A few months ago, suddenly I could not play my guitar because it was missing a small part, a tiny metric lock-nut. And that is the beginning of a long, strange story.
I purchased my first new guitar in 1976, a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. The Deluxe was the low end of the Les Paul line, I couldn’t afford the Standard or the Custom. But it was a fine guitar, it was a real Les Paul, even if it had cheaper pickups than the other models. I worked all summer mowing lawns and sweeping floors, I finally raised enough money and bought a nice Les Paul Deluxe I found at West Music for about $675. I also asked the store to make one tiny customization to the guitar, it had really cheap tuning pegs, so I had them replaced with high quality Schaller tuning pegs, for about another $50. With the addition of these precision German tuners, this was a professional quality guitar I would keep for the rest of my life. I couldn’t play guitar worth a damn, but I figured I’d grow into this instrument as my skills improved over my lifetime.
Here’s a picture of a Les Paul Deluxe just like mine that I found on the web:
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1982, of course I took my guitar with me. I played and practiced my guitar a lot, but I still wasn’t very good at it. Then tragedy struck, my beautiful guitar was stolen. My stupid girlfriend had a friend of hers come to visit, he wanted to crash on the couch overnight. I didn’t want him to stay, but she insisted, and I couldn’t talk her out of it. When we got up in the morning, he was gone, and so was my guitar. That’s why I didn’t want him to stay overnight, I figured something like this would happen when I heard him describe how he funded his cross-country travels by shoplifting at KMarts and using phony receipts to get cash refunds on the stolen goods at the next town’s KMart. Strangely, he took only the guitar and left the empty case behind.
I called the police to report the theft. To my dismay, my stupid girlfriend insisted I report the one other item he took, a hand carved Japanese wooden dildo. This insured the LAPD would not take my theft report seriously. The LAPD officers scoffed at the report of the stolen dildo, they seemed amused by my embarrassment and enjoyed humiliating me.
I never heard back from the LAPD but I hoped that my guitar might turn up in a pawn shop or guitar store, they’re required to report serial numbers to check against the “hot sheet” and to return the stolen items if there’s a match. The stores don’t have much incentive to work with this system, every match means they have to give up an item they bought, and the thief gets away with the money.
Several years later, I was walking down the street near my office in Van Nuys, I walked past a pawn shop, and there was a Les Paul Deluxe in the window. It was the same color as mine and everything matched. I didn’t want to alert the shop, so I went to the LAPD Hollywood Division, where the theft was originally reported. I told them I thought I’d located my guitar, could they please check it out? They checked some records and then told me the guitar at the pawn shop was not mine. They said my guitar had already been recovered long ago. I was baffled, but the LAPD Detectives absolutely refused to help me any further, and wouldn’t say why.
I had some difficulty working my way past the detectives, but finally I reached a Lieutenant. He checked it out and discovered my guitar had been found about a year after the theft, it was bought by The Guitar Center, just 2 blocks from my home. The LAPD Detectives tried unsuccessfully to contact me to help me reclaim my stolen property. I had moved since the theft, but the theft report had my office phone number, and they still couldn’t find me. So they gave up and my guitar became the legal property of The Guitar Center.
I suddenly recalled an incident that puzzled me at the time. My boss told me, “hey Charles, the cops called looking for you, but I told them I never heard of you.” I wondered what that was about, I wasn’t ducking the law for any reason, and it had been so long since the theft, I didn’t connect it. My stupid boss thought he was doing me a favor, shielding me from the cops, but instead, he blocked the one chance I had to recover my guitar.
The Lieutenant called The Guitar Center, but there wasn’t much hope they would still have my guitar, several years had passed since they took possession. But they still had it in their warehouse, unsold. The Lieutenant suggested I try to purchase the guitar back. I went to The Guitar Center, they located my guitar and I confirmed it was mine. They offered to sell it back to me for what they paid for it: $200. I was broke and unemployed, I barely had money to eat, let alone buy back my guitar. I was despondent. My beautiful guitar was right in front of me, but I couldn’t get it back. Stalemate.
A few days later, my sister Janet heard me whining about my stolen guitar, and she did a truly wonderful thing. Christmas was approaching, so she secretly negotiated with The Guitar Center, and got my Mother to buy it back as a surprise christmas present. My Mom wired the money to my sister, and at about noon on December 24, she phoned me, told me to come pick up the $200 and go buy my guitar back, but I had to do it today, before the holiday, because someone else wanted to buy it. If I didn’t pick it up immediately, they’d sell it out from under me.
