The $100 Guitar Project: Act 1
An online listing for a "no name," threadbare guitar; musicians with a distinct sense of humor; an idea, and one credit card... And a few emails later we've got something that combines the honest-but-struggling underdog, the ugly duckling, Pygmalion, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kaspar Hauser, a Cinderella rags to riches, Herbie the Love Bug... and over forty first-rate guitarists to boot. This story has it all. It's the story of one "homely" guitar and its journey.
This guitar's true beginnings are obscure and, for the moment, perhaps best left to the imagination; myths are always born out of unknowns. So our version of its storythe guitar's second or third life?begins on October 20, 2010, with a listing on the Elderly Instruments website.
Enter: two musicians, good friends since 1978; although the cast has exploded to include over forty members, guitarist/composer Charles O'Meara and guitarist/composer/programmer Nick Didkovsky are this story's prime movers, their mutual sense of humor the catalystthe rub on the genie's lamp, if you willthat makes this guitar's story worth telling.
"Honestly," said O'Meara, "I think what really motivated us [to launch this project] was our mutual sense of humor, which is surreal and silly and Dadaist and sometimes immature. Nick and I love to laugh and we love to laugh at ridiculous and absurd things. So buying a crappy guitar and making good music has a lot of that silliness we enjoy."
Charles O'Meara is perhaps better known to some as C.W. Vrtacek, the pseudonym he adopted in the early 80's when he surfaced onto the American avant-garde scene with several solo albums, and the name under which he formed Dancing Lessons with drummer John Roulat and in 1989, also with Roulat, the jazz-rock instrumental band Forever Einstein before returning to his legal name. Nick Didkovsky is the founder of the avant-rock septet (now octet) Doctor Nerve and the double band Fear Grinders, Ride! He was a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet, and he's also played with Roulat in the trio Bone along with bassist Hugh Hopper who passed away in 2009 (Bone and Cuneiform Records are donating all record proceeds to Hopper's beloved wife). Didkovsky has also composed music for several ensembles, and he's also the creator of the Java Music Specification Language (JMSL), a language for computer music composition written in the Java programming language. The pair play/record together whenever they can, and they're always cooking up "silly" projects.
"We have always enjoyed coming up with ridiculous projects, simply, 'Wouldn't it be funny if we did XYZ?' Then we talk about it and forget," offers O'Meara. "Some of these projects actually have happened. One is Aphorism of the Day; we started writing sayings that were supposed to actually sound wise but were merely confusing and stupid when you really thought about them. We made ourselves laugh and came up with about 150 and posted them on that website, a new one every day."
Oct. 20, 2010: O'Meara Comes Across a Guitar...
"I was the one who found it on the Elderly site," states O'Meara. "I always check their site for interesting guitars; they're a wonderful source for used guitars. I saw this one and it was listed as "no name" guitar, which I thought was funny: so awful nobody even wanted to take credit for it! I think what caught my eye was the fact that it looked butcheredthe neck pickup is gone and there is an open/exposed routed portion of the body where wires are showing. It looked very, very out of place on the Elderly site since they generally deal in mid to upper price guitars, not junk. This guitar was just plain homely, nothing at all to recommend it. It's the ugly puppy no-one wants to adopt. I sent the pictures of the guitar to Nick; he was charmed and very enthusiastic about acquiring it."
Didlovsky adds: "I think the fact that it had no name had a lot to do with it. The anonymity has a mystery to it that intrigued me. But specifically, the pickup looks so wonderfully retro. I still love just looking at the pickup; it's like gazing into a time machine."
When asked what came first, the idea and title (The $100 Guitar Project), or the guitar, this is what O'Meara had to say: "They had it priced at $100. That was coincidence. Certainly we wouldn't have purchased it if it was $500. We just happened to like that guitarit looks like it can't do anything! That's part of the challenge: let's see what we can do with this sad thing. However, I can't honestly remember which one of us first suggested having different guitarists record with it."
O'Meara being modest? Here's Didkovsky's version:
It happened exactly like this: It began with an email from Chuck [O'Meara] to myself and two others (Marty Carlson and Ray Kallas).
Chuck: Here you go, the guitar of your dreams.
Nick: 'Coolest pickup on the planet earth' award.
Ray: And only $100.00!
Nick: Somebody should get this thing. Maybe we can all chip in $25 and collectively own it like a bunch of commies."Boom. That's it!" said Didkovsky. "The idea preceded its purchase. We had a scare at one point where people started to get on board but we didn't own it yet. Chuck bought it at 9:30pm but in the morning he got a message from Elderly that the guitar had been sold. We were rather shaken and started thinking about finding another guitar. Well it turned out the message from Elderly was a response to an earlier question from Chuck, and the guy replying didn't realize he was talking to the buyer. Bummed for one day, as I really felt like this was The One. Glad it worked out."
Chuck: That would be funnyit would be great to do a whole album with each track by a different guitarist using this guitar. Call it something like "$100 guitar"!
Nick: Wanna do it? Get Shawn [Persinger] involved?
Chuck: I'm on the verge. How do we get it to different places? Sort of pricy to ship it all around the country? Who else would be involved besides us three?
Nick: I'm ready to pull the trigger on this.
"Good Lord, The Momentum Of This Is Ridiculous... It's Only Been Two Days"
The above quote is part of the response from Didkovsky after emailing him, on October 23, 2010, about writing an article on the project.
