The Guitar with the Dragon Tattoo
Mike had perpetual scruff, a shoulder-length ponytail, and more necklaces and bracelets than most girls I knew as a teenager. When we met, he was in his twenties, but didn’t seem to have a real job. He worked now and then at a recording studio, sold tee shirts at concerts, and played in a handful of local bands. When I was looking for a guitar teacher the year I entered high school, a friend of a friend suggested Mike. I assumed he taught lots of kids. Later I realized I was his only student.
We had lessons at his apartment, a cramped room in his friend’s mom’s basement decorated with tapestries, lava lamps, statues of Hindu deities, and Native American dream catchers. The place smelled like sweat and onions and would have made the perfect drug den, except Mike didn’t drink, smoke, or get high. Instead, he ate vegetarian, drank protein shakes, and practiced Tai Chi. I was taller, skinnier, and more clean-cut, and lacked his blue eyes and oversized Adam’s apple. But otherwise, with our olive skin and dark hair, we might have been mistaken for brothers.
My guitar was a Fender Stratocaster, the instrument of choice for Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and generations of teenage boys. I loved that guitar until I saw the one Mike had built himself. Mine was lacquered and painted white and looked like plastic. His had a wood finish and looked like antique furniture. My guitar weighed seven pounds and had a cloth strap with holes that slipped over silver buttons at either end. His weighed fifteen pounds and had clips that locked to a leather strap as thick as an Olympic weightlifter’s belt. My knobs were plastic and stuck whenever you adjusted them. His knobs were gold and so sensitive that he could rotate them with his pinky as he played and make the notes swell with vibrato. My guitar had six tuning pegs, one for each string. His had twelve: the standard ones plus six on the bridge for fine-tuning. My headstock had the Fender logo and a serial number. His had a temporary tattoo of a red dragon with a devil’s tail, a forked yellow tongue, and an orange column of flame spewing from its mouth—the kind of souvenir you might buy for a dollar in a Chinatown gift shop.
The differences between our guitars were more than aesthetic. On the rare occasions that Mike let me play his guitar, I was astonished. My right hand had more space to strum, which let me play harder and faster and not worry about scraping or bumping the body with my pick. Meanwhile the narrow, smooth neck let my left hand glide along the strings, and the cutaway design and wide-spaced frets let me hit the high notes without any finger stumbles. And while the extra weight strained my shoulders, the heft of the wood helped the notes resonate with a richness that made my guitar sound like a clock radio by comparison.
Lessons with Mike rarely started on time. When I arrived at his house on Thursday nights at seven o’clock, he often opened the door shirtless and groggy in a halo of morning breath and body odor. Before we began, he boiled water for tea, folded the sheets on his futon, and, if he was hungry, made French bread pizza in his toaster oven. He turned on his stereo and had me listen to Miles Davis or Jaco Pastorious or Santana. Sometimes I played him a song I wanted to learn—usually one by Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, or The Allman Brothers. Eventually we sat on his futon and picked up our instruments.
During our lessons, Mike played a series of notes or chords and then asked me to mimic the sound. After my classical piano training, the call and response method frustrated me. Could he even read music? If not, why couldn’t he tell me what to play?
At first, I cheated and watched his fingers. Then he would turn his body so I couldn’t see his hands. Sometimes he made me put down my guitar and listen to him play. Sometimes he asked me to close my eyes or blindfolded me with a bandanna. On other days, he switched off the lights and we played in the dark. While these methods might have been creepy in another context, I accepted them without question as part of Mike’s quirkiness and desire to get me to play with my ears, not my eyes, with my heart, not my head. At first, I struggled to find the right notes in the dark, but eventually I learned to play from a combination of memory, intuition, and faith.
By the second year of lessons, I considered Mike to be a member of my family, somewhere between an older brother and a substitute for my frequently absent father. In bits and pieces, I shared with him the depths of my anxiety: how my parents were barreling toward divorce, the rigidity and blandness of my teachers and coaches, my ambivalence about college, which everyone at school treated like the Holy Grail. I told him my secret plan to move to Paris, write poems, play guitar, start a band, marry a French woman, and raise beautiful bilingual children. If Mike found this amusing, he never said a word.
After three years of lessons and coveting Mike’s guitar, I decided to build my own. I had limited skills with tools, so he guided me through the project. I wanted to start right away, but he made me study catalogues for weeks until I was sure what design I wanted, which unsurprisingly turned out to be an approximation of Mike’s guitar.
We worked on the guitar in his garage for an hour or so after my weekly lessons. First, we traced the pattern for the body with charcoal pencil on a slab of ash. Then we cut the wood on his table saw and rounded the curves on his lathe. We carved holes in the front side for the pickups, switch, and power jack, then a cavity in back for wires. We drilled holes where we would later attach the neck, bridge, and knobs. Mike said an electric sander would ruin the wood and insisted that I use a sanding block. This took hours. Every time I thought I was done, Mike ran his hand along the body, frowned, and handed the sandpaper back to me. At last, when he approved the level of smoothness, we stained the wood with varnish and black foam brushes. The first coat soaked into the grain and virtually disappeared; the second coat stuck and stained the wood chocolate. Once the body was done, Mike taught me how to use a soldering iron to fuse the wires that ran from the pickups and the volume and tone knobs. Then we attached the neck and he showed me the tedious process of adjustments with wrenches to ensure that the guitar plays and stays in tune. The day we finished, Mike gave me something to stick to my headstock: a temporary tattoo of a red dragon, which made my guitar look like his guitar’s little brother.
I played that guitar in my high school jazz band, where I put my lessons from Mike to work and struggled to overcome my shyness and stage fright. I played that guitar in my first rock bands, covering music from my parents’ era (Led Zeppelin, The Doors, David Bowie), music I had been too young to appreciate when it originally came out (The Pixies, The Violent Femmes, The Cure), and music on the radio (Nirvana, Pearl Jam). I played that guitar for the girl who became my first college girlfriend after I brought her to my dorm to see what I had built with my own two hands.
As a graduation gift and a symbolic end to our lessons, Mike gave me Zen Guitar, a book of meditations on music and life. While I was in college, he came to see my band play and helped me record my first album. But in the years after I finished college, we drifted apart. We no longer lived in the same neighborhood—I moved to Brooklyn, Mike moved to Connecticut, and my parents sold their house after their divorce. At some point Mike borrowed my guitar for a recording session, and somehow I never asked for it back. I moved to California, then New Hampshire, where I bought a bass and taught myself reggae and Latin grooves. By the time I returned to New York and joined a new band, I hadn’t spoken to Mike in years and was afraid to call him. Part of me was ashamed that I had let so much time pass. Part of me was afraid to learn that he had sold the instrument we built together. I’ve long since surrendered any claim, but if Mike called and offered to give back the guitar, I’d welcome them both as old friends.