It’s hard to know when I first heard the sound of an electric guitar. Music had always been a part of my upbringing, with the sounds of AM radio sailing from room to room ever since I could remember. But remembering the first time I saw one up close, hearing someone play it right in front of me? Well, that’s easy.
My dad was born and raised on the island of Barbados, a member of a relatively small community of white people on that island. He studied accounting and worked as an auditor when just out of school as a teen. But he made extra money as a musician in his band, The Pete Jones Combo. The group fashioned itself after the pre-Beatles British instrumental rock band, The Shadows.
Dad immigrated to Canada in 1965, and he joined another band, The Bayards, who played gigs on the Toronto club circuit. When Dad found gainful employment, met my Mum, and was confronted by the rise of psychedelic music that he hated, he quit the band to focus on the exciting career of an auditor, and controller.
But he kept his guitar.
The guitar was a Harmony Rocket; cherry-burst red, decorative F-holes, with a neck like a cricket bat, and what seemed like hundreds of dials on it right near the pick guard. It was an artifact of a bygone age. It was alien and wonderful.
I must have been about seven. Radio loomed large for me even then. Music was like some wonderful import from another distant dimension. But when dad pulled out this wonderful machine right in front of me, this brash weapon of sound in his hands closed that distance in an instant.
Dad had bought a little Garnet amp. When he plugged in and turned it on, a single red light came on with a crackle and a buzz. And when he hit the strings of the Harmony Rocket, it was like receiving some heavenly message. It beamed straight down, and reverberated outward, dancing all around. And something happened inside me.
By age 13 or so, I wanted to learn how to play it. Learning guitar for the first time involves a lot of pain (on fingers, and on patience). And because of that, I soon gave up. Part of it was that the electrical system on this wild and dangerous object was beginning to age. Intermittently, it bit you with little charges of electricity.
But even though it defeated me, I still loved it. It was still beautiful, even if in its old age it had become cantankerous.
Many years later, my dad bought a few more guitars. He’d become involved in a church, and had joined the church band. All of the accounting in the world couldn’t kill the musician that had been born so long ago inside him. So, with bigger hands and greater patience, I learned to help shape that sound from these newer instruments that didn’t bite my hands with electrical charges. And those guitars were beautiful too, in their way.
But they didn’t replace the Harmony Rocket, that feral beast of a guitar, my first up close sighting – crackling, reverberating its way into my imagination.
My dad is an unromantic sort, unlike his son. He sold the Harmony Rocket to a collector a few years ago without my knowledge. I was dismayed to find this out, when my Dad very casually told me. I think he realized that he should have offered it to me, and actually contacted the guy to see about getting it back.
But the collector in question wouldn’t sell.
Still, maybe it’s better this way. Because the Harmony Rocket lives in my imagination, where I suppose a portion of it has always existed. The spark it helped to ignite started an inferno of love for music, and for music history that has enriched my life. Ultimately, the value it has imparted is intangible anyway.
It is amazing what six-strings, a stick of wood and plastic, and a crackly amp can do; the sound of it can echo down through the years and illuminate your view of the world like a tongue of fire. When you flick that part of your imagination on you can hear it crackle, sending the music outward, and making the distinction between you and it to be entirely unimportant.
“Harmony Rocket” jcarbaugh @ flickr. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.