August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI

Hello again, guitar history fans and welcome to August 2018’s article in the series on the history of the guitar. There is no point in beating about the bush, it’s time to dive right back in where we left off last month with the birth, and now – to extend the analogy – the growth of the electric guitar from early years to adolescent hood.

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

The Modern Solid Body Electric Guitar

This part of the guitar’s story covers the period of fundamental and rapid innovation as well as pragmatic entrepreneurialism that starts around the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period of intense creativity that would come to define the modern electric guitar. Once the essential foundations were laid by Rickenbacker, Gibson and a few others, the popularity of the guitar was about to explode.

Since the time of the guitar ‘big bang’, instruments would continue to be improved and refined; an incremental process that continues unabated up to the current day. However, nothing like the level of creativity that heralded the ‘dawn’ of the electric guitar era. It was the start of a so‑called ‘golden era’ that would last about 15 years.

While acoustic guitars continued to develop after the 1930s, they were just about as loud as they were going to get without some form of amplification. Electric archtop and early solid body electric guitars had started the ball rolling during the first half of the 1930s and guitarists were buying into the increasing trend for electric guitars of one sort or another.

While not alone in influencing guitar development, today’s ‘big two’ companies – Fender and Gibson – have between them, been responsible for, or at last instrumental (sic!) in, many of the major innovations and landmark electric guitars since the 1950s. Therefore, the focus here is predominantly, but not exclusively, on the contribution from these two major manufacturers.  Much credit though is due to the vast number of other guitar builders – way too many to mention them all by name – that have played their part in developing the musical landscape over the decades, and which we enjoy today. Without their competition to keep the ‘big two’ on their toes, the quality and price equation might have gone too far in opposite directions. Thankfully, there is no monopoly in the guitar market – far from it in fact – and that fact, as it turns out, is a very good thing for musicians all over the world.

However, before the story moves on to Fender and then Gibson, we need to take a short diversion before getting back on track…

Bigsby Guitars

No history of the formation of the electric guitar would be complete without some mention of Paul Adelburt Bigsby (1899-1968). P.A. Bigsby was a motorcycle racer, inventor, designer and builder based in California. Bigsby has often been quoted as saying confidently, “I can build anything”.

Historically, Bigsby might be better known for his iconic Bigsby vibrato systems. Less well known is that Bigsby was also responsible for pioneering solid body electric guitars as well as for revolutionising pedal steel guitars.

Bigsby collaborated with lap steel guitarist Earl ‘Joaquin’ Murphey (1923-1999) of Spade Cooley’s orchestra in the 1940s. Murphey helped to persuade Bigsby to start making guitars in the first place, in around 1946/1947. Bigsby built Murphey several steel guitars by 1947, with two or three necks. Murphey’s successor in Cooley’s band, another steel guitarist called Speedy West (1924-2003), not wishing to be outdone, also commissioned Bigsby to build him a custom pedal steel guitar in 1948.

Around the same time, successful country and western artist and good friend, Merle Travis (1917-1983) asked Bigsby to fix a wayward vibrato on his Gibson L-10 guitar. Bigsby subsequently went on to build a complete solid body electric guitar for Travis, based on a sketch Travis had made. Travis’s Bigsby guitar attracted a lot of attention and other artists queued up for Bigsby to make further custom guitars, including for acclaimed session guitarist with the ‘Nashville A-Team’, Grady Martin (1921‑2001).

Bigsby’s guitar designs not only seem familiar, but also seem well ahead of their time for 1948, especially when compared to anything else on the market. The Bigsby Merle Travis guitar has a single cutaway body not dissimilar to Gibson’s Les Paul models and a neck/headstock outline that bears a notable resemblance to Fender’s Stratocaster. Bigsby’s design predated both the Les Paul (1952) and the Stratocaster (1954) by several years. Many have contended that Gibson and Fender plagiarised, rather than simply being influenced by, Bigsby’s original designs. Hindsight provides the opportunity to speculate but the truth is shrouded in idle debate and misinformation.

Partly because he wanted to make most of the parts himself, Bigsby only produced a very small number of finished custom‑built instruments up until 1956, where after he concentrated on the vibrato business. However, as his guitars never entered full production, his legacy consists of a few unique examples of his craftsmanship. Unfortunately, Bigsby kept no records of his creations. The company he founded undertook extensive research and can document 47 steel guitars and only 6 standard guitars, along with a few other custom instruments surviving to the current day. Others may yet come to light at some point to be authenticated.

Bigsby’s name is now synonymous with his ubiquitous vibrato tailpieces, which have adorned countless guitars since the 1950s. Bigsby sensibly filed a patent for his ‘tailpiece vibrato’ in November 1952, which was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in March 1953. The rest, as ‘they’ say, is history.

When his health started to fail, Bigsby sold his company to retired Gibson president Ted McCarty in 1966. Paul Bigsby died 2 years later in 1968 at the age of 68. Subsequently, Gretsch bought the Bigsby enterprise from McCarty in 1999. Bigsby Guitars is now making limited edition guitars under the patronage of Gretsch.

Many of those aware of Bigsby’s pioneering work feel that he should be given greater credit for his contribution to guitar history. One might only wonder at the course of modern guitar history had Bigsby capitalised on his creative designs. Bigsby may have been first in a lot of areas but it was other companies that catered for the market and it is the commercial success brought about by mass production which is where the story then continues.

Fender Solid Body Electric Guitars

Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) was an electrical engineer by trade. He started out in business as Fender Radio Service in 1938, repairing radios, phonographs and valve amplifiers. Recognising the growing demand for his skills from the music industry, Fender looked to use his growing expertise in that area. Along with business partner and former Rickenbacker employee Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, Fender co‑founded the short‑lived K&F Manufacturing Corp in 1945. K&F’s intention was to manufacture musical instruments and amplifiers, including lap steel guitars that were particularly popular at the time.

By 1946, Fender had parted ways with Kauffman and established the Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. The company, known to most simply as Fender, has become one of the pre‑eminent and most widely recognised manufacturers of electric guitars, basses and amplifiers in the world. Historically, Fender is particularly important because of its ground breaking role in making electric instruments and amps accessible to mass markets eager for the new‑fangled technology in the 1950s.

Leo Fender’s vision had less to do with building small numbers of bespoke instruments and more to do with commercial large‑scale manufacture of instruments using tried and tested production methods. Fender wanted the electric guitar to be straightforward to manufacture as well as easy to service and maintain. Leo Fender asked George William Fullerton (1923-2009) to join the company in 1948. Fullerton’s appointment was important, as he would become a long‑term business associate not only at Fender but also in subsequent post‑Fender enterprises, including Music Man and G&L (an acronym standing for George & Leo).

Even though Fender had introduced amplifiers in 1947, Fender’s business began focusing on guitar designs and in c.1949 the company started making prototypes of what would eventually become the iconic Telecaster. The early prototypes used a body largely designed by George Fullerton. The first prototype exhibited a 3‑a‑side lap steel‑style headstock, while the second attempt looked more Fender‑like. Both prototype headstock designs bore a similarity to those seen on Bigsby’s guitars.

Fender offered the first mass-produced Spanish-style solid-body electric guitar to the public in 1950. The initial few guitars were single pickup models called the Esquire, although confusingly, a small number of Esquires were also ordered with two pickups.

The production dual pickup model was originally named the Broadcaster until Gretsch objected to the use of the name, as they had produced drums using the Broadkaster name since the 1920s. Fender complied and for a short period between February and August of 1951, the guitar appeared with no name on the headstock, leading to the popular nickname ‘Nocaster’ to describe its curious temporary anonymity.

Fender filed a patent for the Telecaster design in April 1951, which was awarded quite quickly by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1951. The familiar twin pickup single cutaway guitar, now formally named the Telecaster was made available to the public from mid‑1951 and has, remarkably, remained in continuous production ever since.

Although instantly recognisable nowadays, the Telecaster was unlike anything that had come before. The way they were put together was revolutionary; using a modular construction comprising a single cutaway slab body of solid ash wood and a removable maple neck secured by four screws on the back of the body. The simple and sturdy design proved not only resilient but also efficient and relatively cheap to manufacture using established assembly line techniques of the time.

While there have been many variants of the Telecaster over the years, including the Custom, Deluxe, Thinline and Elite, the original fundamental design elements have remained largely unchanged over many decades.

Not content with the success of the Telecaster, Fender and this team went on to design and market the enormously popular Stratocaster in 1954. Unlike the Telecaster, the Stratocaster employed a futuristic double cutaway ash body with deep rib and forearm contours for player comfort, 3 single coil pickups and a clever floating vibrato system. Fender retained the bolt‑on maple neck, albeit with a shapelier headstock than the Telecaster and eerily reminiscent of Bigsby’s earlier design. Fender filed a patent application for the Stratocaster’s ‘tremolo’ (a misnomer – it is actually a vibrato) design in August 1954, which was subsequently awarded in April 1956. The Stratocaster, like the Telecaster before it, became phenomenally successful with consumers and has been in continuous production since its launch.

