Restoring things – whether it’s aeroplanes, trains, ecosystems or guitars – is fun and important. But deciding how – and how much – to restore is not always straightforward.
My life as an ecologist got me involved in all sorts of stuff, and most of my career was focused on trying to find better ways to manage and repair the Earth’s ecosystems. I got involved in lots of activities described by words starting with “re-“. Restoration, rehabilitation, rewilding, reintroduction, regeneration, repair and many more.
Repairing damaged ecosystems – and preventing further damage – is seen as a key ingredient in developing effective strategies for the survival of humanity and the ecosystems and species of the world in the coming decades. Indeed, this decade has been declared the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
“The United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) challenges everyone to massively scale up restoration efforts that breathe new life into our degraded ecosystems.
Restoring our planet’s imperilled ecosystems intrinsically connects us with a chance at a healthier future. We will work together to bring life and function back to our scarred ecosystems through extensive and pro-active restoration – rebuilding degraded areas to improve habitat for wildlife, protect our soils and watersheds, support economic resiliency, and better confront a changing climate.”
Restoration of ecological systems is not necessarily a simple matter, and it requires an understanding of how systems work, what might be wrong with them currently, and how to go about repairing them. Pretty much the same as maintaining and repairing or restoring anything, really.
Planes, trains, automobiles
I love aeroplanes and flying, and was given the opportunity to fly in a lovingly restored and maintained De Havilland Tiger Moth a few years ago. Thousands of Tiger Moths were built between 1931 and 1945, of which a few hundred remain operational, and more have been restored from neglected aircraft or static museum displays.
Like old aircraft, old steam trains hold a great fascination for me and many other people – some, like me, remember when steam trains still ran regularly, while younger generations have been enthused by the Hogwarts Express and the steam trains that still run in various parts of the world. Return visits to the Spey Valley, the part of Scotland where my wife is from, generally include lots of sightings of the train that runs on the Strathspey Railway a stretch of railway closed in the 1960s and re-opened by a group of volunteers in 1978.
Old planes, trains – and automobiles and boats – often need a lot of care and attention to get them into functioning order and to keep them in the air or on the rails. Whether it’s feasible to get an old plane or train rolling again depends, on one hand, on the condition it’s found in and, on the other hand, on the amount of effort people are prepared to put into the restoration process.
Sometimes getting the old wreck working again may be next to impossible because the damage is too thorough or because essential parts are no longer available. To some extent, this depends on how determined the restorers are – and how much time, money and resources they are prepared to throw at it – to return the machine back to the exact form and function it originally had. Does it need to have all original parts and materials? Does it need to just look the same or does it need to replicate the original form exactly? And does it need to actually fly/pull carriages/do whatever it originally did, or is it just for looking at as a museum piece?
Of course, the exact same considerations are relevant when it comes to ecological restoration. How degraded is the ecosystem and what will it take to restore it? There are two main differences between ecosystems and trains or planes though. Firstly, a train or a plane has a known date when it was first made and, often, a known set of plans, components etc. Most of the world’s ecosystems have been around for a very long time but are not static entities – rather, they change as the climate changes, as species move, and as humans modify them.
Secondly, ecosystems are comprised of living elements – plants, animals and microbes that all have their own dynamics and all interact in various ways. Usually, things take time to establish and grow – for trees, this can be decades or even centuries. For some ecosystems, the exact living components that were there in the past are no longer present, while other newer members are present. And for all systems, the living components literally have a life of their own and often behave differently from how restorers would like them to behave.
These features add a layer of complexity to ecological restoration that is not present in restoring old machines. Questions have to be asked about what the target system is. What species composition is OK? Is it OK to restore a system that works, even if it doesn’t have the same species as before? How important is it if some of the species are different from before? And which “before” are we talking about anyway?
In my professional career, I got myself into a lot of hot water with folks in the ecological restoration arena by questioning a lot of the accepted wisdom around these questions.
My colleague Liam Heneghan in Chicago recently wrote an interesting article looking at ecological restoration through the lens of art restoration – or rather, art conservation (it turns out that the term restoration is rather fraught in the art world).
Folks in the art world are constantly having to make decisions about whether and how maintain or repair artworks – see for instance Barbara Appelbaum’s “Conservation Treatment Methodology”. Should a piece be cleaned, have minor damage repaired, taken back to how it would have been when the artist first produced it – including the removal of any changes or adornments that may have been added over the years or centuries – or should it just be left as it is now? And if you are going to do anything to it, what materials, tools and techniques are OK to use?
This list of questions sounds awfully like a similar list that could be drawn up for ecological restoration! In his article, Liam suggests that the art world has taken a much more careful and nuanced approach to these questions than the ecological restoration world. And he points out that the answers to these questions change through time – so, something that was considered a good and acceptable thing to do a century ago may now may be considered verging on the sacrilegious. And, equivalently, new methods and materials may render possible things that would have been impossible in earlier times.
