June 2020 – Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

Prelude

WELCOME BACK ONCE again guitar fans and hello to any new visitors. We are now half way through an extraordinary 2020 and the world is still turned upside down in so many concerning ways. While there may be glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel for COVID‑19, there is still a long way to go and there will be profound ramifications that it will leave in its sizeable wake. At the end of last year, we had no inclination as to what was about to befall, yet here we are now. Perhaps us hooman beans really aren’t as clever as we seem to think we are (shock, horror – hold the front page!). It seems that we also still have some way to go before all people are deemed equal and can live their lives freely, responsibly and peacefully. The first half of 2020 has passed by very quickly and, frankly, good riddance to it. I don’t like wishing life away but it has been 6 months that I’m sure we could all have done without, everything being on‑hold.

Well, here we are and no more historical facts, quotes or predictions on which to ponder this month. I said at the very end of the last article that I would get back to pontificating about ‘cool & rare American vintage electric’ guitars and, at last, I can deliver on that promise/threat (delete as applicable).

There are 3 themes on which I’d like to embark this month. Firstly, I mentioned in my December 2019 article that I had bought some gear (big surprise… not) during last year but I didn’t go any further than to list what they were, without any indication as to the whys and wherefores behind the spending spree. Secondly, after 18 months, most of the 42 repatriated guitars have now been properly assessed and worked through as far as I am able. So far, I haven’t given any real sense about what I found and what I learnt from the exercise. Thirdly, there have been a number of purchases during the first half of 2020 and in due course I can reveal what those are and how they relate both to the existing ‘collection’ and to the ‘wanted’ list from that same December 2019 end‑of‑year/look‑forward roundup.

I think that there is more than enough material to occupy one article, so without further ado, let us begin at the beginning. Sitting comfortably? Good. Then, we’ll begin…

2019 CRAVE Guitars’ Purchases

An Introduction to the 2019 CRAVE Guitars

2019 was certainly an interesting year. Due to circumstances, I started out not anticipating much in the way of guitar purchases. The relatively modest vintage guitar ‘wanted’ list from December 2018 included a Danelectro of some sort, a Fender Starcaster and a Gibson Melody Maker. These had all featured on the target list for more than one year, so it seemed a fairly realistic expectation. What actually happened was a bit more fruitful than I foresaw and I think it deserves some rationale to indicate why they weren’t random purchases. In fact, 2019 resulted in nine new additions to the CRAVE Guitars family, spanning five decades (1940s‑1980s with at least one from each). I couldn’t really afford the outlay but, although it meant sacrifices in other areas, it has probably been worth a bit of hardship. I hope you find this array of short stories moderately interesting.

1982 Fender Bullet H2

This is what happened when esteemed Fender designer John Page was tasked with creating a low cost student model to carry the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ decal and replace the outgoing Mustang and Musicmaster? The result was the Fender Bullet. I’d already acquired a 1981 Fender Bullet which was essentially a Telecaster‑on‑a‑budget model. Several aspects of the first iteration intrigued me and I set about looking for a second generation model, with the more Stratocaster‑like body outline. Initially, I was looking for a ‘standard’ one with twin single coil pickups and the integrated bent steel pick guard and bridge assembly, just like the ‘Tele’ Bullet. Instead, I found a cool Fender Bullet H2 in great all‑original condition in very smart red and white with a maple neck. This version has a more robust standard integrated hardtail bridge/tailpiece with through‑body stringing. The H2 features what at first glance appear to be standard twin ‘humbuckers’. However, looks can be deceiving. The pickups aren’t actually traditional humbuckers – they are actually 4 single coil pickups arranged as two pairs in humbucking configuration. In addition to a normal 3‑way pickup selector switch, the H2 has two additional buttons that ‘split’ the humbucking pickup pairs to give a wide range of tonal options including genuine single coil sounds (unlike most tapped or split humbuckers). When it arrived, one of the 4 pickups wasn’t working and it had to be sent to a pickup expert to fix. Thankfully, it was a weak connection between the coil and pickup lead, so easily sorted. Like the earlier Bullet, the H2 has a very nice standard Telecaster neck. The diverse sounds available from this guitar are nothing short of remarkable and it makes me wonder why this particular unique configuration hasn’t been widely used since. The early USA‑made Bullets were misunderstood and tend to attract a lot of unfair criticism from purists. As a result, like the Fender Leads of the time, they weren’t manufactured for long. Judging it on its own terms, this is really not the cheap Stratocaster imitation it may seem at first glance. I realised that the Fender Bullet H2s are both cool and quite rare, so fit the CRAVE criteria. I never envisaged that it would be so fascinating and collectable while still being affordable. This Bullet H2 came with its original (if battered and stickered) Original Hard Shell Case (OHSC).

1975 Fender Starcaster

The Fender Starcaster (and, no, that isn’t a spelling error) has been a long‑standing ‘wanted’ guitar, ever since I got a 1960s Coronado. There is very little similarity between the two models but as there are very few semi‑acoustic electrics in the brand’s history, I was once again curious. Unusually, I bought this one from a retailer, so I probably paid more than I normally would have considered but it was worth it. Where the Coronado is fully hollow, the Starcaster has a solid centre block running under the pickups and the massive hardtail bridge/tailpiece assembly. Surprisingly, the Starcaster has through‑body stringing like a Telecaster. While the Coronado has DeArmond single coil pickups, the Starcaster uses the sublime Seth Lover ‘wide range’ humbuckers as used on several Telecaster variants from the 1970s. While both the Coronado and the Starcaster use bolt on maple necks, they are, again, very different and the latter is unique to the model with a maple fingerboard. Both the Coronado and Starcaster were reissued by Fender in 2013 although neither are a patch on the originals. The vintage Starcasters are instantly recognisable because of the distinctive bridge assembly and the 5 controls (2 volume, 2 tone plus master volume). When going over the guitar on arrival, I found it was a rare very early 1975 (pre‑production?) model. It has been well used but is still in remarkably good condition with the sort of genuine patina that only age can bestow. The tobacco sunburst and sunburst flame maple is just gorgeous. It is also a fantastic guitar to play with a great neck and I really like the (in‑vogue) offset body shape. Even better, it doesn’t play or sound like any other Fender, ever made. The Starcaster didn’t prove popular on its original release and wasn’t produced for long before being quietly discontinued in 1982. I can understand why it didn’t sell in large numbers but that misses the point about its exclusive charms. Make no mistake, the Starcaster is a high quality instrument just waiting to be rediscovered. This beauty is not to be confused with cheapo far‑eastern Strat imitations from the 2000s that unfortunately carried the ‘Starcaster by Fender’ moniker. The case, while vintage, is not an original Fender Starcaster case. Obtaining a Fender Starcaster was a long‑standing aspiration achieved, which can now be removed from the ‘wanted’ list. These babies are now becoming extortionately expensive on the vintage market, as the ‘collectorati’ are now cottoning onto them. Seems I got this one just about in time‑ish.

1979 Fender Stratocaster Anniversary

I already have a 1977 Stratocaster hardtail and I was kinda looking around for one from the early 1970s with a vibrato before they become unaffordable (rapidly heading that way now). Along the way, I became distracted by the 1979 Anniversary Stratocaster. I missed out on a couple before I finally attained one (once again at a higher price than I intended, unfortunately). The Anniversary is distinctive in that it was Fender’s first foray into limited edition commemorative models, celebrating 25 years since the original Stratocaster’s introduction in 1954. I was attracted by the classic look of silver, black and maple fingerboard. Whether one can regard a massive 10,000 examples as a ‘limited edition’ is debatable. It also comes with a very unsubtle ‘Anniversary’ logo emblazoned on the bass horn plus a much more understated 25th anniversary neck plate which carries its serial/issue number. This one comes with its original certificate of authenticity and most (but not quite all) of its case candy, as well as its ABS OHSC, all of which is nice to have. Like all Anniversary models, this one is heavy at 10lbs (4.6kgs) but I can live with that because of the part this model plays in electric guitar heritage. It looks cool, sounds great and plays very nicely, although the action is a little high. Fundamentally, though, it is essentially a standard Stratocaster with a few aesthetic embellishments. This guitar is in excellent, almost mint condition, which suggests that it was kept as a memento rather than an instrument to be played, which in my view is sacrilege. These aren’t especially rare instruments and many purists would say they aren’t cool. Well, I’m going to stand my ground and say that I like it, which is why it now has a safe home here at CRAVE Guitars.