Just as revolutionary for bass players, Fender also pioneered the commercially successful electric solid-body bass guitar. The Precision bass first appeared shortly after the Telecaster in 1952 and before the Stratocaster. Before the Precision, bass players had to contend with cumbersome acoustic, hollow body, fretless upright basses. The Precision was an ergonomic godsend, especially for travelling musicians. Like a guitar, the Precision featured a fretted neck making the instrument much more accessible to neophytes wanting to jump on the bandwagon of popular electric guitar music in the 1950s and 1960s. The 34”‑scale fretted neck gave practical credence to the new bass’s name – Precision. Fender filed a patent for the bass guitar in November 1952, which was awarded in March 1953.

Initially, the Precision took many design cues from the Telecaster before updates in 1954 and 1957 gave it the now‑familiar characteristics more akin to the Stratocaster. Not resting on their laurels, Fender followed up the hugely successful Precision with the twin‑pickup offset Jazz bass in 1960.

These four models – Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision and Jazz – represented the enduring ‘core’ models around which Fender experimented with other designs. It is very unusual in industrial design history to ‘get it right’ first time and then for those products to remain relevant for over six decades (… so far, and counting). However, Fender seemed to have achieved just that. Fender, however, not content to stand still, kept innovating.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Fender also introduced two luxury contoured offset‑waist body models; the 25½”‑scale Jazzmaster in 1958 and the shorter 24”‑scale Jaguar in 1962. Both models used entirely new single coil pickups and both had separate, complex ‘rhythm’ and ‘lead’ circuits. The controls were not intuitive, which put off some players. The high‑price of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar may also have deterred customers and both models failed to attract the intended target audience – traditional jazz guitarists wedded to the competition’s archtop designs. However, both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar gained a significant boost from an unexpected source. Popular west coasts surf musicians including The Beach Boys and The Ventures adopted the new offsets and gave them some legitimacy. Ultimately though, poor sales led to Fender discontinuing the Jaguar in 1975 and the Jazzmaster in 1980. Wisely, Fender has subsequently successfully reissued both models for newer generations to discover.

One of the key success factors for Fender was the introduction of custom colour options in addition to the limited standard blonde and sunburst finishes. Custom colours were based on popular automobile paints made by DuPont during the American car craze of the 1950s. Customers could custom order new guitars from a range of exciting colour finishes for an additional 5% upcharge. Fender was also open to accepting standard colour guitars for factory refinishing in the custom colours. Popular names for the custom colours included Olympic White, Lake Placid Blue, Daphne Blue, Sonic Blue, Shoreline Gold, Burgundy Mist, Sherwood Green, Surf Green, Foam Green, Fiesta Red, Dakota Red, Candy Apple Red, and Shell Pink. Early models with genuine custom colours are relatively rare and have since become highly desirable with vintage guitar collectors; some guitars fetching a hefty premium on the vintage market compared to the standard colours. Many of those original custom colours phased out by 1969 to 1972 have now become very popular again as standard colours in the 21st Century.

Strategically, Fender tried to cover all bases by also introducing a range of short-scale (initially 22½” and then 24”) ‘student’ models including the Musicmaster (1956), Duo‑Sonic (1964), Mustang (1964) and Bronco (1967). To differentiate the ‘student’ instruments from the pro‑level models, Fender designed hardware and finishes that was unique to these models. The Musicmaster and Bronco had single pickups, while the Duo‑Sonic and Mustang had two pickups. The Mustang and Bronco also featured bespoke vibrato systems while the Musicmaster and Duo‑Sonic had fixed bridges. While these budget models have found a strong following by those in the know, they have had chequered histories, all having been discontinued and reissued over the years. Seen as peripheral to the ‘core’ classics, the high volume low cost guitars undeservedly attract a lower profile and lower resale values on the vintage collector market despite being made at the same factory, by the same staff, using the same materials and tools.

In the minds of most guitarists, Fender was a solid‑body guitar maker. After the failure of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar to persuade traditionalists to change brand, Fender attempted to compete with Gibson’s popular ES range of semi‑acoustic guitars. Fender introduced the fully hollow‑body Coronado in 1966, designed by German luthier and Rickenbacker guitar designer Roger Rossmeisl. The Coronado retained Fender’s ‘bolt‑on’ maple necks with six‑a‑side headstocks, although the pickups used were unusually DeArmond single coil models. Unfortunately for Fender, the ill‑fated Coronado proved a commercial failure and was discontinued in 1972. After a short‑lived venture into archtop jazz guitars with the rare Montego and LTD models between 1968 and 1972, Fender tried again in1976 with the introduction of the upmarket semi‑hollow humbucker‑equipped Starcaster. Like the valiant attempts before it, the Starcaster met with the same consumer resistance and proved equally unsuccessful, resulting in it being summarily discontinued in 1982. Notably, both the Coronado and Starcaster models were reissued by Fender in 2013 and continue in production today.

There have been many other Fender solid body electric guitars over the years including the Bass V & VI, the Electric XII, Bullet and Lead amongst numerous others.  In addition, there were many variations on a theme, for instance the Coronado came in Antigua, Wildwood, XII and bass versions. Similarly, the Musicmaster and Mustang also had short‑scale bass models. Other examples include parts‑bin oddities like the Swinger and Maverick. Many later experiments were undertaken by the Japanese arm of Fender without any risk to the company’s ‘Made in USA’ standing. Japanese‑only models include the Performer, Katana and the Gibson‑like set neck Flame. Many of these low volume under‑the‑radar guitar models are often described as ‘forgotten Fenders’.

As covered in Part IV of the story, Fender has also sustained a very successful line of guitar and bass amplifiers dating from the late 1940s right through to the current day, including landmark valve amps such as the Princeton, Champ, Bassman and the mighty Twin Reverb (among many others). Like Marshall and Vox from the UK, Fender amps have become synonymous with modern electric guitar music.

The successful honeymoon period for Fender was, however, not destined to last forever. In early 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), reportedly for $13m. Despite investment and efforts to diversify the product lines, manufacturing quality varied considerably due to poor management and cost cutting, particularly during the 1970s. Industry reputation and credibility waned and Fender sales suffered significantly, especially in the face of aggressive competition from Japan. One of the strategies adopted by Japanese companies at the time was, despite the existence of U.S. patents, to flagrantly copy American guitar designs. Japanese companies produced large numbers of guitars built to high standards and sold at low prices. This shameless targeting of American products placed an already struggling Fender under considerable pressure. By 1981, Fender had brought in Dan Smith from Yamaha as Marketing Director to oversee selective guitar redesigns and, along with Fender luthier (and founder of the Fender Custom Shop) John Page, to breathe new life into Fender’s fortunes.

After making considerable improvements across the business, 20 years after being sold to CBS, a management buyout was initiated by CEO William Schultz (1926‑2006). In retrospect, Schultz is now widely regarded as ‘the man who saved Fender’. Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company was acquired from CBS by its own employees in 1985 and the newly privatised company was renamed Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC). The sale did not, however, include the existing Fullerton factory, so Fender was forced to construct a new plant at Corona, California which started limited manufacturing in late 1985.

After two years of restructuring the business, the post‑CBS Fender American Standard Stratocaster was introduced in 1987. While superficially similar to previous models, the American Standard was a significant model that signified the company’s return to form and commercial prosperity. In the same year (1987), Fender set up their in‑house Custom Shop (nicknamed ‘The Dream Factory’), based at their Corona facility in California. The aim of the Custom Shop was to showcase just what Fender’s master luthiers were capable of building.

Fender’s headquarters are now based in Scottsdale, Arizona, with North American manufacturing facilities in Corona, California, and Ensenada in Mexico. Off-shore production of budget Squier guitars and basses is based in Korea and Japan. Fender has continued to innovate, introducing ‘custom shop’, ‘vintage reissue’ and ‘relic’ instruments and a range of electronics to a market hungry to recapture the ‘golden years’ of pre‑CBS Fender instruments and amps.

We have become so familiar with the Fender Telecaster, Stratocaster and Precision, that we sometimes forget just how revolutionary these designs actually were back in the 1950s and what they, perhaps unwittingly, came to represent. Looking a little more broadly helps to put things into context. Loud and brash electric guitars undoubtedly helped to define the musical uprising brought about by the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. At the same time, a western social and cultural transformation was taking place in the wake of post‑WWII austerity and despite prevailing conservative Cold War political paranoia. Affluent and often puritanical middle class values allied to consumers’ relentless drive to satisfy materialistic aspiration were fuelled by media, film and television. Opposing the status quo was a growing urban resentment, an angry youthful rebellion boosted by emerging anti‑conformist liberalism and radical demands for greater personal freedoms. Fundamental change was, arguably, inevitable. The turmoil created in the 1950s began to reshape the fabric of society in both the U.S. and the UK and this, in turn, propelled musical experimentation and creativity at a pace never seen before. Fender’s electric guitars not only enabled that particular wave to be ridden with verve, passion and a certain degree of teenage angst, but also came to symbolise many defining events for a frustrated generation, a subversive movement that would last well into the 1960s. When Marlon Brando was asked the question in the film ‘The Wild One’ (1953), “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” he retorted disinterestedly “whadda you got?” For a while at least, it was hip to be cool and cool to be hip.

