In December 2005 while backstage at a Living Color concert with my wife I met Nickolas and his guitar, MS Delta.
At that point Nick’s guitar was already covered with an impressive amount of autographs from some of the greatest guitarists of all time.
I remember being very impressed with his determination and dedication to celebrate both the instrument and it’s players in such a fitting way. We soon became Facebook friends and I’ve had a great time following Nick’s journey as he and MS Delta travel far and wide to collect the signatures of some of my biggest heroes.
Nickolas was nice enough to sit down with me the other day to answer a few questions about his adventures which I would like to share with you here.
Check out the bottom of this post to see the impressive list of who has signed the guitar up to now.
An Interview with Nickolas Tsui
Neil: Hey Nick, how’s everything going man? Thanks again for being on board for a little interview about your guitar signing project. I think everybody is going to really enjoy hearing about your story because it seems like a journey that most guitarists would like to take themselves if they had the gumption. Do you have a name for the project or the guitar?
Nick: I named her ‘MS Delta’ after the Mississippi delta blues. The MS stands for both the state’s abbreviation as well as the title ‘Miss.’
When I was growing up, one of the first James Bond films I ever saw was ‘The Living Daylights’ which had a cellist as one of the main characters. She named her cello the ‘Lady Rose,’ later in the movie discovered to be a Stradivarius. Then I found out most instruments designed by him also had names. For the same reason we give our cars, boats, guitars, etc. a female name, I thought it would be pretty cool so I tried to pick something that would be central to the players.
I ended up buying a plain acoustic dreadnought guitar for it being common ground among most guitarists and for more surface area.
As for MS Delta being the name, many of the players represented on her have been influenced by that type of blues in one way or another. Two of the guitarists who’ve signed her represented the delta blues; the oldest era represented by a living player at the time. They were the last links to that age but have since passed so I consider myself lucky that I was able to trace the project’s history that far back before it was lost.
Neil: That is lucky. When did you start collecting the autographs and what made you decide that this was something you wanted to do?
I walked into this memorabilia store while I was in Florida and seeing this guitar signed by 42 of some of the world’s best players. Immediately, I wanted to know its history. Who owned it before it was in the shop? What stories would this thing tell if it could talk? When I asked him how much it cost, I just figured I’d make my own since I’d never have enough to buy it. I had already met about 4-5 awesome guitarists I’d have them sign if it were mine so I figured ‘How hard can it be?’ I had a mental list now of who to look up and a copy of the 2003 issue of the ’100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time’ by Rolling Stone back home to start reading.
It remained an idea in my head until Dimebag Darrell of Pantera was shot on stage. Pantera was the first show I’d ever seen and meeting Dime was a big part of who I am now. There were quite a few players I needed to get who would no longer be with us soon, but when that happened, I got the guitar and never looked back.
Neil: I think it’s great that you created something so good out of such a tragic event. What kind of guitar is it?
Nick: It’s a Takamine dreadnought 330-S. Standard acoustic, cedar top. No pick guard. It’s been through plenty of beatings but she takes it like a champ. They definitely made her well.
Neil: Yeah Takamine makes nice guitars. Do you play guitar?
Nick: I actually don’t play…yet. It’s been on my to-do list even longer than this project, but it was either ‘learn to play’ or ‘get these guys on the project before they die and you miss out.’ So learning to play has kinda taken a backseat. Between all the hunting in my spare time, writing down all my experiences, and then regular everyday crap like working, it’s hard to find the time!
Neil: Well it’s never to late. You definitely have great taste in guitar players. Who was your first signature?
Nick: Gary Hoey was my first. The day I bought the guitar I was driving around campus and saw signs for one of his shows. I knew nothing about him until that night, but I went home and looked him up, then went down to the show to decide for myself. I normally don’t ‘yes’ or ‘no’ anyone until I know about their history pretty well, but I took the plunge and got him. I remember telling him what I envisioned the guitar to be just before he signed it, too. I’ve always wondered what was going through his head at that time. He probably thought I was a whack-job but since then we’ve become pretty good friends.
Neil: I’ve met Gary a couple times after shows and he is a great guy. Are the guitar players you meet also fans that love checking out all the signatures? What kind of reactions do you get?
Nick: It really depends on the person and how much time I have with them. As I’ve learned the hard way, a lot of bigger players DO NOT like signing guitars, whether it’s for ‘contractual reasons’ or because most people just sell them on eBay.
If I do get a signature, usually it happens in a window of 10 seconds or less. Sometimes they’re surprised just because of the amount of signatures. If I am lucky enough to get a few minutes and tell them what I really have, then some of them get really interested.
Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield were some recent adds I got that I had a chance to explain to while Slash signed it quick.
