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Monday, July 26, 2010

Music and its tools - John Fahey's '39 "Ray Whitley Recording King" acoustic guitar

It's a personal fave of mine... both John's and his very guitar, long before his (someway) sad guitar(s) sounds on a Martin D-70 Bicentennial model or the endorsed Laguna Guitars, down to his last days on borrowed-only acoustics or electrics...

His 1939 Ray Whtley Recording King was "The One" John Fahey played on "Fare Forward Voyagers", maybe his most beloved disc ever, and quite similar to the '30s "Bacon & Day" - which John himself traded at Jon Lundberg's Berkeley shop in 1969 for... the Recording King (!!!) - the one blinking from "Requia" cover in a leftish, disguised form, as the slide was possibly reversed for layout, photographic reasons - i.e. John Fahey wasn't left-handed, but righteous, like his guitar.

This guitar owns a very one-of-a-kind sound, unboomy, yet rich at low-end, with OM-like fat trebles and a quite "nasal", unique character.

This very guitar was destroyed by John Fahey himself during a (maybe) drunken angryness attack, and get smashed in several pieces when hitting "somewhere" (a wall... or his girlfriend head, as someone argued?!?!).

Here is the chronicle of the loving restoration people at "Paracho del Norte" luthiery made some years ago.

A labour of love

and the history, as told by Federico Sheppard of Paracho del Norte (thanks a lot):

"John Fahey's 1939 Ray Whitley Recording King and Federico Sheppard's tale of its demise and of how it came to be whole once more.

I had gone to see John Fahey play in Minneapolis in '82. We got to talking guitars, and I asked him what guitar he had used on the recording "Fare Forward Voyagers", as that was a very good sounding recording and my personal favorite. He told me about the Recording King. I asked him what had happened to it, and he told me this story..

John Fahey's 1939 Recording King, was fully restored, unveiled for its debut at the first John Fahey Memorial Concert, Freight & Salvage, Berkeley, CA, August 19, 2001

The full article about this guitar is available in Acoustic Guitar magazine.

John had had the flu and had been in bed for awhile, not feeling well at all. His girlfriend at the time was encouraging him to get up and around, and this wasn't taken well by John at all. As John put it, "She just wouldn't leave me alone." At some point in the conversation, the words "What do you love more John, me or your guitar?" were invoked.

The truth of what happened next is known only to those two persons who were present. Having access to all the forensic evidence, and holding a board certification in Orthopedics, I would have to say that the point of impact is more consistent with an impact with a rounded, padded, but solid surface. Marilyn's head? Possibly. Only her hairdresser knows for sure. A girl's necklace was in the debris field. Maybe someday Marilyn will come forward and shed some light on this episode. As I knew John, he wasn't the kind of guy to go around hitting women. Not then, not ever.

John had purchased a Hawaiian guitar from me that very same night, after his had been stolen, and he offered me the remains of the Recording King. The real hero of this story is Charlie Mitchell, the guy who collected the pieces after the unfortunate encounter. All but a few fragments were somehow preserved in a cardboard box. The box came into the possession of John Zender at McCabe's guitar shop in Los Angeles, where it remained stored for a few years, and then it was very kindly released it to me at the behest of John Fahey. The remains of the King were shipped to me shortly thereafter; this was late 1982.

My own life got in the way of the restoration project, and John Fahey's 1939 Ray Whitley Recording King stayed in its little box for another 19 years, through five different moves, three careers, and my never-ending good intentions.

In March of 2001, I traveled to Salem, Oregon to attend John's funeral and memorial service, which were very moving. Shortly thereafter, Peter Lang told me that there was a tribute CD in the works. I knew that the time had come for me to do it. I turned the ringer off on my phone, and buried myself in the project. I had no idea if the pieces would even fit after the trauma and the many days gone by.

After 12 days, the final piece to complete the sides was fitted with complete success, and the body fit the top.

I would describe the process as similar to piecing together a broken dish. The rosewood shattered like glass but had retained its shape. Luckily the top had its bracing intact, or the King might have been a lost cause. The neck is built like a baseball bat, and didn't even need to have its truss rod adjusted. The guitar has great action, great sound, and is very playable.

I feel very fortunate to have been allowed to be the caretaker and caregiver for this priceless piece of Americana. Hopefully the King will be used for recording projects for many years to come.

I am interested in compiling as much information as is available about the recordings on which John played this instrument, photos of John with the instrument, etc., and am preparing to make a limited edition copy of this fine guitar available to the public. I made a number of these fine guitars until July 2006 when my use of the Recording King brand ceased."

Also of interest are some rare YouTube footage of John playing his wonder, the a.m. Bacon & Day... please notice his weird, yet effective thumb fretting at some point during the playing.

Thanks a lot to Federico for correcting some miswritten infos (now settled).

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