1983 Fender Stratocaster Elite

This is the first of a pair of Fender Elites that I bought in 2019 (and the second Stratocaster!), both of which I think are quite desirable. As background, the Elite series was only produced in 1982 and 1983 before it was withdrawn shortly before CBS sold Fender in 1984. It is the innovative electronics that really set the Elites apart. The signal chain starts with 3 ‘noiseless’ single coil pickups including an additional dummy coil to reduce hum. These pickups are distinguishable by the Fender logo covers with no visible pole pieces. Instead of a 5‑way pickup selector switch, there are 3 on/off buttons, 1 for each pickup, giving 8 permutations in all (including all ‘off’). This arrangement provides easy access to more sounds than the standard Stratocaster of the time. The switching is unusual but also very intuitive (far better than Fender’s current S‑1 switching). The signal then passes through an on‑board active pre‑amp powered by a 9V battery. The controls are different too and not just the nice soft‑touch logo knobs. There is the usual single master volume complemented by two master tone controls, comprising Fender’s propriety MDX (MiD‑range eXpander) boost and TBX (Treble/Bass eXpander) circuit. The Strat’s iconic jack plate is also absent, with the output moved to the body edge. The bridge assembly is also unique, here it is a top‑loading hardtail Fender Freeflyte bridge. In use, it plays just like a Strat, although it is a touch on the heavy side. The sounds though are, as you might expect, quite different from a normal Stratocaster. Before the purists clamour with cries of sacrilegious iconoclasm, the electronics went on, albeit modified, to be used in both the Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy signature guitars, so the Elite wasn’t an abortive experiment. This example looks particularly cool in creamy Olympic White with a lovely rosewood fingerboard. This Elite is in lovely all‑original excellent condition and comes with its ABS OHSC. Like many 1970s and 1980s Fenders, these are now becoming more desirable on the vintage market. These original Elites are not to be confused with the similarly named but otherwise standard Elite series instruments issued by Fender between 2016 and 2019.

1983 Fender Telecaster Elite

More?! OK then. Onto the second in the pair of Fender Elites. This one is a 1983 Telecaster Elite in lovely translucent Sienna Burst with a gorgeous rosewood fingerboard. Like the Stratocaster Elite, it is a fascinating variant on the classic design. The electronics here comprise dual‑coil noise‑cancelling Alnico 2 pickups routed through an on‑board active 9V preamp with 2 volume controls allied to the same MDX (mid‑range) and TBX (high‑range) tone controls as found on the Stratocaster Elite. Like its sister model, it has the unique top‑loading hardtail Fender Freeflyte bridge. The body has cool single binding on the top edge, similar to the original Custom Telecaster from the 1960s. For some inexplicable reason, the designers at Fender felt that a Telecaster would look good with a Les Paul‑like scratchplate. They were wrong, it doesn’t. Fortunately, the scratchplate was provided in the case, rather than being attached and even then, it could be stuck on with double‑sided tape. Personally, I prefer it without the scratchplate, revealing the woodgrain through the finish. Like the Stratocaster, the Telecaster is a touch on the heavy side but I can forgive that because of its unique position within the Fender canon. This little beauty is in near mint condition and includes its OHSC. The Elite is far from your average Telecaster and, on my unending quest for something cool and rare, it has found a good home here at CRAVE Guitars. Both Elite models (and there was also a Precision bass in the range as well) are harder to come across than standard models, so the prices tend to reflect their relative scarcity. The Elites are unequivocally ‘curio’ guitars from the last dying days of Fender’s notorious CBS era, so they tend to be frowned upon by purists, which makes them all the more appealing to the maverick side of my enduring addiction to the quirky and idiosyncratic guitars from a generally unloved period of guitar history.

1947 Gibson ES-150

Thus, we move onto the ‘Big G’. The author sadly hit one of those dreaded ‘big birthdays’ in 2019 and without much else to celebrate, I figured that I would mark my passing years with something self‑indulgent. I had been keeping my eyes peeled for a vintage Gibson ES‑150 for several years and watching as the prices escalated to, frankly, silly levels. I couldn’t afford one of the carved top pre‑war models with the Charlie Christian pickup, so I was looking around for a newer model, which would be cheaper. For those that may not know, the Gibson ES‑150 was introduced in 1936 and is acknowledged as the first commercially successful electric Spanish guitar. I eventually found a lovely 1947 ES‑150 from the first year of post‑war production and sporting a single P90 pickup. This one was way, way more expensive than I could normally justify so, because of my impending mortality, I was tempted to go for it. In fact, it is the most I’ve ever spent on a single instrument to‑date. This ES‑150 was residing in Italy, so I imported it before Brexit shuts down all opportunities to access vintage fare from our European colleagues. Owning a really old hollow body non‑cutaway jazz guitar is new territory for me, so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I was delving into this particular art form. The guitar itself is in fine all‑original condition with just surface crazing to the lovely sunburst nitrocellulose finish. There is no serial number or Factory Order Number (FON) which, along with the features, dates it to 1947. Playing it is a different experience altogether, as it needs heavy semi‑flat wound strings to get the laminated top vibrating. Then there is the limited upper fret access to contend with, so it takes some time to acclimatise to the technique. Being deep‑bodied and fully hollow, this one actually works quite well as an acoustic jazz guitar too. As you may know, I really like single pickup guitars, so there is less to get in the way of pure P90 tone. The ES‑150 is currently a bit of an outlier within the CRAVE Guitars family. One thing is for sure, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Definitely not the ideal guitar of choice for metal heads though.

1965 Gibson Melody Maker

This 1965 Melody Maker was a bit of a gap filling exercise. Between 1959 and 1971, Gibson released four versions of their ‘student’ guitar, the Melody Maker. The first was a single cutaway Les Paul shape (1959‑1961), the second was a unique and really cute double cutaway model (1961‑1965), the third iteration was a somewhat crude and short‑lived double cutaway model (1965‑1966) and the final generation was SG‑shaped (1967‑1971). This is one of the rather ‘ugly duckling’ models from 1965 (weirdly often called the ‘type 2’, even though it’s the third body shape), which completes the set. The Melody Maker comprises a slab mahogany body with double cutaways, a set mahogany neck with the typical narrow headstock, one single coil pickup, and comes in a reserved cherry nitrocellulose finish. Unsurprisingly, this model has never been reissued by Gibson, although there has been a Joan Jett signature guitar. The Melody Maker name has re‑appeared a number of times since the 1960s. This example is not in pristine shape but is all‑original and it comes with its OHSC. At least this one hasn’t been butchered over the years unlike many. I was shocked that a recent guitar magazine article (which I won’t name but they really should know better) was recommending that the vintage Melody Maker body should be routed and the pickup replaced with a P90 or humbucker! Unbelievable and indefensible! I think that the narrow single coil pickups give the Melody Maker a distinct tone, which is very underrated by purists. Melody Makers are unique in the Gibson history books and unmolested examples deserve much more credit in my view. They are made from the same materials in the same Kalamazoo factory by the same people as other highly prized models and should be regarded (and treated) as worthy vintage instruments in their own right. They are very light and resonant, making them really easy to pick up and play. Compared to many Gibsons from the 1960s, Melody Makers are still relatively affordable on the vintage market and represent a good starting point for people interested in collecting vintage guitars from a major American brand. Personally, I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of this pointy body shape but now that I own one, it is growing on me.

1989 PRS Classic Electric

Having dipped my toes into the world of Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars with an elegant 1988 PRS Standard, I was looking around for other early hand‑finished guitars that were made in PRS’s original facility in Annapolis, Maryland. These early, so‑called ‘pre‑factory’ models are becoming increasingly collectable, especially as they are now beginning to get to vintage age (and price!). The early PRS Customs are becoming incredibly expensive, so my eyes settled on an early PRS model that was initially called the Classic Electric when introduced in 1989. The model was swiftly renamed as the CE after a legal dispute with Peavey over the original name. NB. The CE is not to be confused with the far Eastern PRS SE (‘Student Edition’) guitars. I also had my sights set on the early solid Electric Blue metallic finish, which I think is stunningly beautiful. This example is a very early Classic Electric, being only the 473rd guitar off the production line, distinguished by its 24‑fret, bolt‑on maple neck and the plain headstock carrying the block ‘PRS Electric’ logo (soon to change to the familiar modern ‘Paul Reed Smith’ signature script logo). There are quite a few marks including one significant ding to the body and the finish on the back of the neck has worn down. The wear indicates that it has been well played, which is often a sign of a soundly put together instrument. OK, it doesn’t have the flashy flame or quilted maple cap, faux binding, bird inlays or set neck but it is still a very creditable guitar that plays very well and sounds great. The CE is one of those under‑the‑radar PRSs that the collectors tend to overlook, although genuine owners praise them very highly. PRS finally got around to re‑releasing the bolt‑on CE model in 2016 but the new ones really aren’t the same as these early ‘handmade’ examples. Despite the wear and tear, it is all‑original and comes with its OHSC but no case candy. You can’t have everything. A vintage PRS Custom to add to the Standard and Classic Electric sadly has to remain on the wish list for the time being.