If there are any guitars that qualify for the terms ‘iconic’, ‘classic’ and ‘industry standard’, these original Fender models have to be up there with the best and most enduring industrial design wonders of all time. In particular, the timeless design of the ‘Tele’ and the ‘Strat’ have persisted in the minds of guitarists over many decades, and will surely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Those ‘new’ guitars back in the 1950s are now hugely valuable vintage instruments and are part of our collective music heritage. Vintage Fender guitars, basses and amplifiers are much sought after by collectors, musicians, dealers and enthusiasts alike, with many key models originally made prior to the CBS takeover in 1965 now reaching high vintage guitar market values. Authentic vintage instruments associated with successful artists (and with documented provenance) attract an even higher price premium on the collectable market, for instance, Eric Clapton’s famous c.1956 ‘Blackie’, which was sold for $959,500 to Guitar Center at Christie’s in New York in 2005.

Gibson Solid Body Electric Guitars

The history of Gibson guitars is much longer than that of its main current‑day rival Fender and much of this has already been covered elsewhere. The crucial part that Gibson played in this stage of guitar evolution is picked up again here in the mid‑20th Century.

During the 1940s, popular American jazz guitarist, performer and musical inventor Les Paul (1915-2009) – born Lester William Polsfuss – had become increasingly unhappy with the compromises experienced by electric acoustic archtop guitars. In an attempt to overcome the shortcomings, Les Paul had been actively experimenting with guitar design from around 1939. A famous early prototype electric guitar assembled by Les Paul out of hours at the Epiphone factory around 1940 was nicknamed ‘the log’, which was essentially a solid piece of 4”x4” pine timber running the length of the body, providing the base for the strings, bridge assembly and pickups. To make the design appear more guitar‑like, Les Paul attached a traditional guitar neck and two hollow guitar ‘wings’ from an Epiphone archtop on either side of the ‘plank’.

Les Paul had originally approached Gibson as early as 1941 but no interest was shown by the company.  He tried again in 1945 or 1946 and his ideas were once again rejected. It wasn’t until 1950 that newly‑appointed Gibson president, Theodore ‘Ted’ McCarty (1909-2001) brought in Les Paul to act as a consultant in response to Fender’s newly launched solid body electric guitars. Like Leo Fender, McCarty could not play the guitar, so he worked very closely with those who could.

In 1951, Gibson began producing prototypes of a solid body electric guitar designed by McCarty in consultation with Les Paul. One of the many prototype designs (shown following restoration below) is relatively close to the final production in all but detail.

Gibson was already losing ground, and business, following the introduction of Fender solid body guitars that appealed to young musicians exploring new musical ideas. To many consumers, Gibson’s models were seen as staid and, compared to the modernistic Stratocaster, frankly old fashioned, tired and boring. For Gibson, it was important that any sold body electric guitar design would be all‑new while also remaining consistent with the values, quality and reputation of the company. It was also crucial that the new instrument would be quite different from Gibson’s competition, whether existing or emerging. Crucially, before the new guitar was launched, McCarty agreed a deal with Les Paul for it to carry Les Paul’s name on the headstock and for him to be an integral part of Gibson’s advertising campaign.

In July 1952, Gibson launched the now-iconic solid-bodied guitar, the Gibson Les Paul Model, finished in metallic gold, equipped with dual P90 pickups and a trapeze tailpiece similar to those found on the company’s archtop guitars. For a number of years, the Les Paul Model and its variants were the only solid body guitars made by Gibson. The range was extended from the basic ‘gold top’ to the upmarket black and gold Les Paul Custom in 1953 featuring a standard bridge, one P90 pickup and a unique Alnico V ‘staple’ pickup at the neck, a unique design intended to appeal to jazz guitarists.

To broaden appeal, Gibson introduced two affordable slab‑body single cutaway Les Paul models, the Junior with a single P90 pickup in 1954 and Special with dual‑P90 pickups in 1955. These rather utilitarian models retained the body outline but with few of the upmarket features of the carved‑top Les Pauls.

By 1957, the Les Paul’s P90 single coil pickups began to be replaced with Gibson’s PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucking pickup. The process started with the now‑iconic 3‑pickup Les Paul Custom ‘Black Beauty’.

1958 saw the Junior and Special updated to a new double cutaway body and the option of cherry or outrageous TV Yellow, a colour allegedly designed to show up well on black & white TV screens of the time.

Following poor sales of the original Les Paul ‘gold top’ model, the guitar was rejuvenated in 1958 by renaming it the Standard. The Standard’s specification was changed substantially – a cherry sunburst finish was applied to a maple‑capped mahogany body, the PAF pickups became the norm and a tune‑o‑matic bridge and ‘stop’ tailpiece were standardised. Some, but not all, of the tops exhibited an attractive matched 2‑piece ‘flame’ maple top. Around 1,700 of the now‑legendary ‘Burst’ Les Paul Standards were produced between 1958 and 1960 and all have become highly collectable on the vintage guitar market. The original sunburst Standards have become the aspiration of many guitar enthusiasts. These rare instruments are widely regarded as representing the epitome of Gibson guitar’s ‘golden age’.

The Les Paul models weren’t the only new instruments aiming to establish Gibson’s electric guitar credentials. The late 1950s saw a number of new guitar designs including the McCarty‑designed ES-335 semi‑acoustic, which first appeared in 1958. The ES‑335 was significant because of a solid centre block running through the body and on which the pickups and bridge were mounted, essentially much like Les Paul’s ‘log’ experiment. The semi‑hollow body construction was important in reducing acoustic feedback in high gain situations compared to fully‑hollow archtops. Gibson also released a lower cost hollow‑body ES model with dual P90s, called the ES-330 and two upmarket siblings, the ES‑345 and ES‑355.

The late 1950s was a period of intense innovation at Gibson. In addition to the Les Paul and the ES series, Gibson designed two ‘modernistic’ guitars intended to compete with Fender’s popular solid guitars, the Explorer and Flying V, both of which were introduced in 1958. A third ‘modernistic’ series model, the Moderne, was patented and prototypes might have been constructed but no actual verified examples have ever come to light, let alone reached the vintage collector market. The Moderne has become something of a myth and an original 1950s example is seen by many collectors as the ‘Holy Grail of guitar collecting’. Gibson (re‑)issued a Moderne in small numbers in the early 1980s and again occasionally since.

While the futuristic Flying V and Explorer models were well ahead their time, sales of these radical instruments was very poor. In 1958, Gibson sold only 81 Flying Vs and 19 Explorers. The following year (1959), only 17 Flying Vs and 3 Explorers were sold. It is hardly surprising then that both models were withdrawn by 1959-1960. A few further examples were constructed in the early 1960s from parts. As only small numbers of the original release Explorers and Flying Vs were made, they have become very highly sought after and valued. Gibson, however, would return to these original designs and has successfully reissued both the Flying V and Explorer many years later.

Like Fender, Gibson recognised that they had to cater for the lower end of the market in order to attract new and younger players to the fold. In order to make budget guitars accessible without affecting sales of their premium models, Gibson introduced a range of simple low cost ‘student’ guitars, called the Melody Maker, from 1959. The basic Melody Makers, featuring distinctive narrow headstocks, slab bodies and all‑new Fender‑like narrow single coil pickups, were produced in large numbers at Gibson’s Kalamazoo plant alongside the classics. The Melody Maker’s body shape went through four incarnations during its lifetime, with only 2 bearing a similarity to existing Gibson electrics. Although the Melody Makers proved very popular and sold in large numbers, they were nevertheless withdrawn by 1971. Gibson has re‑used the Melody Maker name on a number of occasions since the original models.

Despite the now‑legendary reputation of the Les Paul Standard, sales of the model remained relatively stagnant and, in 1961, Gibson were forced to take action. Effectively, production of the Les Paul ceased and a new design was introduced in 1961, even though it retained the ‘Les Paul’ moniker.  The new model was another design shift with a thin double cutaway mahogany body with contoured upper bouts and pointed ‘devil’ horns. Allegedly, Les Paul didn’t favour the guitar’s design and no longer wanted to be associated with it. In addition, Les Paul separated from his wife Mary Ford and the divorce settlement may also have been a pecuniary factor in his decision to drop his name from the guitar. By 1963, after Les Paul’s name was removed, the model was re‑designated the Gibson SG (standing for ‘Solid Guitar’). The Gibson SG has remained in continuous production since 1961 and, ironically, it has become the company’s most commercially successful model in Gibson’s long history. Like the single cutaway Les Paul before it, the SG model came in a number of variants, the single‑P90 Junior, the dual‑P90 Special, dual‑humbucker Standard and 3‑humbucker Custom.