"There were no expectations when we started, none," O'Meara said. "We both assumed that we would simply invite a few guitarists from our inner circle: Shawn Persinger, Steve MacLean, Henry Kaiser, the people we know with a sense of humor who also enjoy a challenge. We thought it would be a small project. But as soon as we announced it via email [on Oct. 21st], participants found us, not the other way around."
"[Guitarist] Henry Kaiser's answer: 'I want to do this! I must do this!' frames the impulse very well," Didkovsky said. "Chuck and I tend to come up with ideas in a snowball/avalanche fashion, and this is no exception. The snowball effect is stunning. Most said 'yes' in a heartbeat. Everyone got on board with this stupid guitar before they even heard it, including us. People love the idea instantly. Nobody's on the fence. I both understand and don't understand that; I mean on one hand it's just a ridiculous idea that nobody should spend any time on, but on the other hand, you know, it's touching people in a very elemental way that draws them in. Alex Skolnick said it well and tersely: 'The idea sounds nonsensical, absurd and sillyI like it.' It's a little scary actually, we have way too many guitarists on board for one CD now and may have to do a double release."
Philosophizing with a Finger Hatin' Dead Fish
Sure, there are plenty of collaborative projects going on, the Internet certainly has facilitated long-distance partnerships, but this onethe idea of buying an old, nameless guitar with a mysterious past and sending it on its way, getting top-notch guitarists to record one song with it before sending it to the next playerhas a much different and undeniable, old-world appeal; a strange mix of Pre-Socratic ideals with Platonism, Byronic elements with Weimar Classicism and Absurdism; Romanticism meets pragmatism through a fact-value distinction. Here, an otherwise uninteresting, undesired, and inconsequential object becomes the vehicle through which a communal effort that celebrates individual creativity is expressed. This story addresses quality, equality, and inner beauty. In their words:
"As far as appeal goes, I think participation in this project is childish in the purest sense of the word. We're all being childish. We want to play," said Didkovsky. "I'm not going to render any judgment about it being a poor man's guitar or anything like that. There's real poverty on this planet. If you can spend $100 on a guitar and if you have running water you're already doing better than a lot of people. And I really want to resist the notion that my motivation is to teach anyone a lesson about how we don't need expensive guitars to make good musicthat should already be obvious to everyone. So that's not why I'm doing this. People will derive their own meaning from this project as it moves along and after it's done. What I do know is that I really want to record a tune with this finger hatin' dead fish and get into its stink and its ugliness, and be in the company of others who feel the same way.
"The spirit of the project is to mine sounds out of this crappy guitar and that's what's important: just get into its identity and do a piece with it," explained Didkovsky. "We expect people to really get into whatever this thing is and let it do the driving as they speak with their own voice. It would be disappointing if we heard a piece and went, 'uh, is the $100 Guitar really in there somewhere?' or if a piece had the $100 Guitar slapped on there just to fulfill the requirements of the project. But nobody's going to do that; everyone gets it. And, interestingly, it's an even playing field. We're not over-promising anything about this guitar, and then snickering at the thought of some guitarist discovering that really it's a finger hatin' dead fish. We all know it could well be a finger hatin' dead fish. Speaking for myself, that's what's cool about it. It's going to put up a fight and likely reveal some sonic treasures in the process."
O'Meara expounded: "Besides our love for the absurd and ridiculous side of things, this project is also about tapping into the 'soul' of something. Nick and I are huge fans of Werner Herzog and I think this is a theme in much of his work: finding something profound in an otherwise ordinary world."
Project details and rules are very straightforward: each guitarist keeps the guitar for one week and then send O'Meara and Didkovsky a finished, ready-to-go-on-CD sound file as well as a picture of themselves with the guitar.
"The restrictionswe prefer the term 'guidelines'are primarily practical," O'Meara explained. "We can't let 30 guitarists keep the guitar for a month or more because it would take years to finish the project, so we have to impose a one-week time limit. One firm rule is 'no cover tunes'; we just don't have the time or resources to be able to bother with copyrights and royalties and all that legal/financial stuff. If they want to play slide, fine. If they want to sing a song and use the guitar to accompany themselves, fine. If they want to multi-track it, fine. They can use effects but they cannot modify or improve [the guitar] in any way other than repair it if necessary or change strings."
Once done, each person then signs the guitar and sends/delivers it to the next at his/her own expense.
"Chuck and I will deal with the scheduling and let people know where to send it next or to whom to hand it locally." Although nothing has yet been formalized, Didkovsky added: "Sponsorship would be grandit would be nice to relieve anyone of any shipping costs."
What about the CD and all those other details?
"We expect totally finished tracks from participants. We will just take care of sequencing, mastering and the package. We don't know who will put this out yet. We haven't approached anyone," O'Meara offered.
"We're batting a lot of ideas around," Didkovsky said. "For a while we were batting around the idea of just making the project virtualthat pieces would be posted as mp3's as they became availablebut we think a CD is the way to go. It's too early to tell much more. Who knows... maybe a label might get interested. We'll look at every distribution possibility with a welcoming and critical eye."
The guitar's end?
"I saw Pete Townshend try to smash a Stratocaster in 1967," said O'Meara, "and I was amazed how much it took to make that guitar go silent! There's not much to fail, electric guitars are pretty tough. Wires can be soldered. Certainly if it got lost or burned up in a fire or something, that would be the end of it. Nick and I actually envision the guitar traveling around the world someday. If this project is successful, we'd give it to someone in China or Bulgaria and let them take over."
I'll be following this project, providing updates and further info as the story unfolds.
Cecile O'Meara (1); Charles O'Meara (2, 3, 4)