This is a Golem monster of musical compilations, a crazy idea that got out of control. “We are kind of stunned that it’s taken off at a rate that’s actually kind of hard to keep up with,” say the project’s creators. In 2010, guitarists Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara discovered a no-brand guitar online, priced at exactly $100. Without much to lose, they had it delivered and prepared to start recording songs. Then they mailed it to some friends who also played guitar, and those friends mailed it to some other friends, recording more and more songs along the way. The resulting album from Bridge Music, a compilation of recordings made on the same instrument, is exciting and bizarre.
The two discs contains 69 songs (nearly two-and-half hours of music) by a selection of composers so diverse it would be hard to imagine them in the same room together. Fans of Boston’s Mission of Burma will appreciate the complex rock textures of Roger C. Miller’s “The Hundred Buck Stopped Here.” There’s Alex Skolnick’s straight-up blues, followed directly by Josh Lopes’ Tuvanian throat singing. Parisian Rhys Chatham provides a new, shorter version of his The Out-of-Tune Guitar, a piece that is more than likely to have influenced at least a few of the other musicians on the album. David Starobin—the founder of Bridge Records—contributes a lullaby, but for whom is not certain. Seattle’s Del Rey resurrects a mythical Huddie Ledbetter, while Taylor Levine’s “Fish Eye” sounds like an origin myth of the guitar itself.
It’s fine listening to be sure, but the album is not merely for listening. This is old-fashioned-put-the-record-on-hunker-down-on-the-carpet music. The liner notes on this album are essential, as each track is accompanied by a one-paragraph description written by the track’s composer. Without that you’ll miss the reference to Terry Riley, the cameo appearance by Harry Partch, and Henry Kaiser’s eleven-o’clock punchline that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
For an even wider perspective, the Microsoft Word document that was sent to each of the participants, with rules to the game and a signature that encourages the reader to “Rock On,” is available for consumption on the Project’s website, as are many videos of the players constructing their pieces, and a decidedly un-Instagramed photo essay telling the story of the guitar. There’s a Google Map of the journey and even a sampling of youthful outsider art. For lovers of the information age, this project is a media scavenger hunt.
In the guitar community, the word “project” has come to mean the kind of broken instrument, flimsily made to begin with, that it would be the buyer’s project to revive. This is a project of a different sort, however. Listening song-for-song, The $100 Guitar Project reveals the switching hands from player to player, and that humanity is a delight to hear. This is the creative process at its finest, and that’s something to say in an age when technology has threatened to wipe our humanity clean. The Internet has announced a documentary in production about the $100 Guitar Project, which I doubt will offer any further flavor to what’s already a rich and enticing stew. The project is its own documentary, having learned the most important lesson about any creative venture: if the million-dollar idea doesn’t come, take a hundred-dollar idea and tell a million-dollar story.
Special thanks to Dan Orkin of Reverb.com for advising on this review.
Sam Zelitch is a writer and a performer out of Chicago, Ill. Follow him on Twitter: @smellitch.
$100 guitar, Alex Skolnick, Bridge Records, Chuck O'Meara, david starobin, Del Rey, Harry Partch, Henry Kaiser, Huddie Ledbetter, lead belly, Nick Didkovsky, Rhys Chatham, Roger C. Miller, Taylor Levine, Terry Riley