October 2017 – What Qualifies As A CRAVE Guitar?

When canvassing ideas for this month’s article, I was asked why I don’t feature bass guitars to the same extent as the 6-stirngers. I did point out that CRAVE Guitars is already home to Fender Precision and Music Man Stingray basses. However, such simple questions tend to switch on my stream of consciousness. Not content with answering just this question, I thought I might as well address the similar query I have been asked about acoustic guitars as well as other instruments, accessories, merchandise and even non‑guitar‑related stuff! There are not many pictures this month, as the narrative is mainly explanatory.

 

The short and simple answer is contained in the acronym C.R.A.V.E. (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars so, if that satisfies your curiosity, you can safely stop reading now. For the masochists out there, a little (!) more exposition is required; sorry.

 

 

Expanding the acronym is, however, probably a good place to start, so let’s begin with perhaps the most problematic letter…

 

C is for Cool (Adj.)

 

For starters, this has nothing to do with temperature. The cool I am talking about is a very subjective, value-laden word with many subtle and indefinable nuances. In its colloquial context, it can mean ‘excellent’ or ‘alright’, as well as ‘fashionable’ or ‘hip’. Slang dictionaries also cite ‘awesome’ or ‘trendy’. These all seem to me to be both superficial and insufficient when trying to convey what I understand cool to mean. To make it easier, perhaps, these adjectives convey a bit more relevance if suffixed with the word ‘dude’.

 

In relation to the world’s favourite musical instrument, there are the mainstream guitars, most of which have an inherent level of cool anyway and, as you are reading this article, I don’t think I need to state the bleeding obvious, especially where vintage is also a contributory factor (see ‘V’ below). It is, perhaps, the more unusual guitars, which to me radiate cool. Cool transcends simple descriptions such as character or quirkiness.

 

How on earth does a guitar become and stay cool, and is there a standardised unit of measurement to quantify just how much cool something has? Quite simply, it simply isn’t that simple. For a guitar to be cool it has to exude some sort of cachet or ooze some sort of wow factor. It may have some quintessential ingredient that makes it irresistibly, achingly desirable to those in the know. Things that are cool are utterly seductive despite any objective rational thinking to the contrary (it may be non‑PC but the same goes for women!).

 

What one person thinks of as cool can be a complete anathema to someone else, while another person may be completely oblivious to it. This suggests that cool is therefore intrinsically a very personal thing. The fascinating thing about cool is when there is an unwritten collective agreement and a shared understanding that something is more than it appears to be on the face of it. Cool, to me, is therefore an unconscious state of mind that has no palpable embodiment.

 

Sustained cool that is appreciated by like-minded people can lead to a cult status amongst a relatively small proportion of the population, which everyone else completely fails to grasp. Cool therefore also has a degree of exclusivity. Cool cannot be a universally accepted characteristic; it will always be appreciated by the few and ignored by the many. If something becomes popular on the mass market, it automatically ceases to be cool.

 

Last month, I mentioned the Fender Bronco, a modest single pickup offset ‘student’ guitar that languished in the vintage guitar doldrums until Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene. The band was considered cool and the instruments that they used suddenly became cool simply by association. Consequently, the broad appeal for the Bronco coalesced pretty much overnight. Broncos are still cool and attract vintage guitar market values that were unheard of before the band came to prominence. There are plenty of other examples; for instance, would the humble Danelectro 3021 be the icon that it is today without Jimmy Page or the Airline J.B. Hutto be so sought after if not for Jack White?

 

The transferable phenomenon suggests that cool by association can be infectious. Cool is, however, not physical or perpetual, as it can disappear just as quickly and inexplicably as it appeared in the first place. Furthermore, you cannot make cool, sell cool, buy cool, or pass something off as cool if it isn’t. It therefore exhibits an unusual characteristic of being both intangible and valuable at the same time.

 

CRAVE Guitars isn’t about what I think other people may like, it is primarily about what I like. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try to tell you whether CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are cool or not, that is for you to decide for yourself. I just hope that I have a certain taste that others can appreciate and relate with. However, just for the record, I think they are pretty darn cool individually and, perhaps more importantly as a ‘collection’. I try to raise awareness of some interesting guitars (and amps/effects) and then pose some questions to challenge broadly held preconceptions. Perhaps you might make the irrational shift of ill‑informed choice and agree with the dude (or not, I sure ain’t gonna argue!).

 

R is for Rare (Adj.)

 

You’d think this would be obvious… but there is more to it than that. Rare in this context doesn’t actually mean that they are all genuinely scarce in absolute terms. By rare here, I mean that they are limited in number and therefore finite because there cannot be any more new guitars for a certain model from a certain manufacturer for any given year. This is an undeniable fact.

 

By rare, I’m also suggesting that each one is essentially irreplaceable. If a vintage guitar is destroyed or dismantled, there is a unit reduction in the total number of that model that will ever be available. Whether there were only ever just a handful or many thousands of a particular model produced, there will only be a certain number of each guitar in existence that can feed the vintage guitar market now or in the future. Newer instruments will eventually become vintage but these will be additional to, not substitutes for, what went before.

 

In addition, each vintage instrument will now be absolutely unique in its own way. Several or many decades of (ab)use bestow certain vestiges of age that are individual to that instrument and which cannot be reproduced (sorry, relic fans). It is this distinctive and natural aging that gives an instrument its uniqueness. Even better if guitars have some sort of genuine story associated with them (or sense of mystery if not).

 

I should also say that rare in this context does not imply value – there are many other characteristics in addition to rarity that dictate whether a guitar is valuable or not. None of CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are truly valuable, sadly, I wish they were. However, some guitars are rarer than others and therefore have a degree of interest associated with them purely because there are not many of them to go around. Others were mass produced at the time and remain plentiful on the vintage market but only for the time being, as attrition will inevitably occur. Just because something is (relatively) abundant, it doesn’t diminish its appeal.

 

& – At his point, I might as well comment on the ‘&’ in the CRAVE acronym. It doesn’t mean that every guitar is Cool AND Rare. These adjectives are not mutually exclusive. To be honest, a title where the ‘&’ means ‘cool and/or rare; possibly one or the other, perhaps both or maybe neither’ doesn’t make any sense. It is therefore not a qualifier; it is simply a necessary vehicle of the English language, so get over it grammar pedants (say I hypocritically).

 

A is for American (Adj.)

 

You might also think that this criterion is straightforward and, of course, it isn’t. Some guitars in the CRAVE family are all-American, which makes things simple. Some, however, have original materials and/or parts imported from other countries. As far as I am aware, none of my guitars (or basses) were wholly manufactured outside America.

 

 

I would actually argue that there have been very few instruments that are actually 100% American so, as with other factors, it is all a matter of degree. So we have to start with the premise that ‘American’ implies a significant but not necessarily total part of the process of producing guitars.

 

It isn’t just that they are designed by American-owned companies. Danelectro, for instance, has its headquarters in the USA, designs its instruments in the USA and manufactures them in China. Other American firms may import the key elements to be assembled and/or QA’d in the States. Does this make them American? I would argue in both circumstances that it doesn’t. To make things easier, I don’t believe that there are any non-American companies that manufacture in the USA for all sorts of political, social, economic, legal and environmental reasons.

 

What about some of the key parts of a guitar that customers demand and expect? For example, could a guitar with a Brazilian or Indonesian rosewood fingerboard or a Honduran mahogany body genuinely be called American? In this instance, I believe that it can, as this refers to the source of raw materials, not the manufacturing process. The same applies to hardware, e.g. German tuners and bridges, Mexican switches and Japanese potentiometers. We have to accept that American guitars are partially imported in one way or another.

 

American trade rules were/are very strict about what items can carry the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ label. I won’t delve any deeper into this thorny issue in this article. Suffice to say that, as far as I am concerned, as long as it complies with the definition imposed by the federal USA government, it is ‘American’.

 

I have often been asked why I don’t go for guitars from other regions such as Europe or Asia. There are some fantastic instruments from non-American territories (see the CRAVE Guitars article from August 2017 – ‘A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars’ → Read here). For now, to open the flood gates to global guitar collecting would, I believe, dilute what CRAVE Guitars is all about. Also, I just couldn’t cope with it all – it would be way too much for such a small enterprise. For now at least, integrity of the American ‘collection’ is paramount.

