By Tony Bennett
If you know about musicians, you know that many of them have favorite instruments, ones that are almost as big a part of the sounds they make as their brains and hands are. Willie Nelson has “Trigger,” the nylon-string guitar that he’s played for decades to the point that the friction from his hands has worn holes in it. Neil Young has “Old Black,” a customized vintage Gibson Les Paul that he is rarely seen without.
It’s the same with local players. Like a pair of boots or a hat that’s worn in just the right way, musical instruments can be items that, once they’re broken in, never leave a person’s collection.
“You build relationships with instruments,” said Jake Larson, a Duluth recording engineer and musician who most recently played with The Social Disaster. “They’re the vessels of our creativity, and you have to trust them to get your ideas across.”
Larson’s choice for the one piece of gear he’ll never part with: his Minimoog Voyager Old School synthesizer. “It’s the last synth that Bob Moog designed himself, and they only made 1,000 or so of them,” Larson said. “I don’t think I’ve even seen another one in person. At this point, it’s like an old friend to me. Sometimes we fight, but we always make up.”
He acquired the synth in a trade for a piece of gear he had lying around that someone wanted more than he did. “I had always wanted something more like a Minimoog to have in the studio for quick synth parts, but a vintage one would have many of the same maintenance issues — not to mention I couldn’t afford one,” Larson said.
“My whole life, I had been obsessed with the Moog sound, and finally, I had it,” Larson said. “I’d convince everyone to put it on their albums in one way or another. I ended up closing (my) studio, and the Moog came home to collect dust until I was asked to start a band with some of my friends. I said, ‘Sure, but I’m playing Moog bass.’ Everyone was fine with that, and it turned out to be a great way to stand out as a band. Something different. A rock band with synth bass.”
Rich Mattson’s favorite guitar is one that he’s been seen with on stages all over the Midwest for decades. Indeed, his Gretsch Country Gentlemen — purchased in Virginia, Minn., for $320 in 1986 — is an instrument that he, until recently, was rarely seen without.
“It felt right in my hands,” he said. “It was my main axe from 1989 to 2014 with my groups the Glenrustles and Ol’ Yeller. I never broke a string on stage with it, and for all the use I get out of the infamous Bigsby tremolo, it stays in tune remarkably well. I never had a backup guitar. I put all my faith in this one, and on average, I played around 100 to 130 shows a year with it. At this point, the guitar is all but worn out. The frets are wrecked, and the bridge is a rusty bar of crud.
“I used to tell my close friends that, when I die, I’d like to be cremated and my ashes stuffed into the guitar. At my funeral, pass the guitar around and play a tune on it, or a few notes, then put it in that old beat-up case and bury it. Not sure if that’s the way I still want my remains dealt with — I mean, kind of a waste of a valuable instrument.”
Former Duluthian and mastermind of Timbre Ghost, Dustin Tessier said his 2004 Gibson Les Paul is the one piece of gear he’ll never part with. He said the guitar “has quite a bit of sentimental worth.” As with Mattson’s Gretsch, it took a bit of time for his particular instrument to sink its hooks in.
“At first, I had a tenuous relationship with the guitar, at best,” Tessier said. “It was only after not giving up on this guitar that the relationship started to flourish. I put hours upon hours of love into the guitar. It began to meld with my body in the way a pair of well-worn jeans becomes familiar to the physical form. Now it’s the most natural feeling. I pick that guitar up, and I know exactly where to dig my fingers in to get it to growl, how to ease the volume back and keep it sweet, and how to finesse it to get lyrical and melodic.”
Social Disaster drummer Ryan Nelson sums up the connection between an artist and the instruments they love when he speaks about his ’70s Ludwig Vistalite drums.
“I think a personal connection is what makes instruments special,” Nelson said. “They’re made to help the player express themselves in their own way, either on stage or on tape. And my drums tell their own story, especially since they’re older than I am. They’re scratched, scuffed, have been bled on. And I’ve had the pleasure of playing them on stage since I was 13 or so.”
Beloved instruments are not so because they’re the most expensive or the best-looking — it’s about a relationship between a person and an object that serves them the best in the pursuit of musical bliss.