The Value of Old.

The older I get, the more I appreciate old stuff. I suppose that makes a certain amount of synergistic sense. When I was a kid, “new” was the thing. If some marketer prefixed their pitch with the magic word “new” – they had my attention. These days, I equate “new” with “not as good as what it replaced.” That’s not always true, of course – a new computer is better/faster/cheaper than an old one. But when it comes to things that require craftsmanship, pride, skill, taste, and durability, “old” beats “new” almost every time. Case in point, musical instruments. A while back, I bewailed the manifest stupidity and shortsighted strategy of the C.F. Martin company on my blog. They released a line of (relatively) low-cost instruments, branded with their venerable name, that featured plywood necks with adjustable trussrods, backs and sides made out of a Formica-like plastic/fake wood grain laminate (!) and no purfling around the edges (purfling keeps the edges from getting knicked and the wood from splitting). I would have had no problem with the instrument (other than the fact that it sounds like a boat anchor), with another name, but putting the C.F. Martin name on such an instrument devalued their brand forever. Now I see that Taylor Guitars has done the same thing – they’ve released an “entry-level” guitar with a neck that features a dovetail joint, right at the nut. Now, if they’d created a new “entry-level” brand, let’s call it the “Opie Guitar, by Taylor” – I’d have no beef with them. But calling a laminated, dovetailed-joined guitar a Taylor simply means that “Taylor” no longer automatically equals a fine, expensive guitar.

I still own a Martin. Mine was made around 1978. It has a non-adjustable truss rod in the neck. (If you can make a neck that never needs adjusting, why put in an adjustable truss rod?) A few years back, Martin finally succumbed to the constant drumbeat from other manufacturers that “an adjustable truss rod is somehow better.” Imagine the Aesop’s fable, had the wolf pack followed the advise of their leader (who’d lost his tail in a mishap with a trap) and cut off their own tails in order to follow his “new style.” Now you can still buy the “Classic Coke” version of a Martin (special orders, mostly). They charge extra for it. And you’ll have to wait. Me, I’ll stick with my old Martin – a guitar that’s just now getting mellowed out and broken-in.

Today, I found an old piano. It’s probably 100 years old. Needs some work. Tuning, fix a couple of non-playing keys – that sort of thing. A piano technician told me that I should sell it, get my money out of it, and go buy a new spinnet piano, as he believes the new pianos are technically a lot better than the old ones. Nope. Not gonna do it. It may take some bucks to fix this one up, but when it’s done, I’ll have something worth keeping. It won’t be sleek and new, but it will be an example of fine, American craftmanship and manufacturing from a day gone by.

Did you know that at one time, there were something like 2,000 different piano manufacturers in the United States. Today, I think there are maybe two that still manufacture pianos within the lower 48. Everybody else is either out of business, or building them abroad. Do we need that many manufacturers? Of course not. But it’s sad to think that most of our pianos now come from China. So do our guitars. In the 1970’s, most entry-level and mid-priced guitars came from Japan. In the 90’s, it was Korea. (For a time, almost every guitar made – other than expensive, handmade models from here in the USA – came from the Samick factory in Korea. Just as Japan priced themselves out of the import business in favor of Korea, now China has undercut Korea’s labor costs.)

I own one really nice, hand-crafted guitar. I own three made in Japan, one from Korea, and one from China. Except for the Martin, you’d never know the difference in playing them or looking at them. So what? The takeaway from this, is that we’ve traded a better price for true craftsmanship and pride in things made here. I’m not talking about that “Made in USA with a Union Label” crap that they labor unions try to use to guilt us into paying more for things just so they can justify their existance to their membership. I’m talking about genuine craftsmanship, made by people right here in our country. It still exists – but it’s getting harder and harder to find.

So I’ll take my 100-year-old piano, and spend some money getting it back to a playable state. (I hope.) I’d honestly rather have it, than a new one – especially a new one that is produced by a bunch of computer-controlled machines, somewhere in the People’s Republic of China. I like the idea of owning something made by people – my people – that was originally built with a sense of pride in their own work. That’s an old idea. And I think it has value.

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