July 2020 – More Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

Prelude

HELLO AND WELCOME to the second half of 2020 for what it’s worth. The fact that most of us meek hominids have made it this far is surely a good thing (for mankind, if not the planet), despite the best efforts of coronageddon. At the time of writing there are over 17 million confirmed cases and 667,000 deaths recorded globally due to coronavirus and sadly the numbers are still rising. I hope you are surviving amongst the mercenary madness. Thoughts, as always, lie with those affected directly and indirectly. Also, it is important to recognise the detrimental effects of the COVID pandemic on mental health & wellbeing; the risk of long‑term psychosis is a concern, worse because it cannot be seen and is rarely disclosed as an issue. Civilisation still has some way to go before it can prove resilient to the virus and worthy enough to survive as a species.

Before further ado, let’s move forward to the past. In the last article, I covered the key acquisitions made by CRAVE Guitars during 2019. As signposted last time, this month I’ll be covering the experience of repatriating 42 guitars and basses (40 of them vintage) after an extended period in enforced storage and bringing them back to as good a shape as they can be. None of the guitars covered here were featured in last month’s article, so there is no overlap between the two.

What are we actually talking about here?

As a reminder, here is the full list of the guitars that eventually returned home (by brand/alphabetic order):

Vintage Fender guitars (13):
  • 1966 Fender Coronado II
  • 1965 Fender Duo-Sonic II
  • 1965 Fender Jaguar
  • 1965 Fender Jazzmaster
  • 1965 Fender Musicmaster II
  • 1966 Fender Mustang
  • 1972 Fender Mustang Competition
  • 1977 Fender Stratocaster
  • 1983 Fender Stratocaster ‘Dan Smith’ Era
  • 1988 Fender Telecaster
  • 1974 Fender Telecaster Custom
  • 1973 Fender Telecaster Deluxe
  • 1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline
1966 Fender Coronado
Vintage Gibson guitars (20):
  • 1983 Gibson Corvus II
  • 1963 Gibson ES-330 TDC
  • 1985 Gibson ES-335 Dot
  • 1983 Gibson Explorer
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer
  • 1982 Gibson Explorer CMT/E2
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer Custom Shop Edition
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer ‘Union Jack’
  • 1976 Gibson Firebird Bicentennial
  • 1966 Gibson Firebird III
  • 1980 Gibson Flying V2
  • 1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom
  • 1977 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top
  • 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • 1964 Gibson Melody Maker
  • 1961 Gibson Melody Maker D
  • 1982 Gibson Moderne Korina Heritage
  • 1981 Gibson RD Artist
  • 1965 Gibson SG Junior
  • 1968 Gibson SG Standard
1981 Gibson RD Artist
Vintage other brand guitars (5):
  • 1966 Epiphone Olympic
  • 1962 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Double Cutaway Hollowbody
  • 1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette
  • 1974 Rickenbacker 480
  • 1964 Silvertone 1449 ‘Amp in Case’
1974 Rickenbacker 480
Vintage basses (2):
  • 1977 Fender Precision Fretless Bass
  • 1978 Music Man Stingray Bass
1978 Music Man Stingray Bass
Non-vintage guitars (2):
  • 2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • 1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC
1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC

Many purists may assert that some of these aren’t ‘vintage’. However, that is a debate for another time and place (and has actually been deliberated upon in previous articles). CRAVE Guitars’ cut‑off point is currently the end of 1989, i.e. over 30 years old.

While I might bloviate limitlessly about these musical devices, you will probably be relieved that I won’t be going through each of the guitars in sequence and in forensic detail. Rather, I will try to relate the key headlines, the highs and lows, the learning points and any resultant implications arising from the exercise.

At the time of writing, 38 vintage guitars have been given a well-deserved cossetting and these are the ones I’ll be covering here. The only ones remaining are the two vintage bass guitars, which I dread will both need some expert remedial work, as well as the two newer guitars (1998 and 2002). These remaining instruments will get the treatment they require in due course but now is the time to reflect on the significant work done on the major assets. I abhor calling them that but in this context, I guess that’s what they are.

Where they went and how they returned

In this first section, I may reiterate some points I’ve previously covered, so for regular readers, please forgive me for repeating myself. The elephant in the room is… ‘why?’.

I have to admit that the events that led to ‘here & now’ include a very dark period for me and the impact of the hardship still deeply affects me to my core. I won’t go into the detail of the circumstances, suffice to say that I lost pretty much everything back in 2011 and rapidly had to find a temporary home, not only for us as a family, but also for most of my guitars, which at that time was around 37 of them.

My first job was to document what was going away as best as I could, which included photographs and a comprehensive database covering each guitar. Fortunately for me, a good friend was able to find a safe space for them and they were stored away in a dry and reasonably ventilated roof space. Certainly not the ideal conditions for temperature and humidity but when desperate needs must, it was a saviour of momentous proportions and for which I will be eternally grateful. At least we live in a cool temperate zone, so the swings in climate could be a lot worse.

I had hoped to get back on my feet in a matter of just a few months, however that turned into a year and then several years until they were brought back home in 2019. I felt truly bad about the imposition on my friend and very fearful about what deterioration might be taking place in a less than perfect environment over an extended period of confinement. At least the guitars were all in cases of one sort or other, offering some degree of protection. During the lengthy hiatus, some guitars were retrieved, others swapped out and some were interred. Some of them, however, spent the full 7‑8 years in horrible exile.

We eventually relocated into a new home in the SW of the UK in 2017. When we moved, a few of the newer non‑vintage gear had to be sold off to preserve the core vintage items. A year after our move, my friend also moved home, staying in the SE of England. It was that combination of events that led to ‘the 42’ and I being reunited at long last in January 2019. A specialist haulage company charged the Earth for the pleasure of transporting them 200‑odd miles but at least they arrived OK. I had originally planned to refurbish our damp, dark cellar to make a new home for the guitars first but, as is usually our luck, circumstances got in the way and now I’m living amongst many stacked guitar cases. At least they are always close to hand.