The single cutaway Gibson Les Paul may have gone but it was not forgotten. It reappeared in 1968, and then only after second hand guitars became popular at around the time of the British blues explosion, led by guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Peter Green, as well as other contemporary musicians of the time, including Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Paul Kossoff. The Les Paul has had numerous variants over the years including notable models such as the Les Paul Deluxe, Professional, Recording, Artisan and Studio models, and many guitarists have had signature models released to celebrate the artists’ association with the company.  Since its reintroduction in the late 1960s, the Les Paul has remained in continuous production and, along with the Fender Stratocaster, it has become one of the most recognisable design icons of modern‑day guitar music.

Gibson continued to innovate into the early 1960s, introducing more convention‑busting designs. McCarty, hired famed car designer Ray Dietrich (1894‑1980) to cash in on the American automotive craze of the time. The new model was called the Firebird, which featured a more rounded‑off Explorer‑like outline, through‑body construction and rear‑facing banjo tuners. These first Firebirds, produced in 1963‑1964, were known informally as ‘reverse’ bodied because the upper treble bout was more pronounced than the bass bout. Again, due to poor sales and high manufacturing costs, Gibson simplified the fundamentals and ‘flipped’ the body to produce the ‘non‑reverse’ Firebird, made between 1965 and 1969, when it was withdrawn. As with many of other unsuccessful early Gibson solid body designs, the company has reissued the Firebird in both ‘reverse’ and ‘non‑reverse’ formats since. Other variants were made including the 12‑string Firebird XII and the Thunderbird bass.

McCarty stood down from Gibson in 1966 and became president of Bigsby Guitars. McCarty later collaborated with, influenced and mentored up‑and‑coming ambitious American luthier Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars. Smith honoured McCarty’s contribution to guitar building by dedicating him with a PRS McCarty model. McCarty died in 2001 at the age of 91.

As with competitors, Fender, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, the 1970s was a period of controversial experimentation while under ‘corporate’ ownership. Gibson produced many other solid body electric guitars than have been mentioned so far. Among the many ‘forgotten Gibsons’ of the period, there are some notable examples, including the Challenger, Corvus, Firebrand, Invader, L6-S, Marauder, RD series, S‑1, Sonex‑180 and the Victory.

While Gibson may have had considerable success with guitars, it has never quite found the same formula for basses, amps and acoustics as some of its competitors, including Fender. That doesn’t mean to say they haven’t made notable examples; they have, it’s just that they haven’t had the popular impact and longevity to warrant mainstream success alongside the recognised ‘classics’.

After McCarty’s departure, Gibson came under increasing commercial pressure. Things came to a head in 1969, when Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then became a subsidiary of Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. In the same year, Norlin shifted production of Gibson guitars from its long‑term home in Kalamazoo, Michigan to Nashville, Tennessee. In 1984, Gibson finally closed its old factory at Kalamazoo.

Following a similar pattern to Fender’s travails at the time, Gibson underwent a period of poor quality control and severe financial difficulties, often blamed on corporate interference by executives who knew little about, and cared little for, the company’s pedigree and its customer base. Ultimately, as happened with Fender, the company returned to private ownership in January 1986 to focus on its core business. The Gibson Guitar Corporation was close to liquidation when it was bought by three businessmen, Henry E. Juszkiewicz, David H. Berryman and Gary A. Zebrowski. Under the new management, the business was once again repositioned as a maker of high quality professional musical instruments.

While production of Gibson’s sold body guitars remained in Nashville, further production plants were also opened in Memphis, Tennessee (1984) for semi‑hollow models, as well as Bozeman, Montana (1989) for acoustic guitars. After having bought out its main American competitor Epiphone in 1957, Gibson strategically repositioned Epiphone as a budget brand and relocated production of Epiphone guitars to Japan in 1970 and then to Korea in 1983, mainly producing low‑cost versions of famous Gibson models.

In order to cater for the more exclusive end of the market, Gibson produced select instruments under an in‑house Custom Shop operation. Juszkiewicz built on the internal Custom Shop operations, the roots of which date back to around 1984 (3 years before Fender established its Custom Shop), and which became a separate facility based in Nashville from October 1993.

The Gibson Guitar Corporation, still a private company, has its headquarters based in Nashville, Tennessee and continues to develop and produce high quality instruments into the 21st century. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Gibson. In May 2018, after a period of unsuccessful diversification into peripheral consumer electronics products and rapidly rising debts, Gibson entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. The widely anticipated move was intended to give the company sufficient time to restructure the business, with Henry Juszkiewicz still as CEO. Gibson intends to focus on profitable core musical instrument products, while divesting itself of the remainder of its ill‑fated and loss‑making lifestyle ventures. It is likely that Gibson’s rationalisation programme will succeed and the company will avoid liquidation. Like the phoenix symbolised on its Firebird guitars, Gibson will surely rise again from the ashes and achieve long‑term financial security.

Many vintage Gibson solid body electric guitars are highly regarded by collectors, musicians and enthusiasts alike, with many key models reaching high or very prices on the vintage guitar market with the 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard is held in particularly high esteem. It will be interesting to see if a resurgent Gibson will be able to recapture the pinnacles of past glory. Watch this space…

Other Major American Electric Guitar Brands

While it might seem from the previous two sections that Fender and Gibson were the only companies responsible for all the key milestones in the solid guitar’s evolution, this is in fact far from reality. There have been innumerable manufacturers from around the globe that have been highly influential in shaping the market.

Epiphone – Epiphone’s illustrious history dates back to 1873 when the Stathopoulo family emigrated from Greece, via Turkey, and arrived in New York in 1903. The family set up a business in America making banjos and mandolins. By the end of WWI, the company became ‘The House Of Stathopoulo’, then changed its name to the ‘Epiphone Banjo Company’ in 1928, the same year that they started producing acoustic guitars. The name Epiphone derived from a combination of owner Epaminondas Stathopoulo’s nickname, ‘Epi’, and the Greek word ‘phon-’ meaning ‘sound’ or ‘voice’. In addition to musical instruments, Epiphone started producing amplifiers in 1935. Epiphone was Gibson’s main competitor in the production of high‑quality instruments, particularly archtop guitars in the 1930s and 1940s, such as the De Luxe, Broadway and Triumph models. It was only after World War II that Epiphone began to struggle, eventually resulting in its acquisition by Gibson in 1957. Initially, the new generation of Epiphone guitars were still made in Gibson’s American facilities, even though many of their instruments were re‑branded Gibson models. During the 1960s, Epiphone’s Casino, which was effectively their version of the Gibson ES-330, became particularly famous because of an association with English pop/rock band The Beatles. In recent decades, the Epiphone brand has come to represent the affordable end of Gibson’s output, complementing the parent company’s product lines. In the early 1970s manufacturing was migrated to the Far East, first in Japan, then Korea and, since 2004, Epiphone guitars have been made in a dedicated factory in Qingdao, China. Other well‑known model Epiphone names from their past include Emperor, Riviera, Sheraton, Olympic, Wilshire and Crestwood.

Gretsch – Another famous manufacturer with a long history dating back to 1883 is Gretsch. The company was founded by Friedrich Gretsch (c.1856-1895). Gretsch arrived as a 17 year old German immigrant to the United States in 1872. By 1883, aged 27, Gretsch was manufacturing banjos, tambourines, and drums from a modest shop in Brooklyn, New York. It wasn’t until the big band era of the 1930s that guitars became part of Gretsch’s core business with models like the Synchromatic and Electromatic. Gretsch became hugely successful with the explosion of blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s. The man behind many of Gretsch’s iconic designs including the flamboyant White Falcon was guitarist Jimmie Webster (1908‑1979), who worked as sales and demonstration representative for Gretsch. NB. Webster was known as the inventor of the ‘Touch System’ of playing in the 1950s, popularised by Van Halen as ‘two‑hand tapping’ in the late 1970s. The demand for Gretsch guitars during this period enabled Gretsch to compete head on with Gibson and Fender. Gretsch’s association with guitarist Chet Atkins propelled their now‑iconic 6120 from 1955 to massive popularity. Like many other companies in the 1960s, Gretsch struggled and was bought out by Baldwin Pianos in 1967. By 1981, after a period of significant decline Baldwin finally wound up production of Gretsch instruments. Fred W. Gretsch purchased the brand name in 1985 and several attempts were made to restart production, including manufacturing in the Far East. Gretsch has been under Fender patronage since 2002 with Fender having the controlling interest and the Gretsch family retaining ownership. A rejuvenated Gretsch company, with Fender’s support and endorsement from rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer has, once again, become successful. Well‑known model Gretsch names from their history include the White Falcon, Country Gentleman, Tennessean, Viking, Anniversary, Jet and Corvette, often carrying obscure and confusing numerical model numbers.