 

Where I do consciously blur geographical lines is in effect pedals where European and Japanese pedals qualify as part of the ‘family’. Why? Simply because they are such an integral part of the British/American music scene from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll onwards. Plus, there are so many global cool and rare effects that it doesn’t make practical sense to be strictly exclusive. As effects are not the primary focus of CRAVE Guitars, I can be a little more lenient. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Should I need to liquidate funds though, the non-American effects would be at the front of the queue.

 

At the moment, my vintage amps are strictly American, although I have been tempted by vintage English amps from, for instance VOX, Marshall and Orange, although less so WEM, Hiwatt and Laney. Perhaps it’s because I started playing electric guitar in the 1970s, I also have a soft spot for vintage solid state amps such as H/H from England and Roland from Japan, so I’m not a complete valve snob. I may also be tempted to blur the lines here one day but not for now. There are plenty of great American amps to admire. One difficulty is that they are just too difficult to import and adapt for UK mains supply, let alone maintain. To be honest, I also don’t have space for a lot of amps, so that makes things simpler.

 

V is for Vintage (Noun/Adj.)

 

 

I have covered the various definitions and interpretations of what might constitute ‘vintage’ in relation to guitars before, so I won’t reiterate those discussions here.

 

Essentially, there is no clear start date for what might become a CRAVE Guitar. Perhaps the early‑mid 1930s might be a legitimate starting point, representing the dawn of electric guitars. However, if someone were to offer me an early 1900s Gibson Style O acoustic archtop or a 1920s National acoustic resonator for instance, I am not going to turn either of those down! Hint, hint.

 

The end point is necessarily arbitrary. I tend to think of mid-late 1980s as the general cut‑off for many reasons. Anything from 1990‑on is of personal interest, rather than something eligible for CRAVE Guitars. I have retained a couple of modern Gibsons that I use as modern benchmarks and reference instruments to compare with older guitars (and for sentimental reasons). I no longer have any modern Fenders, although I’d like a modern Stratocaster or Telecaster for comparative purposes. Being purely pragmatic, I generally focus on electric guitars from the 1950s to 1980s inclusive – at the time of writing, the earliest is 1959 and the latest is 1989 – a period spanning just 40 years which, in context of guitar history, is nothing at all and may prove to be too restrictive in the future. For now, though, there are plenty of vintage guitars on the market made in those four decades from which to choose.

 

There is a bigger question about whether vintage is ‘better’ than new. This is not the time for such a complex discussion. However, for instance, in a blind test where touch and sound are the only stimuli, whether a guitar is physically old actually adds anything to the overall music‑making experience or not is debateable. New guitars can be made to look, feel and sound old but, no matter how good the craftsmanship, they cannot actually BE old.

 

Much also depends on the use to which a guitar will be put. For most working musicians, reliability and durability are probably far more important than age, especially in a live concert environment where the subtle nuances of vintage tone can be completely lost. A gigging situation is also environmentally demanding, never mind the practical risks of taking a valuable and irreplaceable vintage instrument on the road. In principle, modern guitars are in so many ways a much more appropriate solution than their vintage counterparts, particularly for the professional musician. Personally though, modern guitar ownership is no longer for me and what I do, so my focus is for older, lived-in but not worn out instruments.

 

E is for Electric (Adj.)

 

As far as acoustic guitars are concerned, sorry, but they just don’t do it for me. I don’t know why. This applies equally to nylon strung classical guitars and steel strung acoustics. Perhaps it’s the sound, perhaps it’s the playability, or perhaps it’s the aesthetics. To be honest, my knowledge of acoustics is very slim compared to their electric counterparts, so I may be missing something obvious in terms of appeal.

 

I acknowledge that without the acoustic guitar, we wouldn’t have electric guitars as we know them, so the historical significance is fully understood. I am interested in the acoustic guitar’s position in musical antiquity and I am writing about that as a separate piece of research. However, given a choice of picking up a comparable acoustic or electric, the latter would win 9 times out of 10. Personally, I like to plug my guitars in and experience the diverse sonic pleasures of an electric guitar being used for its intended purpose. For recording or stage use, I find microphones for an acoustic guitar a complete pain, whereas I can just plug in an electric, so the latter also wins on practicality.

 

I often play electric guitars unplugged when practising or noodling. An unplugged electric gives a good indication of the natural resonance of the ‘old wood’. It also focuses the senses on playability and ergonomics. I might suggest that a good electric guitar will come across as good when it is played either acoustically or plugged in. However, vintage electric guitars really come into their own when driving a vintage valve amp, perhaps with the odd vintage analogue pedal added to the mix. In this setting, electric guitars can feel alive with dynamics, touch‑sensitivity and sensory feedback in a way that an acoustic just can’t match, at least for me. I would argue that an electric guitar is also far more versatile with an array of different sounds and tones that it can produce.

 

OK then, here’s the crux… How many rock guitar gods from the halcyon days of Santana, Green, Clapton, Richards and Hendrix, through the experimentalist era of Page, Beck, Blackmore, Iommi and Zappa to the post-modern virtuosos such as Van Halen, Slash, Vai, Satriani and Vaughan have plied their trade exclusively playing acoustic guitars? None to my knowledge, that’s how many. The truth of the matter is that it’s the cutting, screaming, wailing, sighing, jangling and shredding of the amplified, effected electric guitar in the hands of musical geniuses that has forged the mainstay of the rock (‘n’ roll) paradigm over the last 6 decades or so. There are, admittedly, many acoustic guitar prodigies but they don’t feature on my ‘top guitarists’ or ‘top albums’ lists. I rest my case m’lud.

 

Arguably, it’s the music that matters, rather than whether instruments are amplified or not. In fact, one of my favourite live albums is Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994), so I’m not averse to acoustic music, it’s a simple matter of personal preference. I would also contest that, unless one is within a few feet of an acoustic guitar played live, the sound is amplified in one way or another, whether by an amp, a PA, a TV or a hi-fi. I don’t want to get into arguments about which is better; to me, they are just different.

 

There are many superb vintage acoustic guitars on the market and in the hands of collectors. With the usual finite resources (time, money and space), acoustic guitars will, for now, remain outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. In addition, there are currently no real vintage electro‑acoustics out there to tempt me. Whatever the reasoning behind my bias, I’ll leave acoustics for the many specialists already occupying that particular space.

 

I would, however, like to have a good vintage acoustic to hand, just for those occasions when the mood strikes and one wants to strum or fingerpick a tune for a change. I agree that playing an acoustic brings a whole different outlook on composition, arrangement and performance and they are therefore a great complement to electric guitars. You never know, I might be tempted. Something like an old Martin D28 or Gibson J-200 perhaps? Again… hint, hint.

 

Guitars (Noun)

 

This will, hopefully, answer the original question at the start of this article about basses. Basically (haha), I am first and foremost a guitarist and I therefore focus on 6-string instruments rather than basses. For the record, I like playing bass and I think that it is good for guitarists to be able to play bass effectively, as it can improve rhythmic and timing abilities as well as adding a different perspective to songwriting. As mentioned at the top of this article, CRAVE Guitars actually has 2 vintage basses and a vintage valve bass amp as part of the ‘family’, which is enough as far as my personal need goes.

 

Yes, I’d like a vintage Fender Jazz bass and I’d happily accommodate a short-scale vintage Fender Mustang or Musicmaster bass, mainly because they are so cute, funky and cool. I’d also be quite happy with a vintage Gibson EB-0 or a Rickenbacker 4001 bass if a good one came along at a reasonable price and doesn’t displace a sought‑after guitar. Bridging the gap between guitar and bass, a vintage pre-CBS Fender Bass VI has been on my ‘most wanted’ list for a long time but original ones are becoming way, way too expensive. For the third time, hint, hint.

 

There are many other variations on the stringed instrument theme from diddley-bow guitars with only a single string through cigar box/oil can guitars, tenors and baritones, 12-string guitars, to harp guitars with many strings, as well as double or multi-neck instruments. Then there are are banjos, mandolins, zithers, hurdy‑gurdys, lutes, bouzoukis, balalaikas, not to mention many Asian instruments, as well as numerous European classical and folk stringed instruments. Again, if only for practical reasons, they are all outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. As with acoustics and basses, there are plenty of specialists focusing on some wonderful exotic stringed instruments from all over the world, so that means I don’t have to.