Repatriation Guitar Cases

I knew that it wasn’t just going to be a case of unpacking and playing them as if nothing had happened, so I set about planning a very unhurried and practical approach to assessment and reconditioning. There was no set order to this process; it was very much a case of starting at the beginning and working through in whatever order they happened to be in. Now, in July 2020, I have worked through all the key returnees.

Nevertheless, it has taken over 18 months to complete the programme of refurbishment to this point. Not a quick procedure but not rushed either. I always felt that it would be better to take it easy rather than potentially to make things worse by jumping in too enthusiastically. They are already old, a little longer doesn’t matter.

General Condition

Thankfully, all the guitars were in cases, although the condition of each case varied greatly. Some cases are good and strong, while others have various signs of wear and tear and some are very tatty and weak, providing hardly any physical protection but better than nothing. The oblong cases were far easier to accommodate, being easier and safer to stack, unlike the shaped ones.

The first thing to notice was a predictable coating of general entropy. A lot of people pay a lot of money for genuine old dust and grime (heehee), so the cases stay as they are, as testament to the trials and tribulations to which they had been exposed. I am not one of those snobbish ‘collector’ types that insist on everything being perfect and as‑new. I fully understand that I am only a temporary custodian in their long lifespan that in some cases started before I was born and which most likely will well outlast me. This part of their existence has at least been documented for all to see. It is all part of our collective heritage, albeit a miniscule representation.

Opening each case for the first time and taking each guitar out was the point of maximum trepidation and anxiety, rather than excitement. On initial release, each one was given a cursory once over to see if there was any immediate and obvious appreciable damage. I can report that, so far, that no appreciable impairment has occurred to any of the guitars during stasis. No significant issues requiring immediate corrective work were noticed, which was a massive relief. Phew!

One thing common to many, if not all, guitars was an unidentified surface film/smear, despite being effectively protected from too many outside elements. There were also signs of varying degrees of oxidation and/or corrosion to some metal parts although, again, nothing particularly serious. Most of these ‘issues’ would be rectified by a sensitive clean. A few guitars seemed to have more nitrocellulose weather checking than I remember. Whether this was a result of inaccurate memory or a genuine reaction to environmental factors, I cannot be absolutely sure. While finish crazing can add mojo to a vintage guitar, I’d rather not intentionally make it worse, so I was a bit despondent on that front, as the crazing process is irreversible. So, job number 1 would be a thorough deep cleaning – not enough to ruin the genuine patina of age but just to bring the finish back to life and protect it for the future.

1984 Gibson Explorer

The next thing was a quick acoustic strum and noodle before plugging them in. All of them were strung at full tension to preserve the neck relief but the strings themselves showed various degrees of corrosion and were horribly sticky to the touch. What surprised me was that about 80% of them were still in tune. Impressive. They sounded dead and lifeless though, even acoustically. So, job number 2 would be a full restring and setup for each of them.

Each guitar was then plugged in to an amp to test the instrument’s electrics. This is, sadly, where the most obvious degradation was evident across the board. Initially, some showed no signs of electrical life at all, which was a concern. Others had annoyingly intermittent noisy signals, many had rough scratchy pots, iffy crackly switches and raucous jittery jack sockets. I don’t think that any permanent failures occurred although they clearly needed to be seen to before they could be used in earnest. To be honest, with unkempt electrics and long dead strings, they generally sounded awful compared to how they should be. Not a promising initial analysis. So, job number 3 would be to go over the electrics where necessary to return them to usable operation.

That’s about it. Thankfully, there were no major concerns other than any reservations I might have had anyway (these are vintage guitars after all). The appearance could easily be resolved through some sensitive tender loving care (TLC). The electrics, I was pretty sure could be cleaned up and just used. Restringing and setting them up properly would, I hope give them a new lease of life. Phase 1 sorted then – just 3 key straightforward tasks for each guitar plus anything specifically identified on each one as they went through the TLC procedure.

Playability

As mentioned above, straight out of storage, pretty much every guitar felt dead and lifeless with little resonance from the bodies. Anyone who has followed CRAVE Guitars over the years knows that it is my firm belief that guitars should never be kept as mere trinkets and they need to be played regularly. The guitars seemed to agree wholeheartedly with this observation, as they were telling me loud and clear that they didn’t appreciate not being used for so long. It makes me wonder how many would‑be collectors are put off vintage guitars because they try one out in this unprepared state and then presume that they are all like that.

As I wasn’t in a hurry, I experimented with my approach to this zombie‑like phenomenon. They are just bits of wood, metal and plastic after all; why should a period of abandonment make that much difference? What is it that makes the difference? I decided to take some amateur and idle investigation a little further.

1983 Gibson Corvus

Some guitars I stripped down straight away, while others I decided to play for a while before reconditioning them. The interesting thing is that they didn’t need cleaning or restringing to bring them back to some resemblance of vitality, they simply needed playing for a while. Even with ratty old strings, tarnished finish and creaky electronics, they surprisingly would recover much of their vibrancy after a few days of being used. Some needed more teasing than others – no surprise there. This doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be made even better. Those that were given some TLC first seemed to spring back a bit quicker and stronger with fresh strings on board.

Most of the guitars did not need much in the way of set up to restore their playability. Not one needed a truss rod adjustment (phew!). I suppose the necks have been OK for several decades and they had already settled into how they should be. However, restringing gave an opportunity to check action, nut, bridge saddles, intonation and pickup height to fine tune them. A couple needed appropriate lubrication for the nut, bridge and tuners but not much. Time for some D’Addario/Planet Waves ‘LubriKit Friction Remover’, especially on vibrato‑equipped instruments. Just a few simple things made a lot of difference.

However, getting back to the point, the biggest difference to usability was simply to play them for a while. The comparison between ‘before’ and ‘after’ was remarkable in almost every instance. I’m sure that there must be scientific reasons but I’m not clear in my mind what actual cause and effect is going on here.