Rickenbacker – Rickenbacker’s history is shorter than some of its competitors and has been widely covered in other parts of the guitar’s story. Rickenbacker only emerged in the early 1930s first as Ro‑Pat‑In then as Electro before formally adopting the Rickenbacker name. Rickenbacker was crucial in the early development of the electric guitar. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that Rickenbacker’s fortunes found a new lease of life and took a major upturn that would lead to the current day. In 1953, Adolph Rickenbacker sold his company to music industry businessman F.C. Hall (1909‑1999), founder and CEO of media company Radio-Tel. Under Hall’s ambitious leadership, the company introduced a number of innovative guitar models, which proved popular with many bands during the nascent rock ‘n’ roll era. In an inspired move, Halll hired illustrious guitar maker Roger Rossmeisl (1927-1979) in 1954. Rossmeisl was responsible for the design of Rickenbacker guitars including a number of iconic instruments released in the late 1950s, including the ‘Capri’ 300 series guitars from 1958 and the equally influential 4000 series basses from 1957. Both of these designs, along with a number of others, are still in production today. Rickenbacker’s artist association with, particularly, The Beatles and The Byrds in the 1960s, cemented the brand’s rightful place in guitar history.

Danelectro – While it may not be an obvious choice for coverage, it is worth mentioning Danelectro. The company was founded in 1947 by Lithuanian immigrant Nathan ‘Nat’ Daniel (1912-1994) and based in New Jersey. The company started out by making guitars, basses and baritones for other companies including Silvertone models for the Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order, and Airline models for Montgomery Ward. The strategy enabled Danelectro to start making guitars using its own name by 1954. Daniel innovated by using unorthodox materials and construction techniques, at least hitherto unusual in the guitar building industry. The resulting instruments have a distinctive look and sound that also enabled the company to produce no-frills instruments at competitive prices for the mass market. In a clever move under the Silvertone brand, they produced guitars with a valve amp built into the guitar case, so customers could buy everything they needed in one convenient, portable package. The brand is important historically because it enabled many young aspiring musicians to buy instruments at low cost. The unique approach also attracted many professional players to use Danelectro instruments, including guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Jimmy Page and Beck. Like many other American companies, including Fender and Gibson, Danelectro struggled in the 1960s and was sold to industry giant MCA in 1966, only for the factory to be closed down in 1969. The brand was resurrected and started making guitars again in 2006.

PRS – Compared to some of the well established brands that have been around much longer, PRS Guitars is really the new‑kid‑on‑the‑block, founded by American luthier Paul Reed Smith in Annapolis, Maryland in 1984. In a relatively short period of time, PRS has gained an enviable reputation for high quality instruments and amps, cleverly finding a niche in the market that is different from their competitors. Taking design influences from Fender and Gibson amongst others and adding something new and fresh of their own, PRS managed to build substantial market share rapidly from seemingly nowhere.  Having guitarist Carlos Santana on board from the start and bringing in ex‑Gibson president Ted McCarty as Smith’s mentor didn’t harm the company’s credibility either. PRS introduced stunning instruments, starting with the Standard and Custom, recognised for their immaculate craftsmanship. Many PRS instruments have distinctive features including exquisite highly figured tone woods, superbly engineered hardware and distinctive unique ‘bird’ fingerboard inlays. The company grew swiftly; relocating to a major new American factory in 1996 and from 2003 PRS established a range of more affordable SE (standing for ‘Student Edition’) models manufactured in Korea. PRS’s success demonstrates that the industry’s barriers to entry are not insurmountable and with the right strategy, it is still possible to enter the market and to grow market share despite well‑established competition, and without being straightjacketed by historical constraints.

Other Guitar Brands From Around the World

Guitar design, production and sales are not restricted to just a few large American companies. In America alone, there are many thousands of guitar manufacturers past and present. Many names will be familiar, such as Ernie Ball/Music Man, Peavey, Guild, Jackson, Dean, BC Rich, Ovation, Supro, National, Kay, Harmony, etc., through to innumerable custom and boutique luthiers. Some of these manufacture instruments in the U.S. while others are American companies that source part or all of their guitars from the Far East. A quick look around the globe highlights many other fertile guitar making territories…

Europe – Particularly following World War II when embargoes and tight trade restrictions limited exports of guitars from America, a combination of high demand for guitars and low supply provided an opportunity for some enterprising European companies to fill the gap. Many of these guitars followed the influence of American designs in the knowledge that young people in Europe aspired to emulate their American counterparts. Britain and continental Europe have produced many guitar brands over a long period of time including from illustrious companies such as Burns, Duesenberg, Eko, Framus, Hagstrom, Höfner, Hohner, Patrick James Eggle, Shergold, Gordon Smith, James Trussart, Vigier, Vox, Warwick, Watkins, Zemaitis, etc.

Far East – The Far East isn’t only responsible for producing low cost guitars for American and European guitar brands. During the 1970s, Japanese firms were producing affordable, high quality copies of American guitars, taking advantage of high labour prices and poor quality control in the U.S. However, there has also been a notable history of guitar manufacture in its own right, including some very quirky and idiosyncratic models. Many of the big names from Japan include, Aria, ESP/LTD, Ibanez, Italia, Teisco Tokai, Yamaha, etc.

Eastern Bloc – While not widely recognised as a guitar‑making region, largely because of its nationalistic political regime and economic protectionism, the Eastern Bloc countries have produced a diverse range of instruments over an extended period of time. There is a vast array of models bearing many unfamiliar names such as, Aelita, Formanta, Jolana, Migma, Tokina, etc.

As you might expect, the fascination with the world’s favourite instrument is genuinely global and they have been made in every corner of the world, including Australia, Canada, South America and, to a lesser extent, the middle east (where the guitar’s story began after all!) and Africa.

Other Factors

Although this section focuses on electric guitar production, it is worth remembering that acoustic guitar manufacturing is also thriving in the 21st Century with famous specialist brands such as Martin (based in Pennsylvania since 1833) and Taylor (based in California since 1974) at the forefront of innovation and technological development. Of the major American electric guitar makers, it is only really Gibson that also has a reputable range of professional acoustic instruments. Elsewhere, Yamaha has a strong range of Far Eastern acoustic guitars. There are numerous other manufacturers to be found producing fine acoustic guitars at all price points in the market.

The 21st Century landscape of guitar production is one of global diversity and differentiation. Modern guitars may have been hugely influenced, if not defined, by a small number of American companies but it is by no means a monopolistic industry; quite the opposite in reality. The long‑term viability of guitar making is inextricably linked to the music industry and what happens will rely heavily on musical trends and influences.

There have been many challenges to the dominance of the electric guitar, notably during the 1980s and 1990s with proliferation of synthesizers and in the 2000s as home production of electronic music became affordable and accessible. However, the popularity of the guitar seems (relatively) assured, despite many cynical commentators regularly proclaiming ‘the death of guitar music’. Digital technology is bringing a new challenge to guitar makers, so it will be up to countless luthiers around the world to rise to the challenge, seek new opportunities, adapt the guitar and make it truly a universal instrument and secure its future success for generations to come.

End of Part VI

Over these last six instalments, I have covered the guitar’s history from its vestigial beginnings in the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ to the birth and proliferation of the electric guitar. There is just a little of the long and winding path left to travel and I hope you’ll join me for the remainder of the story. The next article has yet to be written, due to personal circumstances. While I hope to publish it next month, it is by no means certain. Fingers crossed. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Contrary to popular opinion, great minds most definitely do not think alike. Similarly, great musicians do not play or sound alike.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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November 2016 – Where to Start with Vintage Guitars

I was recently asked a simple question, “What’s so special about vintage guitars, why would I go for a vintage guitar over a modern one and where do I start?” Well now, that’s actually 3 questions but plainly very sensible ones to ask. As usual, they are not so easy to answer. Thus, another proverbial can of worms was duly opened.

Remember, I am no expert myself, just an enthusiastic amateur who’s obsession tends to cloud objective judgement. This is based on my own experiences, so a pinch of salt may be required. This article focuses specifically on vintage electric guitars. It doesn’t cover acoustic guitars or amps and effect pedals. Are you sitting comfortably, this is quite a long article?

What does the word vintage mean for guitars?

Let’s begin by taking a step further back and try to understand what is actually meant by ‘vintage’. Dictionaries refer to ‘vintage’ as something dating from the past that is valued as having enduring interest, importance or quality, or referring to the best characteristics of things made or done by a person or organisation. Well, that doesn’t necessarily help, especially as any interpretation of ‘past’ is relative and subjective.