 

While on the subject of CRAVE Guitars eligibility, there are a few other factors that come into play. NB. All of these conditions apply equally to amps and effects.

 

Condition – Condition is very important for me. This doesn’t mean that a guitar has to be museum or collector-grade, far from it. A well-used vintage instrument will have many visible signs of use that give it much of its charisma. If a guitar is 50 years old but looks as if it was made yesterday, it lacks that unwritten backstory of being used that might make it desirable (at least to me). Conversely, an abused ‘players’ guitar’ is of little interest to me, as it is likely to be in relatively poor condition through misuse – a lack of respect for an instrument is generally not a good sign. Once a guitar has been seriously compromised, it will never be the same again. Even if it is professionally restored, a knackered guitar loses so much of its integrity and originality (see below). The issue of restoration to protect and conserve important musical instrument heritage is another story for another day. Badly damaged guitars are a big no-no for CRAVE Guitars, including major damage like neck/headstock breaks, bad repairs, etc.

 

Originality – Originality is also very important for me. Irreversible modifications are an issue, including refinishes, routing for pickups, holes, adaptations, etc. I have one refinished guitar, my ‘signature’ 1975 Gibson Les Paul, and I regret having it done back in the late 1970s – it had a lot of buckle rash from the previous owner and it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. I tolerate minor changes such as replacement pots (where there was a fault), tuners, etc. Several CRAVE guitars have had reversible minor modifications and each one is considered on a case‑by‑case basis. In theory, most bits of hardware can easily be put back to original condition if the correct parts are available. If guitars come with original cases, great: if they come with the original tags, manuals and case candy as well, even better. However, it’s the guitar that matters, not the case.

 

Affordable – I am a financially poor enthusiast with very limited funds, so my spotlight tends to fall on ‘affordable vintage’ guitars. Fortunately, the cool & rare criteria often make some relatively inexpensive guitars available, compared to the elite high‑end investment‑grade instruments. Market accessibility is therefore an important factor for me. I sympathise with neophytes who are interested in and want to own vintage guitars but find the whole scene too ‘exclusive’ – we all have to start somewhere. The ‘easy entry’ end of the vintage market is another reason why I like to focus on a wide range of instruments including some interesting oddballs within reach of many wannabes. Just to qualify, ‘affordable’ doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, it means cost‑effective and value‑for‑money, which can mean different things at different price points. Recently, I have paid (considerably) over market value for a couple of instruments in which I had a specific interest, so I’m not a very good businessman with an eye on future profit margins.

 

Other Stuff – Another question I’ve been asked is why I don’t sell ‘other stuff’ to support the core vintage guitar enterprise. Three principal reasons; a) I don’t have the money to spend on ‘other stuff’ even if it could partly subsidise the core ‘business’, b) I don’t have sufficient time or space to achieve the core ‘business’, let alone anything extra‑curricular, and c) I’m generally not that interested in ‘other stuff’. I would like to diversify into CRAVE Guitars merchandise such as t-shirts, mugs, plectrums, cards, etc. (orders, please). I might also be tempted into vintage guitar related miscellanea such as jewellery, memorabilia, etc. Diversification also relies on surplus amounts of a) and b) above which, frankly, is looking highly unlikely. The discipline of focusing predominantly on Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars (now that it has been defined) has to remain relatively pure or I will never be able to make a going concern of it.

 

The CRAVE Guitars Brand – Brand identity is essential to back up the umbrella CRAVE Guitars trademark. Strategically, if I had more time, money, energy and space, I would definitely create 2 key partner enterprises for vintage instruments to complement CRAVE Guitars. Despite what I said above, CRAVE Basses and CRAVE Acoustics would be on the cards. The ‘E’ part of the acronym becomes a bit less relevant for acoustics (however, I have thought of a solution to that too) but the spirit remains integral to the original concept. My long‑term intention is to create a further 2 complementary enterprises for CRAVE Amps and CRAVE Effects. I may permit someone else to use CRAVE Drums, CRAVE Keyboards and CRAVE Stage & Studio though (unless I change my mind in the meantime). Just be aware that, in terms of copyright ownership, I thought of these first – royalties in an envelope please! I would consider flexible partnership arrangements with a like-minded obsessive keen to expand the CRAVE franchise into these areas, as long as the necessary resources accompany the mission.

 

Virtual CRAVE Guitars – Social media, predominantly Twitter, takes up a considerable amount of time as does the web site (www.craveguitars.co.uk), including researching and publishing these articles. The social media topics covered are essentially guitar‑related but draw from a very broad interest, encompassing material way beyond the tight C.R.A.V.E. criteria. The problem I have with it is that it is highly resource intensive and the activity intrinsically will never make any money, it is purely about entertaining a diverse audience and raising the profile of what CRAVE Guitars is all about.

 

In Summary

So, to précis all the above, I use a few simple rules to separate out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. Regardless of brand, price or reputation, CRAVE Guitars should be:

  1. Cool – Quirky, unusual, unique or a variation on a theme, preferably with some added character and interest
  2. Rare – All things being relative, supply is limited, including short-lived or small‑run production models
  3. American – Possibly my one hard and fast rule, the all‑important ‘Made in U.S.A.’ mark
  4. Vintage – Manufactured between c.1950 and 1989 – possibly earlier and unlikely to be later
  5. Electric – I’m not really an acoustic guitar fan. Electric archtops, semis, hollow bodies and resonators are fine though
  6. Guitars – Mainly 6-string instruments. Basses are included but they are not the primary focus

 

In addition, being pragmatic, a CRAVE Guitar needs to be:

  • In good condition with no serious damage or alterations
  • All‑original or very close to it with no irreversible modifications
  • Cost‑effective and good value‑for‑money

 

One last pertinent comment before I shut up is to mention the alternative meaning of the word ‘crave’, which is ‘to desire’, ‘to yearn for’ or ‘to want greatly’. This double‑entendre is both important and intentional. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple rhetorical question when looking for vintage guitars (et al), “Is this a really cool guitar that I would want to own and play?” If the answer is “yes”, I would want to showcase it for others to (hopefully) appreciate. However, if I can’t live with a guitar, I wouldn’t dare to presume that it might be of any interest to anyone else. If I don’t hanker after a particular guitar, it doesn’t join the CRAVE ‘family’ no matter how much it is worth.

 

It is only when all these factors come together that a guitar is likely to join the CRAVE Guitars clan. I am not a dealer and CRAVE Guitars is strictly a not‑for‑profit passion project. Once adopted, a guitar tends to hang around for a considerable period of time. I tend to enter into relationships with my guitars, which means that I’m not one to buy and sell instruments on a whim. I would need strong persuasion to part with one of the ‘family’.

 

I am amazed that, reflecting on the ‘rules’, they have hardly changed in over a decade, which is encouraging. 10 years ago, when I started to thin the herd and began to refine the ‘business’ model above, the focus was quite strictly on acquiring vintage guitars made by Fender and Gibson. I now realise that this was too exclusive and the net is now being cast more widely. I do, however, remain selective and anticipate that the mainstays of the ‘family’ will remain vintage instruments from ‘Big 2’. Why? Quite simply, that’s what I grew up aspiring to own one day and I suspect that the same applies for many other guitarists who grew up in the 20th Century. The future may well be different and that will be for someone else to take up the mantle long after I and CRAVE Guitars have faded into posterity.

 

I can put my hand on my heart and swear that I believe that (most of) the guitars that have made up the ‘family’ over the last decade conform to these basic principles. As a core operating model, I think that the principles are helpful and clear, which may become an advantage should CRAVE Guitars become a successful business one day. The principles also differentiate what I do from the competition.

 

You may well disagree with my philosophy and choice of guitars (et al) but, to be uncompromisingly blunt, that’s not my problem. CRAVE Guitars is internally consistent. If you want to do your own thing using your own preferences, that’s entirely up to you and I wish you well.

 

In conclusion, now having defined the objective, justified the criteria and articulated the rationale, I hope that the idea behind CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars makes some (common) sense. I think that I have also provided answers to both of the specific question about bass/acoustic guitars, as well as the bigger picture question of what it takes for an instrument (or amp/effect) to be considered a member of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’.

