Archive for October, 2020

The Myth of Fingerprints

Friday, October 16th, 2020

I’ve got this crazy clean 59 ES-335 and it plays and sounds as good as at least 95% of the 335’s I’ve had. Just because it was well cared for OR simply not played much doesn’t mean it’s a dog. That’s a myth. Well played beat up guitars are often excellent players but very clean guitars aren’t always unplayed. Sometimes they are simply well cared for. Sometimes they are unplayed for reasons other than they suck.

With apologies to Paul Simon because I’m sure this isn’t what he meant when he wrote about the “myth of fingerprints”, there are certain myths and legends that seem to creep into the vintage guitar consciousness. Like early 60’s Les Pauls were made from leftover bodies (they weren’t) or Brazilian rosewood fingerboards sound better than Indian rosewood. Both persist and you can argue the latter all you want but until somebody can prove the point, I’m sticking to my guns. But the myth I’m going to try to blow a hole in today is the idea that if an old guitar is mint or close to it, it must be a dog because nobody wanted to play it. I’m writing from experience here as I get to play a lot more guitars than you do and probably a lot more mint ones.

First off, the reverse has some truth to it. A guitar that HAS been played a lot is probably a good one because bad ones actually don’t get played as much. But just because a guitar didn’t get played doesn’t mean it sucks. It CAN mean that but I think the more likely scenarios follow. Little Johnny gets a spectacular red 335 for his 12th birthday in 1964 from his Aunt Mildred who played ukulele in a USO band in 1944. Johnny has no talent and even less patience, so after a half dozen lessons from Mr. Orsini (who will only teach jazz and Johnny wants to be a rock star so the girls will like him), he gives it up and it sits under the bed at his Mom’s house in Schenectady. Johnny goes on to greatness as a prosecutor and has a wonderful life until he gets caught taking bribes from the mayor. Johnny goes to jail for white collar crimes and has to put his mint 64 335 on Reverb in order to make bail.

OR Billy saves up the money from his paper route that gets him out of bed a 4 AM every morning for a lousy $4.49 a week (plus tips from Mrs. Van Dyck up the street who thinks Billy is cute). He scrimps and saves and finally after 2 years is able to buy that Stratocaster that’s in the window of Hermies Music Store in Schenectady. Billy plays in a band and he wipes down his Strat after every song and puts it in the case between sets rather than leaning it up against the Super Reverb that took him another year to get (Dad helped out but Mom doesn’t know about it). 55 years later, Billy still has his prized Strat (and plays it every day and still wipes it down) until he passes away in 2020 of Covid 19 and his no talent son puts it on Reverb to get money to buy weed.

OR little Jimmy’s father was a semi-pro player and he “inherits” Dad’s nearly new ’73 Les Paul Custom when Dad suddenly disappears with his administrative assistant and is never heard from again. Little Jimmy has a ton of talent but the guitar weighs 13 pounds and sounds like crap. Jimmy has his beat up Telecaster and leaves Dad’s guitar at Mom’s house when he finally moves out at the age of 25. Now Jimmy isn’t little Jimmy any more but Dad’s old LP is still under the bed at his Mom’s. Jimmy bought himself 20 or 30 guitars over the years but that old LP is just a dog of a player. Then 2020 happens and the economy tanks and Jimmy has to sell some things to make rent and he remembers the old LP at Mom’s house in Schenectady and puts it on Reverb.

Both Johnny’s and Billy’s guitars are tone monsters but neither got beat up-one because the owner had no talent and the other because the owner was careful. Both scenarios are made up but they illustrate the disconnect between the idea that a mint guitar is a bad player and a beater is a great one. Only the third scenario gives any credence to the myth. The guitar that has no fingerprints (and dings and dents and scrapes) CAN be a dog but it isn’t necessarily a dog. A beater is less likely to be a dog-I will grant that but I’ve played enough great mint guitars to know that the myth is false. There is something known as “The Curse of the Mint Guitar” which I’ve written about if you can find it. Or I’ll just write another post about it later. Now, I think I’ll go play the mint 59 335 I’ve got in my shop.

The stories are made up but based in truth. I am, in fact, from Schenectady, NY but this is not biographical (mostly). Hermie’s Music is a real place in Schenectady and Mr. Orsini was my guitar teacher in 1964 who hated rock and roll. I am neither Johnny, Billy or Jimmy. They all exist but the names are changed.