Specifically focusing on electric guitars, there are essentially 2 camps; a) the purists who assert that ‘vintage’ only applies to the ‘golden era’ up to c.1965, and b) those who believe that any guitars over 25 years old are ‘vintage’. To me, neither of these adequately provides hard and fast rules for concluding vintage status.

While pre-1965 guitars are now clearly vintage according to both criteria, applying a fixed cut-off doesn’t really hold water in the long term, as the gap between 1965 and the present day continues to widen. Why 1965? Well, many American guitar manufacturers sold out to large, corporations in the 2nd half of the 1960s including Fender (1965 to CBS), Danelectro (1966 to MCA), Gretsch (1967 to Baldwin), and Gibson (1969 to ECL). Commentators point to corporate decision-making, to standardised manufacturing techniques, and to falling quality standards from the 1970s onwards. To me, this argument is difficult to justify, particularly as there are plenty of poor quality pre-1965 vintage guitars (as well as some great post-1965 ones). The purists have countless arguments to support their somewhat dogmatic position.

The 25-year ‘rule’ is also not particularly helpful. It is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off point because it presents us with a constantly moving target, albeit in one direction. Think about it a moment… what tangible differences justify one instrument to be defined as vintage and the next one off the production line as not vintage until the date cut-off catches up? Ultimately, many high, quality, mass produced guitars that the purists currently poor scorn upon will eventually become vintage, but isn’t that actually what happens anyway as the industry evolves over time? The opposition to the introduction of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, which have since become revered, is just one prime example. We shouldn’t confuse the picture by simply correlating quality and age – old=good, new=bad – it’s not that straightforward.

Perhaps obviously, there should be some shared understanding and guidance to help us all out. However, the above debate indicates that there is no black and white definition of ‘vintage’.

My personal feeling is that there are plenty of excellent vintage instruments up to and including the 1980s. After that, they become a bit, ‘samey’, while often also being much ‘better’. Common sense tells us that this view will also undoubtedly change as time marches on. There is a lot more to an instrument than whether it was CNC machined or not, take PRS electrics and Taylor acoustics for example. There are plenty of fine new sustainable tone woods to replace the ‘classic’ now-protected ones and they will all age. There are advances in the use of many materials and how they are used to improve guitar tone. Let’s face it; early instruments can be as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as later ones in terms of construction and materials.

So, from a beginner’s point of view, the older a guitar is, the more likely it is to warrant being called vintage. No-one disputes that instruments from the 1960s and earlier are now vintage. The current ‘grey area’ is the 1970s and 1980s (and in the not too distant future, also the 1990s).

Why should I buy a vintage guitar?

Having confused rather than clarified from the outset, perhaps the obvious next point is to pose the question, “Why should I buy a vintage guitar?” If you don’t have a good answer to this simple prompt, keep asking the same question until you have something that makes sense. Some examples may help…

If the answer is, “To make money”, then I switch off. I am not the person to talk to about using guitars as a financial investment. My position on pecuniary speculation and Return on Investment (RoI) has oft been handed out with abandon, so I won’t labour the point again. Suffice to say that the idea of a vintage musical instrument as an investment for its own sake is an anathema to me. It squanders the whole point of what it was originally built to do, which is to play music. Exclusivity and rarity just make items more valuable to collectors aiming to protect their investments, thereby denying access to the rest of us to play them. I’m not denying that some vintage guitars are valuable, or rare, and even that some are worth it. What I am saying is that a short-term profit motive does not make a good entry point into the competitive vintage guitar marketplace.

If the answer is, “To play it”, that falls into the ‘not good enough’ category. There are plenty of modern instruments that are far better built, far more reliable and basically much better to play than many vintage instruments. Many new guitars can feel just as good to play, if not better than their ancestors and many manufacturers are working hard to close any gaps that remain. Many older guitars are just not up to playing live and some are too risky to take out and about. Let’s face it, all vintage instruments are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so a modern working instrument makes a lot more sense than gigging a vintage one.

If the answer is, “They are nice to look at”, that is also inadequate and is almost as bad as the ‘make money’ case. Buying to look at is just guitar porn. If you want something pristine, lightly aged or beaten up, there are plenty of outstanding new, ‘aged’ and ‘relic’ guitars that fit the aesthetic bill. When it comes to playing, they also have the advantage of modern manufacturing and reliability to boot. Some replicas even cost more than the vintage counterparts they are trying to reproduce – go figure! Age does not necessarily equal beauty.

If the answer is, “They sound great”, it also fails to convince. Modern analytical techniques and advances in technology mean that the differences between many vintage instruments and the many excellent modern examples are so subtle that, for most beginners, they will prove insignificant. Your playing technique and the rest of the signal chain are equally, if not more, important to what we actually hear. Being practical, in a live band or recording situation, the nuances are often obscured.

If the answer is, “Because they’re old”, then I’d say, “so what?” Mere age does not imply significance. There is something about the authentic patina brought about by both age and use that is hard (but not impossible) to replicate. There are a huge number of exceptional new instruments available, and intense price competition means that there are some very good deals to be found by hunting around, especially at the lower end of the market. At the other end of the scale, modern boutique and custom guitar makers make some wonderful guitars with amazing levels of quality to boot, Collings for example.

If the answer is all of the above, then go back and start again until you have a persuasive rationale for getting into vintage guitars. If you decide vintage isn’t your ‘thing’, then that’s a positive and at least you’ll know why. In that case, why not check out new or used instruments to appreciate what modern guitars can do and how they can easily fulfil the vast majority of needs, accepting that they aren’t ‘old’ and won’t be for a long time. Remember that the market value of new guitars will continue to depreciate for quite some time before bottoming out and eventually rising again. Buying a vintage guitar is the only short cut to the waiting time associated with age.

What is so special about vintage guitars?

It is too easy to trot out that old euphemism, “if I have to explain, you’ll never understand”. So, if you’re still intrigued, here is my answer to what is so special about vintage guitars.

The distinctiveness of vintage guitars is difficult to articulate, yet the differences are real. My personal fascination lies in the place that these instruments have in, particularly, American and European musical and social history. Although this will change, I don’t currently include Japan in this statement, as the Far East was mainly manufacturing products to meet western demand during this period, rather than being inculcated in the zeitgeist, i.e. they contributed to it without being part of it.

Vintage instruments somehow epitomise the popular culture of their era in a way that new instruments can easily evoke but of which they cannot be an integral part (until their time eventually comes). The value, playability, looks and sounds of an old instrument are quintessential elements of their decades-long journey to the current day. The artists associated with instruments (that were new at the time) and the classic recordings they made with them are all small pieces of the complex jigsaw.

To provide context, it helps to read up about the history of the guitar and popular music, the innovators and artists, the way the industry and markets evolved, and the way in which manufacturers’ various model lines adapted over time to reflect fashion and to meet musicians’ needs. Set that within the broader complicated and rapidly changing socio‑political and technological environment of the times, the enigma surrounding these simple bits of wood, metal and plastic really start to come alive.

There is something that appeals about the authentic scars of age and prolonged use that, while they can be reproduced, just don’t have any genuine history behind them. However, most guitars’ life stories are lost in the mists of time as guitars change hands, often many times over, so we can only wonder what happened to them since they left the factory all shiny and new. Their journey is as important as the eventual destination.

A good vintage guitar can be inspiring to play and will bring out a way of playing that a generic modern guitar struggles to do. I don’t have a good answer as to why this should be and there is no objective reason I can find for asserting it. Perhaps it is just wish fulfilment. I can only put it down to a number of elusive factors that combine to make it feel… ‘right’. Playing different vintage guitars bring out different stylistic traits as well, so it’s clearly not a single characteristic. Not necessarily better, just different.

Furthermore, current generations are just temporary stewards of these unique historical musical artefacts. Many guitars existed before we were born and many will survive long after we’ve passed. While we are here, I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation as guardians to conserve and share this important heritage for future generations.

If this explanation seems complete gobbledegook, hokum and hogwash, then vintage guitars are probably just passive objects as much as any other guitar. The search for a simple, compelling raison d’être for the joy of vintage guitar ownership goes on.

Where should I start?

OK, enough with the pretentious (but relevant) twaddle. If you are still reading this, I assume that you are still intent on exploring the wonderful world of ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitars. So, being practical, where do you begin?

Right up front, I would suggest that it is a good idea to set your budget and stick to it. It is all too easy to get caught out by paying either more than you want or what something is worth. The next step may well be to decide what brands and models to investigate. There are plenty of options available, once you’ve selected the outcome you want to achieve. In the end, it all comes down to lucre and what you’re prepared to spend.

Whether you go for an acoustic or electric is fundamental. I’m not really qualified to cover the former so, assuming the latter, consider the type of basic construction, i.e. hollow, semi or solid body guitar. As a starter-for-ten, solid bodied guitars are simpler and more robust, and therefore comparatively easier to evaluate and look after.

