It was time to face my demons – or angels, depending on your point of view. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was comparing everything I tried to a Martin 000-size. I was so adamant that I didn’t want another dreadnought (or anything remotely similar in size) that I even gave over a page of my journal to a comparison chart, where I mapped dimensions of all the contender guitars, with my original Epiphone as the control, to see how far they deviated from the Martin blueprint. Clearly I was obsessing (no, really) and the only viable course of action was finally to try a 000. If it nestled up to me and felt right under my fingers, I would spend the money. I would either fall instantly in love or give a derisory snort at my own stupidity and phone the Auden factory.
So I decided on one last roll of the dice in the shape of a visit to Westside, the Martin distributor in Denmark Street. There I could try the 000 and the OM side by side and set my mind at rest.
With this plan in place, I set off with hope in my heart and a song on my lips for a week’s holiday on Anglesey where, truth to tell, I spent more than an hour or two in pleasant anticipation of the trip to come. That turned out to be time well wasted because I never made it.
I should have known better. While I was biding my time and savouring the decision-making process and waiting for a propitious opportunity for my awayday to the capital, Martin prices went up by about 15%, adding £250-300 to the cost of my objects of desire and nudging them tantalisingly out of reach once more. Previously, to buy one of Nazareth’s finest could have been considered recklessly extravagant; now it would be positively insane.
I moped. For a week.
But I still couldn’t quieten the nagging voice in my head, so I fired up my laptop and dollied together another chart, this time of comparative prices and availability of 000-28s and OM-21s in ten guitar dealers from Runcorn to Brighton. Only one of them had the 000 although six had the Orchestra Model. Of these, I chose the nearest to me and saddled up for PMT in Birmingham.
So I spent a lovely quiet Friday afternoon with an OM-21 (my first) in yet another soundproof room. The guitar has exactly the same body as a 000 but the scale is slightly longer, giving it a longer neck. It played beautifully and sounded just as clear and balanced as I’d hoped but with its simple black binding and faux tortoiseshell pickguard it just didn’t look as if it could justify its recently-inflated price tag. In the cosmetic department, the Auden Chester knocks spots off it. I filed it under “pending” in my mental document drawer and went online once more.
That was when I found RichTone music in Sheffield. They had a 000-28 in stock and it was at the pre-increase price. Their website said they were closed on Sunday so I rang late on Saturday to confirm that it was still there and at the advertised price. “Oh yes,” said the cheerful voice on the other end of the line. “We’ve got it.” Trying not to sound too eager, I told him I’d be travelling up first thing on Monday. “No problem,” he said, “but just check online before you leave home because we do trade on the internet and someone might buy it tomorrow.”
You can probably imagine the number of times I visited their website in the next 36 hours. When you have, double it. I practically laid siege to their virtual store. In fact I divided my time fairly evenly between desperately concocting reasons to justify the expenditure and panicking in case someone else clicked the link and beat me to it.
That Monday morning was overcast but I was a man with a purpose that would not be gainsaid. I had checked the website three times – before, during and after breakfast – and when I left home I was as sure as I could be that the guitar was still on a wall at the end of the A61.
It may be that there are better guitar shops than RichTone somewhere in the world, but I’ve never been in one. From the minute you enter the premises, there are guitars as far as the eye can see. On another occasion I might have been distracted by the wall of Les Pauls, or lingered lovingly in front of the array of Fenders ranked like roosting birds of paradise. This time, however, I wasn’t browsing for the sheer pleasure of doing so, I was in hot pursuit of a specific quarry.
I found it in the acoustic room and in no time flat was sitting on a leather sofa with the assurance that I could take as much time as I needed and try whatever I liked. So I did. An absolute bonus was that RichTone’s stock is so extensive that for the first time I had access to the Martin of my dreams, a brace of Taylor 412s and even the Gibson L-00, so I could compare the three for feel and sound in the same room. What a privilege.
Not that there was ever much doubt over the outcome. Although the plucky little Gibson almost stole my heart, the 000 felt right and sounded right and, equally as important, looked right. It has the class, the heritage and the tone of a modern masterpiece. I played it for about an hour, switching occasionally to one or other of its nearest rivals for the purpose of a specific point of comparison, but in truth, having played it at last, it sang so sweetly that it didn’t take much wrestling with my conscience before I was approaching the counter to strike a deal.
And so the acoustic odyssey came to an end, much to the relief of my nearest and dearest, who, by the end of the process, were heartily sick and fed up of hearing about Martins, Taylors, Audens, rosewood, spruce (Adirondack and Sitka), cedar and mahogany.
Was it all worth it?
Most definitely, in that I have a guitar for life that offers me the best fit for my playing style and aspirations, that has a clear, even balance of sound and a ringing sustain that just lifts your heart. I couldn’t be more pleased.
There are, though, some general observations I’d like to make having been through the experience:
- You hear a great deal about the truculence of the staff in guitar shops, that they’re only there while they wait for their band to get a break and that the longer that takes, or the less likely it becomes, the more supercilious they are. In my experience, this is demonstrably untrue. I was met with nothing but politeness from most of the assistants I dealt with, and they showed infinite reserves of patience as I hemmed and hawed over the instruments I was trying. They seemed genuinely interested in helping me and it was encouraging to think that my making the right choice was nearly as important to them as it was to me.
- Real guitar shops are a resource that it is worth fighting to preserve. Visit them and love them and spend your money in them or risk losing them.
- However attractive internet pricing might be, there is absolutely no substitute for sitting in a room and trying before you buy. In my view it would be courting despair to order on the basis of a thumbnail photo and a YouTube video.
- Having said that, not all guitar shops are created equal; in a couple of the ones I visited, instruments were quite badly scratched or showed signs of minor damage and, to be honest, that put me off, as did the thousand-pound guitar that was thick with dust on the shoulders. We punters are a fickle bunch and when we’re parting with a substantial chunk of change we like to feel we’re getting our money’s worth.
- Take your time to find the right guitar for you and don’t settle for second best. You’ll know when The One is in your hands – but you’ll have to kiss a lot of frogs.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. If you’ve read all four instalments, I salute your tenacity. I know this is only of interest to a minority of people but if you get it, you get it and there’s every chance you’re a fellow enthusiast with your own stories to tell. I look forward to hearing them.