I like distinctive instruments. Not just because they’re distinctive, although I have always been attracted to the unusual. They also make fantastic ice-breakers. People who may be reluctant to come up and talk to me will often comment on an instrument, and the conversation can flow freely after that.
Why are people reluctant? For my part, I don’t honestly know. To be fair, many people are not reluctant at all. But there is a gap which audiences tend to create between themselves and performers of any kind, especially offstage. It’s like that fourth wall becomes some kind of force field. There are obviously times when that’s a good thing–if I was some mega star, I’d probably appreciate some people keeping their distance. Although it seems like the bigger a figure one is, the less this force field principle applies. But that’s for a different post. Besides the whole performer thing, I rarely make any secret of my blindness in music circles and that definitely creates a force field. So having an instrument that people can focus on makes it easier to connect, and connecting with people is what the arts are all about. With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to Miguel.
Miguel is a 6-string guitar built by Ehlers Guitars. Robert Ehlers has been building guitars for a long time and is currently based in Mexico, which is where the flavor of this instrument’s name comes from.
While this looks and sounds and plays like a custom-built instrument, technically it isn’t. It was originally built in 2005 and spent several years as a ‘shop guitar’. That’s an instrument that serves as an example of a luthier’s work that folks can come in and try out. During that period, it was decided that the guitar should have a new neck. I don’t know what was wrong with the original one, probably something about the contour. So it was re-necked and eventually moved out of the Ehlers shop and landed at the now-defunct Pioneer Music Co. in Portland, where I bought it in October of 2009.
There’s a lot of cool stuff about this guitar, but the thing people usually notice first is the top (also called the soundboard). See that deep amber color? The finish on this guitar is clear so that’s the actual color of the figured Sitka Spruce (known as bearclaw spruce). This piece of wood was aged for 20 years before this guitar was made, and between the color and the figuring, it is incredibly striking. Let’s not forget that it sounds completely amazing, too. The back and sides are Indian Rosewood, which has an incredible depth and the color goes well with the darker coloring of the top.
The dog paw inlays (in gold mother-of-pearl) was an addition I had made shortly after I bought the guitar, along with adding a pickup. Many people don’t like the idea of modifying instruments because it could reduce their resale value, but this is one instrument I am never going to turn loose of. I have all my acoustic work done at Portland Fret Works.
Many people find this hard to believe, but by the time I made a purchasing decision I was sick of playing guitars. I visited every store in the Portland metro are and played every acoustic within my price range. Then I went back and played some a second time, and finally had it down to two choices: Miguel and a highly-customized Taylor at Guitar Center. I learned a wonderful lesson and am very lucky to have done so the way I did. You see, I really liked the look of the Taylor and the feel was also great, and so I was leaning toward it as my #1 choice. But in all honesty, the folks at Guitar Center would not negotiate on used gear and really didn’t offer me any kind of decent deal, so I decided to give Miguel one more try before I decided. I must have spent a good hour at Pioneer Music before I finally said “I’ll take it.” Remember that this was the third such session I’d spent with the guitar. Not only is it built better, it sounds better and most important of all, it cost less than what GC was trying to sell me the Taylor for. If there is a downside, it’s that I am completely sold on custom-built guitars and that’s pretty much the only direction I look in when I upgrade from a factory-built instrument. Production lines can produce some good stuff, but when you’re spending big bucks, you may as well get exactly what you want.
But this Pioneer story gets a little better. Once I’d decided to buy Miguel, the salesman went to get the case for it. For those who may not know, GC does not sell guitars that include cases, usually not even gig bags. It seemed to be taking a really long time for the guy to come back with the case, and when he finally arrived he told me that the original case’s handle was broken so they gave me a brand-new TKL case, which I still have and absolutely love. Miguel lives hanging on the wall with my other guitars now, but when he travels he lives in this case and the smell inside is the most amazing thing. It’s like wood-scented dark chocolate. Whenever I have to pack up the guitar, I always take a few moments to savor the smell of the case. Call me weird if you want, I don’t care 😀
Aside from his looks, Miguel has an amazing sound. It’s very tonally balanced, so the bass response is smooth and warm and the high response is bright but not tinny. It offers a very neutral palette to create with but still has its own personality. While I think the Martin boom and the Taylor sparkle are both interesting, for everyday use I like something that isn’t limited to one strong range. Below is a link to a song I recorded with Miguel in the studio. It’s probably best if you listen more to the guitar than the singing…
Miguel did not have a name until April 2011. I never plan to name instruments, but many people asked me and so I decided to allow inspiration to flow. Because the guitar was born in Mexico, a name appropriate to that part of the world seemed right. As we have played together, this guitar seems to have a male voice and the images evoked by the tone are of a mysterious and handsome man with deep golden-brown eyes, a passionate soul, and a smooth, resonant voice. I spent a lot of time wondering what his name was, and Miguel is the one name that kept coming to me, so there you have it.