Somewhere in Rwanda may still exist a Silvertone 6-string acoustic guitar that began its musical life in South Portland, Maine, with me.
My parents gave me the guitar for Christmas in 1971. I was 17. This guitar that became my close musical friend for the next 23 years was my second acoustic and second Silvertone, a brand carried by Sears, Roebuck & Co. and sold in the catalog.
The first Silvertone was a 12-string that I got in 1968, colored a dull brown sunburst seemingly inspired by Soviet design. This guitar would sound pretty good for the first week or so into a new set of strings, and then the tone subsided into a dull clang resembling a work party shoveling sand.
Worse than the sound was the action: The strings were so high that I kept them artificially depressed by tuning it low and routinely playing with a capo, advice I received from a 12-string how-to manual purportedly penned by Pete Seeger.
Hear the Silvertone 6-string in two songs written and recorded in summer 1973:
“For Tonight” and “Hamlin Square Song” copyright © 2010 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.
The Lead Belly songs in the 12-string book gave me some valuable fundamentals, and it was nice chugging along with LB on something like “T.B. Blues.” But that guitar was essentially a dog, as I realized after a heavy flirtation with a friend’s Martin, and it was back to the Sears catalog for something better. (I sold the 12-string at a yard sale in 1978 for $8.)
The six-string wasn’t much better in the playability department (and again I resorted to detuning and the capo, which tended to flummox people I played with, who needed to be convinced that I was actually playing in the correct key). But it was pleasant to handle and had a decent sound, a dry tone that I still favor in an acoustic.
The fifth instrument in my arsenal, it quickly became my constant companion. It was on this guitar that I developed my acoustic style. A positive omen came with it too: Hippie that I was, I had stuck a round “skin jewel” on the 12-string that shone with a prism effect — and the new Silvertone came with a similar refracting reflector on it.
Not bad for a $48 guitar. And 1972 was a good year for a good cheap guitar: My first band had fallen apart during the winter, my love life was not thriving, I just was out of high school and into a job at a potato chip factory, and I was diving very deep into country music.
The Silvertone and I spent a lot time together. I didn’t own a car until I was 22, and before then got around by bicycle a lot. I appropriated some World War II vintage backpack webbing from my father and contrived a strap for the guitar case so I could carry it on my bike. In 1976, I brought the Silvertone to Europe: lined the case with foam rubber, coated it with fiberglass and attached a hasp for a padlock. It survived the trip fine.
So I guess I gave that guitar a taste for travel early on. I got a much better instrument in 1994 and the old Silvertone gathered dust for about a decade. Then a Rwandan student at the college where I work posted a want ad for an inexpensive guitar that she could send home to her boyfriend. The Silvertone filled the bill. I hope someone is still making music with it.
Text copyright © 2012 by Douglas L. Hubley. All rights reserved.