Let's get into my Time Machine, shall we?
Where am I taking you?
I'm taking you to Christmas day, 2007. The second happiest day of my entire life and one of the most vivid memories I have of my adolescence. There I am, 17 years old. A bit chubby at 6'0" 200 pounds, long-ish hair (for a boy), wearing paint-stained K Mart basketball shorts and an ironic Christian t-shirt, and sitting next to my sister amid a pile of presents. Looking on, my mom and dad are eager to watch us unwrap.
Christmas was always about us, growing up. The adults didn't really care about getting presents. Instead, we were spoiled. Perhaps too much. There were years when our family didn't have a lot, but there were only perfect Christmases. Only perfect Christmases, yes, but something isn't right about this one. Read the expression on the young Me's face as we peer through a window in time. He's not happy.
Let's hit pause there, and go back even further.
It's March, or maybe April, of 2007. I can't remember. The young Me is sitting at the kitchen table, and he appears just as before: A bit chubby, smiling because he always kind of nervously smiles, sweating a bit because he always kind of sweats a bit (If I could knock on our window through time to get his attention, I might tell him don't sweat it—pun intended—he loses that weight in college and finds he's more athletic than he had thought, then gains it back after college because a quick bite to eat on the way to work is just too easy! I'd tell him, "Don't be so hard on yourself." But that's not how this Time Machine works). He's flipping through a catalog. Musician's Friend.
I remember distinctly flipping through the pages of that catalog, and that's when I saw it: The Gibson Guitar of the Week, the Les Paul Junior Double Cut Limited Nashville Edition, only 400 made. With its Super Jumbo inspired prairie flower pickguard and its satin white finish exposing swirling, chocolately mahogany grains, I was lovestruck in an instant.
I was about to go to college—like I said, 17 years old—and being 17 I had no money to speak of. I remember I showed my mom the guitar in that catalog, raving about how beautiful it was. I remember that I resigned myself to dreaming. I would never be able to afford one and my parents would never spend that much of their hard-earned money on a guitar. Not a chance. Weeks later, the Nashville Junior was but a distant memory.
Ok, now let's flash-forward again to Christmas of 2007. Unpause. My sister and I normally get the same amount of gifts, we get very similar gifts (usually clothes, we had outgrown toys. She gets jewelry and I might get some type of gadget, a smart-toy or watch) and my parents try to match our gifts in monetary value. In other words, if I get a $20 sweater then my sister gets a $20 sweater as well.
But like I said, there's something off about this Christmas. This Christmas was different. Sitting there amid all those presents, I realized just how few of them had my name on their tags. My sister, however, got an enormous haul of clothes and things—way more things than me! I opened my gifts and of course I was grateful for each of them, but secretly I felt like I'd been ripped off. I kept my mouth shut. Why did SHE get so much more than me?
After all was unwrapped—even the grown-ups had opened their gifts—my mother asked me to look underneath the couch. I remember it 'plain as day. From below the couch I pulled on the handle of a Gibson Les Paul shaped guitar case. I opened the case, trembling. My fingers could hardly undo the latches.
You can imagine my shock when I opened the case and there, shining brightly from the pure white, fluffy case interior and Christmas lights reflecting off freshly polished nickel hardware, was the Gibson Nashville Junior. My Gibson Nashville Junior, number 292 of 400.
I cry way too much for a normal man. And I'll confess that the moment I saw this guitar I started bawling. She remembered. My mother remembered! My mom, who couldn't give a rip about guitar gear, remembered. And my folks had saved money back all year to buy the guitar for me. This was no small purchase. In fact, I think it's the most expensive thing I've ever received. I was stunned.
Now, at the time, I was not a proficient electric guitar player. I had a Squier Stratocaster and I sort of learned to play it, but I much preferred the acoustic. And I was coming along as a rhythmic acoustic player, leading worship. Unknowingly, I had picked the perfect gateway to electric guitar playing in this Les Paul Junior, which even drew cosmetic appointments from its Gibson acoustic counterparts (like those pretty dandelions which have now worn from my Junior's pickguard over years of play). And with the chunky feel of its neck and the rock-solid construction of its one-piece hog body, it had an acoustic guitar feel to it. It certainly resonates like no other electric I've played. It resonates like an old acoustic guitar.
In the months following, the Nashville Junior was with me everywhere I went. And I must have played it at least five or six hours a day, banging out chords and trying to figure out some lead riffs. Playing punk rock because I thought I was cool. I was in love.
