Anyone deeply involved in music will tell you: there’s a special connection between a musician and his instrument.
It’s a unique bond that can only be forged by time and repetition. There’s a level of intimacy that simply cannot be explained to the uninitiated. To outsiders, the bond between musician and instrument might seem weird. Freaky even.
I’ve experienced that connection. With a little luck, I may get to experience it again.
My book contains a chapter called “DIY Via Sheltering Sky.” It’s about my fixation with playing guitar for ten-plus years, starting in the mid-90s. This fascination culminated in me forming a band, the band making a record, and the Greek tragedy that followed.
What I didn’t discuss in the book is my bond with Sunshine Belew, and why the loss of that guitar haunts me just about every day.
For someone who’s never played professionally, I’ve owned a LOT of guitars. The exact number eludes me. But in my prime, I had at least eight guitars and two basses among the myriad of music gear in the home studio I called The Padded Cell.
But I only had one Sunshine Belew.
He was a 1996 American Standard Fender Stratocaster (50th Anniversary Edition) with a yellow finish. He had a C-shaped maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard. Everything on him was standard, but he was built in Corona, California at THE Fender guitar plant. Everything about him was top notch, even if he wasn’t custom. I found him by accident while hanging out in J. Gravity Strings in south St. Louis.
It may sound like folklore, but that guitar and I found each other within an hour of him being placed on one of the store’s display hooks. I was told someone bought the guitar brand new (this was, in fact, in 1996), But didn’t care for him. New American Standard Strats were going for around $1,100 back then.
I had no intention of buying a guitar that day. But I spent so much time at Gravity Strings, the sales guys were comfortable with me trying out any guitar in the showroom. I had a pretty severe Strat fetish, most likely because Adrian Belew, my musical idol, played one. I already had a Strat at home. But when I saw this one hanging there, I swear I heard it call out to me.
I can still see Billy Barnett handing me that guitar like it was yesterday. I cradled it carefully, positioned my hands, and played a simple open E-major chord. That’s all it took.
“How much?” I asked Billy, which I’m sure sounded like I was pleading. I’m pretty good at keeping a poker face when it comes to business. Not this time. In the end, the Strat came home with me for a shade over $500. A steal!
As I said, I had other guitars. But the more I played Sunshine (because of the sunny yellow finish), the less I wanted to play anything else. His neck was PERFECT, like it had been built for my hands. His tone was wonderful, regardless of what amplifier or effects pedals I used. I was in guitar love. At some point, I slapped a decal from King Crimson’s Larks Tongues in Aspic album on the body. I loved the color contrast.
Sunshine became my primary recording guitar. He’s all over the first CD I ever recorded, called No Relation.
Still, I wanted to make a few modifications, to get Sunshine a little closer to Adrian Belew. I had the original pickups (which emitted the dreaded 60-cycle hum) replaced with noiseless EMG-SAs, though I knew Adrian used Fender Lace Sensors. I had the original whammy bar replaced with a Kahler tremolo unit, like Ade. Now I could pull notes up AND down deeply. I added Sperzel locking tuners, so all that whammy bar madness didn’t pull me too far out of tune. When the mods were complete, I added Belew to Sunshine’s name. I even got Adrian to sign him after one of his shows.
This was my guitar. I had others, but this one was mine. When I felt like playing guitar, this is the one I reached for.
Sunshine Belew was my primary guitar on my band’s CD, Valley of Shadows. My friend Jimmy Griffin used him for a guest solo on a tune called “Trouble Looms on the Horizon.” I still remember Jimmy handing Sunshine back to me, saying, “That is a great guitar!” It sure was. What’s more, my guitar sounded like a completely different instrument in his hands. Wow!
Time passed. The band imploded. I stopped playing as much. Sunshine Belew sat on his stand, waiting for a reunion. I tried a couple of times, but nothing ever came of it. What a drag.
One day, an emergency arose. I needed cash FAST. I’d already sold off all my other gear over the years. Sunshine was all I had left. Figuring I’d be able to buy him back, I sold him to a friend. I regretted it from the second I let him go. When I was finally in a position to get him back, Sunshine Belew was gone. He had been sold. That was a tough day.
My family dynamic meant I couldn’t buy guitars the way I used to. I decided to invest in a few inexpensive axes I called planks. But I also held out hope I’d find another Strat I could turn into Sunshine Belew.
With the aid of an amazing artist and a talented guitar repairman, I used the parts from four guitars to create Cbabi Blue. He plays great, but I’ve always known he would be my Number Two.
I never went out of my way to find a new Number One Strat. But when I walked into a shop, I took an informal look around. I saw some interesting axes, but not The One. Nice color, wrong fretboard. Great fretboard, wrong neck. Great neck, wrong color. And so on.
A couple of months ago, I wandered into Killer Vintage, which is on my beat, just to say hello. The store tends to focus on more high-end instruments. A standard Strat (even an American one) was a bit low rent. At least that’s the feeling I got.
This particular day, I strolled in and scanned the guitars on display, which is what I always do. It’s therapeutic for me. I was ready to turn my attention to Mark, who was behind the counter.
That’s when I saw it.
I was still nearly ten feet away, but I knew. The only thing missing was the choir sounding overhead and a spotlight shining directly on the guitar. It was that obvious.
The finish wasn’t identical to Sunshine Belew, but it was close. It had a rosewood fingerboard. The American Standard Strat has a distinct looking bridge. I took a quick peek. There it was! I actually felt my heart skipping multiple beats.
Mark saw me and said hello. I think he could also see the look on my face. I started to point a bit frantically. He practically raced around the counter. I struggled a bit, but gathered myself. “Mark! That Strat over there! That’s my guitar!”
At first, Mark thought I meant someone had stolen my guitar, and now it was being sold in his store. He started to defend himself, which made me laugh. “No, no! I’m sure it’s fine,” I said reassuringly. “What I mean is, that’s my guitar! I want it! There’s no doubt in my mind!”
Mark had known me long enough to gauge my level of sincerity. He read me perfectly. “Okay, no problem,” he said calmly. “Let’s see what we can do to make it happen.”
We came together on a price, and I worked out how I would pay for it. The next time I came into the shop, Mark saw me and pointed toward the display racks. “That Strat literally has your name on it,” he said with a laugh. A closer examination revealed a second price tag hanging from the guitar’s strap button. Sure enough, there was my name in bold red letters.
I didn’t even take it off its hook until the third or fourth time I saw it. Like I said, I just knew! When I did finally hold it, I got that old familiar feeling. The neck was perfect! The open E major chord was glorious!
It was like going home again.
And now he’s home with me.
I’ll have to start over the modifications, of course. I don’t care. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. My life has been in a state of “reboot” lately, on multiple levels. This is just one more opportunity to get back on my desired track.
I haven’t decided on a name for this instrument. I’m sure Adrian will come into play sooner or later. But there’s no rush.
Right now, I just want to enjoy this.