Column: This old guitar

It is said that some things are worth more than money. Love, for example. Friendship, too. All that good stuff. But sometimes you stumble upon something precious that you never knew you had. That’s when you find out what’s truly important.

For several years, my grandfather has promised to give me his old guitar. It was an old acoustic Kalamazoo he bought in 1937 with his $15 windfall from a fishing contest he won when he was 14. It has quite a history, and one day, Grandaddy said, it’d be mine.

On this guitar, my grandfather strummed his first songs, imitating the cowboys from the movies he loved as a kid. There it was when he became a Lutheran minister, playing religious tunes at summer camps. And it was front and center when he and my grandmother taught their four children to sing in perfect harmony so the family could play music together.

It has survived, amazingly, without a case for seven decades and, equally amazing, it has no major structural damage. No holes. No bent neck. Just the look of a well-loved guitar: plenty of nicks, scratches and even the remnants of a coat of lacquer my uncle put on over its sunburst finish when he was in high school.

I first saw the guitar when we returned to Grandaddy’s house after my grandmother’s funeral, three winters ago. He told me its history and let me play it, but it had several snapped and out of tune strings. I foolishly passed it off as just another old guitar.

But as it became apparent how serious I was about music, my grandfather finally chose to pass it down. Since that visit, he has told me he’s got a guitar “with your name on it” every time I saw him. However, at 84, he always conveniently forgets to bring it to family gatherings. It became a running joke that I’d never actually get the guitar. Meanwhile, I wasn’t about to pry it from his hands. I was fine either way, I thought.

That’s why I was surprised last week when I walked into my parents’ living room in Virginia and saw the old guitar hanging on the wall. My father had gone down to South Carolina a week prior to visit Grandaddy, and he brought the Kalamazoo back with him. Without my grandfather there, it wasn’t a ceremonious handing-down, but the guitar was finally passed on to me.

I was excited to have a second acoustic around my apartment, and I planned to bring it back to Boston with me. The guitar had a nicer tone and feel than I remembered, and my idea was to use it sparingly, mostly just to keep as a family heirloom. But the bridge was askew, so I decided to take it to a guitar shop before I left town. That’s when things got interesting.

I have been taking guitars to shops for years, and I’ve never seen the reaction that followed. Every guitarist on staff gathered around the Kalamazoo, theorizing about its make, model and year of production. Besides the rudimentary headstock – the end of the neck of the guitar – there are no identifiers on the entire guitar, like a serial or model number.

“I noticed that headstock the moment you walked in the store,” said the local banjo and mandolin expert.

When the guitar specialist showed up, he told us the guitar was actually a Depression-era Gibson acoustic, made in their factory in Kalamazoo, Mich. Quite valuable and definitely worth fixing, he said.

While it was an exciting, “Antiques Roadshow”-type experience, I realized the guitar meant more to me than whatever its monetary value may be today.

“What if you found out the guitar was worth something like $50,000 – would you sell it then?” my father asked me in the midst of our excitement.

No, I said.

Even if it’s only been mine a short time, the guitar is worth more than money. It’s a living history of my family, from my grandfather’s boyhood on the farm in Carolina to my first holding it in the awkward moment following my grandmother’s funeral. It has seen my grandfather grow up, then his children, then his grandchildren.

The guitar isn’t mine to sell; I’m a mere custodian until it reaches the next member of our family. It’s like Neil Young sings of his Martin guitar, a Hank Williams heirloom: “This old guitar ain’t mine to keep / I’m taking care of it now.”

So, as I told my father that no sum of money can convince me to part ways with the guitar, I envisioned my grandfather hearing the news of his old guitar’s worth. And I know just what he’d do: smile and, in his thick Southern drawl, say, “Now, how about that?”

The guitar stays with me for now. Though I did make one change to ensure future generations of Yoders get to hold the Kalamazoo: I bought it a case.

– Glenn Yoder can be reached at [email protected]

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