My Canada, 31/150: Guitar in the key of Canuck

Growing up, I took piano lessons. In high school, we had to pick a band instrument; for me, that was trumpet. When I got to university, many resident mates had guitars and those were the go-to for everything from church folk choirs to jam sessions.

I learned a few basic chords and strumming patterns on other people’s guitars, then decided maybe I should get my own. I got the best guitarist I knew at the time, Karen Peperkorn, to take me off to the Toronto flagship for Long & McQuade, which bills itself as “Canada’s Music Store.”

We tried out the cheapy starter guitars. We looked at, but did not touch, the high-end instruments. I felt like Goldilocks, with porridge/guitars too hot/expensive or too cold/cheap. “I might have something for you in our second-hand guitars,” the sales rep said. He came back with the model pictured above: a Jean L’Arivée.

This Canadian-founded company is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017; back in my university years, it was a much smaller operation and this older used guitar dated back to the time when L’Arivée was personally involved in creating each instrument. When the sales guy opened the case, the perfume of pot wafted out. Someone had frequently played this guitar with a pick-up mike clipped to the lower edge of the sound hole: the finish was pocked with little divots.

It was more than I wanted to pay, but not outrageous. Karen sealed the deal when she promised that, should I ever decide I no longer wanted the guitar, she would buy it from me at the price I was paying Long & McQuade. Sold.

Alas, my beautiful L’Arivée was stolen in the 1990s in a house robbery. I bought another one with insurance money – new, with not quite the same character. I was saddened to hear recently that the L’Arivée company, while still led by its founder Jean and his two sons, is now based in California: they expanded production from their base in B.C. to a second facility in the U.S., found themselves overextended, and decided to coalesce operations in Oxnard, CA.

Even though I own a truly wonderful guitar, it turns out I can’t progress far as a player: I have a twist in the index finger of my left hand that makes it impossible for me to do what’s called a bar chord.  But I muddle along. And being a poor player has made me appreciate all the more the true masters of the instrument.

My favourite is Don Ross, a Canadian guitarist born in Montreal who now lives in Halifax. I am forever amazed at what this guy can pull out of a guitar. Check out his albums. Go see him in concert, if you can. He’s on Spotify, if that’s your thing. When Don Ross plays in concert, it sounds like there are four or five instruments on the stage. He comes up with his own versions of string tuning for each tune. He composes his own tunes and is a generous mentor to younger guitarists who emulate his rules-busting style.

Me playing guitar is a walk to the corner store. Don Ross playing guitar is a spacecraft journey to the moon.

My favourite Canadian guitarist, Don Ross. Photo pulled from his official website (forgive me, Don. The ones I took at your Hugh’s Room concerts were too fuzzy.)

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