General TLC

This is the bit of maintenance that I’m probably best at – the simple stuff. I have mentioned quite a few times that my practical guitar tech skills are limited. What I can do though, is to give guitars a thorough pampering. The first thing is to take the old strings off (and recycle them). Some needed a bit of extra dismantling, for instance to get at the electrics, to shim a bolt‑on neck or to capture neck/body codes and document internal condition.

Cleaning is a relatively straightforward and painless process but it does make a huge difference to aesthetics. If there were specific reasons to do so, I might start off using T‑Cut judiciously to get through thick grime or smooth out some minor scratch marks. However, T‑Cut isn’t recommended to use on vintage guitars but it can help in some circumstances, as long as one is very careful. I have tried other abrasive products with varying degrees of success.

Most of the cleaning process was done using my guitar maintenance ‘system’ of choice, which is D’Addario/Planet Waves products.

More gentle than T‑Cut is D’Addario’s ‘Step 1 Restore: Detailer’, which is good for restoring the underlying nitrocellulose finish without ruining the natural aging and patina that develops over many years. It also helps to reduce minor swirl or plectrum marks, giving a nice healthy overall sheen. The degree of elbow grease required depended on each guitar and it is worth it.

After leaving the finish for a day to stabilise, I then used D’Addario’s ‘Step 2 Protect: Guitar Wax’, which uses premium quality Brazilian carnauba wax to give it a lovely finish and protect it for the future. As a wax, I’m uncertain as to how effective it actually is on nitrocellulose or polyester finishes but I figured that it certainly can’t do any harm. It is important here not to use anything that contains silicon or other unhelpful contaminants.

At this point, I would stop and not use D’Addario’s ‘Step 3 Shine: Spray Cleaner’ unless I continued to play the guitar for some time. It is ideal for use when a guitar needs a quick spruce up after playing, before putting it back into its case and/or moving onto the next one.

Plenty of people prefer other maintenance systems such as Dunlop’s excellent cleaning products. I just prefer the ’Addario/Planet Waves’ products. It may seem like I’m promoting and/or recommending their products, I’m not – it just works for me. They are quite expensive per millilitre but I think worth it on balance.

All rosewood and ebony fingerboards needed a good clean and multiple applications of lemon oil (which, incidentally, ain’t what it used to be!). Here, I use Kyser Lemon Oil, now that I’ve run out of my old good stuff, which it seems you can’t get any more. I’m still looking for something better though. Maple fingerboards only needed the same cleaning as for body/neck finish and it is important not to use lemon oil on lacquered maple fingerboards.

The condition of frets unsurprisingly varied from guitar to guitar, especially in the lower ‘cowboy chord’ frets. A few will require expert fret work at some point but not immediately. There were a few signs of rough surface corrosion. At its worst, rust build up could be removed using very fine grade wet & dry paper, whereas routine sprucing up could be achieved with fine wire wool depending on condition. For a final gleam, I used D’Addario’s ‘Fret Polishing System’. Visually, it does make a difference and it makes playing much nicer, especially when string bending in the higher registers.

Most of the other metalwork was OK and nothing needed anything radical. One has to be careful on gold, chrome or nickel plating, not to abrade the surface too much, so a gentle application of Brasso Metal Polish wadding was usually enough to remove surface tarnish and restore a nice metallic shine. I didn’t need to go further and use something harsher like Solvol Autosol on any guitar metalwork.

The crackly, glitchy, scratchy electrical components, including the usual pots, switches and jack sockets were mostly solved with a dose of electrical contact cleaner and repeated use to clean the surfaces. Here, I use Tone Electro-Sound Guitar Pick-Up & Electronic Cleaner, which is expensive but cheaper than the class leader, DeoxIT. There were a few remaining electrical problems that will require soldering and/or replacement parts/wires but nothing requiring immediate attention. As they were mostly OK when they went into confinement, it was really only new issues that will need sorting out.

1965 Fender Duo-Sonic II

As I’m sure most guitarists will attest, new strings are a key part of the playing experience. Here, I am very pragmatic and don’t insist on a ‘must have’ type of string. I am certainly not a string snob, opting for some (expensive) esoteric boutique product that needs changing after every play. Frankly, I can’t tell the difference. What I will mention is that it requires a level of investment to restring 40+ guitars, especially without ready access to bulk buying as a regular end‑consumer.

For Stratocasters with a vibrato block, I generally use Fender Bullets 10‑46 gauge. For most standard scale guitars, I use Ernie Ball Regular Slinky 10‑46 gauge. For short scale guitars or ones that benefit from a little extra string tension, I’ll go up to Ernie Ball Power Slinky 11-48 gauge. For the Gibson ES‑150, I haven’t decided on a suitable string set yet but it will probably need something like 12-56 semi‑flat wound strings to give it the necessary volume, warmth and resonance that it deserves. With the dreaded Brexit negotiations and no clear trade deals with either the European Union or the U.S.A. (or anyone else for that matter), I may decide to migrate to British‑made Rotosound strings for general use.

A final buffing with a lint‑free duster keeps the guitar’s finish nicely clean and shiny. No guitars are going back into long‑term storage and all will be played regularly over time. They aren’t on constant display and are kept indoors in their cases when not being played.

Remedial Work

Most of the guitars were in pretty good condition when they were stored away, so they didn’t go into incarceration with (m)any outstanding issues. Fortunately, they also came home in pretty good condition too. As mentioned above, I think both basses need some expert attention to their necks. I can’t be sure what issues they may have or what may be required but it is probably best to leave that to the experts.

There are a few guitars that do need electrical work doing, once again, anything beyond cleaning up contacts is best left to the experts. Some have intermittent problems (hums, crackles) or weak signals. On some, the balance of tones doesn’t seem right and could do with investigation. Perhaps some combination of new pots, switches, wires, capacitors, jack sockets, solder joints, etc. may be required.

If replacements and/or repairs are needed, where possible, these will be vintage correct. However, finding genuine vintage parts in the UK is a big issue and importing them is disproportionately expensive, so it isn’t something to be taken on lightly. In several instances, I may have to be pragmatic and replace faulty vintage parts with newer quality equivalents. After all, it is better to have guitars working properly, otherwise they are just planks of wood, bits of metal and plastic that won’t get played. Things like vintage pots can always be fitted retrospectively if need be.

