In high school, I told my parents I wanted to learn how to play guitar. Of course, that means getting a guitar — but they called my bluff and said “use your sister’s.” It was a nylon-string folk guitar by Framus, thoroughly inadequate for rocking. I said I wanted an electric. “If you want an electric, you’re going to have to save up and buy it yourself.”

Mom didn’t think I’d do it. To scratch the itch, I borrowed a friend’s Strat copy — a little-known but well-built Asian brand called Yakima — for about seven months while saving up my cash from my job at the record store. My goal was to get a bright red, real Fender Stratocaster — albeit a 1957 reissue from Japan, but at least it would a new one ordered just for me. I’d visited Chet’s Music Store, which was a Fender dealer but didn’t regularly stock anything, and was told to come in when I had $600, which would be enough up front for them to order the $1000 model. Chet was a friend of the family, and while there was no deal to be cut, he was friendly and understood my enthusiasm.

The day after I graduated high school in 1989, I took my $600 in savings and asked my parents to go with me to Chet’s — it was a special moment and I wanted them to be there. Partly that was to rub their noses in it, but my parents didn’t even seem to care that I’d called their bluff; they were happy that I had saved my money and kept focused on a goal for such a long time.

Chet said “Today’s the day, huh? Okay, but before we place the order, I have something I want to show you…” And this is what he pulled out:

A 1979 Les Paul Custom, all original, in a hardshell case. Now, I knew the name, and I’d read by battered copy of the UK instructional manual Play Rock Guitar enough to know what a Les Paul was, but…well, it was almost perfectly wrong. Stratocasters were light and hourglassy and had stinging, biting tone. Les Pauls were chunky and heavy and sounded similarly fat. It was exactly the opposite of what I wanted, of everything I’d been saving for.

“Ooh, that’s pretty,” said my mom. She knew Les Paul from his hits with Mary Ford, and their television and radio appearances. I just knew him as the guy who made the Les Paul. And I had to admit, the wine red finish with the gold hardware was pretty.

We went into one of the student rooms and plugged it into an ancient Fender combo amp. I had meager skills at this point, but my mom asked if I could play Chet Atkins’ version of “Snowbird.” My dad commented that it was lovely and that Chet wouldn’t steer me wrong; if I liked it, I could trust him. I knew I was holding something valuable, but again…it wasn’t my guitar, was it? It had a tiny little bit of buckle rash but otherwise looked perfect. It had barely been played. Chet said he’d sold it to a customer some years back who wound up keeping it in his closet and, when that guy needed money, Chet was a pal and bought it back from him. But Chet wasn’t a high-priced guitar dealer; he made money from lessons. He wanted this thing out of his store for the insurance reasons alone. If I bought it for $700, I’d be doing him a favor, he said.

I looked at my dad. “I don’t think you should pass this up,” he said. He knew nothing about guitars, but as a veteran bargain hunter, he knew a good deal when he saw it. “If you don’t like it, you can always sell it or trade it for something else.” So in the back of my mind, that’s always what I’ve considered doing. I mean, who keeps their first guitar, right?

My parents loaned me the extra $100 — “you saved up the first $600, so we know you’re good for it,” said my mom — and I walked out with it in its heavy hardshell case, almost in shock. I didn’t have that “OMG this is the guitar I’ve always dreamed of” feeling. I had that “what have I done?” feeling. And a little voice in the back of my head said, “This had better go up in value, because I want to get a really nice Strat for it.”

Friends said they’d never seen a guitar like it. It was actually not that uncommon; wine red was a standard Gibson finish and it was pretty popular at the time. But not in Trenton, New Jersey, apparently, because I got nothing but suggestions that it was unique or rare. That summer I did a stage production of Hair, and my hippie costume included a gold-colored airborne insignia with big wings on it. I pinned that to my guitar strap and dubbed the guitar Amelia.

It’s with no small amount of terror that I realized that was 20 years ago this month. Chet’s Music Store was destroyed in a fire some years back; I understand that Chet himself has passed on now too.

The gold on the hardware has worn away in places, the white binding has turned yellow/orange, and there are more than a few buckle scrapes on the back now. Still, it’s in great shape overall; no damage, all original hardware (except for the strap pegs — Chet was the one who turned me on to strap locks as well as “the toothpick trick”), and the pickups still have strong output. I figure the guitar is worth about $2000 on the current market, and will only go up. Guess my dad was right.

Kat took some photos of all my guitars recently. Her shots, especially the ones of the scrapes and dings and wear and tear, made me appreciate everything I have learned on and from this Les Paul.

I think I’ll keep it.

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