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The $100 Guitar Project: Act 1

Pascal-Denis Lussier By

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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 story—the 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 catalyst—the rub on the genie's lamp, if you will—that 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 butchered—the 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 guitar—it 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!

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