It’s All In The Fingers

The High and the Lowly of Guitars

by Steve Rapson

In 1969 I was in Medford Square having a guitar lesson with local legend, Buddy Marcil. I complained that my cheap guitar, a steel string, was too hard to play, thus my failure at the latest lesson. Buddy said, “Let me see it.”

Then he said, “…where’s my pick?” No pick to be found, he took a penny out of his pocket and played the song we were working on: The Letter by the Box Tops. He rocked that song with my purportedly unplayable guitar and a penny for a pick.

Properly humbled, but still unhappy with that guitar, Buddy sent me to Medford Music where I bought my first classical guitar, an Aria FAC-10 with plywood top. The music store was owned by a friend of his with the promise of a fabulous deal.  I paid $60 for the Aria.  At the time I was making $100 a week as a floor layer/sander. 

Then I got married and had children. We were so poor, or cheap, or both, that I never bought a case for the Aria. I recall walking through the woods on a picnic with a kid on one arm and the Aria over my shoulder like a woodsman’s ax. It was useful for moving branches out of the way.

One day we had friends over for dinner. We all heard a big SPROING! from the living room. Racing in we saw the bridge had popped off the guitar, flapping around with the six strings attached.  I brought it to where I worked at Braun North America (owned by Gillette). We had a service department for appliances and I figured they might be able to fix it.  Indeed they did. The foreman, Ed Murphy, said, “We use this glue called cryo… something, not sure it will work, but… if you’re OK with it.”  I was. And it’s been OK since 1973.

A few years later my band was in full swing. Though I played a Gibson ES-335,  I wanted to incorporate acoustic sounds. So I put an under saddle pickup in the Aria and brought it to gigs. It wasn’t great. 

The Aria has been dropped, banged on and generally abused. Occasionally, a local luthier would fix this and that. Still, it has a unique voice. I recorded several CD’s with the Aria. Christmas Guitar and Romantic Guitar being stand-outs sound-wise. It can heard on my website:

In 2000, Jeffrey Joiner built me a classical guitar modeled on the Thomas Humphreys M-1.  A nice guitar that I never really bonded with.  As my age and bank account increased, I finally could afford a custom-made guitar built by Oscar Azaret.

As you might imagine, my new guitar was a revelation, though I still love the Aria. How a guitar feels to the fingers is as important as how it sounds. Often more so. My Aria always feels like coming home.

When guitarists get together they show off their instruments, offering them to peers to play and appreciate. The luthier, the style, the strings, the provenance, and even the price, are all part of the story of their guitar and what makes it special. Often what makes it most special is that it’s a thing of beauty. Handmade guitars are works of art as well as sound machines.

I own four handmade guitars*: An Azaret guitar made for me in the Fleta style, two steel string guitars one made by James Goodall and one by Marc Beneteau.  And, my main gig guitar: a nylon acoustic/electric made for me by Kirk Sand. When Chet Atkins acquired a Sand guitar, he called it, “The best guitar I’ve ever played.” Safe to say that Mr. Sand’s orders increased markedly. I sure wanted one.

Chet admired classical guitarists, and he recorded several pieces himself. At one recording session the engineer complimented Chet on his new guitar, “Wow! Chet that guitar sounds fabulous.” As the story goes, after each take the engineer would say how great the guitar sounded. This led Chet to lay it down and say, “How’s it sound now?” ­

Which makes Chet’s other quip, certainly arguable, but more true than not, “At the end of the day, it’s pretty much all in the fingers.”

There’s some evidence for this. Most guitarists have a unique sound that is recognizable to aficionados. That sound transfers to pretty much any instrument they play. Parkening, Bream, Williams are easy for me, and I suspect for you as well, to identify. Even if it’s a piece I’ve not heard them play on a guitar they have not recorded with. Similarly, guitarists in other styles: Clapton, Santana, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, James Taylor, George Benson, are all easy to pick out. It’s more in the fingers than the guitar is my point, and Chet’s.

Your favorite guitar has a unique voice and feel that makes you want to play it for hours. That guitar may speak to you in ways it won’t to another player.  What makes a guitar good or great, or “the best” has been thoroughly discussed on-line. Here are a few excellent selections:

Classical Guitar Corner, High End GuitarsErvin Somogyi. Ervin Somogyi is a prolific author and teacher. In addition, Mr. Somogyi is a well-known builder. He is selling a used guitar (built in 1996) on his website for $24,000 (or best offer).  Truly, an object d’art.

At the other end is my Aria, with which I proudly posed twenty-five years ago. In a side by side demo of these two distantly related instruments, each would have its voice filtered through the fingers of whoever played them. It’s possible, though perhaps not likely, that someone’s ears would find the Aria more to their liking. Or someone’s fingers might be captivated by the lesser guitar.

Guitars at the entry level end of the spectrum are manufactured by many companies. A few are:

Cordoba Guitars, Lucero Guitars, and Yamaha Guitars there are dozens of others.

We all search for the Holy Grail of guitars. That one instrument that makes us want to play it, and allows us to play our best. GAS (Guitar Acquisition Syndrome) is a common affliction. I’ve suffered greatly over the years. Though I confess that most of my guitars remained in their cases. My fingers know which guitar they want, and my ears follow.

If there’s a moral here, it’s play as many different guitars of all pedigree as you can. I’ve been fortunate to hang out in the shops of several luthiers, including Kenny Hill, Oscar Azaret, and Jeffery Joiner. I’ve sampled the work of a dozen high end builders over the years. At this stage in my playing life, I know what I want to feel and hear when I pick up a guitar. And, yes, sometimes it is my modest little sixty year old, beat up plywood Aria.** Thanks to my first teacher, Bud Marcil.


*I own a few vintage guitars as well, and have owned and sold others. Here’s a link to my guitar catalogue, with histories. 

The Aria on the bench.

**A few years ago I asked my luthier, Oscar Azaret, if he would consider restoring the Aria. He would and did. A thousand dollars invested paid huge dividends. The old guitar has a new life and keeps improving as the years go by. Here it is in a recent video: my arrangement of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria for solo guitar.


Steve Rapson is a guitarist, songwriter, and author of The Art of the Soloperformer: A Field Guide To Stage and Podium.

2 thoughts on “It’s All In The Fingers

  1. Clem Berridge says:

    Great guitar stories and beautifully laid out like a masterful musical arrangement. I had no idea how particular guitarists are and how many different guitars they play. As a former trumpet player, this is a revelation since I only owned one trumpet at a time over the years. Thanks Steve and keep on playing. Btw, my Cordoba, which you helped me pick out, sounds great, thanks to your lessons!

  2. Bob G says:

    Fun story, I like your writing style. Although some of the guitarist lingo was over my head, I could feel the love and energy one may have for their instrument, no matter the price, age, or condition. Well done.

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