 

What’s coming up? Well, I hope to have some ‘new in’ headlines for the November 2017 article. In the meantime, I think that it’s time to warm up those vintage valves and plug in my ‘guitare de jour’… now which one shall I go for? Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Integrity is doing what you believe to be right and your conviction to stand up for it in the face of concerted opposition.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2017 – A Map Leads To Some Hidden Gems

posted in: Event, Observations, Opinion | 0

Phew! I am still recovering from last month’s article (‘A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars’). As with many of CRAVE Guitars’ musings, it should have been a straightforward subject but the research and production took a disproportionate amount of time compared to likely audience interest – I know 3 people who read it and one of them is me! This month’s article is a little more prosaic and shorter; a fizzy cocktail of insight with a little pinch of observation and a cheeky twist of opinion.

 

Now CRAVE Guitars is into its 2nd decade and also now post-relocation, there is much to consider. The good news is that there is a new member of the CRAVE Guitars’ family, possibly the last acquisition of 2017, as funds have once more expired and there are too many other high priority calls on finite lucre. I hinted last month that the new purchase epitomises CRAVE Guitars’ philosophy while also being very divisive – a real ‘marmite’ guitar. This procurement, and the dilemma that led up to it, started me thinking about why we choose the guitars we do and particularly how this relates to an interest in vintage guitars while avoiding the traps of ‘accepted wisdom’ and cliché.

 

Also, picking up on some of the nuances of last month’s article, questions are also raised about getting the balance right between being different enough to stay ‘fresh’ while not being so ‘out there’ as to be insignificantly weird. To niche or not to niche, that’s the question (apologies for making an English noun into a verb – however for etymology nerds, the English word niche derives from the French verb ‘nicher’, to rest). For the sake of clarity, the meaning of niche here refers to ‘specialised market’.

 

Despite committing the vast proportion of my adult life to the responsibilities imposed by the Protestant Work Ethic, capitalist economics and the expectations of family life, I am at heart part-hippie, part-maverick, part-anti-establishmentarian and part-social deviant. However, in order to function effectively in society at large, one has to be pragmatic. I am also intensely curious, profoundly questioning and not one to accept the norm just because someone asserts that I must. This attitude may be fuelled by the fact that I am also burdened by a particularly English trait; I tend to side with an underdog facing up to overwhelming odds. Anyhoo… I digress and it’s time to get to the point(s).

 

This month, I am focusing predominantly, and rather unusually, on a single guitar and all the contextual thoughts that it provokes. The ‘new’ vintage guitar is… drum roll please… a 1983 Gibson USA Map.

1983 Gibson USA Map

 

→ Click here to read the feature on the 1983 Gibson USA Map

 

Not aware of it? I’m not surprised, as they were only made for a very short time and for a specific purpose. I won’t repeat the history here but if you are interested, take a look at the feature [feature link here]. Admittedly, on the face of it at least, it is an extraordinary looking musical instrument. It was reasonably innovative for a traditional company like Gibson. It is precisely because of its off-beat looks that I think it is very cool, as well as being very rare. So much so, I had to import this example into the UK from mainland Europe.

 

How many have you seen in the flesh, let alone played? I may be in the minority in thinking it’s rather fancy. I can see a large proportion of the population saying (or at least thinking), “what the f**k is that?” That reaction was precisely my son’s verbatim response when shown it. Even the seller, a reputable Dutch guitar dealer, described it as a “funny shaped guitar”. To me, those subjective, superficially dismissive comments just make the guitar all the more fascinating, both as a serious instrument and also as part of vintage guitar heritage. Perhaps, to me, the unusual is beguiling and makes me want to look deeper than the superficial.

 

Is the Map simply an imprudent case of style over substance? No, far from it. Some minor ergonomics aside, it is a Gibson after all. The more I looked into it, the more I became intrigued by the tension between the standard Gibson appointments and the departures from the norm. It would take a whole article to dissect the instrument and discuss the similarities and differences. Suffice to say, I was hooked, if only because it is SO unusual and quirky. Within the broader social and economic context at the time of its birth, it becomes even more beguiling for someone like me. You probably won’t be surprised that I believe it should be taken far more seriously than it is and this article will hopefully explain why.

 

The Gibson/Epiphone USA Map isn’t the only guitar to share the inspiration of the USA mainland as a body design. In the early 1960s, some 20 years or so before the Epiphone/Gibson, National/Valco produced the Newport and Glenwood Res-o-Glas ‘map’ guitars. The geographical aesthetics were more impressionistic but it was still clearly based on the shape of the continental USA. Eastwood now make a modern wood-bodied version of the National’s map guitar.

National Glenwood and Eastwood Airline Map

 

Unlike the earlier National, the outline of the Gibson USA Map is a much closer representation of the lower 48 states. As these guitars were made in tiny numbers, it wouldn’t have been produced on computer-controlled machines, the bodies would have been cut by hand on scroll saws, so to some extent, each one will be unique. The edges of the body clearly show the intentionally ‘unfinished’ saw marks, which is, I think, a great touch. The craftwork around the Great Lakes is also impressive.

 

The body is sandwich construction comprising 2 layers of slab-cut mahogany with a thin layer of maple between, presumably for added strength, given the vulnerability of the design. Most, but not all, were finished in natural satin nitrocellulose. While Gibson/Epiphone did make a very small number of guitars in ‘stars-and-stripes’ finishes, I do wonder why Gibson never produced one or two with the 48 state boundaries outlined. Now, that would be a cool option. It isn’t worth refinishing one of these rare axes just to try it out though. Epiphone even did a sunburst version, which seems a strange choice.

Gibson & Epiphone USA Map Stars & Stripes
USA Map (48 States)
1982 Epiphone USA Map

 

So… after a great deal of agonising and deliberating about whether it was the right thing for CRAVE Guitars, I went ahead and bought it anyway. Why on Earth would I spend a lot of money for a 1983 Gibson USA Map when, for the same price, I could have got something with a better reputation and far more likely to increase in value, you may ask? I did struggle with this particular dichotomy for several days before I took the plunge. Am I insane? Under the circumstances, I sincerely hope so. There is, however some sort of rationale.

 

Before we get there, it is worth touching on why the Gibson USA Map is noteworthy and why it is important to conserve it. The model clearly meant something to Gibson at the time. While the Epiphone and Gibson Maps were only made as a limited edition promotional item to showcase what Gibson could do. The model also appears to have been significant to Gibson’s overall marketing strategy in the early 1980s. The importance, albeit indirectly (it wouldn’t, or rather couldn’t, earn large sales revenues in itself), of the Map to Gibson’s commercial fortunes therefore marks it out as being of special interest. It was not just a company product; it was a symbol of national pride and patriotism in the face of industrial complacency, stiff overseas competition and impending economic recession. The Map was positioned front and centre of Gibson’s advertising campaign of the time, “American-Made, World-Played”. It also appeared on the front of the company’s full line catalogue and was featured on the cover of the Gibson guitar owner’s manual.

 

Interestingly, the guitar used in the advertising photoshoot was slightly different from the ones that reached the public. The differences include the pickup selector switch, bridge/tailpiece, speed knobs, jack plate, strap button and a bound neck. Interestingly, the face of the headstock is not visible in the photo, so it isn’t possible to determine whether it carries the Epiphone or Gibson logo.

Gibson American-Made World-Played Campaign

 

Essentially, at the time, if you were into Gibson or Epiphone, you couldn’t avoid the Map’s imagery, even though most customers were unlikely to see, let alone be able to play, one. Perhaps the Map’s physical rarity was intended to motivate aspiration for the almost-but-not-quite attainable. Anecdotally, the Epiphone versions were made first to help bolster sales and when they proved popular, the branding was changed to boost Gibson sales. Presumably, if the tactic had failed, there would have been no Gibson versions and no impact on reputation. However, the strategy proved to be a success, even though ‘production’, if you can call it that, ceased in 1984 due to Gibson’s manufacturing facilities being moved from Kalamazoo to Nashville and skilled company craftsmen being laid off. All Epiphone manufacture was moved to Korea, also from 1984.

 

Gibson has dabbled with reissues of the Map from both Gibson’s Custom Shop and the Epiphone brand; the latter possibly intended to deter the many imitations and fakes that have appeared over the years. The longevity of the model now seems assured, albeit in low numbers to meet variable demand, compared to the more popular classics. Beauty (and therefore desirability) is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Original early Gibson USA Maps will undoubtedly remain Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. I get the feeling that the original Maps will at some point become much sought after in the same way as the first Gibson Modernes that appeared around the same time. The Moderne had a similar ephemeral presence and, like the Map, has also now been reissued. Those rare 1980s Modernes seem to trickle onto the market at some pretty exclusive prices. I’m glad that I got my Moderne while it was still overlooked; I certainly couldn’t afford one now! Will the same apply to the Map at some point? I watch with interest.