I took the Nashville Junior to Bible college. It was there that I began playing full-time, even making it onto the school's touring promotional worship band (wasn't a tough audition—I was the only kid there who had an electric guitar). We would lead worship all over the country and then provide information about our school after the conference or student event. We played every day of the week and for crowds of thousands—it was an enormous responsibility and I grew exponentially as a player because of it.
Over years on the road, the Nashville Junior took a beating. The picture here is from today, the guitar is eleven years old. It's worn where my arm rests, it's worn where my pick falls, it bears a buckle rash and knicks and dings—heck, the frets are worn nearly flat to the fingerboard from thousands of hours of playtime.
After college, I got a great job and I could afford new guitars. Fearing that the Junior would take even more of a beating, I retired the guitar to live in its case under my hometown bed.
Life has a funny way of taking you hundreds of miles from home, only to bring you right back around to show you where you truly belong and to teach you what truly matters. That's a lesson I've learned through my Nashville Junior. Let me explain.
Writers call it the Hero's Quest: Curtains open on a young Hero, safe in a land of comfort. We learn that our Hero wants something, he or she yearns. The Hero, no longer content to live in the land of comfort, endeavors to enter an unfamiliar situation, hoping to find that for which he or she longs.
Our Hero adapts to his or her unfamiliar surroundings. They fight to get what they want, but they have to pay a heavy price for it. Having paid that ultimate price, our Hero returns to his or her familiar land of comfort a changed man or a changed woman. Their world will never be the same.
I was in my land of comfort as an acoustic guitar player, banging out chords and singing along, leading worship for my youth group. But I wanted more—I wanted rock n' roll, I wanted noise, I wanted loud, I wanted the beautiful curves and lines of an electric guitar.
I gave in, like so many teenagers before me, to the allure of the electric guitar. The promise of stardom. The companionship of a trusted instrument. The joy of making music, not just repeating lines in songs, not just reading a chord chart, no, I wanted the thrill of wood and wire and electricity and my racing heart all coming together to get what Jimi Hendrix had, to get what the Edge got, to get what Mike Campbell has, to get that magic that James Burton and Merle Travis had—that MAGIC.
I've never surfed but I'd imagine surfing is just exactly like playing guitar. That through a slab of wood, you're able to carve out your own little slice of an endless sonic ocean of soundwaves. Just as the board gives a surfer access to the raging pipe that could very well kill them, so the electric guitar gives its humble wielder access to a world of electric musical notes, any one of which to ruin him. You ever turn the amps up and get a little feedback going to intro a song like Hendrix did in Foxey Lady then you know exactly what I mean; the Universe gave him that note.
So you say, Ok, that's all well and good—we know you're poetic about this guitar. But what about that Hero's journey? What lesson did it teach you? Why should we care? Stick with me here—I promise I'm almost done…
Around 2011 or 2012, I got a great job and I became able—for the first time ever—to buy nice things for myself. I went nuts and bought seven or eight guitars between 2012 and 2016. In 2016, realizing I had eight or so passable guitars, that I was just O.K. with, I decided to sell each of my O.K. guitars and get one wildly extravagant dream guitar. Of course of course of course I would not sell the Nashville Junior, remember, it's still under the bed in my room in my parent's house. I sold each of my guitars and I used the funds to buy one guitar that costed $4,000. It was to be my dream guitar.
And it kind of disappointed me, once the honeymoon period was over. My frustration: Why can't anything I buy match the Nashville Junior in comfort and feel, but solve all of the problems I had had with the Junior after years of abuse? It's not a problematic guitar overall but it does need refretting, it's needed a new nut, the output jack is scratchy, the cheap old Grover tuners have a frustrating slip to their gears so that it's very difficult to tune the guitar, it intonates poorly with a vintage-style wraparound bridge and with only one P90, tonal options are a bit limited.
Why can't any new guitar I buy have the feel of the Junior's neck? Why do all of their glossy finishes make my hands stick as I work the neck?—and the Nashville Junior has a slick ebony fingerboard—Why aren't too many other electrics built with an ebony board? Why are they all so much heavier than my Junior? Why do their pickups not sound right, not have that midrange growl that the Junior's P90 has? Why do other P90 guitars seem like they've got a much higher output? Why can I not just be content with other guitars?