And so it is with guitars. Guitars, as well as being works of art – or at the very least the product of craftsmanship – are also functional instruments. So, they have a lot in common with the trains and planes as well as artworks – in that they are meant to produce music, and hence need to function as working instruments, unless they are kept merely for show in a case or hanging on a wall.
As mentioned in an earlier post, perhaps one of the obvious options open to someone who wants to buy a guitar and is concerned about sustainability issues is to buy a used guitar. This is the ultimate in re-use and recycling and does not involve the use of any more resources.
A prime consideration is that it can be much cheaper to buy a used guitar than a new one. All of the guitars in my early life were second-hand and didn’t cost much at all. They weren’t very good either, of course.
But a quick skirmish into the used guitar market soon reveals that used guitars come in all sorts of levels of quality and price bracket, as well as ages. Many people consider a good used guitar to be superior to a brand new one, because the guitar will have “aged” and hence sound better. And some folks are prepared to spend eye-wateringly large amounts on guitars of particular makes and eras, as well as guitars that were owned by famous musicians. Some people buy these guitars to actually play them, while some simply collect them in the same way art collectors buy works of art – partly to enjoy owning and observing them and partly as a long-term investment.
There is much to be said about the world of old guitars, and people like George Gruhn in Nashville have become experts in all the various things to be considered.
A cave of wonders awaits for those who geek out on all the various brands and their histories, and often a deal of detective work is needed to work out the provenance and age of a particular guitar. More on this in future posts. But, relating to the topic of this post, one of the most important considerations regarding owning or buying a used, particularly vintage, guitar is its condition.
Some guitars are simply better made in the first place and hence last longer and better than others. But even well-made guitars that are subject to the rough and tumble of life can end up looking, sounding and/or playing differently – ranging from simply collecting a few minor dings or the finish fading or checking through to more serious structural problems that lead to the guitar becoming unplayable.
There are many good sources of guidance and advice on guitar maintenance and repair – books and websites (a selection can be found here) – that show you how to diagnose and treat various problems. Often, however, it’s best to seek the advice of a good professional luthier – sometimes an amateur botched repair job ends up with a worse situation than the original problem.
Original, authentic, playable
As with trains, planes, art and ecosystems, a range of questions arise regarding what’s appropriate when it comes to guitar repair and restoration. And, as with most things in the guitar world, there are many different opinions out there! Future posts will feature various examples of guitar repair and restoration projects, but here we’ll cover the generalities.
A few of the key things guitar afficionados worry about are remarkably similar to the issues I worked with as a restoration ecologist. For some people, the most important thing is how original the guitar is – are all its various components still the ones it was built with, and how many repairs have been undertaken in the past? A guitar with all its original parts is generally likely to be more highly valued than one that’s seen a lot of changes.
Of course, you have to set boundaries on this – obviously, you wouldn’t want an old guitar to have the same set of strings it started out with decades ago. But then, what about frets, tuners, saddles, nuts…. If a guitar is played, things are likely to wear out. So, do you keep the original bits to maintain the originality, or do you replace the bits that need replacing in order for the guitar to keep sounding good? Of course, some folks will keep a guitar closeted away and never play it, just so that it will stay in its original condition. I guess I sort of see the logic behind this, but I also think it’s a bit sad that the guitar never gets to do what it was built to do – make music.
If you are going to replace parts, then the next cascade of decisions relates to authenticity. If the tuners are shot, can you get an equivalent set of tuners from the same age and type of guitar? If not, are there replica alternatives that look pretty much the same? Or do you have to replace the originals with something different, just in order to get the guitar playable again? Here, again, you run into a wide range of opinion about what’s acceptable and what’s not. And the same goes for all the various types of repair that may be required, including fixing cracks in the body, bends in the neck and so on. Generally, less interference is considered better. Doing the minimum required to get the guitar stable and playable is generally what a luthier will aim for.
But what about looks? What to do with all the various dings, scratches, wear in the finish and so on that are likely to happen to a guitar that actually gets played? Should you aim to get the guitar back to looking like new? Or should you keep the dings and scratches as part of the guitar’s life story? Again, there’s many varied perspectives on this!
To restore, or not to restore – that is the question
Finally – and this resonates with my debates in restoration ecology – is every guitar restorable or worth restoring, or should some simply be considered too far gone or too much trouble to work on? Or actually quite OK in its current state? I got myself into a lot of trouble for suggesting that some ecosystems are now in such an altered state that we should maybe just leave them be and focus our efforts on other ecosystems or locations that might respond better to restorative efforts. This suggestion was met with claims that I (in league with my colleagues) was trying to demolish the pillars on which ecological restoration was founded and that any system was restorable given enough effort and resources.
I didn’t see myself and my colleagues as a Mongol hoard descending on the practice of restoration with intent to destroy it – rather we were suggesting that we need to consider all options and be more strategic with how we spend our time and effort. It is possibly true (although I doubt it) that you can restore anything given enough time and effort (and money) – the question is, should we? Or would there be better and more effective ways to spend that time, effort and money?