1983 Gibson Moderne

 

This eventually begins to get to the nub of why the Map is now a CRAVE Guitar. You may have noticed that I make a concerted effort to be ‘different’ from the mainstream collector or dealer. Whereas they tend to focus on the usual Strats, Teles, Les Pauls, SGs and ES-335s (after all, that’s where the money is… or will be), I try to occupy a different space. The classics are great guitars and I love them all; I even own a few. However, after a while they can get a bit samey and can become a little bit ‘meh’ after a while. “Heresy! Burn him at the stake!” I hear you scream. In my defence, you may have experienced a similar phenomenon at one time or another, especially if the amount of choice can be overwhelming. In abundance, they can elicit that dreaded ‘so what?’, glazed-eye effect. It’s a bit like going into modern music retail warehouses where there is a whole wall of the same model and they all begin to merge into one homogenous whole and the impact of each individual instrument, however good it is, can be lost. Cool and rare vintage Guitars aren’t like that and ones like the Map tend to stand out from the crowd.

Fender and Gibson Guitars

 

In an attempt to keep things interesting, I actually made a conscious decision to seek out something that marks out a CRAVE Guitar as being a bit different from the run‑of‑the‑mill. By doing this, I might just become recognised (or ignored) for doing something a bit different from what everyone else does. In a world where guitars can sometimes look the same, feel the same, play the same, and sound the same, there needs to be something unexpected to make one stand out from the plain and ordinary. I simply can’t afford the really exotic examples, so my only option is play in the ballpark of ‘affordable vintage’ and throw in the odd curveball. Therefore, my ploy is to differentiate CRAVE Guitars from A.N.Other Guitar Shop, and the best way to do that is through the instruments themselves.

 

In addition, my simple brain processes told me that someone has to conserve and act as steward for a few selected examples of the more obscure, lower demand models for future generations. This may constitute foolhardiness or bravado but I don’t see anyone else doing exactly what CRAVE Guitars does.

 

The almost inexplicable allure of these oddities started me thinking, at which point you probably roll your eyes and think, “Oh god, here he goes again!!!” I have been, and still am, attracted to some very unusual vintage instruments that many pundits will automatically condemn. At least I have thought about it and made an irrational choice to be concertedly un-lemming-like and, perhaps worryingly, un-business-like.

 

I have plenty of evidence within the CRAVE Guitars’ family to support my conjectures. For instance, my compassionate adoption of some widely regarded ‘ugly duckling’ guitars, including:

  • 1974 Ovation Breadwinner
  • 1980 Gibson Flying V2
  • 1981 Gibson RD Artist
  • 1982 Gibson Moderne
  • 1983 Gibson Corvus II
  • … and now the 1983 Gibson USA Map
CRAVE Guitars’ Unconventional Guitar Designs

 

Then, there are the traditional mainstream brands that produced some marginal designs. In my view, these are also quite endearing and worth mentioning but, again, they are not favoured by the conservatives (yet). Perhaps these guitars, also part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family, may be best described as ‘plain ducklings’:

  • 1965 Gretsch Corvette
  • 1974 Rickenbacker 480
  • 1976 Music Man Stingray
  • 1977 Gibson L6-S
CRAVE Guitars’ Unconventional Guitar Designs

 

… then, there are the so-called ‘student’ models such as the short-scale offset Fenders (Musicmaster, Duo-Sonic, Mustang and Bronco), the dinky Gibson Melody Makers (and Epiphone Olympic) and the Silvertone 1449 (and 1457, as well as the full Danelectros). You may begin to get the picture. For some peculiar reason, I have an affinity for these less desirable (and therefore less valuable) instruments. They aren’t eminently collectable for the greedy investment brigade but I think they have many often‑overlooked positive attributes. Bring them together under CRAVE Guitars’ banner and I think they represent a pretty cool angle on a captivating period of modern guitar history.

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Student’ Guitar Models

 

Even where the classic guitar designs are concerned, where possible, I try to seek out the unusual. For instance, I intentionally went for a Fender Stratocaster Dan Smith-era ‘2‑knobber’ and I’d like to get hold of a similar-period active Elite. Telecasters? I lean towards the Thinline, Deluxe and Custom (and Elite) rather than the standard. Offset Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars? Bring them on. Unlike most, I think the Fender Coronado is cool, as is the Starcaster (the latter is still on my ‘wanted list’) Les Pauls? I prefer the Deluxe or the Recording (I’m still looking for a good one of the latter or its predecessors the Personal and Professional). Given the choice, I’d prefer a Junior or Special over a Standard or Custom most days (as long as I have the latter to hand as well!). Gibson Explorers or Firebirds? Yes please. Semis? I prefer the ES-330 to the ES-335. Go figure.

1983 Fender Stratocaster ‘Dan Smith’
CRAVE Guitars’ Variations On A Theme
CRAVE Guitar’s Fender Offsets

 

Here are some unusual models that are on CRAVE Guitars’ ‘wanted’ list…

1983 Fender Stratocaster & Telecaster Elites
1971 Gibson Les Paul Recording and 1975 Fender Starcaster

 

There is, of course, a huge risk to venturing too far off the beaten track and into wild guitar country. Firstly, sinking inadequate, valuable funds into potential white elephants is not advisable in anyone’s book. You may be surprised to know that I actually do care about this for 2 reasons: a) I don’t have infinite funds to burn on a laughing stock of geeky guitars, and b) I might want to trade up at some point, so having unsellable guitars that no-one wants is not a good strategy. However, I like to think that one day, when people eventually see the light of day, my whacky and weird bits of obsolete firewood might actually become the desirable antiquities I think they deserve to become. In the meantime, they will remain curios of a bygone age.

 

Given that the real rarities will forever be out of my humble reach (a 1958 Gibson Explorer anyone? According to records, only 6 shipped that year), it means that my attention tends to be refocused on guitar delights from the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, before some of you get on your high horses, this is the exact same period that all ‘learned commentators’ vehemently and vociferously despise for poor quality, lost craftsmanship and corporate interference. The epoch that I’m talking about are the so-called ‘dark ages’ when CBS owned Fender, Norlin owned Gibson, Baldwin owned Gretsch and MCA owned Danelectro. However, my argument goes that, if you are rich or narrow-minded enough to close your eyes to anything post-1965, you will never see or experience some very creative experimentation. For example, the first tangible example of the Gibson Moderne didn’t appear until 1982-83 while the Gibson USA Map appeared only in 1983-84. Love these instruments (as I do) or loathe them (as many do), they shouldn’t be ignored without some contemplation. I maintain that there are many hidden treasures from this period and… one day… the nay-sayers will catch on and catch up.

 

There are plenty of odd creations from this period, some of which are great, some mundane, some remarkable and some downright awful. Into which category they fall into is not just what the purists say. For instance, there are some unpopular guitars out there with some very interesting attributes. Generally un‑loved Gibson examples include the S-1, Marauder, Sonex-180, Firebrand, ‘The Paul’, Invader and Challenger. Many of these unusual Gibsons are also on CRAVE Guitars’ ‘wanted’ list…

Gibson Rarities

 

Fender also produced some unusual creations in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Swinger, Marauder, the (mythical) Maverick, the XII, Bass VI and Montego II before going with the more mainstream but commercially unsuccessful Lead and Bullet. In Japan, Fender created guitars not based on previous  fender designs including the Performer, Katana and Flame. Fender’s strategy from the mid‑1980s seems to have been to experiment with Squier models – if unsuccessful, they wouldn’t damage Fender’s credibility but if successful, they could be re‑branded by Fender.

Fender American Rarities
Fender Japan Rarities

 

Some of the ‘budget’ USA Fenders on CRAVE Guitars’ ‘wanted’ list…

1981 and 1983 Fender Bullet & 1981 Fender Lead

 

Trivia fact folks: In 1982, Fender strategically consolidated its budget off-shore production under the Squier brand in Japan. However, did you know that Squier as a musical instrument company actually dates back to 1890, founded as V.C. Squier by Victor Carroll Squier in Michigan, USA? Squier was predominantly a string maker and supplier for Fender from 1963 before being acquired by Fender in early 1965 shortly before Fender itself was taken over by CBS in the same year. Fender marketed Squier strings until 1972 and, by 1975, Fender had dropped the Squier name. Squier remained dormant until it was revived in 1982 as the main brand for guitars built by the newly established Fender Japan Ltd.

