Response Ability

By

I have a truly distinguished acoustic guitar, decades old. The depth of its face reminds me of the late afternoon sun on an autumn field of round bales, scraped and scarred here and there, like exclamations, the quality of look and tone deepened by scores of years of living life in God-knows-what sorts of places. Dingy, drunken bars. Backseats of ancient cars. Dim lights, thick smoke, and ashes of love at bluegrass festival campsites.

Several years ago a guitar-collecting friend rang my phone. He said, “I have the guitar with your tone.” He was right.

He brought this wood-gold chalice to my house and I checked it against my best. The old warhorse won hands-down, no contest. All my best guitars sounded two-dimensional and this one was running over with transcendent tone. I finally held in my hands an instrument that gave me sublime timbre, every time, for the price of a pick-stroke. It was a grand piano, especially dropping the sixth string down to D. It could play at a whisper, or thunder out bluegrass rhythm, and all the varied shades and nuances of tone were definitively within reach.

Six years have gone by and I still love the thing. I don’t mean “I like it.” I love the tone. I’ve stopped looking for guitars – acoustic guitars, anyway. This is the one for me in every way, and its marks, scratches, and finish cracks are part of its mystery and magnificence. The signs of its long life give it character, uniqueness, individuality. In a word, personality.

Some guitars are sluggish; they don’t obey immediately, and they can be frustrating to play. Others are responsive; the note pops out and feels right, with depth, clarity, meaning – immediately. Instant response is what I’ve looked for in a guitar all these years.

This piece of wood is just so responsive and…willing. It trusts me – and obeys. And because of that instantaneous, singing tone it gives me, I delight in using it for nearly everything. This guitar’s reward for being so sensitive to my touch is simply that it gets played all the time. The instrument is joyful in that honor, knowing that all the rough-and-tumble of spinning through fire, smoke, and songs, being bounced around on dirt roads in long-decayed cars, and even sitting uselessly under someone’s bed for years, was just preparation to become what it is now – a loved, cherished instrument, royally adorned with jeweled scars, perfectly fulfilling the purpose for which it was created.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


16 Comments

  1. LauraP

    Ron – Thanks so much for this post — it’s beautiful. Something I’ll return to read many times.

  2. Chad

    Kind of reminded me of these lines out of an old David Wilcox tune . . .

    “Now all these axes have their stories of the gigs that they have seen
    But when this one sold the first time I was only seventeen
    ‘Course back then I didn’t want it, it was way too new for me
    I needed something old and righteous with its own authority
    So the first guitar I ever bought was twice as old as me
    Cause its life was full of music as I dreamed that mine might be”

    Nothing like an ode to the guitar!

  3. Leigh Mc

    Could it be that God might just love my willingness to be “played” more than he values an instrument that is bright, sleek and new? How wonderful would that be? I like the thought that he might reach for me when he needs to sound a little bit of “true” music for the world…

  4. Annalee

    This is just lovely. May our Master Musician “tune [our] heart[s] to sing thy grace” in such a way!

  5. Rusty

    Oh Ron….how the tears flow as I read your words once more and listen to Jason Gray sing “The reason why you brouhgt me here”. It hurts to be this broken, but perhaps God will reach and brush off the dust just once more.

  6. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Wonderful stuff, Ron! I know not everything translates perfectly via recorded audio, but have you played this guitar on any of your solo stuff or AKUS? Do you have a “best example” of what your tone sounds like with that particular guitar. I’m just geeky enough to want to let it wash over me today.

    Also, I particularly love the line about being done shopping for guitars. I used to think you could tell a guitarist by the volume of guitars they has lining their walls, but BB has Lucille, Willie has that wreck of a gut string with the hole worn through where the pick guard used to be. It is a very rare class of musicians who have found the right right and need look no further. Congratulations on that. It is a little analogy for heaven.

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Russ,

    Probably the best example tonally is from our last recording, “Lonely Runs Both Ways.” The tone also sounds really good on Andrew Peterson’s Love and Thunder (“Let There Be Light” and “Family Man,.” In both instances I’m playing the lead and fill guitar parts).

    I do have many guitars, partly because of the search I was on, but also because I use several different tunings – on the last AKUS tour I had four guitars, two banjos, and a mandolin due to various tunings. I have quite a few good guitars, but three truly great guitars which are my main staples, but this guitar is the one I reach for above the others.