The big two producers – Fender and Gibson – are often relatively safe places to start as there is a huge amount of reference material to inform choices and the names on the headstocks are, generally speaking, known quantities, which provides reassurance. Your choice between these two will depend very much on personal taste. If you’re into acoustics, Martin is also a safe bet. The downside is that the big brands also tend to attract premium prices, so they usually aren’t the cheapest options to start with. Finances may dictate whether to persevere or start looking elsewhere. You may hanker after a vintage Gretsch or Rickenbacker although, for various reasons, caution is advised to avoid potential mistakes, so they may not make the best ‘first purchase’.

Buying guitars built in the ‘grey area’ (1970s and 1980s) mentioned above can be a good bet. After a relatively modest initial outlay, the guitar’s value probably won’t go down much further, if at all. In fact, guitars from this period will be on the verge of starting to increase in value, which may enable you to start modestly and ‘trade up’ to get what you really want. The vintage guitar market is now quite mature, so if a ‘bargain’ seems too good to be true, it probably is, and it is probably sensible to resist temptation. If you are face to face with a seller, try haggling – as long as you are not in a hurry and are prepared to walk away, there is no harm in asking, and there are often some good deals waiting to be struck that keep everyone happy.

While a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster from the ‘golden era’ (1950s and 1960s) are likely to be out of the reach of most, mid-price Jaguars, Jazzmasters, or ‘budget’ Musicmasters and Mustangs have many of the same characteristics without the associated eye‑watering price tags. The same applies to early Gibson Les Pauls, ES‑335s and Flying Vs, which attract premium prices, while ES-330s, Explorers, Firebirds and SGs occupy middle ground, and ‘budget’ models like the Melody Maker, LS-6 and S-1 reside at the lower end of the market.

There is SO much more to owning vintage guitars than face value and/or model snobbery. A pre-CBS Fender Strat is worth 10 times the market value of an equivalent Mustang. It may be your dream instrument but is it really 10 times better as a musical instrument and therefore is it really justifiable as a vintage newbie purchase? It’s clearly the buyer’s prerogative but I would suggest dipping your toe in the water and see whether you like it first. If you then decide it’s not for you, something inexpensive also provides a relatively easy exit route. There are plenty of positives about the cheaper end of the vintage market, despite the purists’ unerring disdain. There are some fantastic ‘alternative’ guitars out there and they can be great fun to own and to buy at reasonable prices.

Don’t be fooled into following the crowd – stick to your own preferences. If your tastes are more eclectic or esoteric than the traditional stalwards, you may want to ‘stray off the beaten track’ and ‘take a walk on the wild side’. Depending on how finely honed your intuition, ‘a bit of what you fancy’ is often a good guide and take it from there. There are plenty of very cool vintage European brands, (e.g. Vox, Burns, Hofner) or Far Eastern ones (e.g. Yamaha, Ibanez, Teisco) from which to choose. There are also plenty of cool American brands to consider (e.g. Epiphone, Danelectro, National, Supro, Kay, Harmony, Guild, Ovation, Music Man). Many of these brands are now well documented and can provide low cost access to quirky ‘old school’ Americana.

After 40+ years, be prepared for variable and unpredictable reliability, such as switches, pots, tuners, wiring, pickups, etc. Originality and good condition are big pluses if you can afford them. While ‘museum’ or ‘collector’ grade guitars are lovely to look at (much in the same way new guitars), they can be intimidating to play, just in case their ‘perfection’ is ruined forever. In addition, untouched ‘closet’ guitars are relatively rare and can be prohibitively expensive. As a general rule, good guitars get played. If you like the relic look and/or want something pragmatic, then unoriginal or battered ‘players’ guitars can be great to use without being scared of adding the odd nick or scratch. To start with, I would avoid badly damaged, badly repaired or ‘project’ guitars, as these generally aren’t good examples of their type and they may be more problematic than they are worth. Refinishes and unoriginal parts lower a guitar’s collectable value, although they may make what you’re looking for more affordable, as long as you accept that it will not realise a high value when you come to sell it. You pays your money…

Do your research

In all circumstances, it pays to be diligent. Do your research first and read as much as you can from credible sources, so you know what you’re looking at and understand what you’re buying into. Scrutinize and filter carefully what’s on the Internet as it can be pretty unreliable on the subject (especially highly opinionated forums). It is wise to check out a variety of sources, look for corroboration between them and then reach your own conclusions. Going old tech, i.e. books, can help. Respected vVintage guitar ‘bibles’ include:

  • ‘Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars : An Identification for American Fretted Instruments’ by George Gruhn and Walter Carter
  • ‘The Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide’ by Alan Greenwood & Gil Hembree (values are in $USD, so work on a 1:1 ratio)
  • ‘Guitar Identification: A Reference For Dating Guitars Made by Fender Gibson Gretsch and Martin’ by A.R. Duchossoir.

None of these are light reading; however they do provide essential reference material to help inform sound buying decisions. Even these are not infallible though. Coffee table tomes are nice to look at but are generally not comprehensive enough, as recently evidenced by a ‘history’ book that failed to spotlight the historic significance of several milestone guitars including, the Gibson ES-150, the Gretsch 6120 and the Fender Jaguar.

Determining the date of vintage instruments can be problematic. The above references can assist, so can manufacturers’ web sites and many other online resources. Again, the advice is to check and then double check before relying on them too much. If you can’t date an instrument definitively, it may be best to go elsewhere. Avoid any instruments where the serial number has been removed or obscured. The topic of vintage guitar dating is complex and well beyond the scope of this article.

Until you have experience, I don’t advise buying without seeing and, more importantly, trying, feeling and hearing the actual guitar you are interested in. Even experts can get caught out, so buying unseen (e.g. on auction sites) can be a minefield, even when the seller provides nice photographs. To begin with, if you can afford it, buy from a reputable source and buy from your own country to avoid potential transport and import issues.

Be aware that there are fakes out there, although these have tended to be for higher value instruments, as that’s where the big money is. The old adage of caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies! If you have any doubts at all, resist temptation and walk away. There will always be others – be patient. Yes, you may miss out on something special but it isn’t the end of the world. ‘If in doubt, leave it out’.

The risk of diving headlong into the subject unprepared is to be disappointed, to lose faith in the idea and miss out on some inspirational experiences. After looking and trying a few guitars out, you’ll quickly get a feel for what grabs you and what to look for. The ‘fatal attraction’ symptom goes a long way to opening the doors to vintage guitar ownership, whether it’s for a personal guitar collection or to buy and sell. Remember a vintage guitar collection is simply a case of owning more than one! As knowledge and experience grows, your horizons will (probably) expand naturally and you can manage risks with confidence.

Owning your vintage guitar

Once you’ve bought your vintage guitar, it is vital to look after it, which is pretty obvious but very often overlooked. First up, keep it secure from undesirables who want your precious instrument and who are not afraid to take it off your hands for nothing. I hate insurance. However, it would be irresponsible not to mention that you should consider going to a specialist insurer to cover your irreplaceable gem in case the unthinkable happens. Use a good guitar case, stand or hanger and avoid environmental extremes of temperature, relative humidity, dust and direct sunlight. Keep it clean and avoid using chemicals.

One of the best ways of maintaining vintage instruments in good condition is actually to play them regularly. I would also recommend getting to know a reliable and dependable guitar tech to check it over and commission them to deal with any maintenance issues as they arise. Even if you have some basic know-how, it is particularly important to have an expert who really knows their craft and is willing to help you look after it.

Selling on

At some point, you may wish to sell your prized possession. Be realistic about what someone is prepared to pay for it – it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s worth a lot more than it actually is. Internet prices tend to overinflate value hoping the inexperienced will take the bait. Dealers, on the other hand, will devalue and offer 20‑30% less than market value in order to make a profit. Some dealers will sell for you on concession but, again, they will take their 20-30% cut (at least). Private selling is now less common, so be prepared to wait for the right buyer. Specialist musical instrument auction houses exist but beware their somewhat punitive commission rates.

Finally…

Of course, if money is no object, then a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard remains the pinnacle of vintage desirability, especially if it has documented provenance. Expect a stratospheric price tag to go with it though. Heck, I wouldn’t turn one down if one came my way (hint, Mr Claus).

In summary, there are no hard and fast rules. What you do with your cash is entirely up to you. I will leave it to others to judge the value of this article, however, I genuinely hope that it helps a bit – take from it what you will.