V.C. Squier and Fender Squier Logo

 

Some of these short-lived eccentric guitars from Fender and Gibson are truly rare beasts with just a few hundred or low thousands ever going into circulation. Some of them will eventually attract speculators, simply because of their brand, age and relative scarcity, or through trendy artist association. For instance, vintage market values for the previously unloved Fender Bronco soared after Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys used one and collector interest in the model grew rapidly. When that investment trigger is pulled, just watch the vintage values spiral quickly to silly levels, as keen demand outstrips limited supply. The Bronco is another model on CRAVE Guitars’ ‘wanted’ list.

1978 Fender Bronco

 

Capitalist economics are founded on the principle of growth and, in order to keep growing, companies have to innovate. Logic suggests that some ventures will be more successful than others. As the late, great Frank Zappa (1940-1993) once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible”. He was right and that principle applies aptly to guitar heritage. When compared to the acknowledged classics, many of these lesser models didn’t last very long and quickly disappeared into relative obscurity without a second thought from musicians at the time. Many of these ephemeral idiosyncrasies and dead ends in the guitar family tree are the ones that fascinate me as much as the perennial classic designs do.

 

In the fickle consumer marketplace, success of new guitar models, even from major brands, isn’t pre-determined or assured. Just remember that some now-legendary Gibson guitars didn’t last long on their original release, e.g. the Explorer, Flying V (both 1958-59), Les Paul Standard (1958-1960), and ‘reverse’ Firebirds (1963-65), all of which were dropped due to poor sales, only to be reintroduced later to massive success. The Gibson Moderne was part of the ‘modernistic’ series designed in the late 1950s although it never reached market. Even Fender flopped with the original Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Now look at their popularity. I blame the punters myself (joke)!

Vintage & Rare Gibsons

 

As Stephen King wrote, “sometimes they come back”. The USA Map is not the only phoenix to rise from the ashes of past ‘failures’, following a quiescent period. Gibson examples include the L6-S, RD, Moderne and Melody Maker. Fender examples include the Coronado, Mustang, Duo‑Sonic and Bass VI. Glad to see them back, albeit in different form from their progenitors. We can expect these companies to keep trying to introduce shiny new models alongside the classics and these reintroductions for a new generation.

 

So is CRAVE Guitars’ skewed sense of objectivity in showcasing the oddball guitars from the past a risk worth taking in a fiercely competitive and currently unstable vintage guitar market? I think it is but you may well adopt a contrary view. Discuss…

 

I guess it’s all about balance – having enough of the widely-regarded classics to get a foot in the mental door of the attention deprived gearhead while also getting enough attention such that people become more aware of the delights of the many unique guitars that proliferate around the margins of major brand guitars. Is it just me or are those peculiar ‘ugly and plain duckling’ guitars mentioned above, fantastic examples of the guitar makers’ creative dalliances reflective of the world in which they were originally created? Will they ever be re‑evaluated as ‘beautiful swan’ guitars? Probably not, but they should not to be ridiculed as abhorrent out of prejudice without some sort of contextual re‑assessment.

 

Just take another look at the montages of some of the leftfield instruments from Fender and Gibson above and I challenge you to maintain that they are not worthy of your attention. I came across a plainly ignorant headline when doing this research for this article, “stupid CBS and Norlin era guitars”. I contest that such hyperbole represents uninformed rhetoric by someone who is possibly not very bright and mouthing off to get attention. I take the alternative view and suggest that they actually look pretty cool in context and they aren’t bad musical instruments to boot. Not only that, they make ideal entry points into the world of vintage guitar collecting, being relatively low cost and risk free. Yes, they have idiosyncrasies but so what? That just makes them all the more interesting.

 

What I must do, though, is to resist the temptation of obsessing solely on the weird and whacky to the exclusion of the familiar or it will just end up as a bizarre dead‑end, the point will be well and truly lost, and CRAVE Guitars will sink into the same obscurity as many of the oddities it intended to showcase. My aim is to present the unconventional alongside the conventional as necessary counterpoints of contemporary guitar design culture. Going Zen, they represent the yin and yang of guitars if you will.

 

Now that it seems I am ploughing this particular furrow, it reiterates the fundamental question I posed a couple of articles ago, that is, what the heck do I do next with CRAVE Guitars and how do I convert it into some sort of going concern? I’ve established that CRAVE Guitars has to be a modest entity, that it wants to be something different from the norm, but not so different that it becomes overlooked and invisible to would‑be enthusiasts and aficionados. I like to think that I’m doing something right.

 

You know what might just happen, based on my luck and actual experience? I will beat my head against the brick wall of impenetrable puritanical dogma until I eventually give up. The cynic inside me says that I’ll sell off the CRAVE Guitars’ family at ridiculously cheap prices just to move them on and, the day after I do that, the market will boom  and others would benefit from exactly what I’d been striving for in splendid isolation for the last 10 years. The scathing axioms of ‘I told you so’ and ‘he was before his time’ will ring hollow in my desolate dispossession. I’ve been in that position before and it’s not a very nice place to be. So I will persevere.

 

That’s enough of the doom and gloom. More Positive Mental Attitude required – CRAVE Guitars is still here and hopefully here to stay in one form or another for the foreseeable future. Let’s get back to the crux and rejoice the glorious miscellany of vintage guitars, including all the many heterogeneous ‘mutations’ that have occurred along the way. We wouldn’t be able to judge the sublime without the ridiculous to measure them up against. They are all part and parcel of our diverse, crazy, guitar‑distracted life.

 

The celebration extends to the 1983 Gibson USA Map that started this little debate in the first place. I think the Map is wonderful in a zany sort of way and we shouldn’t lose sight of it as part of the bigger picture. Isn’t it funny how a seemingly straightforward event can lead to something deeper and, from my perspective, quite interesting? One thing I’m certain of is that purchasing an ‘ordinary’ Strat or Les Paul would not have warranted this sort of conversation.

 

I mentioned at the top of this article that I deliberated as to whether to buy the Map or something else more sensible. You may ask, what else I might have gone for, had I chosen to forgo the opportunity of acquiring the Map? There are many vintage guitars that I would be tempted to go after; way, way too many to mention. However, on this occasion it wasn’t a straightforward either/or decision. It was go for this or wait until something else cropped up to spark my craving (sic!). The Map just got there first. However, it wasn’t an easy decision for all the reasons outlined above. What next for the Map? Not a lot; it is so unique, it’s likely to hang around for a while. I did think it might become CRAVE Guitars’ signature instrument but the Les Paul logo still fits better with the image, I think. Thoughts?

1983 Gibson USA Map

 

Unless something changes, there is nothing new in the procurement pipeline for CRAVE Guitars at the moment, so next month’s soliloquy is likely to be back to rambling randomness (or “pretentious waffle” as my other half calls it!). In the meantime, spread peace, love and music to change lives for good and let’s make the world a better place, one guitar at a time. I’ll be plinking CRAVE Guitars’ most recent vintage acquisitions, the 1978 Fender Mustang covered two months ago and the 1983 Gibson USA Map.

1978 Fender Mustang

 

I will keep looking for unusual guitars. On the basis of the research for this article, I may just take another look at what’s out there and report back in due course. The Map may just lead to something interesting!

Musically, I’m off too Looe Music Festival 2017 (29 September to 1 October) with The Jesus & Mary Chain, Lulu and Happy Mondays headlining and some other credible artists on the line up (The Undertones, Cast, Reverend & The Makers, etc.). This event signals that the UK’s music festival season is pretty much concluded for this year.

Looe Music Festival

 

That’s it for now. Until next time…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Deviance is a lack of conformity which, to a degree is essential, as it separates the remarkable from the homogenous.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2017 – A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve been going on and on about the mainstay of CRAVE Guitars ‘work’, which is to share with you not only stuff about music and stuff about guitars generally but also specifically stuff about Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. If you’ve taken a look at the web site, you’ll know that the focus tends to be on mainstream U.S. brands and, within that, if possible, some cool variations of well-established guitar models. However, perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, the guitar world is much bigger than that.