Apart from the basses, not one of the guitars suffered neck problems, which I am genuinely amazed at. I guess they were old and settled anyway. Certainly no fretwork will be needed other than some basic levelling, crowning and polishing. I wish it was something I felt more confident about doing myself but I know that, if I made a mistake, it would undoubtedly be worse than when I started. Best left to a competent technician.

None, thankfully, require any finish work. I would prefer to leave any worn finish, dinks, scuffs, scratches or other marks as they are, rather than refinish a guitar and ruin its authenticity. Besides, I am smitten by the untold stories behind the genuine blemishes and imperfections that give them character. These are not new guitars and neither should they look it. Neither are they museum pieces, so the ravages of daily use are important to both their integrity and charm.

I only have one refinished guitar, which is CRAVE Guitars’ ‘signature’ 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard. The guitar came to me when it was about two years old and had significant buckle rash on the back. For a while, it was finished in natural before being refinished again in a beautiful cherry sunburst. If you are wondering, it was originally a dark tobacco sunburst. At the time, as a teenager, I didn’t know any better and had absolutely no idea that in several decades that I would a) still have the guitar or b) value original finishes. Oh well. One lives and learns.

1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard

Guitar cases are a different matter. Some of the very old ‘cardboard’ cases are pretty tatty and there is not much that can be done about that. A number of cases have broken latches or missing handles and I would like to work through these to make them at least usable. Sourcing vintage or OEM NOS parts and restoring the hardware isn’t easy, as latches, hinges and handles were mainly riveted on, rather than screwed. Again, this isn’t entirely necessary or urgent, so it can be a project for a future date. Mostly, they are best left as they originally came to me.

Parts and Accessories

There are a few guitars that have had newer parts fitted at some point (not by me, I might add!). Some of these examples could do with sensitive conservation by using vintage original replacement parts. None of this is necessary or urgent so, like several other jobs, it can be done over time as opportunities present themselves. Messing with them or modifying them is not on my agenda.

Case candy is always nice to have but I don’t go out of my way to acquire it, if it wasn’t original to the guitar. Authenticity matters here. We have more than enough fake news and phoney history to contend with, without adding unnecessary doubt to the origins of the guitars.

Some have optional parts missing, for instance, my 1977 Fender Stratocaster doesn’t have its original bridge cover but, let’s face it, does it really matter? It may be another ‘nice to have’ but it serves absolutely no beneficial function.

1977 Fender Stratocaster

Many of the guitars have their original cases but, similarly, many came to me with non‑original or modern cases. While I might like to get vintage original cases for some guitars, that can be inordinately expensive and it kinda messes with originality. Another ‘nice to have’ but not essential. If an occasion comes along to conserve the instrument better, I’ll consider it as and when. It really is the contents that matter.

If I’ve done my buying well in the first place, the acquisition of parts and accessories to restore a guitar to as close to its original condition generally aren’t needed. There are always exceptions to each rule, so it’s on a case‑by‑case basis.

Documentation and Photographs

By now, you’ll have hopefully concluded that they are all in more‑or‑less acceptable playable condition. Everything else is a bonus.

All that is left to do is to document each guitar at this particular point in time. As mentioned above, when the guitars went into storage, they were photographed and their individual characteristics logged onto a comprehensive database. Now, several years later, some of the details on the database can be updated and, where information was missing, new data can be added.

CRAVE Guitars – Database

New photographs have been taken for historical evidence and also added to the database. In the event of some potential future catastrophe such as theft or damage, all the necessary details will be available. Many of the same photographs can also be used on the web site to go with new all‑new features that have been written. I will come back to the web site in due course, so that’s enough on that front for the time being.

In addition, and perhaps more interestingly, this article and the documentation are all part of each these guitars’ long life stories and something that can go with them if and when they ever get passed on. Perhaps for the first time in their long lives, there is a written and photographic moment‑in‑time record for these wonderful heritage artefacts. This extensive task is still only partially completed but there is no ‘burning bridge’ imperative to hurry the task and it can be done at leisure.

The one I couldn’t put down

Rediscovering these lovely vintage guitars all over again was a real pleasure and there weren’t really any major surprises or disappointments. I wasn’t planning on comparing or ranking the returnees. There was, however, one guitar that stood out above all the rest during the process.

It was… drum roll please… the cool 1965 Fender Jazzmaster. It is an all‑original, pre‑CBS standard sunburst Jazzmaster, so there is nothing particularly unusual about it to differentiate it from any other of the period. Once it was resurrected, fairly nearly the end of the programme, it was the one that I just couldn’t put down and I kept playing and playing if for several weeks before I was compelled to move on. The Jazzmaster must have had some fairy dust sprinkled on it for it to stand out from very tough competition.

1965 Fender Jazzmaster

I consider myself to be very fortunate not only to have had all the guitars but also to re‑experience them for a second time. I am therefore largely content with my lot, despite the hellish privations in getting through the wicked times to this redemptive point.

What next?

Well, the obvious next thing to do is to play and enjoy them. That is, after all, the whole point of having these things in the first place, isn’t it? They can’t all be played at once, so organising them so that they can have equal opportunity for playtime will be important.

That brings us back to an oft‑repeated bugbear of mine, which is my priority to refurbish the house’s currently unused cellar to make a safe and secure home for them all. In the meantime, they are arranged not too badly, so they can be accessed without too much heavy lifting.

While I have worked through the vast majority of the repatriated guitars, these only represent about two thirds of all the instruments here at CRAVE Guitars. There are also the other 24 guitars (and counting), some of which could well do with the same sort of pampering that the returnees have had, and some also need similar remedial work to, for instance, frets, electrics, etc.

1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG

I think the cycle of TLC is a continuous one. Once one cycle has been finished, it will be time to start another one. It is a bit like the metaphor of ‘painting the Forth Bridge’, i.e. an on‑going, repetitive and never ending process. Almost the definition of Sisyphean. At least it is a pedestrian task that I can enjoy as therapy from the mad, mad world unravelling outside my little hikikomorian bubble.

