EAST of NORMAL
Stella & Vicky
Your first guitar is like your first kiss, your first date, your first bike, the first record you really loved. No guitar will ever sound quite like it, or smell like it. And if you’re destined to be any kind of guitarist at all — professional or otherwise — you’ll hold that first guitar in your arms and fall in love like it’s your firstborn.
I was staying overnight at Layne Alan Smith’s house in my hometown, Madisonville, Ky., in the fall of 1977. I immortalized him and his older juvenile-delinquent sister, Vicky, in my song “Vicky Smith Blues” (which he likes but I don’t think she does). But while I mentioned plenty about Vicky in that song, I neglected to cite the most important thing: her guitar.
I remember Layne was playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his stereo and, for some reason, Vicky’s guitar was in the room. It was a small-scale, 18-fret Stella. Years later, I’d find out that Stellas were the first guitars for many folks, not the least of whom was Muddy Waters.
At that time in the ’70s, all us teens had big, widetoothed, tortoise-shelled combs with big plastic handles that stuck halfway out of our back pockets. They were ideal for combing back feathered hair. As Queen played on the stereo, I sat Vicky’s guitar flat on my lap, rested the straight end of the comb on the strings, and plucked a sound. I dragged the comb across the neck toward the bridge and the note climbed higher. (BRRRRRRRRRRREENG!) I plucked again, moved the comb the other way, and the sound went lower. (BRRRRRRRRONG!) I did that over and over. Lower (BRRRRRRRRONG), higher (BRRRRRRRRRRREENG), lower (BRRRRRRRRONG), higher (BRRRRRRRRRRREENG). I was utterly hooked.
I was already a manic rock ’n’ roll fan, but the notion of owning my own guitar hadn’t even occurred to me yet. First off, I wouldn’t know how to play it. Secondly, how would I pay to get one? I got a weekly allowance of (I kid you not) 50 cents. Fifty 1977 cents. Adjusted for inflation, that still adds up to jack shit.
But I started saving my allowance. It was the first time in my life I recall saving up for anything. Fall became winter, winter became spring, and I was still saving. And then, one Saturday in June of 1978, I had $18.
I approached Vicky Smith. Actually I approached Layne Alan, because I was slightly afraid of Vicky. He acted as intermediary. My rationale was this: Since Vicky never, to my knowledge, even so much as touched the guitar, I would actually be doing the instrument a service — I could take it into my home, feed it, walk it, pet it and give it hugs.
I went over to the Smiths’ house and blew my life savings: 18 George Washington dollars, for an 18-fret Stella. A dollar a fret. With a Mel Bay instruction book thrown in.
Thus became my lifetime obsession. I had a hypothesis which turned out to be valid: I reckoned that, since we all walk around with a mouth in the front of our face all the time, and we see other people use theirs, we learn how to talk. So I began walking around my house with the guitar around my torso, all day, every day, with a length of kite string for a strap. Whenever someone was on television playing guitar, I was riveted. This went on for years. And 36 years later, it still goes on. I have 11 guitars now. And hanging on a hook in my music room: Vicky Smith’s Stella. You never forget your first. Thank you, Vicky.