Guitar hero

September 6, 2011

This article was published Sept. 9, 2007.

The sun rose one Saturday morning the same as any other, except that I awoke deaf. It came without warning, as if awaking in a Kafka nightmare: nothing but an incessant painful scream in my left ear. It sounded as if my ear were pressed against a powerful blown-out Marshall electric guitar amplifier roaring at full-bore. The slightest sound was magnified and distorted beyond hurt to an excruciating, overdriven rage. I could not speak above a whisper. My own voice, my own footsteps, were intolerably loud and painful. Sounds were so distorted — as if I were inside a trash can — that it was difficult to comprehend speech through my other ear. If that were not enough, the room in my living nightmare shifted like the deck of a ship, heaving me around in a disoriented, dizzy daze.

My doctor dismissed it as an outer ear infection, this being Saturday with only a telephonic diagnosis possible. Sensing that the diagnosis was less than insightful, I drove myself to the hospital in a painful fog of sensory deprivation and was admitted.

I had been stricken by an inner ear disorder, a buildup of fluid pressure rupturing membranes in my cochlea. This sudden disease is like glaucoma, which is a fluid-pressure buildup in the eye, but when it strikes your inner ear, it robs you of balance and hearing as suddenly as a purse snatcher. The painful screaming was the sound of hair cells in my ear dying, poisoned by the ruptured fluids. As loud as the loudest thing I had ever heard, the shrieking would not stop. After a few weeks, the vertigo subsided, but there was no improvement in my hearing.

The things I loved the most had gone with my hearing loss: dinner conversation, mountain climbing — and music.

In the previous 10 years, my love of music had developed into a passionate sideline: building stringed instruments. In a frenzy, I had built every variety of guitar imaginable: classical to electric. I opened the door to my workshop smelling of cedar shavings and sharpening stone oil and saw the guitar I was working on resting on the work bench. It was nearly completed. If I finished building this instrument, it would surely prove to be my last guitar. I wished I had known.

* * *

If you were a guitar-maker and knew you were building your last guitar, what would it be? An impressive dreadnought encrusted in pearl? Would you change the way you built it? Hypothetical questions for you, but in my case, I knew the answer.

As it happened, my last guitar was not an ornately decorated or unusual instrument: It was a simple classical guitar, with traditional Torres “fan bracing” against a flawless European spruce top. This was the instrument in its purest form: the guitar that had given birth to the endless variety that followed. I felt grateful for the chance to return to the roots of tradition in what would be my final effort.

Still, had I known this would be my last guitar, I would have built it differently. I would have taken more care with it, and more time. I would have stopped when the construction became difficult or tiresome, and returned to the problem later to meet it fresh. Not because this would have produced a superior result, but to maximize the enjoyment and pleasure of performing every step. In working the wood, I smell the soil of the rainforest and marvel at the transformation of this once living thing, with its own unique life and mortality, transformed into something of lasting beauty. A guitar is an abstraction of the human mind, carved and shaped by hand into a tangible reality; in the hands of a musician it becomes an instrument to carve out just as tangibly, the shape and colors of the human soul.

But what is the point of building an instrument that you will never hear in its full beauty? Probing the answers, you dig to the core of why you build. Beethoven gave us the most eloquent answer with his Fifth Symphony, followed by 4 1/2 more. I used to marvel at how Beethoven could have written such music while deaf; now I realize the deeper question: Why? Why would someone write music they could never hear?

Much of the creative pleasure of building a guitar by hand is the extraordinary adventure of watching it unfold. This is the essential difference between a hand-built guitar and a manufactured one. Rather than being constructed to meet a specification standard, a custom guitar develops unpredictably. Building a guitar begins with endless possibilities and choices, but, as the instrument takes shape, the choices narrow. Even the misfortunes and injuries contribute to the distinctive character of each instrument as the imperfections are overcome.

