Trouble No More

How Dicky Betts healed my guitar.
Peter Gerstenzang ’77 is a freelance musician, writer, and humorist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Peter Gerstenzang ’77 is a freelance musician, writer, and humorist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

I have a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar that makes this unbelievably clean, ringing sound—even when I play it. In the days before I owned it, a singer once stopped a recording session and asked if I had webbed fingers, so this is a significant development. How did my playing improve so? I’d like to say it was all the years of practicing I’ve put in since leaving Berklee. But that wouldn’t be quite true. No, this change was due to an act of divine intervention. One night back in the 1980s, Dickey Betts, the former co-lead guitarist, along with Duane Allman, in the legendary Allman Brothers Band, played my guitar. Since then, that Gretsch “ain’t gonna trouble poor old me any more.” I’ll explain.

I bought the guitar at Sam Ash Music in Manhattan. When I sat on the stool in the store and played it, I swung with the sinuous dexterity of Django Reinhardt. But something strange transpired when I got it home. Playing some of those same licks in my bedroom, I suddenly sounded more like Neil Young on a bad night. Sure the ax’s action was a bit high, but in the store, it required only a bit extra pressure to play a chord. After years of playing solo, it seemed like I might have to consider forming a band. Not to back me up, mind you, I figured I’d need the other guys to hold the strings down for me. Then strumming was all I’d have to do.

But that was all before the miracle of Dickey Betts. He rearranged the entire molecular structure of my finicky guitar. Everything’s different now. It all changed one night during a gig at a Manhattan club called JP’s. Accompanying me that night was another guitarist, Kenny Wessel, who has since gone on to make great solo records and play with Ornette Coleman. Wessel and I were doing our mix of original songs, blues, and standards. Determined to master my Gretsch, I brought it along to JP’s. But each time I played it, the remarkable finesse I’d displayed at Sam Ash was nowhere to be found.

Halfway into our second set, a door at the back of the darkened club opened. And with a strange glowing light behind them, in walked Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks, and the tamer of temperamental guitars, Betts. The Brothers had played a gig nearby that night, and three of them came to JP’s and sat down right in front of Wessel and me. This was good, I thought. In a pinch, I could ask them all to help me push down the strings. But alas, I knew that wouldn’t work. Within five minutes of their arrival, Gregg fell fast asleep, face down in a plate of pasta. After our set, Betts, a compact figure with long hair and his trademark cowboy hat, approached. “You’ve got a nice voice, kid,” he told me. “But you were looking at your guitar like it was a water moccasin.”

I explained to this saintly vision from the South that since I purchased it, my Gretsch had undergone a frightening transformation. At Sam Ash, it whispered, “I’ll be your best friend.” But when I got it home, I was sure it was trying to kill me.

Betts chuckled and asked if he could sit in on the next set. He said I should just sing and he’d play my guitar. I swore I heard a celestial choir chime in at this point, but this impression may have been hastened by all the pot smoke swirling through the club. (By 1:00 A.M., JP’s used to resemble the Chung King Opium Den.) I told Betts, “Sure.” Soon the magic began.

We opened our next set with the blues tune “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’.” After Wessel completed a dazzling solo, Mr. Betts ripped into one of his own. He made my guitar produce notes that were clean and powerful; it was like watching an evangelist heal a cripple at a revival meeting. Gone were the skreeks and skronks I’d made, and out came, well, music. We did a country swing number next, and Wessel and I just sat back and let Betts fly. As he soloed, I felt like I was hearing the guitarist’s greatest licks. Wow, there’s that quasi-pedal-steel run from “Ramblin’ Man.” Hey, that one sounds like his single-note scorcher from “Statesboro Blues.” Yikes, there’s his gorgeous chording from “Blue Sky.” On and on went the blessed fingers of Betts. Every run, lick, riff, power chord, half-chord, and bit of finger-picking not only sounded great, but seemed to bring my Country Gentleman back to its healthy self. I let Betts and Wessel finish up with the Allman Brothers’ instrumental “Jessica.” Both players burned up the stage like they knew they could be charged with arson. But they didn’t care.

As we stepped off the stage, Betts handed my guitar back to me. I asked him what he had done. “Sometimes in a case like this, you need a neutral third party to step in,” he said modestly. “Let’s call it an intervention.” Betts then asked if he could just sit with the guitar and play it a bit more. He went over to a chair and sat with my Gretsch for a half-hour, eyes closed, just playing. After he finished communing with my ax, Wessel and I decided to let Betts just get up there and play solo. He did a 10-minute version of his tune “Kissimmee Kid.” By the time he was done, the healing was complete. We shook hands, and I looked around the club. The crowd knew they had witnessed a blessed event and applauded wildly—everyone except for Gregg, still sound asleep, fettuccine permeating his beard.

I’d like to say that Betts’s magic worked right away. But when I got my guitar home, it was still a bit ornery, a bit rubbery sounding. That’s what happens when a guy like Betts spends the night bending your low E-string up to a high E and then to parts unknown. Still, the man had loosened everything up on my fretboard. Not long after, I changed my strings and got to know my ax again. That Gretsch sounded just as gorgeous and full as it had that first day at Sam Ash’s store.

As for Betts, he’s had his ups and downs since that night. He ultimately left the Allman Brothers Band with acrimony and accusations flying from every direction—but not from mine. Every time I play, I think of that country gentleman who made mine sound so fine. He got rid of its bad mojo, juju, hoodoo, or whatever they call it down South. Maybe Betts has sinned along the way; he’s only human (well, sort of). Still, every time I play that Gretsch, I get a warm, unearthly glow. No matter what anyone else says, about him, one thing is perfectly clear to me. In this house, to this player, he will always be the patron saint of the guitar.