Sweet Harvest: Guitars for the Troops

When he started eight years ago, Gordon Close sent out 15 to 20 guitars a year to troops. Last week he sent out 49.

Gordon Close plays one of his custom-made Harvest Guitars at his music store in Englewood, Colorado. He has sent 900 of them to our troops overseas and to injured veterans at home through his charity, Harvest Guitars for the Troops. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (CN) — What would you do with 1,000 guitars? Gordon Close, an 81-year-old jazz guitarist on the outskirts of Denver, is sending them to the troops overseas and to disabled veterans at home. He designed the guitars and had them built too.

It all started about a decade ago, when veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came home to Denver on leave and put out a request for guitars through the local musicians’ union. Close, an Army veteran and owner of a music store, volunteered to help.

“We became a receiving station for those guitars,” Close said, in his music store/teaching studio and incipient music museum. “And people, god bless their hearts, donated old guitars they found in their attics or garages.”

But most of the guitars were in terrible shape: bowed fretboards, useless pegs. “And I said, ‘I’m not going to send these to the troops. I’m going to design a good guitar and send them.’”

Close, a former bandleader, sales rep for Martin guitars, and still a hustler, said: “I found a way of making a very good guitar that’s not expensive.” Working with a luthier overseas, his Harvest Guitars “are solid wood, either solid maple or solid mahogany or ziricote — that’s a Brazilian rosewood that’s not endangered.”

Through his Close Music Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity, Harvest Guitars for the Troops has sent about 900 Harvest guitars to troops overseas and at home. He started out slowly, sending “about 15 or 20 a year,” eight years ago. But “just last week we put together 49 guitars and are sending them out.”

“For a $250 contribution, we send a package worth $650,” Close said: a Harvest guitar, a soft carrying case, picks, extra strings, a tool to adjust the neck should extreme climate warp it, and a book he wrote on guitar chords.

Harvest Guitar jazz (electric) and acoustic models on display at Gordon Close’s Elite Sound/Melody Music store in Englewood, Colorado. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)

This reporter ran into Close two weeks ago at the Post Office, as he slid one tall, flat package after another across the counter. Handing the boxes to him was Darrell Johnson, president of the Castle Pines Rotary Club, south of Denver, which adopted Guitars for the Troops as a special project, donating $1,000 a year, and multiplying the money through other Rotary clubs, grants, and the national and international Rotaries.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked. “Selling ‘cellos?”

“No,” Close said. “We’re sending guitars to the troops.”

Harvest Guitars for the Troops

Music as therapy received little or no support from the U.S. government until wounded veterans began returning by the thousands during World War II.

After their wounds healed, surgeons at home and abroad found: “‘This man is well; his wound is healed and he should be ready to return to duty — but still he is not ready!’ Something else was needed,” George Ainlay wrote in “The Place of Music in Military Hospitals,” one of 16 essays in “Music and Medicine” (Schullian and Schoen, eds., 1948).

“Music and Medicine” was the first book-length U.S. compendium with appeal to the sciences on the healing power of music.

Music is still an essential element of healing in Native American culture. The ancient Greeks, from whom Western civilization claims to derive, considered music the culmination of philosophy, an expression of the “music of the spheres,” which governed the circulation of the planets and stars: a key to mathematics, and to a life well-lived.

One of the many peculiar guitars at Gordon Close’s incipient music museum, its resonating chamber a turtle shell. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)

Beethoven considered music “a higher wisdom than all wisdom and philosophy.” (Beethoven also wrote that the guitar is “an orchestra in itself.”)

For thousands of years, music has been used to bind people together, to seek god, to stir up the troops, and to amuse us in our idle moments.

“I’m a guitar player, and I know what music does for me,” Darrell Johnson told Courthouse News. “It quiets the brain and allows it to heal … to immerse yourself” in something other than your own, inevitable wounds.

Johnson’s Castle Pines Rotary Club, in Douglas County, south of Denver, has thrown itself wholeheartedly into Harvest Guitars for the Troops. It began around 2014, when Close and his duet partner Richard Blanchard played for the Rotary and spoke about their mission.

“I said to myself, ‘My gosh, what a great story, to provide for our troops that are having a hard time,’’ Johnson said.

These harp guitars, with harp strings added to the fretboard, went for $395 during the Great Depression — more than five months’ wages. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)

Working with other clubs in Rotary District 5250, in central and northern Colorado, and the national organization, the Castle Pines club has been able to raise $13,000 for the cause. “It’s such a great idea,” Johnson said. “It just needs more support.”

The Music Museum

Many musicians in all genres have signed Harvest guitars and contributed them to Guitars for the Troops, including Crosby, Stills and Nash. They sent two, and Close auctioned off one for $3,000.

“The guy who bought it was a general at the Air Force Academy,” in Colorado Springs, Close said. “Then he gave it back and said, ‘You can auction it again,’ so we did, and got another $3,000.”

Yet, “We’re probably the best-kept secret in town,” Close said at his desk at Elite Sound/Melody Music, his music store and astounding collection of guitars he is trying to convert into a museum. His stunning collection includes the first production-model electric guitar model, a Rickenbacker metal “frying pan,” from 1931 or 1932, along with its amp: about the size of an early, 1980s luggable computer (“This is really cool; this is a Smithsonian-type piece”); the first guitar with a built-in pickup, a Gibson ES-250N, from 1939 (“the Charlie Christian model”); one of the earliest pedal steel guitars, from 1950; and two “harp guitars,” with harp strings attached above the fretboard.

One of the earliest pedal steel guitars, from 1950. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)

“This harp guitar went for $395 in 1931, during the Depression,” Close said, when the average wage was 45 cents an hour: more than five months wages.

Back in his office, Close leafed through a thick volume of letters he’s received from troops and commanders: enlisted men and women, colonels, a general or two. The few this reporter read, including one from a general, were moving, all emphasizing the boost to morale a guitar or two can bring to men and women far from home in a combat zone.

Having sent 900 or so guitars to the troops, Close is not satisfied. “We want to get up to 1,000 a year,” he said. He takes bit of a beating, financially, on each guitar he sends, “but it’s what I want to do.”

Close is something of a museum in himself. He came of age in Denver in the 1950s, “when rock and roll was just starting. I was hired with the big bands for school proms and such, to make them sound more hip,” Close said — little knowing that he was doing his part to help kill the Big Band era. Why hire a 17-piece band when four guys could put out nearly as much sound?

Along the way, he played in the National Guard’s 101st Army Band for six years, “marching band stuff and parades, and we also had a jazz band, and officers’ club on weekends.” His band The Hilltoppers played for 32 years in Denver, and he played with the Denver Broncos’ band for eight years, during the reign of John Elway.

And now, 81 years old, as today’s hip saying goes, he is paying it forward. Summing it up, Close said: “I’ve just been blessed that I’ve been able to have a life making music instead of having a real job.”

(Guitars for the Troops can be reached at Gordon@closemarketing.com. Donations can be sent to the Close Music Foundation, 3535 S. Irving, Suite D, Englewood, Colo.)

The first production-line electric guitar, a Rickenbacker metal “frying pan,” from 1931 or 1932, which came with a small, luggable amp, about the size of the first luggable computers. (Courthouse News photo/Robert Kahn)
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