Gig Coach

GIG-COUCHMy First Pawn Shop Guitar

Of all the activities you could invest your time in, I don’t know of a single one that offers the lifelong satisfaction and hours of enjoyment that playing the guitar brings. You might say I’m a bit prejudice towards the guitar because I’ve been playing one ever since I first picked up my uncle’s Sears and Roebuck electric guitar he had left at our house as a type of collateral for some money my Dad had loaned him.

I was 6 years old, and I immediately fell in love with that twangy electric guitar sound, the sound I was hearing from my older cousins 45 RPM records of some group called The Beetles. I didn’t know how to tune the guitar, or anything about it, but I strummed those strings for hours each day, placing my fingers randomly up and down the fretboard hoping something may eventually sound half way decent. It didn’t.

My musical bubble was burst when a few months later my uncle paid my Dad back the money he owed him and picked up his guitar. I was devastated! I wanted to continue my guitar playing so badly that I took a bad mitten racquet and started pretending it was my guitar. My best friend and I started a bad mitten racquet band in his garage, playing along to every song that blared through the cheap transistor radio we had borrowed from his older sister’s room – without her consent of course.

I begged my Dad to buy me a real guitar so I could learn to play. I worked on him day and night, promising I would learn to play songs, real songs that he would recognize if only he would get me a guitar. When I finally wore him down with my relentless pleading, he reluctantly took me to the local pawn shop to buy my first guitar. 

I will never forget walking into Pam’s Pawn Shop in my hometown for the first time and seeing a literal wall of guitars hanging from one end of the building to the other. Apparently the money management skills of musicians in the 1970’s were not much different than musicians today. Pawn shops have been called a musicians second best friend – with the first best friend being the music store where they bought the guitar in the first place! 

There’s an old joke around Nashville that if you want a great deal on some killer music equipment, just hang around the pawn shops in November and December, when the touring season ends.

When the recording stars come off the road for the winter holiday season, the musicians who have been “out” with the artist for the tour suddenly find themselves without that steady weekly paycheck. When the musicians are making the good tour money, they spend a large portion of it on the best music equipment money can buy. When the tour is over, many of the band members have not put enough money back to get them through the off season, and they have to sell their expensive new music equipment to pay the rent. This results in some amazing deals for people with cash in hand looking to score some A-list gear at a B-list price. 

When my Dad turned me loose to inspect the wall of guitars at Pam’s Pawn Shop on West Grand Avenue in Marshall Texas, my head began to spin. How so much coolness could be contained in one small place, I didn’t know. I was dizzy with excitement at the thought of one of these beautiful instruments coming home with me that very day. 

I went right over to a beautiful red and black electric guitar hanging near the front display window. This is EXACTLY what I was looking for; it looked just like the ones I had seen my rock and roll heroes on television play. I asked Pam, the owner of the pawn shop, how much this beauty was. Pam replied, “That one is $35, but your Dad said that’s more than your budget”. I asked Pam what a budget was, and she said, “A budget is all the money you have to spend on something”. “So what’s my budget?” I asked Pam. She replied, “Your Dad said your budget is $10 and not a penny more.”

I could already see my Rock & Roll dreams going down in flames before they ever got off the ground. I disappointedly asked Pam which guitar I could get with my $10 budget, and she led me to the back room. She pulled out a small, funky, cheap little acoustic guitar that looked as if it had been through a house fire and survived a couple of car wrecks. She said this would be a good “starter” guitar for me. The problem was, I didn’t want a starter guitar; I wanted a FINISHER guitar!

I reluctantly resigned myself to the fact that this was as close as I was going to get to Rock guitar stardom – for a while anyway – and I bought the $10 guitar. I played that little thing until the frets were about worn off of it. I never could get it in tune, partly because I wasn’t exactly sure what “in tune” sounded like, but that didn’t matter much to me then.

Even though I wasn’t too excited with it to begin with, I grew to love that little guitar, and I still have it today. I saved my money and bought a Mel Bay Guitar Book and taught myself to play a few songs that my Dad would actually recognize. Because of my effort and dedication, the following year he took me back to Pam’s Pawn Shop and bought me the most expensive electric guitar in the shop. He paid a whopping $75 for it!

Two years later, in 1974, Dad took me to a real music store and paid $175 for a brand new Fender F35 Acoustic Guitar. That guitar still sounds great and I’m looking at it as I write this article.

If you’ve ever thought about learning to play the guitar, I encourage you to do it! You never know, you just might fall in love a stringed thing of beauty.

Rockin’ Rick Bell is a professional guitarist, vocalist, and teaching performer. He has thousands of performances on his resume, as both a solo performer and a band leader. Rick teaches music and performance in his studio in Temple, Texas. He can be reached at: www.GuitarWithRick.com, or by calling (254) 718-1439.