The photo that you see above is of an American parlor guitar made sometime between 1870 and 1890. It could even be earlier because its shape is reminiscent of the style of parlor that was made in the US in the years immediately following the American civil war.
Many of these post-war instruments were made of oak but this lovely example definitely displays a higher grade of material. It has a beautiful original spruce top and absolutely stunning Brazilian Rosewood back and sides.
When I purchased the guitar from the US I paid (AUD)$950.00 and was assured by the seller that the instrument was “perfectly playable”. When it arrived my excitement was seriously dampened, however, because the guitar was anything but playable. It could not hold tune, even for a moment, and I knew I was in for some serious money if I was going to save what had clearly been an amazing instrument in its time.
The one thing the guitar had going for it was that it was relatively intact, although it had some large structural cracks on the body. The most noticeable attribute of this orphan was the tone that came out of its fractured body when I plucked the rusty low “Ë” string, which, I might add, was one of only three strings the seller had bothered to leave on the guitar before sending it across the sea.
It is hard to not believe that said seller felt this little relic was nothing more than a “lemon”. But now it was my lemon and I had to decide what to do with it. If I sent it back not only would I have to pay the substantial postage fee with no hope of recompense, but I would undoubtedly be dooming this little piece of history to a barn wall until rot and neglect finally kicked in for good. So where to go to next?
As a working musician I am lucky enough to work with a couple of guitar technicians who are absolutely without peer when it comes to diagnosing and fixing problems of the guitar kind. In Sydney these days it seems that anyone can set themselves up as a so-called “guitar expert” but after so long in the game I know the real experts are relatively few and far between. That said, there are a few geniuses out there and I strongly urge engaging their services when it comes to setups and the like. Look them up, it will be worth your effort.
So back to my parlor and the pressing problem of where to go to next. It was suggested by one of my set-up guys that I should get in contact with Jeff Malia, a local luthier and the go to person for all things related to guitar restoration. I had heard of Jeff and knew two things about him. Firstly that he was the best in the business when it came to restoration and, secondly, that he was absolutely painstaking when it came to attention to detail. What I didn’t know was what an incredible luthier he is and, most importantly, what an absolutely honest and caring human being he is. It goes without saying that once I met him I knew that my little piece of history was in the right hands.
Jeff commented firstly on the high quality of the timbers used in the guitar. He then put a large stethoscope-like instrument in the sound hole and informed me that the instrument had a makers mark on the underside of the top. Jeff suggested the guitar was probably built in New York by one of the eight builders that existed in the 1870s/80s in that city. So now I knew I had a guitar of indeterminate beginnings but the question was “is it saveable?” Jeff’s answer was simple: “It comes down to how much you’re willing to spend”. Having come this far and knowing the guitar would now be in Jeff’s hands for many months, which meant I had time to organise the finances, it was really a no brainer for me. This little beauty had to be restored.
The restoration began in March 2012 and while keeping in vague touch with Jeff over the next nine months it wasn’t until the week before Christmas that I received an email from him to say the operation had been successful and the guitar would be ready for collection on Christmas eve.
What greeted me on that day was a truly beautiful sounding instrument that punched way above its weight. That first strum was an absolutely magical moment – what an incredible sounding guitar!
We still had another restorative stage to consider – that being tidying up the look of the instrument, but we decided that this was a consideration for a later date. Now four years on I am still yet to decide whether to take that next step.
I have often taken the guitar with me to the courses I run and enjoy the look on students faces as they hear the sound that the guitar generates, but I am yet to come to a clear decision as to whether to do the next stage of the restoration. I suppose the question is how much do I adjust the guitar’s essential DNA. Do we completely cover up a few well-repaired cracks for aesthetic reasons or are they better left alone as an acknowledgement of the guitars 140 year history. I suppose this might be the question for another post.
As an aside, I contacted the seller after getting Jeff’s diagnosis and told him that while I would not be sending the guitar back even though I was going to be seriously out of pocket, it might be useful that in the future he told the truth about items he was seeking to sell. To his credit and without any prompting from me he deposited $250.00 back into my account. 🙂