Doc Watson, Roy Noble and the Pyschedelic Guitar
Doc Watson was playing at the Ash Grove in LA, probably some time in 1965 or ’66, and one day I took him to Roy Noble’s guitar workshop in Reseda, in the San Fernando Valley. I go 45 years back with Roy, whose guitars have been played and/or owned by Doc, Clarence White, Jorma Kaukkonen, Pete Seeger, Leo Kotke and other awesome players.
Doc really liked Roy’s guitars, particularly, as I remember it, a mahogany dreadnought Roy made to compete with Martin’s D-18. In fact, Doc played it on stage at the Ash Grove for several sets before he started hearing strange things coming from the audience; at least they were strange to him, and they would be to you, too, if you were a Bible Belt Southerner on your first visit to Hollywood.
“Far out, man,” and, “Can you dig it? Doc’s trippin’,” and, “Whoa, a psychedelic D-18,” were three jewels that I remember. After a couple of sets of this Doc asked me what was going on with the strange comments coming from the audience.
“They’re acting like I’m a hippie, or something,” he said. “You heard it, Al, things like ‘groovy’ and ‘far out.'”
“Yes, I heard it, Doc, and I don’t know what’s going on, either,” I said. And I didn’t.
“I’m not doin’ anything different, am I?” This was said with a touch of menace. Remember, Doc is unsighted, but big and very strong.
“Not that I can see, Doc. Roy, do you know what’s going on?” I said. Roy shook his head, a gesture of sheer eloquence for Roy Noble. “Roy doesn’t see anything either, Doc.”
But suddenly I did see. It was the guitar that was different. It sounded terrific and played easy–Doc and I both agreed on that–, but it was an experimental model Roy was still feverishly working on. It was in the sealed-but-not-sanded stage, and the front was covered with Rapidographed, acid-induced doodlings contributed by workshop hangers-on. At that moment, the face of the guitar was covered with a spider web of paisley dragons, checkered stairs and soft-core pornography.
To Roy and myself, the pretend artwork was invisible. But other people picked up on it because it was Doc, a deeply religious and proper man, playing the guitar it was on. I was just about to tell Doc that I thought that might be the problem, but he beat me to the punch.
“It’s something about the guitar, isn’t it, Al?”
“I think so, Doc. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.”
I told him about the psychedelia on the guitar’s face and that Roy and I hadn’t given a thought to what the instrument looked like, because Roy was so intent on getting it to sound and play right, and I wanted so much to get it into Doc’s magic hands. It could have been a map to buried treasure on there and we wouldn’t have seen it.
“Doc, we’re really sorry,” I said; Roy was in the dressing room, too, but as I said, Roy doesn’t talk much and you can’t understand him when he does, so I just kept on tap-dancing. “We really are. You know we’d never play that kind of trick on you in a million years.” And we really wouldn’t.
He grumped a little before he said, “Yes, I know you boys too well to think you’d ever try to put anything over on me. Tho’ if you did you wouldn’t be the first.” Doc got some really shitty treatment being blind and poor and brought up in some sort of institution during the Depression.
He played his own D-18 for the rest of the night and the run, and people stopped asking him to play Grateful Dead songs. True story.