Guitar Hero

By Doug Fields
Sunday, September 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 41/2 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.

THE 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.

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