1959 Silvertone 1304

I had a bit of a mad spell towards the end of the year when I was buying several guitars for the sake of it. I was looking for a vintage Danelectro and came across this funky little 1959 Silvertone 1304 with its single cutaway and dowdy brown finish. It is very similar to the Danelectro U1 (differentiated by pickup position and headstock logo), which is no surprise seeing that Danelectro manufactured Silvertone guitars for the Sears & Roebuck retail and mail order company at the time. The 1304 is actually a pretty rare model being only available in Sears & Roebuck’s ‘Wish Book’ Christmas catalogue and related advertising of 1958, 1959 and 1960. The neck and familiar ‘coke bottle’ headstock is also rare, being finished in natural, rather than colour matched to the body, apparently due to supply shortages at the time. It also has the circular electrics cover on the back and the squared off neck joint that confirms its age and lineage. The ever present Lipstick pickup and body‑edge tape will be familiar to Danelectro fans. It also feels, plays and sounds just like you’d expect a vintage Danelectro from the 1950s, i.e. great. This was the last of the Danelectro single cutaway body shapes before they moved to double cutaways in the 1960s. The single pickup and simple controls let you focus on playing and getting the most out of a very cool and groovy (and lightweight due to semi acoustic construction) instrument. It is a lot of fun to pick up and play and hard to put down. The action is a little high but that resistance actually forces one to play differently compared to a more ‘refined’ guitar. Like others in this résumé, it is in fine all‑original condition, although it sadly doesn’t come with an original 1950s case. These cool Silvertone and comparable Danelectro guitars are still amazingly affordable for vintage guitars from the so‑called ‘golden era’, perhaps because they were (generally) made in large numbers and sold to a largely undiscriminating ‘student’ audience at the time.

2019 CRAVE Amps? What Amps?

Right, that’s the 2019 guitars covered, so what else was new? Well CRAVE Amplifiers didn’t achieve anything at all in 2019 – no new additions and no losses. Nada. As it turned out, I was quite happy running two relatively similar modest little units as daily go‑to amplification during the year, a 1978 Fender Champ and a 1978 Fender Vibro Champ both in ‘silverface’ livery. Don’t underestimate these diminutive 5W Class A valve amps, they are really great for what they are. I acknowledge that I’m not a vintage amp specialist, so they are not hugely abundant here at CRAVE Guitars. Owning vintage valve amps demands space, time and effort as well as oodles of filthy lucre, so I’m not in a huge rush to buy up large numbers of vintage amps.

An Introduction to the 2019 CRAVE Effects

CRAVE Effects did a little better during 2019, although there were only five new pedals to join the clan. Having said that, two of those were outstanding examples of the type. As with amps, because I am not a vintage effect expert, I’m sticking to a few well‑known global brands from the 1960s to 1980s, rather than go too far into the realms of the unique, idiosyncratic and unusual.

1987 BOSS RV-2 Digital Reverb

It may seem heretical to many but this is the first vintage digital effect to join the CRAVE club. This Japanese BOSS RV‑2 was sought out principally because there are few vintage compact analogue reverb pedals out there. Yes there are the bulky (and expensive) vintage valve reverb tanks from the likes of Fender but I wanted something small and convenient to add an extra special dimension to the aforementioned Fender Champs, neither of which have on‑board reverb. So, a digital reverb was the way to go with this rather plain looking but flexible 1987 BOSS RV‑2. It provides a range of reverbs and it sounds quite natural without too many sibilant digital artefacts, although not quite the soft and cuddly warm tones of traditional analogue reverbs. Still, it does its job very well and it is from the right era (pre‑1990s), which is why it’s here. Interestingly, the high current draw of the digital circuitry in the RV‑2 means that it cannot be powered by batteries and requires a BOSS PSA power supply in order to do its ‘0’ and ‘1’ digi‑thing.

1969 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face

This is the first of two iconic classic pedals acquired in 2019. The humble but fabled English Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face rose to stardom mainly because of none other than Jimi Hendrix. This isn’t one of the earliest Fuzz Faces that used germanium transistors but one of the first to use silicon transistors, this one dating from c.1969. It is amazing what a few cheap electronic components can end up being turned into. Truth be told, I didn’t actually intend to get this pedal. It came along via an eBay auction and I decided to take a punt and put on a (relatively) low bid and… what happened? No‑one came along at the last minute to beat me and I ended up getting it. Yikes! Yes, it was hideously expensive but not as bad as it could have been. Therefore, while it was not exactly a bargain, I suppose it was still a reasonable price for what it is. Fortunately, it delivers its fuzzy glory in all the right ways, so that’s OK then. It is in excellent all‑original condition and in perfect working order, so my initial reticence was soon overcome. It actually looks pretty cool in red too. By today’s standards, its circular form factor does take up a disproportionate amount of pedalboard real estate but, c’mon, it is a vintage fuzz pedal – what’s not to like? The original Fuzz Face was definitely a batteries only zone back in the 1960s and neither is there an LED status light to indicate when it’s on. Great though it undoubtedly is, this is clearly not one of those pedals you’d want to gig with down the local pub, that’s for sure.

1982 Ibanez PT9 Phaser

At totally the other end of the value scale from the Fuzz Face, we have a fairly widely available and averagely collectable 1982 Ibanez PT9 Phaser. CRAVE Effects has somehow accumulated more phasers than any other kind over the years and that’s probably because the late 1970s and early 1980s experienced a surfeit of these simple analogue modulation effects. Let’s be honest, your average phaser really isn’t the most exciting of guitar effects compared to what else is out there, especially in these days of ubiquitous boutique eccentricities. The PT9 is pretty utilitarian and sounds OK, but not necessarily exceptional, which is probably to damn it with faint praise. I’m guessing that Ibanez chose to change their colour scheme from the previous blue/white PT‑909 Phase Tone to the orange/black PT9 in order to compete on looks with the all‑dominating and very orange MXR Phase 90 of the time. I had been on the track of a PT9 to fill a gap in the collection for a while, so the gap was duly filled. Original PT9s are still relatively affordable phasers and they are, perhaps, a good entry point for neophytes to get into vintage effects before getting into more exclusive and expensive fare. Time to move on… Next!

1981 Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro

… and here is the second iconic classic pedal procured in 2019. The otherwise ordinary green Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro rose to hallowed status via another guitarist association, this time with the inimitable Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like the Fuzz Face, the original vintage TS‑808s are now inordinately expensive on the vintage effect market, with prices increasing all the time. This was one of those times when I felt a ‘now or never’ moment and bagged a reasonably good one dating from 1981 at just below average price. At this point, I’m going to proclaim ‘emperor’s new clothes’ and say that, while it is undoubtedly a very competent pedal, does it really deserve the unchallenged accolades above all the other competent overdrive pedals out there? Just why we guitarists spend thousands of pounds/dollars on vintage instruments and vintage valve amps and then rely on some dirt cheap solid state components to make them sound ‘better’ is beyond me. To some extent, the same goes for the Fuzz Face but at least that is a down ‘n’ dirty fuzz pedal! I understand all the well‑rehearsed arguments about compensating mid‑boost and clean low gain drive into the front end of an already cooking valve amp. Perhaps I’m missing something else obvious but I really don’t think so. I also know that it goes against the grain to defer from perceived wisdom and to test the TS‑808’s seemingly unassailable reputation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the Tube Screamer and what it does. I just believe it is somewhat overrated for the crazy market prices being asked. Anyhow, one of the green meanies is here now and is part of the growing ranks alongside other Ibanez ‘0’ and ‘9’ series pedals. At least I no longer have to keep scanning the market endlessly for a good one at a reasonable price.

1980 MXR Micro Amp

… and right back to the other end of the value scale again with a humble 1980 MXR Micro Amp. Essentially, all a boost pedal does is to increase the signal level hitting the front end of a (valve) pre‑amp, therefore not only adding a bit of volume, but also hopefully some natural compression and a bit of smooth distortion without affecting the underlying tone. Once again, there is something of a question mark about relying on a few cheap bits of electronics to make vintage gear ‘sing’. Having said that, the Micro Amp does its job perfectly well and it can be a really useful tool in the right circumstances. However, let us be clear that it is not exactly the most exhilarating or far out stomp box out there. As an idle observation, it is funny how things come round again given long enough. Outboard pre‑amp pedals are now a ‘big thing’ in the 2020s, albeit a bit more complex than this little MXR. There are many modern‑day compact pedal pre‑amps out there, including the Hudson Electronics Broadcast, Catalinbread Epoch Pre and Fredric Effects 150 Preamp. At least the unassuming little white MXR Micro Amp doesn’t take up much pedalboard space and is oh‑so simple in operation with only a single ‘Gain’ control. Like most un‑modified MXR pedals back in 1980, the Micro Amp only eats batteries for breakfast and doesn’t come with either an LED status light or DC input.

Help Needed

Vintage guitars, effects and amps need attention from time to time to keep them working at their best. While I can undertake basic maintenance, set ups and general TLC, I know that my skills are finite. I am looking for a guitar tech or luthier who can, from time to time, take on a vintage guitar and do some sympathetic remedial work, whether it involves fretwork, electrics, repairs or whatever. I’m also looking for someone who can do occasional work on effects and amps, which is basically electronics, switches, leads, soldering, etc. With over 60 vintage guitars, more than 50 vintage effects and 6 vintage amps, I need some expert help every so often. If there is someone out there with the requisite skillset for any or all of the above, and who is local to SE Cornwall in the UK, I would be interested in making a connection. Anyone interested? Please contact me at the e-mail address at the bottom of every page on the website.

