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  • February 7th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance

Bobby Bare said it best in a Shell Silverstein song “This guitar is for sale.” The song, sad enough in itself, hits home to me, although my guitar is not for sale and never will be. But my picking days are ended, thanks to the after effects of a stroke, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome which have combined to stiffen my left hand and made it impossible for me to dance around the fretboard the way I used to (well, try to anyway).


                “This guitar is for sale/I’ll let her go cheap.”


That’s what Bobby Bare sang, except I wouldn’t let her go for $1 million. She is a part of me as much as my heart. I worked detasseling seed corn for $.50 an hour, 10 hours a day during one of the hottest summers in modern times to earn the money to pay for her. “She” is a 1950 mahogany topped C. .F. Martin 00 17 guitar.


The Godfather of jazz guitarists, Django Reinhardt, made do with two fingers on his left hand, the other two having been burned and disfigured in a house fire and missing two fingers didn’t stop him from being one of the greatest guitar players in history, but missing the use of all four of my left hand fingers prevents me from being even the palest shadow of a Django. I am not and never was and never would be a Django. But even Django could not have played one-handed although he came close.  There is no such thing as a one-handed guitar player. Maurice Ravel wrote a piano concerto for the left hand only for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during World War I so it is possible to play at least one piece on the piano with one hand. You even can play major league baseball with one hand. Pete Gray lost his right arm in a childhood accident but played in the outfield for the St. Louis Browns. Not possible with the guitar–it’s strictly a two-handed operation.


                “Just touch her once gently/and she’ll take you on home.”


 My little guitar has always been a refuge for me when things got gloomy and blue. I could take my little Martin 00 17, bought in 1951 for $60, go off by myself and serenade anything or anyone who wanted to listen (which usually was, at maximum, a disinterested dog).


The sense of accomplishment and the thrill of conquest when I got something right amid the six strings was every bit as pleasing as calling in and killing a trophy gobbler in the spring. I couldn’t take a cool lick home and eat it or brag about it in the coffee shop the way I could with the trophy gobbler (because no one cared), but the thrill of the chase and the accomplishment was there and I could enjoy it over and over again, something not possible with the gobbler.


The 00 17 is small, of a size that they used to call “parlor guitar,” meaning that it was not a lusty loud instrument suitable for auditoriums, but rather one for playing in the front room and that was good when applied to my little Martin because often that’s where I played it—sitting on the couch while the family eddied about the house doing household things. What I was playing and singing was for me fairly obviously, because no one seemed to be overwhelmed by my talent. Bill Monroe put a rattlesnake rattle inside his fabled Gibson F5 mandolin to sweeten the sound. There is nothing inside my baby Martin except dust and I don’t think it needs sound sweetening— especially if it takes rectal amputation of a rattlesnake to get it.


                “She’s won me some ladies/with her sweet lovin’ songs.”


Twice did the little Martin and I entrance a lady with sweet lovein’ songs. The first time happened in 1956 in El Paso, Texas, where I was on active duty at Ft. Bliss. Several young married couples occupied an apartment complex on Fort Boulevard and one of the couples, Reid and Lois Hanmer had a daughter, Shelley. Shelley was two years old, blonde and impossibly cute and I used to serenade her on the apartment complex lawn. There is a photograph of me singing to Shelley as we sit facing each other and she obviously was hugely enjoying the experience. She was my little groupie and I know how Elvis must have felt when girls squealed and shrieked at his singing— although Shelley never squealed or shrieked. She just listened and enjoyed when she wasn’t playing with ants in the grass or watching planes flying overhead from El Paso’s Air Force base.


I acquired another groupie a few years later. I sat on the stoop of our house and the five-year-old daughter of a neighbor would toddle across the street and listen to me singing. Her name was Jessica and I teased her by asking “is that spelled with two essicas?” My clumsy attempt at humor was miles over her head, as was my singing—she was mostly interested in chatting tirelessly. Even my spirited rendition of the gruesome ditty “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” failed to interrupt her stream of consciousness gossiping. Too bad—it was one of my better attention getters.


Once I handed Bobby Bare my copy of his inspirationally named, but wonderful long play album “Bare” for an autograph and he laughed and softly sang “This guitar is for sale.” Apparently, the song was as memorable to him as it was to me.


                “If you think she looks weary,/you’ve been readin’ our mail.”


Like me the little Martin has suffered the scrapes and bumps of time. The bridge pins became so worn and brittle they had to be replaced. The tuning knobs likewise wore down and the machine heads and knobs were replaced and, not too long after I got her, I managed to knock a hole in the lower bout on the corner of a dresser, an injury that caused me to break into tears. The wound was invisible to anyone in front of the guitar, but I knew it was there like an open sore that never heals. One day I read a for sale item in the local paper advertising a Martin guitar for sale and I jumped on it immediately.


                “So please treat her kindly./Keep her out of the rain.”


