By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
For my most recent “Great Ukes” article in the print magazine [Editor’s note: Summer 2019], I wrote about Gibson ukuleles, including a little history and a take on how much variation there is in their line of standard models. To be truthful, I’ve never been a huge fan of Gibson instruments; to this day, I’ve never picked up a Gibson guitar that suited my sonic tastes. Ukulele wise, until recently, I only had a single Gibson soprano uke in my collection: A Style 1 with some rather unorthodox decorations applied by a previous owner, including a 1901 Brazilian 100 real coin inlaid into the headstock. From the look of things, I’d say these “embellishments” were added early in this uke’s life, maybe in the 1920s.
I’ve always admired Gibson’s Style 3 ukes, with their layered ivoroid bindings and fancy pearl fretboard and headstock inlays. One day while perusing Reverb.com (my current favorite online site for buying used musical gear), I happened to run across a Style 3 Gibson for sale at a very reasonable price. Overall, it appeared to be in very good condition. But when I examined the photographs of the instrument more closely, I realized why the asking price was relatively low: An enthusiastic uker (I’m guessing a kid) had scratched his or her name into the finish right smack dab on the face of the uke just above the sound hole; what is says it isn’t really legible. While this normally might be a deal breaker, I happened to experience a funny coincidence: A good friend of mine who is a wood finishing expert had recently told me about a product (actually, it’s a kind of cyanoacrylate glue called “Gluboost Fill N Finish”) that can be used to repair finishes and, most significantly, it leaves no witness lines—small lines that show where the repair is. I suspected that I could use this product to repair the scratched letters on this uke and render them nearly invisible. After confirming the likely success of my plan with my wood finishing friend, I made an offer on the Gibson uke, which was promptly accepted. I emailed the seller, not really paying attention to their name, asking if they would please not ship the instrument right away, as I was about to go on a little vacation trip.
The next day, I left for my mini-vacation in Pismo Beach, a small town on California’s Central Coast. A friend of mine—also a uke enthusiast—has a beach house there that he’s kind enough to let me use on occasion. After soaking in the sun and doing some general sight seeing, I did what I always do when I travel: I visit whatever local music stores I can find. The first one I located was an amazing place in the nearby town of Arroyo Grande. It’s called Lightning Joe’s Guitar Heaven, and it simply blew my socks off. Here’s this store in a relatively small town that has a bigger inventory of, well, you name it: guitars, amps, basses, mandolins, ukuleles, etc., etc., than most music stores found in major cities. Make sure and visit there if you’re passing through the area.
I then set my sights on another music store that wasn’t too far away from there. Using directions from a Google search on my cell phone, I soon found a small place called Steve’s Guitar Shoppe tucked away behind a generic strip mall. Looking at the outside of the place, my first impression was that this tiny boutique probably didn’t have more than a handful of instruments. I almost didn’t get out of the car. But my curiosity prevailed, and I stepped inside. My suspicions were mostly correct, as about a dozen used, but very-desirable, guitars hung on the walls above some very cool tube amplifiers. Behind the counter sat Steve, the man himself, who paused in the middle of some guitar repair work he was doing to greet me. After chatting for awhile about cool guitars (he had a Mosrite Ventures model guitar similar to one I had owned in my youth), we delved into the topic of ukuleles.
“I don’t have any ukes for sale right now, but I can show you a nice one I recently sold,” Steve said and then pulled out a funky violin case and set it on the counter. When he opened it, my jaw nearly hit the floor: It was a Gibson Style 3 with the tell-tale letters scratched into the top.
“That’s MY uke; I just bought it from you on Reverb.com!” I blurted out, as I impulsively grabbed my driver’s license to show him, to prove I was the buyer. “Well” he said as he handed me the uke, “thanks for saving me the trouble of shipping it to you.” Talk about dumb-luck coincidences! What are the odds of me walking into the very store that had the instrument I had bought just two days earlier? Maybe I should have played the lottery that week….