Tailpiece

Actually, I think this is a good place to pause, so I’ll stop there for now. Nine guitars and five effect pedals is enough for one month.

At this point, I must stress that I did not buy any of these items as a pecuniary investment – anyone familiar with CRAVE Guitars will know that is not my motivation. However, given that savings accounts in the UK are currently offering just 0.01% interest rate, I would prefer to be broke and have great vintage guitars, amps and effects to play with and look at. The last recession that began in 2008 apparently saw 30% wiped off the value of vintage guitars, albeit temporarily. To me, it’s still a no brainer, when funds become available, eBay here I come for some vintage gear hunting. The other thing I would add is that all of the new additions are consistent with CRAVE Guitars larger strategic grand plan to conserve ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitars, amps and effects as important musical and cultural heritage. Oh, and it’s also an unhealthy obsessive addiction as well but I guess you’ve sussed that out already.

At the top of this article I mentioned that there are three themes to work through and I’ve only covered one of them. I am conscious that the ‘History of Modern Music…’ series resulted in lengthy articles and this is, compared to them, quite short. I’m also a bit fatigued by the demands of lengthy researching and writing exercises. Thus, I’ll leave the rest for future article(s). I reckon that it is best to keep these reflective articles relatively consumable. Besides, there really is no rush, is there? Are we going anywhere, anytime soon? No, I thought not.

Believe me, there is still plenty of stuff to be getting on with here at CRAVE Guitars, so I guess I’ll be getting on with stuff then. Who knows what the world will be like in the coming months. Despite the continuing stresses and challenges of COVID‑19 et al, I hope that you’ll return here in due course for your prescribed diet of diversionary diatribes. Stay home, stay safe and stay (in)sane. Remember this simple but important mantra while civilisation unravels around us, Peace, Love & Guitar Music. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “I can see where this is going because I’ve been where it went.”

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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July 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part V

Hello again and welcome back to the latest, fifth, part in the long history of the guitar, abridged and serialised for your entertainment. After the lengthy but hopefully coherent, tome of last month, I promise this one is a bit shorter and focused back on whole guitars, for easier consumption.

If you wish to recap on previous articles before starting with this part, the previous articles making up the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

The previous article (Part IV) in the series covering the guitar’s evolution looked at some essential 20th Century technological innovations without which, the electric guitar and modern music would not have evolved within the context of our current civilisation.

The artificial increase in volume provided by the pickup, amplifier and loudspeaker was important to enable the guitar to be elevated from just an accompanying instrument to a lead/solo instrument. This significant expansion in functionality proved massively popular across most non-classical musical genres and would change popular music forever. Crucially, the electric guitar provided a springboard for the musical revolution that occurred from the 1950s, fuelled first by jazz and blues and then by country and the rock ‘n’ roll ‘explosion’. At the same time, post‑war economic growth and social liberalisation in most western societies provided a fertile environment within which the electric guitar and the music it influenced could flourish. Part V explores how those key innovations were first introduced to the guitar world and then became an integral part of what would eventually become today’s musical landscape.

There were considerable challenges in turning prototypes into successful working commercial products. One of the barriers was the capability to manufacture the various elements to consistent quality in large numbers at low enough cost to match supply with demand. Another potential inhibitor was to persuade exiting dealerships and traditional musicians to adopt the new technology. One strategy was to attract big name artists to not only endorse but also to be seen using them in live performance. All of these factors were important in helping to build and then sustain long‑tem interest.

Scientific and technological progress in the first half of the 20th Century, it seems, was inevitable and unstoppable. Guitar builders were taking massive leaps of faith and the risks were great. If the new‑fangled popular music turned out to be a temporary fad or the features offered didn’t catch the consumer’s imagination then all the investment in time, effort and money would be wasted. Manufacturers had to get their products ‘just so’ in a timely fashion, so there was pressure to adapt, get the balance right and to do so within a relatively short space of time.

In hindsight, the answers to these challenges seem relatively straightforward, although it may not have seemed so at the time. As mentioned briefly in the previous part of the story there were essentially two ways to migrate from an acoustic instrument to an amplified electric one…

The first method was, perhaps, an obvious incremental approach achieved by simply adding one of the new‑fangled pickups to an existing hollow‑body acoustic instrument. The modified acoustic guitar could then simply be connected to a portable valve amplifier and speaker. This would be an attractive approach for many well‑established jazz/dance band musicians. However, the potential of this solution – at least initially – was limited by fact that that all that was happening was simply electrifying acoustic guitars. Not surprisingly, it worked for companies already producing credible archtop acoustic guitars, including, for example, Gibson.

The second method was to take a more radical approach and invent an entirely new type of instrument designed from scratch. This was technically far more difficult at the time and carried no guarantee of success. However, a bespoke approach was seen as less of a compromise and more a means of going straight to a visionary objective in one step, as well as doing so quickly without being constrained by anything that had gone before. The forward‑looking pioneers in this field believed that a purpose‑built electric guitar would appeal to a completely different audience and were prepared to take the massive risk of alienating the current generation of risk‑averse musicians in order to grow a fresh following for the new generation of guitars from a low base.

Arguably, both ways were important and both were needed in order to refine the inventions and for the best of both worlds to converge. Without these pioneering efforts, we would not have the diverse range of electric guitars (and other instruments) we have today. The following sections take a brief look at what happened to each of these seemingly opposing strategies and how successful they really were.

Generally speaking, the development of acoustic guitars had taken different courses on the eastern and western sides of the United States, so perhaps it was not surprising that the developments leading to the electric guitar also followed a rough east/west geographical split. In addition, the routes taken to get to the nirvana of the electric guitar were fundamentally different. While there were many inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs working on similar projects, this part of the story focuses on two key enterprises based in Michigan and California during the 1930s. The pace of innovation that occurred in the wake of WWII, through the late 1940s and into the 1950s will be the focus of the next part of the series.

Amplified Archtop Guitars

On the eastern(‑ish, actually the mid-west) side of America, Gibson being Gibson, felt that they were in control of their own destiny. They were intent on doing things their way and in their own time. Although Gibson was no stranger to innovation, perhaps predictably, they chose the ‘safe’ option, which was to add an electromagnetic pickup to their successful range of existing archtop guitars and then take it from there. This was seen as a simple, effective and relatively painless way of making the transition for an existing largely conservative and loyal user base to the new platform. Professional musicians, perhaps conscious of retaining their reputation and credibility could keep the look, feel and timbre of their existing instruments and just plug them into an amplifier to make them louder. While the approach was successful, as we now appreciate, the seemingly straightforward act of electrifying an acoustic instrument isn’t always ideal. Many initially sceptical professional musicians were, however, persuaded to embrace incremental change. They could retain their trusty, mostly expensive, high quality acoustic archtop guitars and also keep their expectant audiences happy.

While their upstart competitors on the west coast may have beaten Gibson to the starting gate technologically (see below), the Hawaiian lap steel market was finite and Gibson was intent on occupying what they saw as their rightful territory in the centre ground. Gibson founder, Orville Gibson had passed away in 1918, long before Gibson electric guitars became a reality. One wonders what Orville would have thought and, perhaps more intriguingly, done if faced with the same set of circumstances.

While acoustic engineer Lloyd Loar was employed at Gibson, he had experimented with electrostatic pickups in the early 1920s, although not very successfully. It would, however, take Gibson another 10 years to make their breakthrough. It fell to Gibson employee, Walter L. Fuller, who had joined the company in 1933 who was responsible for finalising the design of Gibson’s first pickups used on their electric metal‑bodied E150 lap steel guitars, introduced in 1935. The electric E150 was, like the early Rickenbacher Electro lap steel guitars, constructed from sold aluminium. To help entice early adopters, the E150 was offered with a matching E150 amp.

A year later, in May 1936, Gibson introduced their first ‘Electric Spanish’ (ES) model, the hollow body archtop ES‑150. While some may dispute the circumstances, the Gibson ES‑150 is historically significant in that it is generally regarded as the first commercially successful production electric guitar. The Gibson ES‑150 employed the same pickup as used in the previous year’s E150 lap steel. Two large 5” bar magnets were hidden under the top of the guitar, as can be seen by the triangle of mounting bolts, while the hexagonal pickup with its distinctive ‘blade’ polepiece was visible, mounted near the neck. The output jack socket was positioned unobtrusively on the side of the guitar’s lower bass bout. Otherwise, the ES‑150 was a relatively unremarkable example of familiar archtop jazz guitar design of the 1930s. Interestingly, the ES‑150 wasn’t a replacement for another Gibson model; it was a new introduction, supplementing existing instruments.