Neil: I imagine even with such a guitar in hand it must still be a challenge to get backstage sometimes. What was the hardest show to get backstage for.
Nick: Believe it or not, sometimes having the guitar with me is the only reason why I’m able to get back there. I’ve been behind the scenes way more times illegitimately than legit because they’ll mistake me for a band member, roadie or whatever.
If I do make it back there when I shouldn’t be I’ve just gotta fake it. Sometimes I can find a staff on tour that will help me out. I’ve written emails and sent letters to PR people mostly for nothing. Usually I resort to just going down there and opening up the case.
The Edge was a tough one to get. By chance, I found out he’d be getting an honorary Doctor’s through Berklee School of Music at the Agganis Arena. I BS’d and name dropped until I was inside the arena and by the edge of the stage. Then I had to scope out the layout and who his staff was there. When his wife’s assistant ran by me I gave her a note that she passed on. After the ceremony was over, they were able to help me out.
Neil: Man, that takes some gonads. But that’s how my wife gets us backstage to shows sometimes. She’s like,”Just pretend your supposed to be here.” Most of the times it works. So who was your favorite guitarist to meet so far.
Nick: All the guys I’ve gotten to be with one-on-one are my favorites. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. Ron Asheton of The Stooges was with me in an alley playing the guitar while everyone else ran off to chase Iggy Pop.
I was toe-to-toe with Lou Reed who later gave me a ticket to his show; the cheapest seat in the house was $750.
When I was out in the Detroit area I toured Motown and then drove 15 minutes north to Joe Messina’s house while we talked for close to two hours. His Grammys and awards were sitting on the ledge like nothing.
Neil: Which guitarist’s personality surprised you?
Neil: That’s wild, I heard that he even snubbed Johnny Depp back when Johnny’s band opened up for him. Maybe he’s mellowed with age. Do you have an ultimate guitarist that you’ve yet to meet? Who else is on the list of future signers?
Nick: Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page would be those guys. Trailing right behind them would be Eddie Van Halen. Those three guys as I see it are the center of the universe that almost all the other guys I’ve gotten travel around. To be able to fill in that hole would be huge.
The British rock royalty giants are by far some of the hardest to land, along with the really artsy kinda guys like Adam Jones, Robert Fripp, etc. And it’s even harder when a huge band has more than one guitarist in the fold who is worthy: The Rolling Stones, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, and so on.
I’d love to land Pete Townshend, Angus and Malcolm Young, Carlos Santana, Tony Iommi, Brian May, Keith Richards, and about 50 others as well.
Neil: There really are just so many great players. Getting those guys would fill in some of the blank spots in the history you’re trying to capture. What was your favorite moment so far thru all your guitar signing experiences?
Nick: Aside from the rush of just getting someone, the best part is right after or later on when someone comes up to me and tells me I’m doing the right thing or that I’m not completely insane for trying to do what I am! It makes me feel like I’m doing something for a cause and reassures me that the project also connects with others besides me.
Neil: Well I know that it resonated with me and I’m sure a lot of the people reading this will feel the same. What will you do with the guitar once it is done? Is there a “Done”?
Nick: I don’t know what I’ll do with it yet. I have a long ways to go and plenty of time to think about it. The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame actually sent me an email saying it isn’t worthy to be in their museum. I’ll do something good with it though; I’m in the process of writing down all the stories for a book/journal/travelogue, if you will.
I kind of look at what I’m doing as a game: get them before they die. I’ve got a huge list left over and until there’s no one “worthy” enough left, then she’ll be done until there is someone who comes along. Until then, that day is a long ways out.
Neil: I can’t believe you were dissed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’m sure a Hard Rock Cafe would be happy to hang it up. Is there anything we didn’t cover that you feel people would like to know?
Nick: The guitar is just my attempt as a fan and music whore to symbolize and represent what’s out there before it’s gone. This guitar holds so many good memories for me, but the reason I really like it is because at any given point, a riff one of the guys who signed it could come up on shuffle and you’ll think about something that personally connects to yourself whether it’s a person, event, or thing.
I had no idea what I was in for, where it would take me, who I’d meet along the way or what I’d learn from it. I didn’t know it was an ‘impossible’ task most people wouldn’t even dream of. I just got up one day and did it.
Sometimes you just have to learn as you go, but the thing is just deciding you want to do and then to make it happen whether it’s the guitar or losing that 15 pounds you’ve always wanted. Nothing’s impossible and that’s what I hope people will realize when they see this.
Neil: That’s a great lesson we should all learn. You’ll have to keep in touch and let us know how your hunt is going from time to time. Thanks again for the chat Nick.