 

This month I’m dipping a toe in the water of some of the other guitar treasures out there. When one looks across the whole guitar landscape, antique, vintage, old, used, new, American, European, Eastern bloc, Asian, mass manufacture, boutique makers, unique luthiers, home‑made, traditional, basic, hi-tech, innovative and whacky, there is infinite variety and a veritable cornucopia of interesting and wonderful instruments to appreciate. The same goes for amps and effects of course (as colleagues into those things keep reminding me) but there’s not enough room in a single article for those as well. Besides, although I don’t claim to be an expert on guitars, I’m even less well‑acquainted the minutiae of amps and effects – that’s another ballgame altogether. The focus of this article is essentially on electric instruments.

 

When researching this article, it became ridiculously clear that I simply can’t do justice to every aspect of this enormous topic. I can only mention a figurative iceberg’s tip of what’s out there and I apologise in advance for the probable monumental omissions herein. Before we get going, none of the guitars covered in this article are part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family. In order to illustrate the diversity, I’ve resorted to using pictures sourced from Google Images – I acknowledge all guitar owners and photographers.

 

Let’s face it, love them or loathe them, the centre of the guitar universe remains occupied by the American ‘Big Two’, Fender and Gibson, along with their subsidiary companies including, respectively, Epiphone and Squier that concentrate on the budget end of the market. Incidentally, Fender and Gibson also own a number of other iconic brands that come under their wing. For instance, did you know that Fender own Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel, DeArmond and Tacoma, and Gibson own Baldwin, Kramer, Steinberger, Tobias and Wurlitzer? Until the mid-2010s, Fender also owned Guild and Ovation guitar brands.

 

 

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Fender and Gibson are massive multinational industrial giants, but in actuality, they are pretty modest business concerns compared to the sheer scale and scope of some truly global companies. Fender and Gibson are, above all, very successful brands with a strong identity, whose reach extends well beyond the music industry. This general public awareness helps to shield them from some of the economic, social and technological pressures facing them. Business fortunes, however, go in cycles and the ‘Big Two’ have had their ups and downs. Both companies, along with many others, were taken over in the 1960s, leading to a period of corporate complacency and weakness that opportunistic competitors were able to exploit. While they have been able to rejuvenate their image, they are now dealing with a radically different global context.

 

While the ‘Big Two’ are fortunate to have genuinely iconic products including Fender’s Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass, and Gibson’s Les Paul, SG and ES-335 (among others), this otherwise enviable position can also constrain them operationally. It has proved very difficult for them to innovate and stretch too far from the proverbial straightjacket imposed by their core instruments. Existing models are scrutinised minutely and often face intense criticism if they move away from the accepted recipe. At the same time, it is difficult for them to introduce all-new models, as they are often compared unfavourably with the classic mould. Without sustainable growth in a finite market, these companies are commercially vulnerable and their potential success is increasingly limited by their past. This strategic conundrum for Fender and Gibson actually creates fertile ground for other smaller firms to grasp opportunity to enter the market through differentiation, diversification and innovation, as well as imitation.

 

Fender and Gibson Guitars

 

Circling around the ‘star’ of the Big Two, there are the other recognisable brands such as Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Guild, Ovation, Music Man (now part of the Ernie Ball corporation), G&L, and, as well as the aforementioned Gretsch (the Gretsch family retains major influence as part of Fender) and relative newcomers such as PRS. There are other companies that don’t immediately spring to mind but which have enormous presence in the industry. I include Peavey here, as one of the world’s largest musical manufacturing company. Then there are the other recognisable ‘independent’ American manufacturers that tend to focus on niche markets, such as BC Rich, Dean, Jackson, Alembic, Carvin, Schecter, Steinberger, Suhr, Parker, Heritage, etc. At the same time, some major US guitar companies focus predominantly on acoustic guitars, such as Martin and Taylor.

 

American Guitars

 

There is an incredible history surrounding brands that have either disappeared completely or those that have gone, some of which have now been resurrected, e.g. Supro, Airline, National, Dobro (acoustic, now part of Epiphone), Bigsby, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Silvertone, Kalamazoo, etc. American guitar manufacturers suffered particularly badly in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of multiple pressures including falling production quality, increasing manufacturing costs (including union labour), and hostile competition from high quality cheap imports from the Far East.

 

American Guitars

 

As you might expect, the history of many of the brands already mentioned goes back to the early-mid 1900s (or even further), which means that there are plenty of very cool vintage guitars floating around. In the guitar world, age doesn’t mean valuable – it is the combination of age, rarity, quality originality and current condition that matter for those with an eye on the dollar value. While the Big Two tend to command the premium prices, pretty much across the board, there are plenty of bargains to be had by looking more broadly at these, sometimes ephemeral makes. I recently come across an early 1960s U.S. Airline in all‑original clean condition that went for a little over £300GBP. These never were top‑of‑the‑range instruments back in the day, and they can be picked up as bargain vintage instruments now. Some of these leftfield guitars present low-risk options for entry into the vintage market if you research carefully and don’t expect too much. History suggests that, in all likelihood, they won’t accumulate vintage value very quickly without major artist association. Look around and there are gems to be found from under-the-radar guitar makers. Some are very nice, including Washburn, Hondo (mainly copies), Mosrite, Harmony, Kay, Valco (maker of a number of other brands), etc.

 

American Guitars

 

Moving away from the American continent, Europe also has a long tradition of great musical instrument manufacture, with brands such as Vox, Höfner, Baldwin, Burns, Watkins, Framus, Hagstrom, Hohner, Shergold, Hoyer, Wandre, Bartolini, Levin, Goya, Welson, along with newer entrants such as Warwick, Duesenberg and Vigier, Some of these were prolific during the ‘golden years’, capitalising on the rapidly moving musical paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s. A post-war embargo on American guitar imports certainly helped European brands (and bands) get a foothold and to prosper up to the early-mid 1960s. While, as in other markets, the quality of European guitars varied considerably, many models have become synonymous with the period and, as a result, highly collectable, for instance, the teardrop Vox guitar used by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones or the Höfner violin bass used by Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

 

European Guitars

 

Even further away from America, the Japanese companies competed head on with the American brands in the 1970s. Plenty of the budget guitars were blatant copies of American guitars, which resulted in protracted litigation to protect U.S. patents and trademarks. Many ‘older’ guitarists may remember copies from the likes of CSL and Columbus, as well as Ibanez. Japanese firms didn’t just replicate American designs; some also produced original designs and have retained a credible reputation over time for quality and consistency, including their dominant brands – Yamaha and Ibanez. Takamine, which focuses predominantly on acoustic guitars, is also Japanese. There have been plenty of Japanese names that are or have been familiar, including ESP (and subsidiary LTD), Roland, Italia, Aria, Tokai, Teisco, Greco, Guyatone, Apollo, Kawai, Kent, Westone, etc. Many of the instruments made by Japanese companies in the 1960s and 1970s (including some copies) are now becoming very collectable in the off‑the‑beaten‑track vintage niches. If you want some truly whacky vintage designs at reasonable prices, take a look at Japanese guitars. Plenty of people now specialise in conserving these vintage Japanese/Asian instruments.

 

Far Eastern Guitars

 

The old Eastern Bloc countries have also produced a wide range of brands catering for home-grown musicians. The strategy of government-owned manufacture was partly nationalistic, in that they were required to protect their home market from capitalist imports from both the west and east. Many of these guitars were typically utilitarian with little in the way of flamboyance. Many of these brands will be little known in the western world, even now. As you might expect, there are experts who concentrate on collecting these communist bloc guitars for posterity. The ones that have penetrated the western markets offer something different from, and cheaper than, the mainstream names. Look out for names like Aelita, Elgava, Formanta, Migma, Musima, Odessa, Stella, Tonika, Marma (East Germany), Jolana (Czechoslovakia), etc.

 

Eastern Bloc Guitars

 

There are a few other territories that have developed their own guitar manufacturing, including Godin and Eastwood in Canada and Maton in Australia. In addition, there are a large number of unmarked guitars out there with no means of identifying age or source. Some can be traced back to similar designs by known manufacturers while the creators of others are lost in the mists of time and geography. These ‘pawn shop’ guitars are often poorly made and may be considered curios, although, there are aficionados looking to conserve the more vernacular heritage.