Like the E150, the ES-150 was sold with an accompanying EH‑150 amplifier and cable. The ‘150’ of its name derived from the guitar’s introductory price of $150.

Importantly for Gibson, the ES‑150 was endorsed by acclaimed jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942), which helped to popularise amplified archtop guitars not only for rhythm work but also for lead/solo playing. The distinctive black and white hexagonal pickup used in the ES-150 is still known today as the ‘Charlie Christian’ pickup and is held in high regard by aficionados, despite being very low‑powered in its original form. After 1938, Gibson redesigned the pickup so that it was more powerful – it had a notch in the polepiece below where the wound ‘B’ string would go, in order to balance the output across all 6 strings. A third variation of the pickup appeared on Gibson ES-250s from 1939, perhaps indicating that development of the pickup was ‘work‑in‑progress’.

By the end of the 1930s, Gibson’s Walter Fuller was experimenting with Alnico (aluminium, nickel and cobalt) alloy magnets in pickups. Various guitars of the early 1940s featured early versions of what would become one of Gibson’s most famous pickups, the P90. These developmental designs, used on Gibson ES-250 and ES-300 guitars, were a far cry from the familiar P90 pickups that would follow. Another early version of the P90, called the P-13, appeared on Mastertone Electric Spanish Guitars from 1940, a budget brand owned by Gibson.

Between 1943 and 1945, a substantial proportion of Gibson’s manufacturing capacity was re‑focused on supporting the American war effort. Supply of materials and tooling caused a temporary hiatus in America’s pickup, guitar and amplifier development, not only for Gibson but also for all manufacturers in the industry.

It wasn’t until 1946 that Gibson introduced the fully‑fledged single coil P.U.90, now known simply as the P90, on their ES-150 and ES-300 archtops. The P90 has become one of the company’s most famous and highly respected pickups, and a design that has endured almost unchanged over many decades. The P90 pickup was important to Gibson as it really established Gibson’s dominance in pickup design prior to the introduction of humbucking pickups. The successful P90 became a standard and effectively replaced Gibson’s earlier pickup designs. Although Gibson’s humbucking pickups were intended to replace the P90 in the 1950s, the P90 remains in production today as Gibson’s predominant single coil pickup, testament to the quality of its original design.

Once the concept of electric archtop guitars had been broadly embraced by enough mainstream guitarists, Gibson extended the use of pickups to other guitars. In 1949, Gibson released the ES-175. Like the ES‑150 before it, the model was named after its introductory price of $175. This model was important in the historical timeline because it was designed from the start to be an electric guitar, rather than an acoustic guitar with a pickup. It was also considered a cheaper guitar than Gibson’s upmarket archtops like the acoustic L5 and Super 400. Unlike its predecessors, the ES-175’s all‑hollow body was constructed from laminated boards rather than solid wood and it was the first Gibson to feature a pointed Florentine cutaway. Initially, the ES-175 came with one and then two P90 single coil pickups. By 1957, Gibson switched to their new humbucking pickups to the E‑175.

Following on from the ground breaking ES-150 and the ES-175, Gibson revisited an earlier classic creation by introducing the luxuriously appointed L5CES in 1951. The new model was based on the preceding L5 originally designed by Lloyd Loar in the 1920s. The L5CES was aimed squarely at the high end and was designed to provide the best of both worlds for discerning professional musicians. The ‘C’ stood for the single ‘cutaway’ body comprising spruce top and maple back and sides. The model was produced initially with a smoothly rounded Venetian cutaway and a pair of P90 single coil pickups, followed later by a sharply pointed Florentine cutaway and humbucking pickups. The ‘ES’ continued the ‘Electric Spanish’ nomenclature of other models. By using 2 pickups, the L5CES was intended to be used both acoustically and electrically. A notable user of the electric L5 was Scotty Moore who worked with emerging rock ‘n’ roll singer, Elvis Presley in the 1950s. There were a number of variations on the theme, including the thinline, short scale Byrdland and in the 1970s, Gibson even introduced a solid body version of the L5, called the L5S.

In 1955, Gibson introduced their first production humbucking pickup, designed by Seth Lover. Early versions of the Gibson P.U.490 humbucker have become known as PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups, while ones produced after their patent was awarded in 1959 are known as ‘Patent No.’ pickups. Succeeding versions of the Gibson humbucker right up to the current day have built on the foundations of these early, now legendary, pickups. As they had done in the 1930s, Gibson launched their new pickup first on lap steel guitars in 1956 before phasing them in to replace P90s on the aforementioned ES‑175.

It wasn’t long before PAF humbuckers were used on many Gibson guitars. Unsurprisingly, they also began to appear in the company’s (relatively) new solid body gold top Les Paul Model and black Les Paul Custom guitars from 1957 as well as on the all‑new semi‑acoustic ES‑335 from 1958. However, that’s getting ahead of this particular part of the story. Fortunately for Gibson, their humbucking pickups proved highly successful across all types of electric guitar and have long since become an industry standard, with many 3rd party pickup suppliers creating their own versions. Even the original Charlie Christian pickups are now being replicated for enthusiasts of the unique sound they produced.

There have, perhaps obviously, been plenty of other electric archtop guitars over the intervening years from a wide range of manufacturers across the globe. While this part of the story recognises this diversity, it cannot do justice to the proliferation of instruments on the market today. Needless to say, many of today’s designs have been inspired by the few milestone instruments mentioned here. Arguably, progress would have taken place anyway, even without these key instruments. However, the guitars covered above are particularly notable in historical terms not necessarily because they were the first or the best but because of the part they have played in the overall heritage.

Again in hindsight, the addition of one or more pickups to an existing acoustic guitar may seem to be an obvious option. However, at the time, it was a significant development by a company that was known for combining innovation with traditionalism. It was a strategic decision by Gibson that achieved that clever balancing act, innovating while preserving their reputation and sustaining their user base during a time of major industry and social change.

When the time came to introduce their own range of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, Gibson already had plenty of experience under their belt to make informed decisions about what would and what wouldn’t work. It is not surprising that other manufacturers followed suit and the electric archtop guitars became mainstream until the 1950s.

The electric archtop guitar proved extremely popular with traditional guitarists looking to continue using archtop jazz guitars while also enjoying the benefits of greater volume provided by amplification. After a commercial nadir in the late 20th Century, archtop electric designs have also proved exceedingly dependable and many models remain popular to the current day, and will probably now endure well into the instrument’s future.

 

The Early Solid Body Electric Guitar

Possibly the main individual associated with the rather awkward birth of the electric solid body guitar was Adolph Rickenbacher (1886‑1976). Shortly after he was born in Basel, Switzerland, Richenbacher emigrated to America in 1891 with relatives following the death of his parents. After settling initially in Wisconsin, Adolph moved to California in 1918. In 1925, he set up the Rickenbacher Manufacturing Company, a tool and die business manufacturing metal and plastic products in Los Angeles.

To begin with, Rickenbacher spelled his family surname with an ‘h’, rather than the ‘k’ we are familiar with today. Rickenbacher later changed his surname, partly to ‘Anglicise’ it and partly to capitalise on the fame of his cousin and WWI flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker.

Alongside Rickenbacher, the other key person was none other than George Beauchamp, the Texan Vaudeville entertainer and inventor who had already played such a major part in the development of resonator acoustic guitars with the National String Instrument Corporation in the 1920s. In addition to pioneering resonator guitars (see Part III), Beauchamp had been experimenting with pickups and amplified instruments since the mid‑1920s but with little success (see Part IV).

Perhaps ironically, during the late 1920s, Rickenbacher’s company was manufacturing metal resonator guitar bodies for National, so perhaps it is not surprising that Beauchamp and Rickenbacher’s paths should cross. Rickenbacher was even a shareholder in National. According to some commentators, it was Beauchamp’s involvement with Rickenbacher that possibly precipitated the former’s ultimate departure from the newly merged National Dobro Corporation in around 1934.

Beauchamp’s quest for greater guitar volume had led him to explore the idea of using an electromagnetic pickup to create a signal and an amplifier to produce volume. Like many before him, Beauchamp was driven to prove the concept in a practical way and he was largely successful. Beauchamp had started designing pickups and ideas for an electric guitar while still at National and in collaboration with another National employee, Paul Barth. Beauchamp and Barth’s first successful pickup design comprised a pair of U‑shaped magnets arranged in a ‘horseshoe’ shape that housed the pickup’s wire coil and surrounded the guitar’s strings.

In October 1931, Rickenbacher, Beauchamp, Barth and a number of others became business partners and founded the Ro‑Pat‑In Corporation (short for Electro‑Patent‑Instruments), based in Los Angeles. Ro‑Pat‑In’s stated goal was to produce fully electric musical instruments. Their prototype Hawaiian electric guitar from c.1931 exhibited many of the features of the eventual production model, although it was mainly constructed from wood. This was not an acoustic guitar in any shape or form, so it had to function as an electric instrument from the outset.