While the focus of this article has been on the guitars, there are also effect pedals and amplifiers that need regular attention and some of which were repatriated alongside the guitars. The same basic principles apply to keeping them in tip‑top shape, even though their needs are different.

I don’t need to sell any guitars although a bit of rationalising and trading up may actually be a good idea. The thing is that I’m not one of those people who regularly buys and sells to keep a constant flow of ‘new’ (to me) guitars coming through. I tend to grow an attachment to guitars, and especially these guitars that have been through so much at my expense. There is maybe a small number that I could part with to make space for something else. It’s just whether I can break the emotional ties. Oh, that and the impending global recession will undoubtedly have a bearing on matters.

There will also inevitably be further additions to the ‘collection’ in due course. I can’t see it getting smaller but I can certainly envisage it getting bigger. However, due to the finite constraints of space, time and money, buying anything else is on hold for a while out of plain old and boring necessity.

Help Needed

I mentioned in the last article that vintage guitars, effects and amps need expert attention from time to time to keep them working at their best, so this is basically a reiteration. If there is someone out there with the requisite skillset to help maintain these treasures, and who is local to SE Cornwall in the UK, I would be interested in exploring opportunities. Is there anyone out there attracted to the proposition? If there is, please contact me at the e-mail address at the bottom of every page on the website.

Learning points

Well, having gone through all of the above, I must have learned something, right?

Probably the most important lesson is simply, ‘don’t do what I did’. Don’t store guitars away for long periods, especially in inappropriate environmental conditions. I couldn’t help what happened to me and I did what I had to do using my best judgement at the time. In retrospect, I am not sure what I could have done differently and retain the guitars. I ‘swear to God’ that I don’t ever want to go through that experience again.

The second lesson is ‘to take your time and not rush in’. To do so would risk the integrity of the guitars. After all that time away, a few more weeks waiting to be sorted out made no difference in the big picture. A measured approach worked wonders and also took a lot of the potential stress out of the process. In effect, instead of a single insurmountable task, breaking it down into manageable steps made it more of a therapeutic and cathartic exercise.

The third lesson is to ‘do what you can and do not do any more’. Leave the other stuff to the experts. Be prudent and cautious about what you undertake. Any foolish actions might well prove to be irreversible and therefore regrettable. One also really doesn’t want to make them look like new; they are old and they are meant to look and feel that way. Conserving these artefacts is important, while preserving them (proverbially ‘pickling them in aspic’) is not. Sensitive refurbishment means accepting that what they are is a direct result of what happened to them and to be happy about it. That doesn’t, however, mean that they should now be neglected all over again. They can be played, enjoyed, maintained and kept in good condition, no problem. They’ve survived this long; my job is to ensure that they survive for a long time after me.

That is really it. Three fundamental, profound and straightforward learning points. Simples! The vista of glorious vintage guitars has been re‑opened to me, so that is one thing to celebrate for sure. The haptic experience of playing these gracefully aging instruments has been restored at long last.

Tailpiece

So, that represents some of their story, revealed at long last. After a year‑and‑a‑half, I can finally say that I am relatively pleased with how things are and no longer over‑anxious about what I might find. Why am I not over the moon? Any overwhelming joy or excitement has been surpassed by the detriment of the past decade that I cannot obliviate.

There is still plenty to do, even in one’s splendidly isolated silo of virus‑induced exile. The short‑term aim is largely to continue on the path already set, while also looking forward more ambitiously to the medium‑to‑long‑term future. I have a plan; it is executing the plan that is the problem. That, ultimately, comes down to filthy lucre.

Anyway, that’s two out of the three catch‑up topics now dealt with. I hope you’ll be willing and able to return for another tasty course of ‘whazzup’ delights next month.

Stay safe and hope you continue to survive the coronapocalypse. Remember that the basis of karma is to ‘be good and do good’. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Addiction to false beliefs is equivalent to wronging the world’s rights”

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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February 2019 – A General Update

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

Hello again guitar fans and welcome to anyone else who may be curious about the big wide world of guitar addiction and obsession. As the great Jimi Hendrix once proclaimed, “Music is a safe kind of high”, so I’m happy to admit my perennial affliction. I trust that 2019 is treating you all well as we begin the move from dreary winter into nascent springtime.

I don’t have any particular theme for this month, so apologies in advance are probably due for what seems to be a generally incoherent rambling round up of various bits and pieces thrown together. One beneficial consequence is that this is a shorter tome than some.

State of Guitarville 2019

In the grand scheme of things, the guitar‑centric sector of the wider music industry is a relatively small but vibrant arena. While the general shrinking and decline of the ‘business’ continues well into the post‑recession era, the core elements seem in fairly good health overall. There is cautious optimism out there within the context of an unpredictable and challenging operating environment. There has been some progress since this time last year but not as much as many commentators might have wished.

Even though I wasn’t at the event, Winter NAMM 2019 held at the end of January in Anaheim, California saw a lot of activity and relatively good business was done. There were few ground‑shaking announcements at the convention but there was the usual excitement about shiny new gear from established brands. It was reassuring to see Gibson back at NAMM after their absence in 2018 and their new CEO is making all the right noises about what to expect from the company. Let’s hope that good intentions translate into achieving the right balance between quality and price, along with appropriate innovations alongside traditional instrument manufacturing. It is interesting that some of the more contentious technologies that were being used to reposition Gibson as a lifestyle company are now likely to be jettisoned in order to re‑establish confidence about, and a focus on, what really matters to their customers.

It is hardly a surprise that digital continues to make significant inroads into the analogue domain that has been the bedrock for so many generations of musicians across the globe. With the influx of ever more convincing digital inventions, one really does have to wonder how long analogue will remain the force it has been up to now. At some point, even the most hardened of luddites will be lured to make the jump either by the metaphorical lure of the carrot or the fear of the stick. There is still some way to go before all the components in a guitarist’s signal chain provide everything that the working professional musician needs for writing, rehearsal, live and recording settings.