A final word of warning though; beware, owning vintage guitars can be highly addictive and bank-breaking. However, in my view, it is all worth it. Just be careful out there. In the meantime, I’m off to plink one of my planks. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music is an art, not a commodity. It is the people who sell it to the masses that cannot tell the difference.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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December 2015 – What’s New at CRAVE Guitars (yet again)

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A busy end to 2015! As mentioned in my November 2015 article, “… another great imported ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitar [was] wending its way from its birthplace in New York via Texas…”.  Well, it arrived safe and sound and I can reveal that it is a rather tasty and very cool 1965 Gretsch Corvette. No, on reflection, let’s use hyperbole, this guitar is AWSOME! Take a look at the feature for more information (click here to see guitar feature…)

1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette
1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette

While most pundits understandably veer toward the classic hollow body models, particularly the iconic 6120 Chet Atkins, I took a conscious decision to find something from this great company that is unusual and distinctive. The Corvette, I believe, fits the bill nicely. In the shadow of it bigger and bolder brothers (and, let’s face it, more ubiquitous, more expensive and, well… more orange), the Corvette (designated 6135) was considered to be at the ‘budget’ end of the Gretsch range. It didn’t succeed in competing with Fender and Gibson’s ‘student’ line-ups. However, that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked or disregarded, quite the opposite in my view. Just look at it! I almost feel honour-bound to promote the Corvette’s unique charms for a discerning audience that appreciates ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ Guitars. 

So, what are we actually talking about here… well, firstly, it is a solid body guitar, so it won’t feedback as much in higher gain environments. AND, it doesn’t have the body binding of the hollow body guitars, so many of which are now sadly irrevocably disintegrating. The Corvette sports 2 original HiLoTron single coil pickups (rather than the upmarket FilterTrons). Despite what some critics say (weak, thin‑sounding), it depends how you use them. The neck pickup, in particular, has a lovely ‘60s jazzy vibe that modern pickups struggle to replicate, while the bridge pickup has a steely, crystalline clean sound. Perhaps HiLoTrons just suit the solid body guitars better. It also has an unusual, factory original Burns vibrato in gleaming chrome, which is great and not hugely familiar to players used to the more commonplace Bigsby, Fender or Gibson units. Interesting factoid – around 2 decades before Music Man famously went with asymmetric 4+2 tuner layouts on its guitars, Gretsch did it on the mid-60s Corvette – here’s the evidence (NB. So did Japanese manufacturer, Teisco!). Aesthetically, I am drawn to this idiosyncratic approach rather than the more familiar (read ‘predictably boring’) Gibson-esque 3+3 used on so many guitars. The fingerboard is quite wide and flat compared to, say Fenders of the era, so easy to play. 

This exquisite guitar plays as well as it looks, with a sparkling, jangly resonant sound that, while it isn’t perhaps as evocative as its more illustrious Gretsch sibling, it is distinctive in a way that differentiates it from ‘mainstream’ guitars by Fender and Gibson. Anyone familiar with the CRAVE Guitars’ ethos will understand where I’m coming from. Gretsch has wisely reissued the Corvette for the new millennium as an off-shore produced budget model, suggesting that there is growing interest in the ‘alternative’ side of Gretsch instruments. GOOD!

This beautiful little vintage guitar was made by the family-owned Gretsch company in Brooklyn, New York, USA before the firm was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company in 1967, a move that ultimately led to the brand’s decline and subsequent demise. Pre‑Baldwin Gretsch guitars are now becoming much more sought after, and prices will increase accordingly. Why not find out more about Gretsch’s long history as a guitar brand (since 1883) by taking a look at the CRAVE Guitars feature on Gretsch (click here to see brand feature…). Thankfully, Gretsch’s fortunes have recovered strongly since the 1990s and the brand is successfully resurgent under Fender’s paternalistic wing. Hopefully, the classic ‘T-roof’ Gretsch logo will grace fabulous guitars for many years to come. 

Thanks for your interest in cool vintage guitars in 2015. CRAVE Guitars is now looking forward to 2016 and wondering where we will be a year from now. In the meantime, I’m off to ‘plink my planks’. Peace and Love to the world before it’s too late. Until next time…   P.S. Keep an eye on the CRAVE Guitars ‘For Sale’ web page with links to any active eBay items (click here to see CRAVE’s ‘for sale’ items). 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “If music be the food of love, plug in, turn up the volume and head bang the hell out of it like there’s no tomorrow!” 

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2015 – Vintage Guitar Supply and Demand

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If you’ve followed my recent posts, you’ll know that I have been looking around for cool and rare American vintage electric guitars (and basses) again recently. Nothing new in the way of CRAVE Guitars stock to report this month, so it is an opportunity to reflect and pontificate, as well as to share my biased opinion on our shared hobby again.

As part of my on-going research, I regularly check a well-known auction site beginning with ‘e’. One thing that I have noticed is that many prices are now escalating at least back to where they were pre-recession and often higher. The rate of increase also seems to be accelerating but inconsistently so, which makes the market uncertain. While the general upward trend might be good news for investors at the genuinely rare instrument end of the market, it is also putting some great, and even some ordinary, vintage guitars beyond the means of your average amateur collector or re‑seller. It seems predictable that fickle speculators will soon jump on the bandwagon (again) and what would otherwise have been considered run-of-the-mill instruments will hit stratospheric levels (again). The dreaded ‘boom and bust’ cycle looms ugly (again), which isn’t good for anyone. The upper extremes are more to do with damnable greed and detestable avarice – commonly called rampant capitalism – the economic law of supply and demand in a free market. At more modest levels the pressures are seemingly more complex.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that, while the ‘common’ models are still relatively numerous, some of the more esoteric, niche guitars are often nowhere to be seen these days. This may suggest that people are hanging onto their valued old guitars, rather than putting them out to the unpredictable market, especially risky in an online auction environment. The result of this anomaly is that prices are increasing due to an artificial rarity factor – the supply dries up while the demand increases, making some less popular instruments disproportionately and unsustainably pricey. To test out this hypothesis, I have been looking for some slightly more unusual instruments and they can be really hard to find, resulting in some diverse and frankly crazy price differentials, especially compared to new guitar prices. However, you can still get a nice late vintage guitar (which will go up in price in the medium to long-term) for less than a new one (which is likely to depreciate for the next 20 or so years). That, at least is still good news for many of us preferring used instruments.

So… my next step was to look further afield. When comparing the UK with the US and Canada, there is, understandably, more choice in that much larger continent (and birthplace of our beloved classics). At first glance they can seem to be offered at an attractive price. However, when taking exchange rates (currently not good for importing from the US into the UK), international delivery, import duties, national taxes, handling fees and insurance (if you can afford it!), importing isn’t the bargain it first seems, especially as HMRC has tightened up the process significantly compared to a few years ago. Other markets, like mainland Europe, Australia, Japan, etc. are relatively inconsequential to the US/UK trade. Asian and Russian trade is certain to increase. In summary, importing is still worth a look though, as long as you do your research first. The Epiphone Olympic below was my last costly import from Canada.

1966 Epiphone Olympic
1966 Epiphone Olympic

Coming back to that well known auction site for a moment, the word ‘auction’ seems to be largely a misnomer these days. Actual auctions where you can bag yourself a bargain vintage guitar are now a frustrating rarity. ‘Buy It Now’ (BiN) seems to be the default option for most high value sellers. This means that many a cheap purchase can turn out to be risky and ‘Best Offers’ are rarely a source of great joy. Also, that heart thumping, sweat inducing, adrenalin pumping rush of the last few minutes…and seconds of a bidding frenzy for a desirable vintage guitar that you really, really, really want seems to be becoming a thing of the past. That’s a shame if you ask me, as a lot of the fun has gone by the wayside. BiN prices often seem to be set high initially and guitars sit there until the ‘real’ market value catches up, so there are quite a few that hang around until people see them as affordable. My inference is that, while it may be fine and convenient for one-off purchases, it is no longer a great source for a fledgling business enterprise on a tight budget, as precious net profits can rapidly be eroded. This applies to both buying and selling. This is probably similar to other ‘collector sectors’ such as classic cars, so I guess we adapt and move on.

Fender and Gibson still dominate with Gretsch and Rickenbacker hot on their tails, as well as early PRSs. Don’t forget other classic brands like Danelectro, National, Vox, Guild or Burns. Japanese originals from Yamaha and Ibanez are increasingly collectable too. There are plenty of whacky vintage guitars from minor brands, often long since demised, Supro, Silvertone, Teisco, Harmony, Kay, etc. that can prove real bargains if you’re careful. If you are into acoustics, Martin is still probably the most reliable bet.

So, where does this leave us in the post-recession world? Not as much choice when buying and what there is, is of variable value. The desirable instruments that we might aspire to are becoming increasingly exclusive again, except for the affluent in the vintage guitar community. Looking to the future, prices look set to rise inevitably and keep rising inexorably thereafter, until the next bubble bursts. The high end (i.e. occupied by the super-rich) will carry on regardless of global economics but that’s hardly the rarefied atmosphere us ordinary mortals will ever find ourselves in. There are bargains out there but, as ever, you have to seek them out and auction sites are as good as any other source. If you’re after a return on investment on a newer guitar, you may have to wait a while, so why not enjoy playing them in the meantime? In conclusion, if you want to get your hands on a lovely vintage guitar at a reasonable price and if you can find a good one, go for it while you can. Good luck. Thanks for reading this article.

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars

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