The guitar turned out to be the bastard child of a Martin and a Gibson— it had a Martin body and a Gibson neck and it cost me all of $15. It didn’t sound bad, but it didn’t sound as sweet as my little Martin and it became my float trip guitar so I didn’t have to risk the Martin in the rain or the river.  I could sleep with it in the tent, and keep it out of the rain and the river. My little Martin stayed home, safe. The Mar-Gib was no collector’s item— but as the illegitimate child of a Martin it had value. Then a savior appeared in the form of a luthier who offered to fix the hole in the little Martin in exchange for the Mar-Gib. Not only did he fix the hole but he leveled the frets, installed new bridge pins and tuners. Thus, cosmetically restored, the Martin was once again virtually the same as it had been factory new.


                “She’ll tell you sad stories/’bout junkyards and jails.”


Closest I came to a brush with the law was in college.  Thinking to become the next rhythm and blues sensation, I bought and installed a pickup on the sound hole of the little Martin and then realized that I had no amplifier to plug into. One night Stan Krueger and I invaded the music building, him with his harmonica and me with my ready-to-boogie Martin. We found an amplifier and proceeded to re-create BB King and Little Walter and found that instead of a howling mob of rabid fans we had a less than appreciative audience the next day with the Dean of Students who informed us that any further attempts to bring the Mississippi Delta to the University of Missouri campus would result in us being former students of the University of Missouri. I pitched the pickup which had done nothing more for the world of music than leave a few scuff marks on the guitar’s sound hole and once more became a parlor picker well out of sight of the Dean of Students.


So I’ve stayed out of jails and largely out of junkyards although some years later I was heading south on Highway 63 when I passed a yard sale (not a junkyard) and caught, out of the corner of my eye, a couple of guitar cases leaning against a table of for-sale items. I burned rubber and did a U-turn that would’ve done credit to a highway patrolman involved in a high-speed chase (and possibly could have landed me in the aforementioned jail) and made it back to the sale in time to close the deal on a mahogany topped Martin D 15 guitar that the man selling it described as his “Willie Nelson guitar” because it had a hole knocked in the lower bout. Anyone who is a Willie Nelson fan knows that Willie plays a Martin classical guitar with a hole worn in the top from decades of being battered by guitar picks. So I now owned two Martin mahogany topped guitars that had been identically wounded in combat. It was as, as Yogi Berra was fond of saying “déjà vu all over again.”


Lacking the appearance of an angel in the luthier form, I fixed the hole myself with a scrap of mahogany from my workshop. The D 15 had cost me, on sale, approximately six times as much as its smaller cousin had in 1951–inflation personified. My repair didn’t look as pretty as a professional job would have, but I didn’t have a Mar-Gib to trade for the work and I wasn’t about to offer my little baby in trade.


I now had two Martin guitars, one more than I was able to confidently play, but there’s something about the Martin mystique that has been around since 1833 and which has captured the affections of countless entertainers over the years


                “She knows every sad song/that Hank ever wrote.”


Hank Williams played a Martin guitar and while I don’t know every song he wrote, I know several of them. Unable to cure my addiction to Martins, I splurged for a 1970 Martin D 35 in a moment of profligate insanity and today it’s on a stand, side-by-side with the baby Martin, like a protective big brother, as equally unplayable by me as is my baby, thanks to the buggered up left-hand.


David Gilmour, guitarist for Pink Floyd, will auction off more than 120 of his enormous guitar collection with the money going to charitable causes. Included in the legendary collection is a 1969 Martin D 35 that is expected to bring as much as $20,000. The entire sale probably will top $1 million— maybe more. I doubt that my D 35 is a $20,000 guitar.  But I did try to sell it several years ago and no one wanted to pay the price I was asking so I retrieved it and it has joined its two family members among musical instruments that I can’t play anymore.


My baby Martin and I have traveled all over the country, not as minstrels but because it and I are fond of retreating to a quiet place to sing the blues when they come calling.  Aside from the occasional two-year-old blonde, no one much cares when I sing the sad ballads of yesteryear. I can still sing “A great green gob of greasy grimy gopher guts” even if I can’t hit any hot licks to punctuate the poignant ode. But singing a cappella without the support of my baby Martin is as unsatisfying as a diet consisting wholly of broccoli.



                “If you got the dough buddy, take her and go.”


I could be persuaded to sell the D 35 and the D 15 to someone with the dough.  I’m willing to part with them for my price. You won’t see them at a yard sale.  But the baby Martin, unlike its big brothers, is not for sale and never will be. It has my sweat impregnated in the timeworn fibers of its mahogany top and body. It is as much a part of me as my heart and, if there is such a thing, my soul.


                “It’s funny you askin’/ I never gave her a name.”


She’s just my baby Martin and, for all I know, she may not even be a female— she may be a guy guitar, but there is in her softly rounded contours a feminine beauty. The relationship of this little guitar with me is nearly a lifelong one, a love affair that never ends. We know each other so well. We learned “The Wildwood Flower” together and have sung it to the stars and the full moon and to the dark night. It has chased the blues and soothed the hurts that come with life.


If there is any justice, one night when things are gloomy, my hand miraculously will be limber again and I will sit on our deck with the little Martin and play and sing “Keep on the Sunny Side” and a flash of lightning will send us on our way.








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  1. Rosa Christisen McHenry

    February 7th, 2019 at 1:45 pm


    What a wonderfully written story!! I so enjoyed it.

  2. Carrie Jo

    February 9th, 2019 at 1:37 pm


    This is sweet. So nicely sweet.

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