  8. Phil Bankester

    Ron . . . I’ve just finally finished digesting your writings from last fall, and the “Two” series, along with the many thoughtful comments. I’ve shared much of it with my family in our evening devotions. It’s such a change in thinking to simply ‘be’ rather than to ‘do’. We’ve talked in our home often about the need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling and the need to bear fruit, but it’s all been from the standpoint of ‘doing for God’ because of what He’s done for us. I think it’s still going to take considerable time to really transform our way of thinking, but to focus primarily on abiding in Christ makes so much sense.

    We’ve been playing at festivals, and ministering in churches for a few years now, and have considered hanging it up several times for a number of reasons, but it never fails that just when we’re thinking about it someone lets us know how God blessed them through something that was sung or said (often it’s one of your songs).

    Because we still struggle with sin as we try to ‘do the right things’ we have frequently thought that we don’t have any business ministering to others. We look too much like the old life-worn guitar rather than a shiny new one that should be on display. This post is, to me, the perfect follow-up to your ‘Two” series. Willingness to be used by, when, and however the Father wishes is what’s required of us. What a reward it is to realize that He has chosen to ‘play’ us. What greater joy could there be than to be a loved, cherished instrument in the Master’s hands.

  9. Stacy Grubb

    Just as fire purifies gold, the cracks and scars of an old guitar are what make the music beautiful. A shining moment on LRBW is, of course, A Living Prayer. There is nothing about that song that rates less than stunning.

    Stacy

  10. Peter B

    Ah, Ron, once again you fill me with hope that in Christ, someday I can be more than what I am now. You and Andrew should have a write-off sometime; your brands of subtlety are similar and full of divine mystery.

    Also, I love those little guitar touches in Let There Be Light; the guitar just sounds so… friendly.

    Thank you for continuing to share your gifts to the glory of God and the benefit of His people.

  11. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Peter –

    Thanks for the encouragement – I appreciate it, and it helps prompt me toward more writing and playing.

    You are more than you think you are, right now. In Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and we are complete in Him. That really says “In Christ all the pleroma (abundance, fullness, that with which a ship is filled – freight and merchandise, oarsmen, sailors, soldiers) of the Godhead lives in bodily form, and you are pleroo (filled to the top, so that nothing is lacking, to full measure, consummated, complete) in Him.

    So although that someday we have the hope of being with Jesus face to face, and having glorified bodies, yet here and now in our inner Holy of Holies we are complete, full to the brim. We are more right now than we have ever dreamed of being; all that remains is for us to totally put our trust in this Person in us that fills us. It’s like a heavy duty garden hose with a trigger-nozzle. All that pressure is pent up and just waiting to burst forth; all we do is the faith-act of pressing the trigger. Our soul-programming – “our ways” and “our thoughts” – is the thing that blocks the flow of the Holy Spirit. The trigger pulling is simply the submission in total faith to God’s purposes that He has for us and through us to others. Increasing faith in a Person in us who takes what Lewis calls “gentle possession” of us, so that He is living through us – rivers of living water coming through that human garden hose who willingly cooperates by faith.

  12. Greg Fisher

    I’d like to be an instrumentalist, I really would. But my hands can’t seem to get past the few meager chords I can play on my tenor guitars. I’m a singer, not a player. I have 4 tenor guitars, an octave mandolin, and a mandolin. But I really only give attention and time to 1 arch top and 1 flat top. Most people who can play would certainly say that I cannot. But I go through stretches where I’ll play 1 or the other exclusively for months. And it’s a nice closeness that I feel with that instrument in that stretch. So I almost know what you mean.

    I listen to Tim O’Brien quite a bit. On his website, at the bottom of each page will be one of his instruments with a little bit of history of that instrument. This is one such history from his site:

    “Gibson J-50 Guitar

    Charles Sawtelle always said that a car or a house or an instrument will find you, if you let it. This one found me after Charles and I had discussed what I wanted for several months. He saw it one day in the Denver Folklore Center. It’s a 1950 Gibson J-50. Charles also said older instruments will teach you how to play them, and I’ve learned some good country songs from this guitar.”

    I love the last part about learning songs from the instrument. Even a hack like me has been taught by my tenors. And a song I wrote in GDAE tuning sounds all wrong in DGBE, which I’m trying to learn to play in. But you really do bond with a given guitar, like a living thing.

  13. Peter B

    Greg, I know what you mean; having been vocally-focused for some 30 years now, my meager time spent with the instruments isn’t quite sufficient. Of course I haven’t ever owned more than one guitar — four pennywhistles, but hey, they’re not even chromatic — so I feel quite close to Marcellus, even when we haven’t seen each other in a while.

    Great quote from Tim O’Brien. It reminds me of the way Tolkien would “discover” his stories.

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