The Guitars of Dorian Gray

Most of the guitarists I know have way more instruments than they need. My friend Luke Miller is no exception. Here is his story.

Pointy guitars from the Miller Collection

It was probably some subconscious attempt to stave off middle age, and maybe also to keep some kind of tenuous grip on my dreams of being at least a locally-recognized guitarist. I’d played in a few bands in the past, some of which were actually pretty cool, but in retrospect, I hadn’t put the energy into staying involved in the local live music scenes that I should have. Life called, and that dream got put on hold. 
There are two local live music scenes, by the way. I know. I’ve been involved with both. There is the cover band circuit, and the “originals” circuit. Never the twain shall meet. In general, the “originals” circuit people look down on the cover band circuit. They’d never admit as much publicly, but it’s true.  “Originals” people don’t see any artistic integrity in what the cover band people are doing. They may value the musicianship of a cover guy, but the upper level of respect will just never be there. I’ve seen enough “knowing glances” and smirks from the originals crowd when they interact with the covers people.

Les Paul Custom
One of the many guitars of Luke Miller

The cover band circuit is a strange one, though. Some performers in the cover band circuit are literally just in it for the money. Strange concept, at least to me since musicianship is a form of art. These people are usually the most technically skilled musicians of the bunch, but I don’t get any “joyful soul energy” from them when they play. You see this a lot with the wedding band people. Excellent musicians, but robotic.

Others in the “covers” scene are weekend warriors, getting out onstage to flex a little bit on Fridays and Saturdays, and maybe the odd Thursday during the summer. I like this group the most, especially if they don’t take themselves too seriously. They are in it for the fun, and to stay relevant in the eyes of their friends, and I can relate to that.

Then there’s always at least a small contingent of “I’m gonna be a rock star playing other people’s music” people. This includes every Karen dressed up as 1984 Stevie Nicks who wants to be recognized for “her” voice, and every Shredder-Dad dropping Yngwie solos into Alanis Morrisette covers on a bid to get taken seriously for his musicianship.

The downside for the originals guys is that many live in the dream-state, thinking their big break is coming any minute. It’s probably not. Given a choice, I’d choose to be an originals guy though. I do think there’s a bit more “art” to creating, writing, and arranging your own stuff, and then going out in front of people to play it for them.

By way of introduction, my name is Luke, and I have too many guitars.

I started playing at age 12. My first guitar was a Kay model, which was vaguely reminiscent of a Strat, but with humbuckers. It had knobs and switches like the control panels on the Jupiter 2 from the O.G. Lost In Space. I trashed that guitar, and no longer have it. Same thing with my second guitar, a Harmony ES-335. I ended up dissecting that guitar under the delusion that I was going to refinish it in white. Guess what never got refinished?

At age 16, after I’d been playing for about three to four years, my father bought me a Gibson Les Paul Custom for Christmas. Life altering. This was basically the very best guitar on the wall at the now-defunct Super Axe Showcase, in Secane, Pennsylvania. We had gone in to look at an SG. The SG was $399.00 used, in good shape. The Les Paul was hanging at the top of the center of their guitar wall like a crown jewel. It was marked at $519.00. Lots more than the SG. My dad asked me how I liked it, and I’m sure the look on my face gave away the answer. The SG, and my desire to be a 6’7” tall Angus Young, faded away. I had the coolest guitar in my high school.

Although Super Axe Showcase has been closed for over thirty years now, I still have that Les Paul.

About two years later, at age eighteen, I decided I needed a guitar that had a tremolo arm. This was because of the songs “Over the Mountain” by Ozzy Osbourne, and “Stone in Love” by Journey. Both songs feature extensive tremolo use. I had to be able to play them properly or I would surely die.

I found a black Aria Strat-style guitar at a local music store for $250.00. It had a vintage style tremolo, but also had a humbucker and two single coil pickups. Sold. That guitar has always been much better than the sum of its parts. It was sold to me as a “prototype” made by Aria, and it had no logo on its headstock. When I used it in clubs later, I added a Carvin Guitars logo, because I’m tricky like that. I wish now that I had just have left it as-is. I still have that guitar as well, although I have switched out most of the electronics, and had to replace the tremolo as it was worn out.

At age 23, freshly after getting married, I decided that I deserved a Fender Stratocaster for my birthday. My wife went along with this plan, for which I thank her sincerely. I ended up buying a Japanese/American hybrid Stratocaster model with a Kahler Spyder locking tremolo. This was a very unique run of Stratocasters, with parts from Japan, but assembled and set-up in the United States. This run of guitars actually has no country of origin markings (i.e. no “Made in Japan”, or “Made in the U.S.A.”) because they were a product of mixed provenance. I have since taken it upon myself to collect this particular series. I currently have six of them, all in exquisite condition, and I am always on the lookout for more. These are some of the best Stratocasters I’ve ever played in my life. Somebody really got the formula correct on these.

So, up until age 30, I only had those three guitars. They served me well, and I seemed to be able to do everything I wanted to do with those three. I used all three in various bands, however I have to admit that the black Aria Strat was very finicky under hot stage lights, and often went out of tune.

Then my wife got pregnant, or should I say my wife and I got pregnant (I didn’t feel pregnant, but, apparently that’s the way I’m supposed to say it).

I remember going out the week we got the news and buying a black BC Rich Warlock and a pearl white BC Rich Virgin. Both were used guitars, but nonetheless, they each cost in excess of $350.00. It sure seems like a subconscious grasp at youth in retrospect now, albeit not a super-expensive one.

It was full-on after that. Within about a year or two I had twelve new guitars, and seemingly was always on the lookout for more. I usually kept it under $600.00 or so for each guitar. I didn’t go for the expensive Gibsons and vintage Fenders and what-not.

Each time that I would find something I liked, I would buy it, bring it home and clean and polish it, I’d set it up properly and repair or replace any damaged electronics, and then promptly put it away and go find a new guitar with which to do the same thing. Over and over and over again.

I’m 56 now, and have 94 guitars and basses, and even an electric sitar and a Chinese lute called a “pipa” (for when I need to play Chinese lute music). Since starting to buy up guitars like they are going out of style (which I’m told they are; thanks Hip-Hop), I have played a total of three live shows. Clearly my little addiction has nothing to do with having the proper tools of the trade for recording or playing out live.

I’ve noticed that I have a predisposition towards pointy guitars, especially anything made by BC Rich. They tend to put out the most garish guitars, some of which are so pointy that they could double as Klingon weapons. I also pick up weird stuff, you know, to give it a good home. I feel it’s important to have at least one “assault rifle guitar”, and one “shark” guitar.

As it turns out, they don’t keep me young. They do, however, take some of the edge off of getting old. That’s good enough, I suppose.

I’m still hoping for one more crack at the club scene, playing metal for the 21 – 30 crowd.  

If wishes were horses…