The advantage for CRAVE Guitars and many other vintage enthusiasts is that we generally don’t need to worry about learning the operational demands and subtleties of this new‑fangled complex digital stuff and we can stick with what worked for us when we started out, complete with all its charming analogue idiosyncrasies (?!?!). One day, soon, digital will be the default and vintage gear will become a bit like vinyl records in there will be a market for it, even if it ultimately becomes a niche for nerdy specialists. For up‑and‑coming musicians who may not know any different, though, the current‑day smorgasbord of choice is phenomenal and, although the value‑for‑money equation on some equipment can be debated, the benefits are there to be discovered and exploited.

My sense, at the beginning of 2019 is that there is a degree of consolidation in design, manufacturing, marketing and distribution. The on‑going battleground between ‘brick & mortar’ retail and Internet business is still bitterly being fought out. At some point, an equilibrium will be reached where both channels will co‑exist, even if it means that the retail experience will be different from how it is now. Many consumers still greatly value going into a physical store, looking at, trying out and talking about equipment, so they will endure, even if those establishments have to offer other value‑added services on top of the traditional mainstay of shop floor sales. Companies that rely heavily on Internet operations will find overheads increasing, margins tightening and profitability harder to come by, thereby impacting sustainability and beginning to level the playing field a bit.

As far as guitars are concerned, as mentioned above, Gibson is poised for resurgence and Fender seem to be on their game and producing some very competent and attractive models at all price points. PRS are on a creative stretch of their own and doing OK judging by headlines. Gretsch, Rickenbacker and Danelectro also seem to be faring well, perhaps needing a bit of additional cool vibe to secure their future. Rejuvenated brands like Supro and Harmony are aiming to join the ranks as ‘go to’ guitars, while many other familiar names are managing to stay afloat. Acoustically, Martin and Taylor are both actively vying for top dog status with new innovations, which ultimately means some great guitars for the consumer. The last 12 months has seen some small‑scale luthiers go under or simply disappear, which is regrettable but, sadly, not surprising given the volatile international economics of the industry.

In the amp arena, there are three major directions of travel; a) the relentless digital onslaught from the likes of Fractal, Kemper and Line6 among others, b) ranges of very good valve and solid amps from the mainstream names such as Fender, Marshall, Vox, Orange and others, including some faithful reissues of classic models, and c) the continued rise of boutique builders catering for individual tastes in small numbers. We guitarists are, though, a conservative breed. It seems that the valve is dead, long live the valve!

One area where digital is revolutionising sound is on the pedalboard, which is a current ‘big thing’. There are some astoundingly inventive ways of mangling your guitar tone, both in variations of established FX types and some intriguing all‑new creations that take advantage of digital technology. Some exciting products are appearing from the likes of Catalinbread, Strymon, Eventide, Fulltone, Thorpy, Keeley, Electro‑Harmonix and Wampler, to name just a few. If you prefer multi‑effect pedals, then you are likely to have stalwarts like Line6, Boss and Zoom in your sights. Then there are pedalboard switching systems to help you organise your complex myriad of stompers, e.g. the Gig Rig 2 and Headrush. Likewise, the ever‑improving pedalboard power supplies derive from companies such as Truetone, Voodoo Labs and MXR. Looking from the outside, there are some tremendous bits of alluring kit becoming available, way beyond the vision of manufacturers and musicians back in the 20th Century when digital was just starting out. Whatever your budget, the choice, it seems, is yours.

Music publications across the board, including the trade press, are still suffering a seemingly unstoppable shrinkage of their market. Sales of paper magazines continue to dwindle and digital subscriptions are not filling the gap. As a result, high street transactions along with the advertising revenue streams they need to survive are decreasing. As the absolute size of the readership reduces, the risk of becoming uneconomic goes up disproportionately. Strategically, there are few options available and quite what will remain once an inevitable shake‑out occurs remains to be seen. The consequence of this is that the quality of content is likely to suffer in the long term. Music industry journalism needs to adapt, although there are major challenges ahead as people find alternative ways of acquiring the information they need (or, perhaps more worryingly, not bothering at all). Although referring to something slightly different, one is reminded of a whimsical quote from Frank Zappa who suggested that, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Discuss…

Another area of stagnancy appears to be in the quality of music pervading distribution channels. Video/TV, radio and physical media sales are stagnant at best, while digital streaming is becoming the dominant force. This re‑jigging of supply channels, though, isn’t the issue. Although a sweeping generalisation, it seems that since the turn of the millennium music output has increased in volume and decreased in quality. While this is a highly subjective observation, it is borne out by (vaguely) reliable anecdote across generational divides. There is no doubt that there is some extremely good music being made. However, finding the glittering gems amongst the deluge of dross is difficult and, as a result, the good stuff is constantly battling to reach a mass market, thereby making success a tough task for genuine aspiring talent (rather than vacuous celebrity wannabees!). Financial rewards for artists from streaming services is a travesty and needs addressing before it’s too late. Quite how the tide can be turned to reveal new genre twists and identify the next swathe of outstanding musicians will be a challenge for the 2020s. One can hope that something will happen, as it has always has, it just remains to be seen who, what, when and where it will pop up. Another consequence of generic music produced by generic people is that the desire for genuine instruments will decrease, thereby ultimately affecting sales of guitars.

Getting back to the point, core consumer demand for music gear continues to be resilient, although customers are understandably more discerning and, as a result, potentially more fickle. Reliance on past sales and brand loyalty are continually being chipped away at by targeted marketing and tough rivalry. However, strong competition and the downward pressure on street prices can prove to be a double‑edged sword for price sensitive customers. On the whole, one thing I can easily predict is that the popularity of the guitar will persist no matter what, despite regular prognoses that ‘guitar music is dead’. Quite what the musical landscape will be like in years to come is best left for others to forecast. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an exciting time in Guitarville.