* * *

TThe guitar that would be my last was conceived the instant I saw this beautiful, striking piece of wood. South American ziricote hardwood is a blaze of highly figured grain: swirls of black, brown, red and tan. This slice of wood captured the early-growth center of the log. When the panels were joined to make the back of the guitar, the flesh-colored early growth created a natural back-strip mirroring two symmetrical book-matched whorls of grain on either side of the spine. The binding and bridge were ebony. The back was framed with marquetry perfling, organizing the diverse spectrum of colors in the ziricote into a geometrically crystalline perimeter strip. The top braces were red cedar laminated around carbon fiber. I would have used spruce, but the cedar blocks I split by hand were better quality than the spruce, so I deviated from convention. I carved the neck from African mahogany; its heel was too wide to conform to convention, but its unique shape evolved to accommodate the pale strip of sapwood.

* * *

But I haven’t told you the whole story. The day before I awoke to that painful scream in my ear, I spent the day with my 13-year-old daughter, Kelly. I debated taking the day off from work, because I was extremely busy, but in the end I agreed to chaperon a school trip to Hershey, Pa., for an orchestra competition. I am so grateful I did. The last thing I heard before this disease struck was my daughter playing her cello.

It was an especially meaningful piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” the story of The Thousand and One Nights. The king’s bride tells such an enchanting story that he postpones her planned execution for another day. The enchantment continues the next night with a new story, and this is repeated endlessly. The theme of the piece is about never wanting the music to end. I became swept up in the music, the enchanting theme repeating in endless variety and dynamics. Kelly played her part beautifully, and with extraordinary sensitivity and feeling. Even the judges in their written remarks commented on the intensity and emotion from the cello. I was transported and suspended. I never wanted the music to stop. But that is absurd; the music always stops. Yet it never ends, because there is always a new song, a new day.

Music not only can capture the soul, it can also save it. In my case, from slipping into a pointless bog of self-pity. As I write this, it is a year after I woke to that painful scream. I remain deaf in my left ear with the constant roar of noise only I can hear. But, thankfully, sounds are less painful now, and I have slowly accommodated to the distortion. I will learn to adapt and accept the Russian roulette 5-to-1 odds that my good ear will not succumb to the same fate. I have good hearing up to 6 kilohertz in my right ear, which spans the range of speech and the voice of my preferred stringed instrument. It is not much different from the old AM radio in my first car, which gave me enormous pleasure. I will learn to operate in mono.

When I strain to hear “Scheherazade” now, it releases a flood of memories and emotion, as if looking at a faded photograph of a cherished event long ago. The emotion is not regret that the photograph is crumpled and drained of color, but of deep gratitude for the memory it preserves. I will build one last instrument from a beautifully flamed piece of maple: a cello for Kelly.

My experience is remarkable to me only because it is personal. The fall before my hearing loss, with my son and good friends, I clawed my way up the mile-high vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in California over six days and nights, realizing every inch of the way that the granite wall had been sliced away by nothing more than ice and time. I cannot think that human flesh is somehow different.

Life’s blessings are in the feast of choices it offers. But I see now that your choices matter only to you and to those who share their lives with you. The sun will rise tomorrow, regardless. We should heed the wise advice to enjoy the music while it lasts. There is so much great music that I wish I had heard. I wish that I had been more serious about becoming a skilled player, but, honestly, I do not know what I would have displaced from my life to gather these experiences.

Now, every day, I awake and listen for the sound of birds singing to learn whether or not my luck has failed. But the only difference between you and me is that, in my case, I know the odds.

There are so many guitars I wanted to build and so many new ideas I wanted to try. With an earplug in my ear to dampen the painful sound, I attended a conference for stringed instrument builders for the last time. There among the exhibits, I encountered a beautiful piece of blond curly maple. I could not stop myself from buying it. I am going to build this guitar as a gift for my good friend and climbing partner Tom. That will be my last guitar. Until I build the next one. The wonderful thing about music is that it makes so many good friends. I want to build guitars for all of them. From this day forward, I will always be building my last guitar.

Doug Fields lives in Silver Spring with his wife and three children. He can be reached at rdouglasfields@nasw.org.

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