Thursday, May 10, 2007

Of guitars and zippers

From "Struts and Frets," by Burkhard Bilger, on luthier Ken Parker and guitar design:

One afternoon this winter, I watched a man named Tom Murphy systematically beat up a brand-new Les Paul. Murphy, who is fifty-six, works for GIbson's custom, art, and historic division. He has thick forearms and ruddy features and a boyish devotion to the guitar heroes of his youth. Every week or two, the company sends ten or twenty guitars to Murphy's workshop, in Marion, Illinois, and he sends them back looking as if they'd been played for fifty years. When I visited, he began by etching some lines into the lacquer with a razor blade, to mimic the crackle of an old finish. He shaved the edges off the fingerboard, so that they looked worn by countless earsplitting solos. Then he took a bunch of keys and shook them over the surface, like a spider skittering over glass. To imitate years of belt wear, he held an old buckle against the back and whacked it a few times with a hammer. Then he flipped the guitar upside down and slowly ground the headstock into the concrete floor.

A "Murphyized" Gibson sells for twice the cost of a regular Les Paul, and Murphy's signed Jimmy Pge replicas (complete with cigarette burns) have gone for as much as eighty thousand dollars. Fender's aged guitars have been equally successful. Customers can choose from various degrees of wear, from Closet Classic ("played maybe a few times per year and then carefully put away") to Heavy Relic ("played vigorously on a nightly basis") to the Rory Gallagher Tribute Stratocaster ("worn to the wood"). When I asked Matt Umanov, whose guitar store has been a fixture in Greenwich Village for forty years, why people buy these instruments, he made an impatient noise. "Ninety per cent of this business is male-oriented," he said. "In my opinion, most purchases are governed by four words: the zipper is down."
"Struts and Frets" (good title!) is available in the May 14 issue of the New Yorker (print only).

comments: 1

Genevieve Netz said...

My husband has one of those closet classics. I don't think he's played it for 15 years though it saw some use during his younger days.