it, slight variations in the shaping – stuff you can’t see, but it’s there. Proof of being worked by hands. Who? Where? How did this happen? Guitars immediately went from appliances like a toaster to me to something potentially shaped and scraped by someone else’s hands. In ’89 I visited my friend Dill’s workshop, where he made acoustic guitars. It smelled of wood and strange tools were all over the benches. Different type of guitar, but now I had seen where a craftsman was actually doing it. Remember, this was years before the internet. That planted a seed for sure. “A person can do this – this guy I know does this.” Hmmm.  

Years later, the new pedal steel player for Sierra, John Russell, showed up at a gig with a homemade electric guitar to do rhythm on some songs if needed. I was blown away. “You MADE this?” It was far from perfect but I couldn’t have cared less about that. He MADE it. It felt organic, it wasn’t all plasticky. Full but comfy neck. Just a great little tool with a heapin’ helping of down-home-cookin’ mojo in it. That DNA is in what I would go on to design and build, and in who I would become. So we reconnected recently on Facebook and I was able to tell him what that guitar meant to me and my path; he came out with some friends to the workshop AND he brought the guitar!

He’s still tinkering with it. He’ll tell you himself he’s not a craftsman – he’s a tinkerer. But to me that’s just a matter of refinement if your tinkers end up sounding and playing alright. Build 10 more and the detail work’ll be night and day. But our work spreads seeds of inspiration whether deliberate or incidental regardless of perfection or refinement. (I was carefully carving scrolls yesterday while listening to Hound Dog Taylor – if that’s not both sides of that coin at the same time, I don’t know what is.) John is a blast still, a fantastic musician, and it was good to see him. It was GREAT to see the guitar, though, on this side of my life and with the eyes and hands I have now after 20 years of building. 

We who do this have hands that remember things just like as musicians we store away formative licks we pick up along the way. Most freaky moment? I held the neck of this guitar I hadn’t seen in 23 years and immediately handed John a standard Birdsong bass neck. We looked at each other. It was the same carve. So this little guitar, from the hands of an old friend, contributed forward into the Birdsongs in hands all over the world today. We have no idea how contact with what we do is going to affect someone down the line we may never even meet.

And that is the perfect segue into how I want to end this update, with a big salute to the drummer on most of the original two Boston albums Sib Hashian, who went down onstage mid-set playing Boston tunes with a former guitarist on a rock cruise yesterday. Boston’s history is very convoluted mainly because the “original band” was one genius in a home studio with a really good singer and a hired drummer. That’s 90% of the first two albums regardless of cover photos, claims of sidemen who wanted more, former members, and the fictional “Rock And Roll Band” lyrics. Most of those rocking drums on the actual albums? Sib. Death is always shocking to witness and most times sad to hear about, especially in the music world when it comes for the players we grew up listening to… or who were part of the soundtrack to our NOT growing up! But if you’ve gotta go, and you do as do I as do all who pass this way at some time, is there a better way to go than doing what you love? The man left his beats in the hearts of millions, lived a long life, and just pitched off the drum stool mid-song. Rock on, good sir. Safe journey to the Spirit of this man, safe travels to his continued ripples, and thank you for your service Sib. 

Listening to: Boston Don’t Look Back; Miles Davis Kind of Blue; Hound Dog Taylor Genuine Houserockin’ Music; a Brewer Phillips compilation (he was the rhythm guitarist in the Houserockers).