Champ’s Shop Talk: Hidden corners and old cases

EZ Chord, Nick Lucas pick, and a terrifying capo. PHOTO BY DEVIN CHAMPLIN

by Devin Champlin

People bring me forgotten instruments from closets, attics, and under the bed. Sometimes it’s a straight purging situation, a spring cleaning, or unwanted garage sale leftovers. Other times it may be Grandpa’s fiddle, or Auntie’s guitar, or some other sentimental song spinner. Occasionally I run into folks who seem to be hoping for that Antiques Roadshow moment, with a revelation of riches within that old dusty guitar. Rarely is it the case that these instruments are worth much in the collector’s world, but I’m always happy to take a dormant instrument and get it in playing condition again. It’s a really satisfying part of the work I do. Another perk to fixing old instruments is the history. I love nerding out on the different brands, and makers, and the stories, the styles and fads. It’s all fun, fascinating stuff to me. Along with the guitar, mandolin, or what have you, is often a case, and sometimes the things found inside the case are just as interesting as the instrument itself. Here are a few examples.

The EZ Chord. I found this contraption in an old chipboard case with a cool little beater guitar. It’s a piece of black molded plastic with three numbered, oddly shaped cutouts, mounted to another rounded piece of plastic with bolts and thumbscrews. There’s a patent number stamped on the bottom that dates its conception at 1988. The idea is to clamp this thing to a guitar neck, and then when you press down on one of the numbers, the corresponding plastic cutout presses against the guitar strings and holds down a chord. With three different chords to choose from, that’s probably enough to play at least half of the songs ever written out there. The first thing I did when I saw this thing was to clamp it to the nearest guitar and give it a whirl. Lo and behold, it worked! There was also an unmarked audio cassette in this same guitar case. What sonic revelries might lie upon this magnetized tape? I popped it in my trusty shop deck, turned down the lights, turned up the volume and prepared myself for anything. Over a backdrop of some solid tape hiss, I heard a man’s voice say, in a thick Oklahoma drawl, “Congratulations on the purchase of your new EZ Chord.” It turned out to be none other than Gary Gray, the product’s inventor. I listened along for a few minutes while he explained some of the nuance of properly attaching the gizmo to the guitar, and then was delighted to hear him demonstrate the songs that are apparently mapped out in a book. Sadly, no book was in the guitar case, but I can imagine it being the same charming quality as the instructional tape, perhaps handwritten, then photocopied and stapled. The songs and Gary’s earnest singing style are really enjoyable, and impressive that he filled both sides of a 120-minute cassette.

Many guitar cases have yielded capos of varying style and era. If you are unfamiliar, a capo is basically a clamp that can be attached on a guitar neck. It just holds the strings down across a single fret, effectively raising the pitch of the guitar. They are fairly common, and the capos you see these days in music stores have a few basic designs that all seem to work well. Judging from the array of contraptions that I’ve found in old cases, it’s pretty clear that the modern capo is an evolved result of some serious trial and error. The worst of the old designs involved a bare metal spring cinched up tight against the back of the guitar neck. Using one of those would certainly do the trick, but also guarantees gouges into the finish and wood. Along with that misguided design is the screw clamp style which involves some sort of U-clamp and a single thumbscrew in the middle to tighten things down. It’s a good design, but they were often manufactured with just a little piece of cork over the metal screw tip. Over time the cork can wear away, and as evidenced by the guitars with deep pits on the neck at every fret position, people would continue to use the capos, screwing bare metal into a relatively soft piece of wood.

Vintage picks are among the favorite gems to be found in an old case. Old celluloid picks like they don’t make anymore, cool old shop logos, guitar brand stamps, and sometimes neat homemade picks cut from old plastic containers. My favorite find is an ivoroid (celluloid made to look like ivory with cream and white stripes) pick, probably from the 1940s, stamped “NICK LUCAS.”  Nick Lucas was a celebrity guitar player and crooner who was popular in the 1920s and 30s. He had his own signature model guitar made by Gibson, and also endorsed other musical products like songbooks, and picks. It takes a special kind of nerd to get excited about a 75-year-old guitar pick. I am just that kind.

Stop by the shop sometime and I’ll gladly show you an array of weird old inventions, string packages, accessories and ephemera. The forgotten case pockets of other times.

Devin Champlin is a stringed instrument builder/fixer/player in Bellingham. Message him at champlinguitars@gmail.com or visit champlinguitars.com.