This is Cbabi Blue. He’s been around for 11 years. Yesterday, he became my favorite guitar. Of course, there’s a story behind this. It started 16 years ago. Bear with me …
Back in 2001, Prince released an album called The Rainbow Children. The record (which I enjoy) was largely marginalized. In addition to the music, what makes me remember this album is its distinct cover art.
It’s the kind of painting that burns into my consciousness, and leaves a beautiful scar behind. I LOVED this artwork.
Less than two years later, I met a St. Louis artist named Cbabi Bayoc in a class we were taking. He was a very nice man, and we struck up the occasional conversation during breaks. It was just small talk, but always pleasant. It made a rather dry class more enjoyable.
Cbabi cuts a rather distinct profile. He’s about 6’4″ with rather pronounced features. There can be no doubting when he walks into a room. He had an air about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That mystery resolved itself a couple of weeks later.
One day before class, I saw Cbabi handing out postcards. Eventually, he handed me one. Turns out he was generating interest for a painting he had just finished. He was an artist! Of course! That explained it!
The painting was called “Kinderjammin’.” It featured small children performing as a jazz band. I loved it the instant I saw it. Ultimately, I bought a print. It hangs in my living room.
The painting never fails to make me smile, which I told him when I first saw it. I also knew there was something familiar about Cbabi’s style. Just before a class break, it hit me.
I wasted no time going straight to Cbabi to compliment him on his work. And then I said, “You know, this painting reminds me a lot of the cover of a Prince album. It’s called The Rainbow Children.”
A sheepish grin came across Cbabi’s face. He definitely knew something I didn’t. Of course, I asked him what he was grinning about. “Well, (the style) should look familiar,” he said. “That’s my painting.”
I was dumbfounded. “YOU painted that cover? YOU did?”
Another grin. “Yeah.”
I was spiraling. “So you’re telling me you know Prince?”
Cbabi just shrugged matter-of-factly. “Yeah.”
I was geeking out, and he could see it. I had so many questions. But Cbabi just put up his hand and said, “He’s a very nice man” in a way that said he wasn’t going to say anything else on the subject. Cbabi is a modest man, so I figured that was why. Or maybe he was contractually obligated not to talk. Knowing Prince, that was possible. It didn’t matter. I was mildly out of my mind. How cool was this?
As it turned out, Cbabi and his family lived where I patrolled. We’d see each other now and then, and exchange pleasantries. We never hung out or anything (though we did schedule a couple of things that fell through). Life always seemed to get in the way.
I turned 40 in 2006. I wanted to do something special. One thing I’d always wanted was a custom painted guitar. I’d been monitoring Cbabi’s work since we met. It was only getting stronger. I decided to take a flyer. He had an art studio just south of my district border. I went by and found him. I asked if he would be interested in painting a guitar.
He seemed a little taken aback for a second. And then he was intrigued. “I’ve never done anything like that before,” he said. I could almost see the creative gears in his mind turning. “Sure. Why not?”
It took me a couple of weeks to find the right guitar body. The one thing I knew for certain was that said body had to be a Fender Stratocaster. I found an electric blue ’92 Strat body with a white pickguard on eBay. Shortly after receiving it, I took it to Cbabi.
Cbabi looked at his new canvass. “What about the white part?” He asked.
“Use it all,” I replied. “Everything. It’s your project.”
“What do you want me to paint?”
I know better than to tell an artist what to do. It was my turn to give a sheepish grin. “I want you to paint,” I said.
Cbabi smiled. “When do you need it?”
“When it’s done.” With that, I shook his hand and left the studio.
A few weeks later, Cbabi called me. “I think it’s done,” he said. “Want to come take a look?” My mind raced as I made my way to his studio. I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. Would it look like something from The Rainbow Children? Kinderjammin’? I actually found myself feeling nervous.
I think Cbabi was a little jittery, too. He looked just a bit anxious as he handed me the guitar body. What I saw was this:
It. Was. STUNNING.
I must have had a shocked expression on my face, because Cbabi seemed a bit worried. Then I started to smile. Because I LOVED it! Salvador Dali is one of my favorite artists. I never told Cbabi this. Yet he handed me a guitar that looked like a Dali painting gone sideways!
