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On old guitars, cheap guitars and Happy Days

Jon Shain's "Silvertone" 

On old guitars, cheap guitars and Happy Days

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"And it sounds all right to me." That's the recurring line Jon Shain delivers throughout "Silvertone," his ode to the cheap, Sears-sold, tough-to-tame guitar he bought several years ago at a thrift store. As those he's talking about an old friend, Shain details the imperfections of his instrument, accepting each one of them as a mark of charity and character. "You know that sound is real," he sings just before taking the old guitar out for a slide-solo spin. Real and proud, you could say.

INDEPENDENT: So, I assume you've got a Silvertone guitar?

JON SHAIN: I so have a Silvertone guitar. I found it in a flea market for about $25, and I play the slide solo on the song with it. A lot of people write songs about their expensive Gibsons or Martins or things like that, so this is kind of singing the praises of cheap guitars. I also chose the lyrics in a way that, if people didn't know it was about a guitar, they may think I was talking about a person with gray hair.

Has anyone responded to the song that way?

I don't know. At shows, I usually tell people it's about a guitar, so—there, at least—they know what it's about. And guitar players in the audience tend to get a kick out of it, you know, "Your tone is not silver." It's funny the way guitars get named.

How did the Silvertone get its name?

Silvertone is a brand name by Sears. They put that name on acoustic guitars and electric guitars. If you bought a guitar from Sears catalogue, it was called a Silvertone, just like Montgomery-Ward had its brand, the Airline, I think. Different companies made those guitars at different times. The Silvertone might have been made by some certain factory, and after five years, the contract would run out and they may move it somewhere else. Gibson, for instance, made cheap instruments for certain companies. If you ever see guitars from the '30s or '40s called Kalamazoos, those are made in the Gibson plant, but they're cheaper instruments made on contracts for department stores or something. It's interesting to me because all of those guitars back in the '50s were bought with catalogues. There weren't cool guitar stores in every town or Guitar Centers.

That sort of boutique and mega-mall guitar shop idea is interesting. Where do you buy your instruments?

I've never bought anything from a Guitar Center, except for little stuff. I've bought stuff mainly from individuals. I did buy an expensive guitar from Harry's Guitar Shop in Raleigh. They're a nice shop I want to give my business to, but a lot of my instruments come from pawn shops or people. I don't often buy new stuff. Most professional musicians can't afford it.

How about your first guitar? Remember it?

The first guitar I had met a quick demise. I was like 10 years old, and my parents rented a guitar from the Haverhill Music Center in Haverhill, Mass., where I grew up. I took some lessons, and the first thing I asked the guy was if he could teach me "Dueling Banjos." He laughed, like, "Maybe we'll learn a couple of things before that." I had seen the first 30 minutes of Deliverance on TV.

At this time, Happy Days was all the rage, and there is this famous episode where the Fonz traps this burglar in a closet by sticking a chair under a doorknob of the closet. I guess that's supposed to disable the doorknob. My younger brother was chasing me around the house, and I remembered my Happy Days lesson. So I closed the door shut and grabbed the closest thing I could find, which was the guitar. At first, it looked like it was going to work, and I was laughing about it. Then he slammed the door open, and the guitar broke cleanly in half. That was the end of guitar lessons for me because we had to pay for the guitar. My parents are pretty forgiving, though, and a couple of years later they got me another guitar, again a borrowed guitar, when I was 12. We finally paid for that one in high school. That's kind of when I started and kept with it.

It's probably like picking favorite children, but any favorite guitars?

Oh, certainly. I have a Gibson J-45 from 1967, which is also my birth year. That one is really special. I was working for Brian's Guitar Shop in Carrboro at the time, and that one came in the door. I immediately fell in love with it. I said, "You've got to let me take this home." He was pretty nice and gave me a good steal on it. That's the guitar closest to my heart, though I have a few old Strats that I hold dearly, too. I have had a '74 Strat since I was 14. At the time, it was just a used guitar. Now, it's a vintage guitar.

What was it about that Gibson?

Oh, it was everything. It was a beautiful sounding guitar, and it was a sunburst design. Most of the sunburst Gibsons are sort of the tobacco pattern, black to orange. But this one goes from a bright red to yellow, almost like some of those Les Pauls that came out. Some of those mid-'60s Gibsons had really think necks, and it's really easy to play. That one cost a few more bucks than the Silvertone.

But one of the nice things about that tune, "Silvertone," is that I played the rhythm part on the Gibson, and the lead part was played on the Silvertone. Most reviewers, whenever they hear something with slide on my albums, they say, "…and John Currie's dobro part on that song is really good." People don't realize it was me. I play bottleneck style, and he plays lap style on the dobro in a different tuning. Most of the single-note lead stuff we put down is me. This is the first time I used the Silvertone, though. The action is so high on that guitar, it's like a cheese grater or something. Unless you're going to play slide on it, it's pretty painful.

Jon Shain leads his traditional Pre-Turkey Day Jam at Cat's Cradle on Wednesday, Nov. 21 with Edsel 500, Kenny Roby, Jule Brown, Michael Holland and Big Medicine. The 8:15 p.m. show costs $10, and profits benefit the Helping Hand Mission.

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