Guitars, and most prominently Robert Johnson’s guitar (which in turn becomes Victor’s guitar), represent the powerful temptations of fame and the sacrifices that must be made to attain it. There is a legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming a great guitar player. As a black Blues musician in the American Old South, Johnson would have faced oppression and violence, and would have had very few civil rights, so his fame as a musician (which mostly came about after his death, unfortunately) was a way for him to escape and rise above this life of suffering. In the novel, then, Johnson’s guitar acts similarly for the members of Coyote Springs, offering them the chance to escape the cycle of poverty and alcoholism on the reservation through musical fame and money. The guitar seems imbued with magical powers and to have a life of its own, bringing the band great success, but it is still linked to the devil (the Gentleman), and so in a way it is a cursed object. The guitar ultimately ruins the band’s big moment when it “rebels” against Victor during their performance for Cavalry Records, thus showing how a “deal with the devil” always ends badly, and how fame can be a curse as well as a blessing. Coyote Springs brings joy and meaning to the band members for a while, but it also causes them great suffering. Likewise the mystical guitar has the power to produce incredible, life-changing music, but always at a terrible cost to whoever plays it.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Guitars appears in Reservation Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
...a black stranger arrives in Wellpinit, Washington on the Spokane Indian Reservation, waiting with his guitar at the town’s crossroads. Word of his arrival spreads rapidly, but no one has the... (full context)
...with hair like Indians in the movies,” interrupts his curbside meal to ask about the guitar. They are bullies—Victor is an “asshole,” and Junior can be too, because “Victor [is] extremely... (full context)
Victor and Junior arrive, and Thomas invites them to join a band, offering Victor the guitar, which burns him slightly. Victor protests, but the guitar has him seduced already—Thomas sees it... (full context)
...for himself and Junior are no match for the sound produced by Robert Johnson’s mystical guitar. After a few days, crowds come to watch them rehearse—first Lester FallsApart (a friendly alcoholic),... (full context)
...check—but now Victor is missing. Suddenly they hear a beautiful voice singing, accompanied by a guitar. They find Victor playing with an old Indian singer who has bandaged and bloody hands.... (full context)