Saturday, February 09, 2013

Sightless from Kansas

The golden rule is – never buy unseen. Guitars, of course. The perceived wisdom is to go to a dozen music shops, get to know each guy at the desk and ask to play everything he’s got that costs more than four thousand.  This usually gets his attention, but it’s a short-term policy, especially if you’re wearing scuffed Levis and a donkey jacket with three days’ growth of beard suggesting you can barely afford the price of a pack of cigarettes and just need somewhere to shelter from the rain. I made a policy of buying a couple of picks at each shop I went in to, just to establish a little bona fides, which means I’m drowning in an avalanche of plastic.
Against all my instincts and better judgement, I have to confess therefore that I’ve done just that. As well as trawling the rue du Douai endlessly looking for the Voice of God, I found a music shop in Lawrence, Kansas having an impressive pedigree of names and instruments. 
Lawrence is a hell of a way from, well, almost anywhere, really. Kansas landscapes are endlessly rolling and dead-straight roads make you feel like you have to play John Denver in the car. Not a first-choice place to look. I made a tentative enquiry and discovered that Americans take their guitars seriously. The instrument photography was accurate and unretouched, the staff knew what they were talking about and seemed willing and patient enough to deal fairly with an overseas customer with anxiety problems.
Stuart Mossman (1942 - 1999) was an American guitar maker. He built over 6,000 guitars from 1968 to 1984 that were played by several professional guitarists, including John Denver and Eric Clapton. Far smaller than Martin's high volume output and now, Bob Taylor's,  Mossman's work has become the stuff of legend and he’s widely regarded as the foundation for today's generations of luthiers who build guitars from fine tone woods. About thirty-five years ago, a guy I knew came into the music store where I and other young and mostly incompetent hopefuls used to hang out periodically with One of His which he had bought after a visit to a place called Walnut Valley, which I had never heard of. The sound it made literally left me breathless and I made a promise to myself that one of these days I was going to get my hands on one.
The shop not only had one, but at a price which wasn’t stratospheric. I argued with myself, writing twitchy emails to the patient people in the store about everything I could think of. They must have thought that they had Woody Allen as a prospective buyer. Yet, an inner voice was quietly reassuring. A man who makes a fine musical instrument puts a part of his soul into it. Mossman didn’t just make axes for dudes to pick at marshmallow parties – he left something of himself embedded in the heavy flatpicker bracing, the rock-solid neck (Mossman’s neck guy was a banjo player so the neck is fast and responsive) the spruce top and East Indian rosewood back and sides.  At that time, customers were able to order a specific type of voicing for their guitars described in the catalogue as "overbalanced bass, overbalanced treble, or balanced bass and treble. Such refinements were only available from a master luthier - I’m still figuring out what kind I’ve got.
One rather neat touch is that everyone who has a hand in the instrument initials the label and dependent on production rate can be as few as six or as many as twelve initials. SLM himself signed mine (73-274) also EH – Ed Holick – the Stradivarius of the operation. 
In 1975, it was bought by a local flatpicker who was placed at the Walnut Valley Festival with it and he signed the top. Turns out he became the Secretary of State for Kansas. I think I’ll leave it, having no idea whether the politician's signature will either drop its value by a thousand bucks or the reverse. The guitar was professionally set up and restored in 2009 and when I change the light strings with which it travelled and warm up the table a little bit, it’ll be loud enough to annoy the neighbours. On a reflective note, the instrument is old, well-used and I think has been well-loved. It's unadorned with abalone or mother of pearl, which I appreciate - must be something to do with a dour Nonconformist upbringing. The spruce top doesn't have dead-straight grain lines. There's some tiny crazing on the rosewood at the back and somebody has carefully repaired a couple of small cracks - almost inevitable for something as old as this. In other words, it's a little bit flawed. Just like its new owner, which pleases me. Perfection is both impossible to attain and, more importantly, impossible to maintain. I'm comfortable with that.


  1. You will find with a little research that Mass Street Music is world renowned for their instruments and honesty. Stuart Mossman was instrumental in not only building guitars but in starting one of the greatest music festivals in the world. Some folks call it the Walnut Valley Festival but most of us just call it Winfield. Mass Street has had a booth at Winfield for years and many a Mossman has changed hands there. You have a loved piece of history in your possession.

  2. Congratulations, MathMan. Really. I look forward to hearing you play it, knowing that your skill will more than match the soul of the instrument. What a treasure you've found, and I'm quite sure the staff at Mass Street Music did think you might be channeling "Woody Allen" more than once.

    Speaking of which - this is hilarious (I don't think I got it from you.. did I?)

    1. Somebody asked me about the title of this post - it's a play on words of Huxley's 'Eyeless in Gaza' which in turn is a reference to Samson. Just sayin'.

  3. You did, as it happens. You also remarked on it, the slippage of memory I shall attribute to a crowded mind, not, in fact, the onset of Alzheimer's. The older I get the more like WA I find myself becoming. Except for the Jewish part - one needs a lifetime to achieve that. I have a strained muscle in my arm which is impairing function by at least ten percent and I'm convinced I've got bone cancer.


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