When it arrived in October 2010, a sight-unseen online purchase from Elderly Instruments, the $100 used electric guitar was a plain-looking red instrument with no name, an uncertain vintage, and a rusty, single-bridge pickup that co-owners Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara described as looking like an old radio.
In the two-plus years since, however, this humble instrument has voyaged 30,000 miles across the United States, Europe, and Hawaii; and been played on, recorded, and autographed by 65 guitarists. The tattoo of names now scrawled across its worn body reflects a surprising range of players, amateurs to pros, from Wilco rocker Nels Cline to classical musician David Starobin to avant-garde minimalist Rhys Chatham, including four local musicians: Michael Bierylo, Steve MacLean, Ken Field, and Roger C. Miller.
Last month, Bridge Records released a double CD of the “$100 Guitar Project,” with all performer royalties and half the sales proceeds going to the humanitarian organization CARE to help fight global poverty. “There’s nothing quite like a cheap guitar going all around the world seeing what different players can do with it,” says Testament thrash guitarist Alex Skolnick in the teaser for the project’s upcoming documentary.
Seattle guitarist Del Rey, who contributed a thunky Leadbelly-inspired blues to the initiative, says, “It’s the perfect conceptual art project, the idea of the guitar dictating the aesthetics of everybody, and yet everybody sounds exactly like who they are.”
The $100 Guitar Project’s origins are as humble as the instrument itself. For years, O’Meara and Didkovsky sent each other gear-related e-mails. “Usually for overpriced instruments neither or us can afford,” Didkovsky says. “So when [Chuck] sent me a message describing the ‘guitar of my dreams’ I wondered how many years of my kids’ college future I’d have to sacrifice to consider it. But Chuck was being ironic, as the guitar of my dreams was this unbranded anonymous red guitar selling for $100. Two years later, it turns out this was a pretty good description of it, as this project turned into something pretty dream-like.”
Didkovsky and O’Meara started by e-mailing a few friends with an idea: Take the guitar for a week, create a new piece, record it, then pass the guitar on. Within 24 hours, the idea went viral, with 30 other guitarists volunteering their creative efforts. Twenty-five more weighed in the following day. The pair finally cut off participants when the list reached 65.
Over the course of the guitar’s journey, it’s been strummed, picked, stroked, hammered on, bowed, scraped, plunked, bent, and shredded. It’s been “prepared” with nuts and bolts, with a kitchen whisk and a nail file jammed under the strings to create a false bridge, miked, manipulated, and routed through all manner of electronic processing. It has rocked out with Marty Carlson, gone microtonal with Larry Polansky and ethereal with Julia Miller, challenging players with its limitations to step outside their usual methodology.
Roger C. Miller, guitarist-vocalist-songwriter for Mission of Burma and keyboardist-composer for Boston’s Alloy Orchestra, found the project’s concept “incredibly charming, really brilliant.” He says, “Any guitarist around my age  played those exact same kind of guitars when they first started playing, not very good guitars, but with this clanky, innocent sound to them, and each had a unique personality. This was kind of like going back to my childhood and putting that together with what I know now, combining things in a way that I normally wouldn’t.”
Bierylo, guitarist and electronic musician for Boston modern music ensemble Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, wanted to “let the instrument speak.” One afternoon’s exploration on the guitar called to mind old Afropop and the kora, which his “Koralate” evoke in music both highly processed and rhythmically engaging. He says, “I wanted to see what the guitar wanted me to do. I ended up mangling and processing the sound, slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the family of sound that was in this instrument. It was unique in terms of what I do, one of the coolest things I’ve done in a long time.”
One of the most evocative works in the collection is “The Wind That Brought the Fire,” by Janet Feder. A pioneer of the prepared guitar, the Colorado guitarist says her work was informed by a recent fire. “This vision influenced every note I played, conjuring birds, flames, and the shimmering heat that had passed through weeks earlier.”
It was Starobin who suggested his family-run label, Bridge Records, release the project as a CD set. He was drawn to the endeavor’s charity aspect as well as the eclectic variety of raw material, which added to the production challenge. He recalls, “There were different players, different amplifiers, different microphones, different continents. [Engineer] Tom Dimuzio took these 69 recordings, applied his mastering genius and gave us a record that’s remarkably coherent and seamless. All of these disparate voices — rockers, classically oriented, blues and jazz guys — every spectrum of music comes out in this project. Yet put them back to back, and they don’t sound out of place. It’s the same guitar, the same basic acoustic, but completely different stylistically. That’s what I like best.”
Didkovsy and O’Meara recently found out the provenance of their instrument: According to scholar Frank Meyers, it is an EJ-2, the first electric guitar model produced by FujiGen Gakki in Japan, probably around 1964. The program notes for the CD booklet describe how each artist used the instrument, offering a kind of tutorial sampler for what the electric guitar can do in the 21st century.
Del Rey says, “It’s amazing that if you sit down and listen to that whole record — how could all of these completely different musical pieces and styles come out of this one thing? But it’s really just a tool. It’s the skill of the people playing that makes the music happen. There’s something for everybody — and something to annoy everybody.”