As CRAVE Guitars is based in the UK, it is incumbent on me to mention ‘Brexit’ at this point. There are NO scenarios where leaving the European Union can benefit the country or its citizens. Prices are already increasing, not only because of increased costs and perceptions of risk but also as a result of exploitative selling practices by the unscrupulous trying to secure and bank revenue before the catastrophe strikes. Things are bad enough as they are (remember ‘Rip off Britain’?) and we don’t need any further unnecessary pecuniary pressures. After the severance has occurred and whatever the outcome is of the disastrous ‘deal or no deal’ shenanigans, import barriers, tariffs and currency speculation will affect Britain’s international trade relationships without question. The risk of further recession and national isolation rank high on the concerns of many British businesses. Given the fragile nature of the UK music industry, any weaknesses and threats will be heightened and only those that are able to adapt will survive. Hypocritical UK politicians, pedalling their own prejudices while protecting their personal interests should be ashamed of the damage that will result in the short‑term and aftershocks will continue to impact on the prosperity of the country for generations to come. What is regrettable is that there will be recourse to hold the inept self‑seeking minority accountable for engineering this chaos in the first place and having no idea about how to deliver it successfully. On this basis, I am not optimistic in the slightest. I hope, however, that I am proved wrong. Personally, my view is that there can be no backtracking and we need to get on with making the most of a bad situation. End of whinge!

Repatriation Update

I covered the long‑overdue reunion of a significant proportion of CRAVE Guitars’ vintage instruments in the last article. What I didn’t do is say much about what actually came back. So… if only for completeness, here is the full list of the (42) returnees:

  • 1966 Epiphone Olympic
  • 1966 Fender Coronado II
  • 1965 Fender Duo-Sonic II
  • 1965 Fender Jaguar
  • 1965 Fender Jazzmaster
  • 1965 Fender Musicmaster II
  • 1966 Fender Mustang
  • 1972 Fender Mustang Competition
  • 1977 Fender Precision Fretless Bass
  • 1977 Fender Stratocaster
  • 1983 Fender Stratocaster Dan Smith Era
  • 1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline
  • 1973 Fender Telecaster Deluxe
  • 1974 Fender Telecaster Custom
  • 1988 Fender Telecaster
  • 1983 Gibson Corvus II
  • 1963 Gibson ES-330 TDC
  • 1985 Gibson ES-335 Dot
  • 1982 Gibson Explorer E2
  • 1983 Gibson Explorer
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer Custom Shop Edition
  • 1984 Gibson Explorer ‘Union Jack’ Graphic
  • 1966 Gibson Firebird III
  • 1976 Gibson Firebird Bicentennial
  • 1980 Gibson Flying V2
  • 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • 1977 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top
  • 1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom
  • 1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC
  • 2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • 1961 Gibson Melody Maker D
  • 1964 Gibson Melody Maker
  • 1982 Gibson Moderne Korina Heritage
  • 1981 Gibson RD Artist
  • 1965 Gibson SG Junior
  • 1968 Gibson SG Standard
  • 1962 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Double Cutaway Hollowbody
  • 1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette
  • 1978 Music Man Stingray Bass
  • 1974 Rickenbacker 480
  • 1964 Silvertone 1449 ‘Amp in Case’

Some of the guitars have only been ‘stored’ for a short period of time but many have been incarcerated for nearly 8 years!!! It is these ‘long‑termers’ to which I will probably need to pay most attention in the coming weeks and months. While they were safe and secure, a domestic loft space is definitely not an ideal environment in which to keep vintage guitars for any length of time. The fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity over an extended period are far too great to do them any good at all. Given the circumstances at the time (back in 2011), it was a necessary urgent solution borne out of a severe predicament and I had no practical alternative. I never anticipated that it would take over 7 years to get them all back – I was clearly naïvely deluded in thinking that it would take ‘about’ 6 months at the most to sort things out! Essentially, completely rebuilding one’s entire life from scratch took considerably longer and it has been an extremely arduous journey. Still, we are where we are, none of us can turn the clock back, so one has to be positive, forward looking and take it from here. At least the precious cargo has been rescued and they are now finally back where they belong and, primarily, that is what really matters.

At the moment, the only tangible evidence of the little treasure trove listed above is several stacks of dusty guitar cases. Excitement about the potential is also tinged with an element of guarded apprehension about what will be found when the contents are properly ‘exhumed’ and examined for need of repair and sensitive renovation. If at all possible, any replacement parts needed during restoration will be of the appropriate vintage. That presents a major quandary in 2019-2020. For instance, finding and procuring period‑correct components will be both time consuming and costly. While one could be practical and use modern replacement parts, I prefer to conserve these precious historically significant instruments with genuine components that are as close as possible to the originals as I can find (and afford). Only if that approach fails will I resort to pragmatic use of new stock items. Back in the pre‑recession boom, there was little difficulty in sourcing these useful bits and pieces. Now, however, it has become considerably more difficult.

Not only are vintage spare parts and accessories hard enough to find on the usual hinterwebby platforms, decent vintage guitars and amps also seem to be increasingly scarce, at least in the UK. I’m not sure why this should be. Perhaps people are hanging onto their instruments, perhaps there’s a mistrust/dislike of the usual web sites and the way they are run, or perhaps the post‑recession/pre‑Brexit uncertainty is still suppressing supply. The laws of economics dictate that continued demand combined with a shortage of (finite) supply means only one thing… increased prices. Wading through eBay is bad enough at the best of times but UK sourcing is particularly hard work at the moment. Disadvantageous exchange rates with the USA now seem to be a permanent fixture and, on top of that, CITES is a real bane. In addition, eBay searches are flooded with Japanese items that you just know are bogus. All round it’s not much as much fun as it should be when hunting down scarce ‘most wanted’ artefacts.

I am not treating the repatriation project with any sort of hysterical urgency. The guitars have been exiled for so long that a few more weeks in their new home before I get round to them won’t do any harm. In the first month, I have only attended to 2 out of 42 guitars (1964 Gibson Melody Maker and 1966 Fender Coronado) and I have to be cautiously optimistic that there is no lasting compromise to their integrity. Phew! I hope I don’t get any nasty surprises lurking in the remaining 40 to be uncovered.