Ro‑Pat‑In became the first company to design and manufacture a production solid bodied electric guitar in 1932, way before Gibson. Finally, albeit in embryonic form, the fully electric guitar had finally arrived. These early guitars were, perhaps unkindly, nicknamed ‘frying pans’ because of their distinctive shape, comprising small circular bodies, long necks and all-metal construction. The guitar comprised a circular cast aluminium body and neck and incorporated the all‑important ‘horseshoe’ pickup and a volume control.

Wisely, Ro-Pat-In changed its unwieldy name to Electro String Instrument Corporation in 1933. Confusingly, early instruments appeared with the ‘Electro’ (and even ‘Elektro’) name. Even more confusingly, the company used the Rickenbacher spelling inconsistently until it finally became Rickenbacker from around 1950.

Following the name change, the ‘frying pan’ became the Rickenbacher Electro A-22. The profile of the instrument was heightened by steel guitarist Jack Miller who played a ‘Frying Pan’ with Orville Knapp (1904-1936) and his orchestra from 1934. Although he was little‑known at the time, Miller may possibly be able to lay claim to being one of the first artists to popularise the electric guitar.

As previously covered in Part IV of the story, Beauchamp’s 1934 patent application for an ‘electrical stringed musical instrument’ incorporating an electromagnetic pickup was finally awarded in April 1937. The intervening 3‑year period allowed enterprising competitors to take advantage of the new technology and create their own versions. Rickenbacher made a conscious decision not to defend their patent in the courts, thereby effectively opening up the market to competition.

Aluminium often caused tuning problems under demanding stage conditions, so Rickenbacher also experimented with other materials, including plastic and wood. From 1935, Electro released the influential Model B Hawaiian lap steel guitar. The Model B was notable for being made from cast Bakelite, a form of synthetic plastic invented in 1907 by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland (1863-1944) in New York. Model B guitars were originally produced with a single volume control and five decorative chrome panels before models from the late 1930s featured volume and tone controls with white enamelled panels.

Richenbacher and Beauchamp recognised that the market for lap steel guitars was relatively small and there were other opportunities to be exploited. From 1932, Rickenbacker also went on to design more traditional ‘Electro Spanish’ guitars with conventionally‑shaped acoustic wood bodies, f‑holes, a slotted headstock and neck to body join at the 14th fret. By 1935, guitarist and early endorsee Ken Roberts was honoured with a ‘signature’ model that had a neck to body join at the 17th fret, featured a vibrato tailpeice and was the first electric Spanish‑style guitar to have a 25½” scale neck.

Like the ‘frying pans’ before them, both the Model B and the Electro Spanish guitars used the distinctive ‘horseshoe’ pickup. In addition to guitars, Rickenbacher Electro used their expertise to develop other electric instruments including mandolins, violins, cellos and even a harp. To accompany their electric guitars and to make them usable, Rickenbacher Electro also produced guitar amplifiers.

Timing of these guitar developments wasn’t ideal and market conditions were challenging for Rickenbacher. Electro String’s instruments appeared shortly after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, an event that initiated the Great Depression, a major worldwide downturn that persisted until the late 1930s. Coincidentally, during the 1930s, global political tensions started to increase culminating in the outbreak of WWII. Most of America’s industrial concerns were focused on supporting the war effort for several years and the ensuing recovery was slow. The impact on the uptake of electric guitars during depression‑era America was significant, particularly in rural areas. Despite the difficulties, Electro String Instrument Corporation persevered and had produced over 2,500 ‘frying pans’ by the time the company stopped making them in 1939.

After all his vision, ambition, creativity and drive, George Beauchamp became disillusioned with the direction in which things were moving and he left Rickenbacker in 1940 to follow other pursuits, including his passion for deep sea fishing. Beauchamp died of a heart attack while on a fishing trip near Los Angeles in 1941 at the age of just 42. Beauchamp was largely unrecognised at the time for his many significant contributions to guitar evolution.

Following Beauchamp’s departure, Rickenbacker continued making musical instruments until 1953 when he sold the company to Californian businessman Francis Cary Hall. After the sale, the Rickenbacker company embarked on a whole new era of guitar building and commercial success under Hall’s leadership. Adolph Rickenbacker died in 1976 as a result of cancer in California at the age of 89. The company he founded in 1931 continues to thrive and still bears his name (complete with its ‘k’) today as the Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC).

End of Part V

This moment seems like another ideal stopping point, albeit covering a fairly short period of intense guitar evolution in the 1930s. Together, Gibson’s and Rickenbacker’s milestone innovations had bridged that all‑important gap between the guitar’s acoustic history and the introduction of commercially produced modern solid body electric guitars in the 1950s. From this watershed point on, nothing in the music world would ever be quite the same again.

It is the emergence of the modern electric guitar, and particularly the now‑familiar solid‑body guitar, as we know it that will be picked up in Part VI. The fascinating battle between industry stalwart Gibson and new‑kid‑on‑the‑block Fender was about to take place. Fender and Gibson started fighting for market supremacy in the 1950s and are still doing so today.

I hope you enjoyed this part of the guitar’s story and trust that you’ll come back for the next exciting instalment – same time, same channel, next month (hopefully!). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Failure may not be an option but the risk of failure is something that most of us have to work damn hard to avoid at all costs.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

Here we are again with the 3rd in a series of articles telling the long story of the guitar. Part I (→ read here) started over 3,500 years ago, emerging in the Middle East and gradually developing before dispersing across continental Europe and Asia. Eventually, the embryonic guitar found a home in Europe during the early Renaissance where it began to exhibit the characteristics and features that we recognise today. Part II (→ read here) expanded on the humble beginnings and evolved the acoustic instrument into a (generally) standardised form that we are familiar with, as well as focusing on some key 19th Century innovations in acoustic guitar design. This instalment looks at key 20th Century developments that will ultimately lead to the widespread introduction of the electric guitar.

The story from c.1900 is not only reasonably well-documented elsewhere but also fairly involved, so the pace slows compared to previous parts and also becomes richer in content. I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in guitar heritage to explore the hinterwebby thing for further information, along with all the usual caveats about the accuracy and believability of what’s out there.

Modern Era (1900-present)

At the end of the 19th and during the early part of the 20th Century, before the introduction of the electric guitar, musicians sought ever‑louder instruments, leading to various creative adaptations to the basic construction of the acoustic guitar. While the acoustic guitar continued to be popular for classical and traditional folk music, many guitarists were struggling to be heard as the trend for ensemble, ‘big band’ or swing orchestras became popular at the time. The issue with volume in a group context meant that the guitar essentially became consigned to a rhythm, rather than lead role, especially when competing with percussion and horns. In order to adapt to demand, a radically new approach to guitar design was needed. Thus, the fundamental divergence from traditional nylon strung classical and steel-strung acoustic ‘folk’ guitars had begun.

Guitars at the beginning of the 20th Century were, though, still entirely acoustic instruments. However, two key innovations were about to take place in America that would bridge the gap from acoustic to amplified electric guitars, which would began to appear in the 1930s. The first development involved the emergence of the acoustic archtop guitar on the east coast while, on the west coast, the second invention to appear was that of the resonator guitar.

Guitars weren’t the only ubiquitous chordophones at the start of the 20th Century; far from it. The mandolin, banjo, harp and violin also had periods of great popularity and fashion. However, it was during the first quarter of the 1900s that the guitar started its elevation from just another part of a band or orchestra into being the pre‑eminent instrument it is today. Arguably, in addition to the standardisation of classical and steel strung acoustic guitars, it was the introduction of archtop and resonator guitars that contributed towards that success. As is often the case in these matters, the path to success was more complicated than it seems at first and it would be far from a smooth transition with many pitfalls along the way.

Acoustic Archtop Guitars

The acoustic archtop guitar incorporated some of the basic components of the steel string acoustic guitar with a body style that bore some design and construction similarities with classical orchestral stringed instruments. An archtop guitar may be defined as, a stringed musical instrument with a convex curved top, formed either by carving a solid piece of tone wood or by heating a sheet of laminated wood in order to  mould it into the curved shape.

Most flat top acoustic guitars up to the end of the 19th Century used a single integrated bridge/tailpiece mounted to the surface of the top soundboard, meaning that the strings exert not only significant horizontal pull but also lift because of torque. In order to prevent the bridge from lifting and/or twisting, particularly with the greater tension required by metal strings, the thin flat acoustic soundboard required strong internal bracing. Heavily braced tops had the effect of reducing resonant vibrations and inhibiting overall volume. One solution was to make guitars bigger, an approach used by C.F. Martin in the 1930s with the introduction of the company’s sizeable X-braced D-series dreadnoughts, as covered in the previous part of this series of articles. Archtop guitars took an entirely different approach.

