The Awkward Phone Call

By Maynard Hershon

Randi, my wife Tamar’s co-worker, is learning to play the guitar. Her uncle, who lives in Kansas, builds stringed instruments. The uncle, who evidently loves his niece, promised some months ago to build her an acoustic guitar. She has recently received it and started playing it.

I haven’t seen it yet, but Tamar tells me it’s beautiful and that Randi loves it. I am further told that she keeps a humidifying gadget in the guitar, necessary in our very dry Denver climate.

Just this morning, Tamar informed me that Randi discovered the back of her new guitar has cracked, as has her heart, I’m sure. She now has to tell her loving uncle that the beautiful guitar he made for her is cracked and it’ll have to go back to Kansas.

That won’t be an easy phone call to make.

Decades ago, when I’d been riding for 15 years, I ordered a custom bicycle from an old friend. He was not my uncle, but I was closer to him than I had been to any of my uncles.

We put our heads together to make the 100 decisions involved in ordering such a bike. As already mentioned, I’d been riding for a good while and had owned a number of bikes. I knew what I liked, you could say.

Time passed, and my new bike was finished. It was, as you’d expect, just perfect. The sweetest bike in the seven western states.

The fashion in those steel frame days was to route the rear brake cable into and out of the top tube. Usually that worked fine, but on my bike the cable rattled against the inside of the tube on bumpy roads. I could hear it and if there was no traffic my riding partners could hear it.

I was in the same situation as Randi. I had to tell my friend the framebuilder about the rattle, knowing as I did that fixing it would mean metal work and new paint; many hours of work. I tried every Band-Aid cure I (or anyone I knew) could come up with. Nothing fixed that damn rattle.

The bike went back to my buddy the builder. He closed the holes in the tube that the cable had passed through. He brazed little circular guides on top of the top tube for the new external cable routing. He repainted the frame, fork and both pumps: one for along the seat tube, one for under the top tube. And, if memory serves, he repainted two matching bottle cages.

Lotta work. He may have forgotten all this, years and years later, but I never have.

Just last Thursday night, Tamar and I were sitting at a dinner table with six friends. One of them, Sandy, told us that he was about to go shopping for his first guitar. The guy sitting next to him, a long-term guitarist, was to accompany him in his search.

Sandy had never so much as plucked or strummed a guitar string. He does not know what he likes. The helper is a guitar aficionado, partial to Martin guitars — not a surprise. I got the feeling that he thinks a cheap guitar is an abomination.

Far too often the enthusiast is a faulty guide for the novice.

I told the prospective new player that I’m learning to play the ukulele. I bought a $100 uke to start with and still play it, I said. I’ve bought a nicer one since, but when I travel or can’t be sure the cased ukulele won’t get knocked around, I take the old one. I’m glad I have it.

When I bought my second one, I could have stepped up and bought a custom model from a builder. “Will I play better?” I asked myself. “Will I feel as comfortable taking it places with me?”

“If something happens to it, will I make myself miserable?” With a handmade uke, I won’t be able to simply buy another ... or return it to the store where I bought it for a warranty replacement.

I wondered if Sandy taking an expert with him when he shops for a first guitar is a good idea. He may buy a more expensive, classier guitar than he needs or can appreciate. What if he becomes frustrated at his slow progress and doesn’t stay with it?

And if he does keep playing, when he’s been practicing for a year or so and the notes he’s playing begin to sound like music, how will he reward himself? He’s already got what could be called his second guitar, his aspirational guitar. He’ll have skipped the first one.

When a cyclist is new and green, there’s a lot to be said for buying a factory bicycle. Made in the hundreds or thousands, they are normally glitch-free. And warrantied. You can own one and if something awful happens you can buy another just like it the next morning. That’s a comfort.

If you are the kind of person who tends to elevate his possessions to icon status, you are particularly well-suited to a workable but unglamorous mid-level factory bike. You can ride it in crummy weather and not feel sorry for it. You can pack it up or throw it in the back of a car with another bike or two and not fret. You can pack it and pad it and take it with you on an airplane.

It’s your bike, not the Mona Lisa, after all.

And when you’ve been riding a few years, you’ve tried a few bikes and you feel you know what you like, then you can reward yourself with some new object of desire for which you have to make 100 decisions and spend 100 months on a waiting list.

If you do that, congratulations — but keep your factory bike. You’ll be glad you did.

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