I was across town from my sister’s place, traffic was snarled on christmas eve, it took me hours to go pick up the money and get to The Guitar Center. I got there at 4:45, just before closing time. Stevie Wonder and his entourage were in the store shopping for keyboards, the shopkeepers were fawning all over him, it took a bit of effort to get someone’s attention. I told the clerk why I was there, he knew about it, and went into the back room and retrieved my guitar. He placed it right in front of me, and asked for $250. I was enraged, he welshed on the deal. I figured that he planned on pocketing the extra $50 for himself. The $200 was every cent I had, I couldn’t pay more, but I knew just how to take care of this.
I started yelling, deliberately loud enough so Stevie Wonder could hear me. I figured the store wouldn’t want to look bad in front of a celebrity musician and maybe blow a big sale over a measly $50. I yelled, “you already agreed to sell me back my stolen guitar for $200, and now you want $250?” I paused for a moment to see if Stevie was listening, and he was, every person in the store was listening. So I laid it on thick, “you’re trying to gouge me for another $50 on christmas eve? It’s bad enough that I have to buy back my own stolen property. Now you’re trying to steal another $50 from me! I want to talk to the store manager right now! I want my stolen guitar back for the price we already agreed on!”
This obviously worked because a guy broke away from the Stevie Wonder entourage, and introduced himself as the manager. I explained the situation and he glared at me, he knew what I had just pulled off, but he took my $200 and gave me back my guitar. I ran like hell out of there and went home with my prize.
When I finally got home and inspected my guitar, I was horrified. The guitar was all banged up, it had no protection since the thief didn’t take the case with him. The front had a big ugly dent in the shiny varnish. The back was all dinged up, that’s known as “buckle rash.” Whoever had this guitar for a year had a big belt buckle that repeatedly scraped the back when he played, oh it was ugly. I had kept my guitar in pristine condition for years, I would even pull my shirttail over my buckle to protect it from buckle rash. And now some unknown person had screwed it all up. And worst of all, there were these stupid gadgets attached to the posts where the guitar strap attached. They were called “strap locks.”
One of the notorious problems with the Les Paul models is that the guitar strap always slips off the top attachment post, the guitar can drop right out of your hands and smash into the floor if you’re not careful. But I never used a strap lock, I’d never seen one before. I had a locking guitar strap that never pulled loose. But now I couldn’t use that type of strap, I had to deal with this stupid strap lock. I could never figure out why anyone would think this was an improvement, it had sharp edges and looked like it would eventually cut right through the leather strap.
Just a few months ago, in July 2009, that’s exactly what happened. The leather strap was now useless. Over 20 years or so, I used the same leather strap, but it got shredded and now the strap would fall off, despite the strap lock. This was worse than if it had no strap locks at all, I couldn’t play my guitar at all. I decided to take my guitar back to West Music, the exact same location I’d originally bought it, and test out a new strap on my guitar.
When I opened the case, the West Music clerk said, “wow, that’s exactly the same as my first guitar that I bought 30 years ago.” I told him how this was my first guitar too, and told him my story. He decided to help me out in selecting a new strap. But when he inspected the guitar, he said, “here’s your problem, your strap lock is missing a washer and a lock-nut that holds down the strap. You don’t need a new strap, you just need a new washer and nut.” Those parts weren’t on my guitar when I recovered it, I had never seen a strap lock before, so I never knew the parts were missing. I had been using the strap lock incorrectly all this time. No wonder the strap was worn through.
So I went over to the parts department to see if they had the nut, I could get a washer anywhere, but the nut had to match exactly. I was surprised when the repairman turned out to be the same guy who had set up my guitar and installed the Schaller tuners when I bought it in 1976. But times had changed, now West Music was no longer a Gibson dealer. He took a look at my guitar and snarled, “oh this is a Les Paul from the dark years.” Unfortunately it was true. In 1976, Gibson Guitar Co. was on the verge of bankruptcy, the guitars made at that time were notorious as the worst, most cheaply built guitars they had ever made. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was curious about the value of the guitar in the 33 years since I bought it. He estimated it was worth about $2500, which is exactly what my purchase price was equivalent to in 2009 dollars. My guitar wasn’t increasing in value, but at least it wasn’t decreasing, despite being an undesirable model from “the dark years.” When I thought about how much work I must have done to raise the equivalent of $2500, I was impressed with my younger self for working so hard.