Unlike acoustic guitars, most orchestral stringed instruments had a long history of using a carved arched top featuring a separate moveable bridge and fixed tailpiece. The main advantage of using separate structures is that they serve different functions. The non-adjustable tailpiece is used to anchor the strings at that end of the instrument and deals only with the longitudinal stresses caused by string tension. The separate ‘floating’ bridge (meaning that it was not fixed and could be repositioned if needed) supports the strings and is used only to control string height (action) and intonation. The solid carved top of the soundboard was arched upward, as on a violin or cello, in order to counteract the downward pressure that the strings exerted on the bridge, thus providing a stable and resonant structure. The major benefit of this type of design is that it needs less internal bracing which allows the instrument’s soundboard to vibrate more freely, thereby producing a noticeably louder sound.

It was therefore not really surprising that, at some point, enterprising guitar builders would seek to exploit some of the characteristics of other instruments and incorporate the best of these into guitar design. While there may have been numerous examples of experimentation before this time, the enduring convergence of classical stringed instrument construction and acoustic guitar design resulted in the advent of the acoustic archtop guitar from the beginning of the 20th Century.

The Rise of Gibson Guitars

Although not the only innovator in guitar design at the turn of the 19th Century, certainly one of the key pioneers that popularised early archtop guitars was American luthier Orville H. Gibson (1856-1918), who was born in Chateaugay, New York. Gibson started making mandolins in his home workshop in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1894 as ‘O.H. Gibson, Manufacturer, Musical Instruments’.

Gibson himself was, by all accounts, somewhat unconventional, being described as an obsessive, eccentric genius as well as an extreme perfectionist. He apparently held other, more traditional, instrument makers of the time in contempt and he was determined to do things differently and in his own way. Orville Gibson, the person, remains somewhat of an enigma and appears to have suffered from mental illness throughout his life, spending several periods in mental institutions before his death in a psychiatric asylum in New York.

Gibson started out by adapting European violin designs for use in mandolins and then, subsequently, guitars. By 1897, Gibson had made his first hollow archtop guitar with a relatively thick carved solid wood top, back and sides, cello style tailpiece, floating bridge and steel strings. His early designs retained the traditional acoustic guitar sound hole, although oval in shape. He used spruce wood for the top for its resonance and maple for back and sides for strength and density. Unlike traditional flat top acoustic guitars of the time, Gibson’s archtop guitars did not use internal bracing, as he felt this would hamper both volume and tone. When played hard, Gibson’s relatively un‑stressed design was more capable of projecting the loud, bright and ‘percussive’ acoustic volume that guitarists were seeking at the time.

Orville Gibson submitted his only patent application in 1895 for an archtop mandolin design (also applicable to the guitar), which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in February 1898. The patent covered archtop construction comprising carved, tops and sides cut from solid wood, rather than the acoustic guitar’s braced flat top and bent wood sides. While earlier guitar/mandolin patents by James S. Back in 1893 and A.H. Merrill in 1896 may lay claim to the first archtop designs, it was Gibson that converted his own visionary concepts into a successful business enterprise.

On 11 October 1902, Orville Gibson, along with five local business partners founded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. in Kalamazoo. The company soon started building archtop guitars using the techniques Gibson had patented for the mandolin. However, Gibson was paid a $2,500 lump sum and monthly income to step back from day-to-day business where his overt, pedantic idiosyncrasies tended to affect production.

While the Gibson F-2 mandolin was a major milestone in the instrument’s history and is now considered a classic landmark design, mandolins generally were beginning to lose favour with musicians. In addition, Gibson had initially followed the trend for tenor banjos in the late 1910s before guitars became the mainstay of the business. Gibson was also known to make complex but not widely used harp guitars, such as the Style U.

Gibson’s Style 0 archtop guitar design proved better suited to the jazz and swing orchestras of the time than the flat top acoustic guitar. As a result, Gibson guitars became very popular in the early part of the 20th Century up to the 1920s, particularly amongst the jazz fraternity. The Style 0 archtop, which retained the oval sound hole beneath the strings, is often referred to as the direct precursor to the archetypal jazz acoustic archtops that followed. The hand‑carved guitars were, however, very resource intensive to build, so supply fell short of demand and there was a growing need for an instrument that was quicker, easier and cheaper to build.

Orville Gibson finally left the company he founded in 1916 to live in upstate New York until his death in 1918 at the age of 62.

In the same year, 1918, composer, musician and engineer, Lloyd Loar (1886-1943) was hired by the Gibson company as acoustic consultant and advisor. After a break to entertain WWI troops in Europe, Loar re-joined Gibson in 1919. Loar went on to design many of the company’s new instruments in an attempt to turn around disappointing sales. While Loar wasn’t a luthier by trade, he led a design and construction revolution at the company during the 1920s, growing the company’s enviable reputation for building fine professional guitars, mandolins and other stringed-fretted instruments.

One of Loar’s first and best‑known guitar designs, released in 1923, was the Gibson L5 ‘Master Model’. The L5 is widely recognised as the first commercially produced ‘jazz’ guitar. In 1923, the L5 featured all the fundamental characteristics that we recognize in a ‘jazz’ guitar; a carved archtop fully hollow body, separate tailpiece and floating bridge, etc. It was also the first commercial archtop guitar to employ f‑holes that are now synonymous with the style of guitar. The L5’s neck incorporated other innovations, including an adjustable truss rod, designed to counteract string tension, and the body used an adjustable bridge to set the height of the strings above the fingerboard. These key improvements enabled guitars to become more streamlined and therefore easier to play. The L5 was a trendsetter and gained a strong following in the jazz community. Early adopters included the popular guitarist Eddie Lang, comedian/singer George Gobel, and jazz virtuoso guitarist Wes Montgomery.

The L5 is now considered to have been pivotal in acoustic archtop guitar design. As if to evidence its standing, the perennial L5 remains in production well into the 21st Century, proving the soundness of Loar’s original concept. Lloyd Loar did not stay long at Gibson, leaving in 1924. During the 1920s and 1930s, Gibson became the leading manufacturer of archtop guitars. The perennial Gibson L5 will resurface again later in the guitar’s story.

Gibson archtop guitars remain in production today, including some faithful reproductions and improvements on the classic designs that began in the 1920s.

The Competition

Gibson wasn’t alone in the market and its competitors included Stromberg, Epiphone, Gretsch and Hofner were also making high quality instruments. In addition, from 1932, American luthier John D’Angelico (1905-1964) started producing very fine archtop guitars from his workshop in New York City. In 1965, his apprentice of 12 years, Jimmy D’Aquisto (1935-1995) took over D’Angelico’s work and continued to produce fine acoustic archtop guitars after his master had passed away. Original examples of these guitars are seen by many to represent the pinnacle of the jazz guitar era.

In order to provide ever‑increasing demand for volume, the size of archtop guitar bodies increased from the 16” L5 up to 18” or even 19” measured across the lower bout. Gibson’s reaction to competition was to produce one of the brand’s most famous archtop guitars, the classic Super 400 in 1935.

Arguably, classic archtop guitar designs provided a strong link between traditional steel strung acoustic guitars, through hybrids (electric archtops) to the emergence of later solid body electric guitars. The introduction of electric archtop guitars in the mid‑1930s enabled the transition from acoustic to electric guitars and is covered later in the story.

With the widespread uptake of electric guitars allied to the massive growth of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s, the pure archtop guitar with its strong jazz association struggled to remain popular. Manufacture and sale of archtop guitars fell dramatically and suffered a nadir in the 1990s. However, in the 21st Century, many guitarists are rediscovering the aesthetic and sonic qualities of classic ‘jazz boxes’. Sales of new archtop guitars have picked up due to a new generation of musicians either seeking an alternative to mainstream instruments or wishing to recreate the sights and sounds of the past with a degree of authenticity.

Many current‑day archtop guitars incorporate pickups to make them more usable in contemporary situations. Modern manufacturing processes including CNC machines used to carve the tops also help to reduce cost and make archtop guitars relatively affordable. Alternatives to solid wood are also abundant today, including the use of formed laminates to create the curved tops.

Acoustic Resonator Guitars

While the concept of archtop guitars was one response to the need for louder instruments a discrete branch of guitar evolution was taking place on the west coast of the U.S.A. In the time before amplified guitars, manufacturers had to respond to the demand for greater acoustic volume during the golden ‘jazz age’ of the ‘roaring twenties’. This particular alternative to the archtop guitar is broadly categorised as the resophonic or resonator guitars. Hereafter they are called simply resonator guitars for brevity.

A resonator guitar in this context is still a hollow acoustic guitar. Resonator guitars differ from previous designs because of the way that mechanical string vibrations are transferred not to the guitar’s sound board but via the guitar’s bridge to one or more spun metal cones incorporated within the guitar’s body. It is these resonating metal cones that produce a louder sound than the traditional wooden sound boards of flat top or archtop acoustic guitars. Musicians also favoured the flexibility of resonator guitars over banjos, which were popular in the early part of the 20th Century.