There was so much information there! Every part of the body told a story. And it was all subject to personal interpretation. It was perfect! No doubt, this was a one-of-a-kind item. I don’t remember specifically, but I’m pretty sure hugs were exchanged.
I have a thing for naming my guitars. Usually I have to think on it. This one was easy. I was holding Cbabi Blue.
I took him to J. Gravity Strings, my usual guitar haunt, and had the body lacquered to within an inch of its life. I ultimately wanted to play this guitar, and I didn’t want to scratch the paint. There’s no way to reproduce that artwork! Now it was just a matter of finding the right neck and electronics, and I would have a functioning Number Two Strat.
Ten years passed.
My band collapsed. My daughter’s needs increased. There was no money to put into music gear. I all but quit playing. For the longest, I considered putting Cbabi Blue into a display case of some kind. I just hadn’t gotten around to it. Early in 2016, I got the itch to start playing again.
I knew I couldn’t afford to invest in music gear the way I had before. Slowly but surely, I built up a small collection of inexpensive guitars I called “planks,” which would get me into playing again. And while I’ve found some interesting instruments, I knew I wanted another Strat, since I’d sold my number one Strat (Sunshine Belew) to help pay my daughter’s tuition. But that’s another story.
The time had finally come, I decided, to construct Cbabi Blue. It’s not fair to call this guitar a plank. Frankenstein would be more accurate. Because this instrument is constructed from the parts of at least four guitars.
I bought an Indonesian (I think) Strat from a pawn shop for 100 bucks. I didn’t care about the body. I was out to strip the guitar for parts, and put them on and in Cbabi Blue. My pal Jeff at Acme Guitars did the construction work. Given what he had to work with, I thought he did a great job.
But the guitar wasn’t quite … right. Once I started playing it, I didn’t like the sound of the pickups, as they contained the infamous “60-cycle hum” guitarists are familiar with. It’s like listening to an ungrounded turntable. The hum is very distracting to me.
I had Sunshine Belew equipped with EMG pickups, which ran silently. I knew Cbabi Blue needed them, too. I also thought the guitar needed a splash more color in the knobs and switches to go with the artwork. I bought after-market knobs and switches from Guitar Center, and added them to the guitar. I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Still, Cbabi Blue went mostly unplayed for another year. I experimented with other guitars, but none of them could truly be called my favorite.
A few weeks ago I found myself at Acme, and I asked the guys if they had any used EMGs for my Strat (a new set was out of my price range). Jeff said he had a set, but they had been painted red. Assuming I wouldn’t like that, he started telling me how I could remove the paint. “No, leave it,” I told him. “That’ll be perfect!” Jeff had forgotten what Cbabi Blue looked like. When I brought the guitar in, he remembered and understood.
The guitar looked fantastic when Jeff finished! It had color in all the right places. But how did it sound? I don’t like to play when I’m in uniform, so Jeff took Cbabi Blue for a test drive while I watched.
He plugged my guitar into a 100-watt Marshall amplifier, which was hooked up to a 4×12 speaker cabinet (for non-musicians, that translates to an incredibly LOUD sound, like what you’d see on a concert stage). He turned the amp on, and then switched on my guitar. The first thing I heard was exactly what I hoped to hear: nothing. No hum. The pickups were doing their job. Then Jeff started playing. It was glorious! I just smiled, knowing I was hearing what I had been looking for. When I got Cbabi Blue home that evening and played him myself, it was like reuniting with a long lost friend. And now I have a new favorite guitar.
I hope Cbabi Bayoc sees this. We still cross paths now and then. But our relationship is a bit more … distant. I’m a policeman, and Cbabi has become quite the activist, particularly since Ferguson. I have no doubt he still likes me personally. My job? Not so much. On the rare occasions we do speak, I can feel the tension. Most likely because I’m usually working. But I am not my job, and I really want my friend to understand that. And to that, I say this: any time you want to sit down and talk, my man, I’m there.
I’m the meantime, I’ll start making the most of this work of art. I think Cbabi Blue and I are going to get to know each other very, very well.
And I can feel as though I almost met Prince.