But returning to the current problem, I asked the repairman for a replacement nut, and apologized that the part was probably worth less than a dollar and it would take him more than a dollar’s worth of effort to locate one. He rummaged around and tried several nuts, but after 20 minutes, he could not find one that matched. The only way he could provide the nut was if I bought an entirely new set of Schaller strap locks just like the ones I had on the guitar now. But I balked at paying $20 for a whole new set of hardware when I only needed the nut. So he suggested I check around local hardware stores for a match. Fortunately I could just carry the strap lock to test the fit of a nut, I wouldn’t have to lug around the whole guitar.
Over the next 2 days, I checked in every single hardware store in the area, and could not find a matching nut. I even checked a specialized fastener dealer that could get any nut made in the world, but only in bulk. They didn’t have a matching nut either. Apparently it had some odd thread pitch and was an obscure metric nut, their only solution was to order $50 worth of nuts in bulk. I was getting no closer to a solution. I wondered why Schaller would use a part that was so hard to replace. Perhaps this nut is common in Germany, but not here in the US.
There was nothing left to do but deal directly with Schaller. I looked on their website, I could buy a repair kit of assorted nuts at an outrageous price, but I could not purchase a single replacement nut. I thought perhaps a Schaller Authorized Dealer might have this kit and could sell me one nut. I checked their list of Authorized Dealers, I called all over the country, but none of them had this kit, or any replacement parts at all.
I decided to send a message to Schaller customer service via their website. I explained that I couldn’t locate the right part, and asked if I could purchase one individual nut. I waited for weeks but I got no response. And I still couldn’t play my guitar. I was frustrated.
So it looked like the only solution was to buy the whole damn strap lock kit, just to get the one stupid nut. I decided to check online, the kit usually sold for $12.95, I sure as hell wasn’t going to buy it at West Music for the exorbitant $20 they wanted. I went to Musician’s Pro Shop, they sold me a new kit for $13. They offered to remove all the old parts and put on the new parts at no cost. Problem solved, but at way too high a price.
I thought I would need a new guitar strap too, but I realized I could just cut off the end of the leather strap and punch a new hole. The strap would be a couple of inches shorter, but that was better than buying a new strap.
I was back in action. I played my guitar more and more, with the confidence that the strap would never fall off. I could even tap my feet, get into the music, and almost dance with my guitar, rather than standing there stiffly, hoping the strap doesn’t fall off if I move too much.
The very next day after I replaced the missing parts, I received an email from Germany:
we send to you the parts.
Schaller Electronic GmbH
Dr. Lars Bünning
Managing Director – Owner
A few days later, I received this in the mail.
Inside the letter was another envelope.
And inside that was a tiny ziploc bag with two sets of washers and nuts.
I guess my plea for parts eventually got to the owner of the company, and he sent me the parts for free. I was so surprised that the owner would get personally involved that I didn’t even mind that I’d already paid $13 for a whole new strap lock kit. For this kind of customer service (even if it took a while) they deserved the money.
Now I play my guitar more than ever. I play so hard, I get overheated and sweat until my clothes are soaked through and I can barely hold my slippery guitar pick. My fingertips have thick calluses from hours of pressing against the strings. And my skills have improved so rapidly, I can hardly believe it. I am finally achieving the levels of guitar proficiency that I dreamt of when I first bought my Les Paul Deluxe in 1976. And unfortunately, this is one of the greatest tragedies in my life. But I will leave that story for my next essay.
P.S. Dear stupid ex-girlfriend: I know you read my blog. I wrote about this story at such length partly to show you how your stupid choices can have consequences that haunt people for decades. This is why I never speak to you.
P.P.S. Dear recent crazy ex-girlfriend: I don’t know if you read my blog, but I really wrote this story for you. You might remember when we were hanging out downtown at a cafe and I borrowed a stranger’s guitar so I could play you a song. That would have been the first time anyone had heard me play guitar in 20 years, and I asked you to be the one. I waited and waited but I couldn’t even get you to sit still long enough to listen. So I gave up, and gave the guitar back to the guy. Then you listened to him play you a song. When he was done, you finally asked me to play, but my moment was already over, you gave it to a stranger. I declined to play my song, and instead tried to avert my humiliation by explaining how excited I was to get my guitar parts and start playing again. You said I was “getting all pissy.” That was when I discovered you were completely oblivious to anyone’s feelings but your own. But just you wait, you will have your moment in the tragic Part 2 of this story.