 

Canadian and Australian Guitars
No-Name Pawn Shop Guitars

 

The modern-world picture is far more complicated and can’t be talked about in terms of familiar regional territories. Some multi-national companies, including Fender and Both Fender and Gibson have their headquarters in the US and produce large numbers of their subsidiary ranges in other countries. Some brands are designed in the US and constructed offshore. Some are assembled and quality checked in the US from parts made elsewhere. Larger companies have international distribution operations that channel product to dealership networks within economic regions, e.g. Fender UK servicing the European Union (at the moment!). Others have to manage distribution through networks of independent dealers. Some smaller companies have to rely either on local markets or alternative methods of distribution, direct or indirect. Some companies make instruments that are branded by one or more retail chains. A classic example is Silvertone whose instruments were made by Danelectro, Kay and others, sold through Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order (remember that?). Similarly, many of the diverse Japanese brand names were actually made by a relatively small number of manufacturers, e.g. Kawai and Teisco.

 

Another feature of new millennium guitar building is the explosion in bespoke guitar building, either by small specialist companies or individual luthiers. Low volumes, creative designs, alternative materials, custom features, and high quality tend to characterise the sub-industry but there are always exceptions to the rule. There have, pretty obviously, always been bespoke builders catering for the well‑heeled or professional musicians’ need and this has led to further opportunities that are difficult for the mass manufacturers to match. In response, the larger manufacturers, including Fender and Gibson, created custom shop operations to provide tailored services for individual clients. Custom shops also heralded the explosion in vintage-styled recreations and the more recent craze for relic finishes, both building on the growth of interest in vintage guitars.

 

Remember, even the (now) big companies had to start somewhere, usually with an inspirational leader, visionary pioneer or commercial entrepreneur at the helm, often working on their own or in a small workshop. Many of today’s big brands started out with some names you might just recognise, including Friedrich Gretsch and son, Fred Gretsch Jr, Orville H. Gibson, Christian Frederick Martin, Adolph Rickenbacker, Nathan Daniel (Danelectro), Epaminondas Stathopoulo (Epiphone), and one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender. More recently, Paul Reed Smith has earned a place amongst this exlusive group. Even these industry giants relied on other key individuals and their skills including John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Lloyd Loar, F.C. Hall, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, George Fullerton, Ray Dietrich, Roger Rossmeisl, etc.

 

Guitar Founders

 

Other well-known names span out of larger companies, for instance, Travis Bean, well known for metal-neck guitars, split from Kramer. Kiesel Custom Guitars is another example, producing some astounding instruments having been formed following the splitting up of American company Carvin in 2015. Perhaps the most successful modern entrepreneur is Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars, based in Maryland USA since 1985. While growing his reputation, Smith wisely sought advice from Gibson’s ex‑president Ted McCarty to mentor him, and several PRS models now proudly bear McCarty’s name. The tradition continues with renowned luthier Joe Knaggs setting up his own prestigious guitar company after leaving PRS, producing some wonderful instruments in relatively small numbers.

 

Spin-Off Brand Guitars

 

One of the most celebrated and influential craftsmen to exploit niche demand in the 1960s was Lithuanian immigrant to the UK, Tony Zemaitis who made some very remarkable guitars for some very remarkable guitarists. Zemaitis’ legacy can clearly be seen in other current models from the likes of Duesenberg and Teye, as well as the Japanese company that currently carries on Zematis’ illustrious name.

 

Zemaitis Guitars
Teye and Duesenberg Guitars

 

There have been many excursions into the application of alternative materials to wood. The use of metal in guitar production was pioneered by the likes of National and Dobro in their resonator guitars as a means of producing more volume from acoustic guitars in the pre‑electric era of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Valco used fibreglass (coined Res‑o‑Glas) for futuristic designs in the 1960s, such as the stunning National Newport. More recently, acoustic maker, Ovation, used a variation of fibreglass (lyrachord) on its bowlback instruments. Zemaitis experimented with other materials in his guitar construction and many others have followed suit, including the aforementioned Kramer/Travis Bean. Around the same time, there was a ‘fad’ for acrylic guitar bodies, perhaps the most well-known proponent being Dan Armstrong who used acrylic for parent company Ampeg.

 

On this side of the Atlantic, another luthier has set the bar for innovative use of metal; French luthier, James Trussart, Italian company XoX Audio are making some nice instruments out of carbon fibre. 3D printing also presents opportunities for greater use of plastics and metals in guitar production. Some luthiers have experimented with stone as part of the construction but it is not common – or very practical. With ever increasingly stringent restrictions on sourcing, use, sale and movement of hardwoods commonly used in guitar production, expect wider use of alternative sustainable materials in the future.

 

Alternative Guitar Materials

 

There are hundreds if not thousands or even tens of thousands of guitar makers out there, all wanting a proportion of the overall demand for great guitars. Here are a very few notable names from all around the world to keep an eye on, including (in no particular order); Collings, Stone Wolf, Flaxwood, Palm Bay, Hutchinson, Emerald, Ed Roman, Suhr, Mayones, Nik Huber, Matt Artinger, Tom Anderson, Patrick James Eggle, Fano, Gus, Goulding, Prisma, Frank Hartung, Michael Spalt, Michihiro Matsuda, TK Smith, Rick Toone, Carillion, McSwain, John Backlund, Reverend, Ron Thorn, John Ambler, Mule, Tony Cochran, Walla Walla, Ezequiel Galasso, Langcaster… The list could be endless as there are just too many great guitar buillders out there to mention and apologies to those I’ve left out and, sorry, I can’t post pictures of every one – I wish I could. The point, I guess, is to broaden one’s perspective and perhaps open one’s mind to a wide range of other possibilities beyond the obvious in-your-face guitar shop fare. I don’t usually proffer advice but on this occasion, I would simply just say, take a look out there and you might just find something weird and wonderful that you probably didn’t know existed. I regularly feature some of this wonderland of goodies on Twitter for those that may want to take a look (@CRAVE_guitars).

 

Boutique Makers to Watch

 

For the amateur hobbyist or artisans with aspirations of becoming the next notable designer, there are now plenty of DIY kits for everything from generic product to some quite fancy customised guitar construction. Access to information the Internet provides plenty of plans and specifications for people to design and build almost any type of instrument without the need to track down books or luthiers willing to share their knowledge. Experimenting in this way can present all sorts of opportunities to be taken. What about you?

 

Renovation ‘husk’ projects are probably best avoided unless you really know what you’re doing, as there’s probably a reason why they are in that state to begin with. For some, though. a ‘bitsa’ guitar may make an ideal low cost player’s guitar. My lack of practical skills prevents me from trying out a DIY (re-)build beyond my limited capabilities. Besides, given CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental raison d’être, I simply can’t create an authentic American vintage guitar.

 

Guitar DIY Kit and Project Husk

 

I hope that this article has given a tiny indication of the beauty and multiplicity of guitars out there. That’s without going into oddities with unconventional string configurations, double (or more) necks, hybrid instruments, etc. It is this fascination with making things different while also keeping things the same that is quite inspirational and, I think, pretty unique to guitars, at least on this sort of scale. We are blessedly spoilt for choice and there are some ridiculously good guitars out there for very reasonable prices without experiencing the diminishing returns associated with esoteric exotica. Ultimately, this clearly indicates that there is something for everyone with an interest in the world’s favourite musical instrument.

 

So… you may ask… what’s my favourite out of everything covered here? Truthfully, I can’t say; I find guitars endlessly beguiling and preferences vary continuously. It would be unfair to single any one brand or model from the others. As my obsessive quest for ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ continues, the CRAVE name gives a hint of bias but that is not so dogmatic that I can’t appreciate all aspects of the luthier’s art and craftsmanship. MY position is firmly ‘on the fence’. If any of the names mentioned wish to persuade me off the fence with a prime example of their product(s), I am more than happy to accommodate them (f.o.c. of course!). I optimistically await a swathe of e-mails to that effect (hint, hint).

 

Me? I’m off to plink a new CRAVE Guitars’ plank. The new addition to the family is something both very recognisable and very unusual at the same time. All being well, I’ll try to cover it in next month’s article. All I’ll say at this juncture is that it is definitely one that fits the Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitar bill very aptly while also strongly dividing opinion. Intrigued? The lengths we go to, to bring you guitar ‘stuff’. Watch this space…

 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “There is a finite limit to the amount you can know, there is no limit to the amount you can imagine.”

 

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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