And guess what, the guitar world has these exact same discussions! If you go on any of the numerous guitar discussion groups, you’ll regularly find threads on whether it’s worth restoring this or that guitar.
To restore or not?
For example, here are a few comments posted on a discussion thread from 2020: “Should I pay to restore a Vintage Gibson L4 from 1910?”
“Excellent candidate for a full restoration. Not every old guitar is and most are not worth the money or effort. It is no small amount of work, but really not much more than to properly stabilize and simply make playable again.”
“I would not repair it because even if in good shape, that is not a particularly desirable guitar from my perspective. It’s totally repairable — just about anything is — but it looks like it will cost a lot, and I would spend that $$$ elsewhere. It’s tempting to fix any really old guitar out of respect and interest value, but that’s not much to justify it, for me anyway.”
“Repair it, dont restore it. They were not the best of what Gibson had to offer IMHO. Restore and devalue. Repair and have a cool guitar.”
“absolute no-brainer, get it restored”
“I am going to head in the opposite direction here and tell you a qualified no do not restore this instrument. These old L4’s just are not worth the money, the body size and construction would not warrant putting that kind of money into a restoration of the guitar and then at the end you have a severely damaged guitar that will never let you recover what you have spent on getting it up to playable condition. It is really easy for other people to give you advice on how you should spend your money.”
“if you repair it or not just make sure you don’t destroy /discard it. I’ve seen a lot of these old guitars come back to life once the economics make sense. They might not today but that doesn’t mean some day this thing won’t be worth the price of fixing. Just think of all the 50’s strats turned into firewood when the market deemed them to be worth nothing!”
Would you restore Trigger?
This is where we loop back to Willie Nelson, who featured at the start of this post. In the video, Willie can be seen playing his trusty guitar “Trigger”. Trigger has been with Willie a very long time and has accompanied him on many tours and been played at thousands of concerts. Trigger is pretty much a star in its own right, even having its own Wikipedia page.
It’s immediately obvious from the photos and videos that, like Willie, Trigger has seen a lot of life. Willie’s playing style has worn a sizeable hole in Trigger’s top and many people have scratched their names on the top over the years. But Willie loves the guitar just the way it is and does not want Trigger “restored”, or replaced. Trigger goes to a guy called Mark Erlewine once a year for the equivalent of a 10k service, but Mark has to limit his activities to stabilising the guitar and keeping it playable rather than undertaking any serious restoration work. That means fixing up around the edges of the extra hole to ensure that it doesn’t get bigger – but not fixing up the hole altogether. Or doing anything else dramatic, like replacing the very worn frets. When Mark suggested that, Willie replied: “I like the way it’s sounding all right,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
So, it’s clear that Trigger is unlikely to ever be restored back to its original self while Willie has a say in the matter. It’s equally unlikely that anyone would be brave enough or dumb enough to try to restore it once Willie has stopped playing it: the extra hole and everything else that’s happened to the guitar are now part of the guitar and its story. Trigger wouldn’t be Trigger without them.
Can we? Should we?
Wallace Marx Jr., in an article titled “Must We Restore?”, suggested that: “Sometimes, great guitars get hacked up and still sound great. But in these days of vintage-correct-or-die sensibilities, we get roped into a knee-jerk, lock-step march toward restoring—or even over-restoring—all in the name of authenticity.”
So, maybe the two main questions to be asked in terms of restoration are “Can we?” and “Should we?”. The first question relates to the practicality of actually doing the restoration, but the second relates to the deeper issues of whether restoration– or rather, what level of reparative intervention – is appropriate. The answers to both these questions might be different for different people. If someone really wants to put their heart and soul – and money – into bringing a near-dead guitar back to the full bloom of life, then why try to stop them? But certainly, advice can be helpful to ensure that the person is aware of what’s likely to be entailed, and what the options are (for instance, stabilising the structure versus fully restoring to the original).
The same goes for ecological restoration. If folks want to devote their time and efforts to restoring a piece of altered nature back to what it might have been before, then who’s going to argue with them? But again, a bit of advice can be provided on what it’s likely to take to restore it, how likely the restoration is to succeed, and what ongoing work is needed to keep the place restored. And when it’s an agency or an NGO that’s assessing what to do where (usually in the context of never having enough dollars to do everything), making decisions on what’s best value for money is important. As is deciding when the piece of nature in question is actually OK as it is, even in an altered state. One persons’ clapped out, weed infested woodland is another person’s happy place. Just as one person’s hurt guitar might be another person’s Trigger.
I love the comment by Chelsea Clark, talking about restoring an old Kay guitar: “Most people see the damage and defeat of a once-loved instrument. I see all the stories it has already told, and the ones it still has left to tell”
Circling back to the theme of Earth Day and the Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, let’s leave the last word to Willie Nelson.