The unique construction of resonator guitars also produced a very distinctive thin, bright, metallic sound with little sustain, very different from other acoustic guitars. The distinctive resonator sounds were adopted by blues, bluegrass and country guitarists of the time and have produced many of the characteristic sounds of rural American music over many decades, especially when played with a bottleneck slide. It should be noted that, while resonator guitars are widely associated with the blues, and particularly with Mississippi delta blues guitarists, they have been used in a diverse range of musical genres.

General resonator guitar designs tend to fall into two separate types: square-neck Hawaiian lap steel resonators tend to be played horizontally with a slide and round‑neck resonators that can be played either horizontally, lap-steel fashion, or conventionally. The height of the strings above the fingerboard varies considerably depending on whether the guitars are used for slide, hybrid or regular fingerstyle use. In addition to lap‑steel and Spanish‑style guitars, resonators have been used in many diverse instruments including, ukuleles, banjos, basses and mandolins. Resonator guitars remain popular today, principally for their unique sound and the musical styles they inspired. English guitarist, Mark Knopfler’s iconic 1937 National Style 0 resonator was famously featured on the sleeve of their classic studio album, ‘Brothers In Arms’ (1985).

Some famous guitarists are associated with resonator guitars, including Tampa Red, Son House, Bukka White, Bo Carter and Blind Boy Fuller.

The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

Probably, the most significant contributor to the development of the resonator guitar was a Slovakian immigrant to the U.S., John Dopyera (1893–1988). The Dopyera family moved to California in 1908 and John followed in his father’s footsteps, starting a business in the 1920s making and repairing musical instruments.

The crucial catalyst in resonator progress was provided by a Texan Vaudeville performer and musical experimenter, George Beauchamp (1899-1941). Once Beauchamp (his surname was pronounced ‘Beechum’) had moved to California, he approached John Dopyera in 1925 to design a guitar loud enough for use in a dance orchestra. Beauchamp had seen examples of some sort of external megaphone‑style horn arrangement to project a guitar’s volume. Dopyera’s initial prototype, involving a stand‑mounted amplifying horn proved far too bulky and was considered a failure. Undaunted, Dopyera and Beauchamp’s creative solution was to invent the resonator guitar.

Recognising the potential of the new resonator guitar design, John Dopyera and George Beauchamp founded the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927, based in Los Angeles, California to manufacture resonator guitars and other instruments under the National brand.

National’s first major instrument was a metal‑bodied guitar using three inward‑pointing suspended spun aluminium cones connected by a metal T‑shaped bracket to the bridge. The arrangement was, perhaps unsurprisingly, called a ‘Tricone’. String vibrations were acoustically amplified by the cones, acting like passive loudspeakers, giving the guitar its distinctive resonator sound. Dopyera filed a patent application for the Tricone design in April 1927, granted in December 1929. The ground breaking early National Tricone resonator guitars from the late 1920s are now highly collectable. The first engraved metal bodies were made of copper and zinc alloy (often called ‘German silver’ or ‘white brass’) before changing to traditional brass which was cheaper and more plentiful, then finally to steel.

1939 National Tricone Resonator

John Dopyera was concerned about the manufacturing cost and retail price of the complicated tricone design and proposed a cheaper, simpler single cone alternative. When the new design was presented to National’s board, it was rejected. His new single-cone design comprised an arrangement where the strings passed over a bridge that sat on a small circular wooden mounting disc (called a ‘biscuit’) that was in turn attached to the apex of the inward‑pointing spun metal cone. Although it wasn’t taken up at the time, Beauchamp, through National, went on to patent Dopyera’s single cone ‘biscuit’ resonator design, filed in March 1929 and granted in June 1931.

John Dopyera, having become frustrated by National’s internal politics, left the company in 1928. Crucially, to keep his options open, Dopyera remained a major shareholder in National. Along with his four brothers (Rudy, Emile, Robert and Louis), John Dopyera founded the Dobro Manufacturing Company to compete with National. The Dobro name comprises the ‘Do’ from the family’s surname and ‘bro’ as a contraction of ‘brothers’. The term ‘dobro’ has over the years come to be used as a generic term in common parlance when talking about single resonator guitars. Conveniently, and perhaps intentionally, the word dobro also means ‘good’ in Slovakian, leading directly to the company’s early motto using a play on words, “Dobro means good in any language”.

As National owned the resonator patents to-date, early Dobro resonator guitars had to differ from the single cone design made by National. The new Dobro guitars used a wooden body and a single inverted (outward‑facing) resonator cone with guitar strings passing over a bridge attached to an 8-legged cast aluminium ‘spider’ (resembling a spider’s web) that in turn was attached to points around the edge of the spun metal cone. Unlike the National single cone design, the Dobro cone projects outwards, thereby increasing volume. Dobro filed a patent in February 1932 for Rudi Dopyera’s resonator design, which was granted in February 1933. National objected to Dobro’s resonator design, resulting in several contested law suits between National and Dobro, which lasted for several years.

The advantage for guitarists was that the Dobro was both louder and considerably cheaper than the complex and costly National Tricone design. In addition, Dobro cleverly licensed their designs to brands such as Regal to extend their reach into an eager customer base. National responded to competition from Dobro by introducing their lower cost resonators, the Triolian in 1928 and Duolian in 1930. Also in 1930, National released their nickel-plated, steel‑bodied, round necked Style 0 resonator guitars, which featured Hawaiian scenes sandblasted into the guitar’s finish and are now considered iconic. In an attempt to cover all bases, both companies also produced resonator mandolins.

In 1932, with National in financial difficulty, the Dopyera brothers secured a controlling interest in both National and Dobro companies. The companies subsequently merged in 1934 to form the National Dobro Corporation, thereby ending the feud and eliminating the fierce competition between the two. Beauchamp was fired by the new company for his involvement with newcomers, Rickenbacker, who were developing new ideas for electric guitars. The National Dobro Corporation moved operations to Chicago in 1936 where it manufactured resonator guitars until it ceased production in 1941, shortly after America entered World War II. Aluminium was needed to support America’s war effort, making the raw material for resonator cones scarce and the demand for tooling machinery high.

Post-War Resonator Guitars

The remnants of the pre‑WWII National Dobro Corporation were later reorganised to become Valco in 1942, which eventually reintroduced resonator guitars under the National brand in the early 1960s. American company Mosrite bought the Dobro brand in 1966 before going bankrupt themselves in 1969. A new company, National Reso‑Phonic Guitars was formed in 1989, based in California, to produce resonator guitars based on original pre‑war designs as well as some all-new designs, including electro-acoustic resonator guitars.

Taking a different direction altogether, Emile and Rudy Dopyera formed the Original Musical Instrument Company (OMI), based in California in 1967 to make resonator guitars using the brand name Hound Dog. In 1970, OMI secured the Dobro brand name from the bankrupt Mosrite, which meant the Dopyera family could once again manufacture Dobro guitars using their original name. OMI was subsequently acquired by The Gibson Guitar Corporation in 1993 and they currently produce Dobro branded resonators, including Dobro Hound Dog budget models through their Epiphone operation in China. In an attempt to secure the heritage, Gibson has stated that they will defend their exclusive right to use the Dobro name.

While many variations of resonator guitars have been manufactured by a large number of companies over the years, National and Dobro, along with Dobro-licensed Regal, are the names most associated with pre‑WWII resonator production. The influence and legacy of these brands is significant in historical terms and 21st Century popularity of resonator guitars suggests that they are here to stay with a bright future ahead. Many modern resonators now incorporate either electro‑magnetic or piezo‑electric pickups, enabling them to be amplified, just like other electric guitars, while retaining their distinctive acoustic tone. Given the reason why resonators were invented in the first place – to increase acoustic volume – the concept of electric resonators seems a touch ironic today.

End of Part III

I will stop at this juncture, just before the dawn of the electric guitar. In terms of the overall amount of material, Parts I-III cover about half the story I have to tell.

I must mention that this part of the story proved particularly convoluted and I apologise if it comes across confusingly. It was a major challenge to untangle the web of misinformation and distil a meaningful chronological narrative. I hope that you are able to make some sense of the various interweaving threads. The information for the next part proved even more tortuous and I’m still trying to simplify and condense it for the serial article format. As with previous parts, I am happy to amend any factual errors that may well have crept into the timeline thus far.

Before we get back to the next decisive milestones in the guitar’s long story, Part IV will be both a temporary and necessary diversion from the core subject matter. The next episode focuses on two key innovations upon which the electric guitar is entirely dependent. You will have to wait a while to see what unfolds. There is a great deal of background material to wade through, so it will be a challenge to cut down the full version in order to keep the story moving. However, once that contextual reference material is in place, the modern electric guitar in all its splendour can finally be unleashed, hopefully in Part V and thereafter.

Thank you or looking in. As interesting as the story may be, it’s now time for me to stop typing and get back to more important matters; playing (vintage) guitars. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Dancing, even in silence, is literally the embodiment of music.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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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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