Ask any guitar player about their instrument and you’re likely to get a story. And that’s what photographer Chuck Holley just did.
Holley spent more than eight years interviewing and photographing dozens of professional musicians for his book, “A Perfectly Good Guitar,” recently published by the University of Texas Press. The book is a cross-section of American roots musicians, ranging from well-known solo artists like Rosanne Cash and Dave Alvin to regional artists and legendary session players.
“We assign value to all kinds of objects,” Holley said. “I thought, ‘Well, I think I’ll approach musicians and ask them about their instruments.'”
He said he wanted to talk to musicians, famous or not.
“What I wanted to do was speak to musicians who were respected by their peers. It was never about chasing names down,” Holley said. “You have to understand: I am not a music industry insider — I’m a fan. I didn’t have a Rolodex I could go through to reach out to musicians.”
Along the way, Holley discovered a common thread among the musicians that he met: the best guitars aren’t merely tools of their craft. They’re like beloved friends with a value far greater than money.
For example, Chicago blues artist Joanna Connor has played the same Gibson Les Paul Classic acoustic guitar for years. She told Holley: “I like playing other guitars, but I know that one. I know what it does. It’s like a part of me. It’s my baby. Even if I had other guitars, I wonder if I would play them.”
Sometimes, the favorite guitar is the one that got away, traded or sold when money got tight, Holley said.
“Guitars by default become a currency. Making a living as a working musician — that’s a hard dollar, as they say. Sometimes when times are tough, that guitar becomes a currency and you’ve got to eat, or if you’re not using it much, you move it on,” Holley said. “Several artists I spoke with said that. They don’t want to part with them, but they do.”
And sometimes, the favorite arrives by a roundabout way and offers the gift of emotional healing.
That was true for David Holt, who was devastated by the death of his daughter, Sara Jane, after a car accident. Holt is best known as a banjo player, but when his mom passed along a resophonic guitar (an “Airline,” made by Valco in the 1960s and sold through Montgomery Ward), he knew its mournful sound could help him express the grief he was feeling. Little by little, Holt taught himself to play slide guitar.
“This instrument was able to get down in my pain and bring it up to the surface. It spoke the unspeakable,” Holt told Holley. “After a couple of years of doing this every day, I realized maybe I could actually learn to play this thing, rather than just using it for a therapy tool.”
Holt went on to write “Sara Jane’s Tune” on that slide guitar. The song, he said, made him realize that he “had turned the corner.”
“I knew then that I wasn’t going to kill myself. I was going to live. And this funky, soulful guitar had helped lift me from the very depths of despair,” he said.
So good guitars come in all shapes and conditions. Or as former “Saturday Night Live” bandleader G.E. Smith told Holley: “A good guitar is a good guitar.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Les Paul or a catalog model you got from Montgomery Ward in the 1950s. If you enjoy playing it, that’s really all that matters,” Holley said.