And the Nashville Junior has bailed me out of some terrible situations, professionally-speaking. A few years ago, I was playing for a worship band in downtown Knoxville and was in a small, gymnasium-like multipurpose room. I was provided a Deluxe Reverb Reissue, I had my pedalboard, the Nashville Junior and a Telecaster. I was going to stick to the Telecaster all night and only use the Junior for backup if needed, because of that scratchy output.
It ended up that in that big, reflective room, with lower-output modern-sounding single coils and an amp that lacked mids by nature, I couldn't hear myself at all. I had the amp pointed at my face and couldn't hear myself. I had myself up in my monitors and couldn't hear myself. Those mid-scooped guitars and amps can get so lost in the overall mix in a mids-trappy sort of room like a gym. Out of desperation, I switched to the Junior, and the mahogany body combined with the growling P90 gave me the presence that I needed to stand out in the mix. Suddenly, on all the same settings—just having switched guitars—I was way louder.
Another time, I was playing this glossy high-end Strat through my pedalboard and my Matchless, and I thought it sounded pretty good. I was in the honeymoon phase following the $2,000 purchase of that Strat. My bandleader STOPPED REHEARSAL and goes, "Josh, where's the Gibson? I don't mean to be critical but you just don't sound like you without it." Later on, he told me that my comfort-level with regard to the music seemed to increase when I plugged in the right guitar. I got more confident.
And I think there's truth to that, with a science behind it—it's not just me waxing poetic about a guitar I like: Tone aside, the shorter scale length of the Junior over my Strat allowed for more fluidity and more efficient use of my left thumb and pinky. I have small hands. My grip and my reach are completely different on a Gibson. I wonder if you've ever noticed that in your playing…
To wrap this long blog post up, after trying all the guitars in the world, over the last year and a half or so I've been back to the Nashville Junior as my number one guitar and only taking the others as backups. I still kind of want to retire the Junior as my number one—I would die if anything ever happened to it, it is my one most prized physical possession—so I'm still on the hunt for something to take out on the road as its replacement.
Options: I like the Veritas Orpheus Junior. I like the Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul Specials as well—I wouldn't mind having the neck pickup for a second tonal option. I love the look of Nik Huber's Krautster but I've never played one. I played a Collings DC 290 and it's a bit of a variation on the double cut Les Paul shape, that I'm not crazy about, but it was one of the best guitars I've ever played. Who knows what's next?
But listen to me, right? I have the one magical guitar and I'm looking for another? Why press my luck? Why not just play this one as my "Signature" guitar until I'm gone? Why not choose contentment? Today, I was messaged by a guy who said he saved up and bought his all-time favorite guitar—the one he has dreamed about since he started playing at 14—but that now he feels pressure to get rid of it in favor something custom from Veritas, Suhr, or Elliott.
That's what prompted me to write this blog post. I told him, if your 14 year-old self got into a Time Machine and came to today, and saw that he ends up being able to buy his dream guitar, what would he say about you selling that instrument you so dearly love? How do you think he'd feel?
Do we have a duty to appease our childhood selves? No. Definitely not. I no longer wish to eat Fruit Loops for every meal. I no longer feel that 'waterslide tester' is a viable career option. But I do recognize that there is power in going out and accomplishing the dreams you used to dream, even when your current goals have changed.
I didn't have to save up for my dream guitar, it was graciously given to me by my folks who were stretched thin, I know. Having two kids going into college, they probably shouldn't have spent all that money on a guitar. I'm forever grateful. Again, it was one of the happiest days of my life.
But the principle is the same. To my teenage self, I might show all of the lovely bruises on our Les Paul Junior and tell him about all of the amazing places we were able to go. And I'd hope that he would look at me—eleven and a half years removed from 17—and be at least a bit proud of the way I've lived or what I've done, how I've handled adversity.
I hope that full-circle, the present Me could remember the dreams my younger self dreamed and look back with fondness for the dreamer, to let those old dreams—like the dream of one day obtaining such a beautiful guitar, as I flipped through the pages of whatever month's Musician's Friend—inspire in me gratitude and thankfulness for the things I have today and the ways in which I've been blessed.
One thing is for sure: I'll play my Gibson USA Les Paul Junior Double Cut Limited Nashville Edition, number 292, until I die. I play it everyday lately—it's sitting by my desk in my office. I'm with Willie Nelson on this one; he said of his famous guitar Trigger, "When Trigger goes, I'll quit." Well if my Junior goes, I think I'd do the same.