Vintage guitars really need to be played. That may be ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ but the difference after a bit of TLC and playing for a few days is phenomenal. There is a transformational change in their playability, sound, feel and looks. I wonder if this may be one reason why some people pick up a (possibly neglected) vintage guitar and find it dull, lifeless and uninspiring. When they magically come back to life again, it is both a relief and a delight. The journey of rediscovering these instruments may well explain why I’m taking my time and not getting very far very quickly. Well, that and the fact that there isn’t a local guitar tech on whom I can rely when more extensive remedial works are required. I know my limitations and any attempt on my part to mess around with repairs and adjustments that are best left to experts would almost certainly be a regrettable mistake.

Another interesting observation is that, while I wasn’t overly attached to some of the guitars all that time ago – a proportion were originally intended to become the staple of a start‑up business – I have now developed an emotional connection to them because of everything I and they have been through over the intervening years. That may be a good thing because I now value them more for what they are than what they may be worth. Also, I simply wouldn’t be able to afford many of them on today’s market, so I’m just glad to have them now. However, it means that I may well have a struggle with my conscience if CRAVE Guitars does become an economic entity and I have to break those newfound relationships. Until that time, the guitar ‘collection’ is an integral part of the family and they are definitely not for sale in the short to medium‑term. My philosophy and attitude mean that the guitars still represent a not‑for‑profit conservation of the musical heritage, rather than any sort of potential gold mine.

As previously mentioned, a pressing priority over the next few months is to provide them with proper accommodation. This means that I need a competent builder to ‘tank’ the cellar and make a suitable home for the guitars. After that, I can possibly start thinking positively about what the future of CRAVE Guitars might one day become. One step at a time.

New in at CRAVE Guitars

So that I don’t fall into the same trap as last year, here’s a quick ‘new arrival’ section. As I predicted back in December 2018, things got off to a slow start this year. In fact, there has been only one purchase in the first 2 months of 2019. Surprisingly, it was an item that was actually on the ‘wanted in 2019’ shortlist.

CRAVE Effects is a relatively modest side venture that runs alongside the guitars and amps. The Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ acronym doesn’t actually work 100% in this context because CRAVE Effects comprises a diverse selection of stomp boxes from around the world. Whatevs! I can break my own rules.

One of the ‘classic’ effect pedals that was notably absent was the venerable Ibanez TS‑808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro from Japan. This was partly because availability of both the right pedal and the resources needed to acquire it were in short supply. Good ones are few and far between and, when they do come up, they go for silly money. So when an original 1981 TS‑808 turned up on eBay UK for an aforementioned silly price, but arguably not exorbitantly so, it had to be pounced upon. Thus, the notable gap has at long last been duly filled. To think that I could have added another ‘budget’ vintage guitar for the same price as the Tube Screamer puts things into perspective.

As is often the case with vintage Tube Screamers, this example shows typical signs of use (good) but not abuse (bad), so it has just the right amount of mojo, otherwise known as ‘wear and tear’, needed to be confident that it was a safe purchase. Thankfully, apart from a replacement battery snap, it is in all‑original condition and it works very well indeed for a 38‑year old pedal, which is testament to their durability.

As anyone acquainted with my opinionated drivel (or should that be overdrivel in this case?) will know, my heretical views don’t always accord with those of the self‑appointed ‘establishment’. The original TS‑808 is good but I don’t believe it really deserves its insanely elevated and almost mythological status in the minds of many guitarists. Like numerous effects from the late 1970s and early 1980s, it can sound great or grim depending on how it’s used. It is player, guitar, effect and amp dependent, so it needs to be carefully matched in order to make it sound its best. Although new TS‑808 and TS9 reissues are not the same as the old ones, they are still very good overdrive effects. Therein lies a fundamental truth that applies equally for any stomp box made at any time – you pays your money and make your choice. Regardless of my biased view, the much‑imitated and often re‑issued Tube Screamer has become the de facto benchmark for overdrive pedals and there is no getting away from it.

The web site feature on the TS‑808 has already been prepared but, like most gear purchases over the last year, it hasn’t yet been published on the web site. Sigh! Yet another job waiting in the pipeline. Watch this space…

Sign‑off

That’s about it for February 2019. This has been a necessarily short soliloquy compared to many of my verbose outpourings. Inspiration, motivation and time have been in limited supply so far this year and articulating much of any interest at all has been a bit like hard work. Therefore, there is no point in proverbially flagellating a deceased dobbin and it is probably best to stop here for now.

That means that I can get back to the immediate task in hand, which is looking after a few vintage guitars and, hopefully, playing some of them along the way. I’m sure there will be more on this particular topic in coming months. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Conscience dictates that we understand right from wrong. Imagine what mankind might achieve if we could work together rather than conflict, and what good could be done if we stopped the immense and irreparable harm we cause.”

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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October 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VIII

Welcome to what is, for now at least, the final part in this series of articles on the history of the world’s most popular musical instrument.

If you wish to recap on any or all of the previous seven posts before starting with this one, the whole ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

Having pretty much reached the present day, all that remains is to summarise where we are now and to take a somewhat flippant and imaginative look ahead. The ‘current day’ is a tricky subject, as ‘now’ is at best ephemeral. The future, on the other hand, can only ever be guesswork, even if it can be informed by the past. Perhaps the best way to predict the future is to help to create it, so that means that what happens to the next chapter of the guitar is in our hands. Can we be trusted to behave as responsible guardians of the guitar’s destiny? As Mahatma Gandhi (1869‑1948) said, “The future depends on what we do in the present”. This suggests that what will happen is not predetermined and individually or collectively, we can take action to shape the future.

There are not many images again supporting this article so, apologies to those who like pictures to speak a thousand words. Anyway, without further ado, on with the last part of the chronicle…

The guitar has come a very long way in the last 3,500 years or a road slightly less travelled in the preceding 350 years depending on whose version of the facts you want to believe. The story has finally reached that pivotal moment that lies between the past, which is, on the whole, pretty well documented and the future, which of course isn’t. There is much to be played for and the stakes are certainly high.

It is hopefully of little surprise that the future of the acoustic and electric guitar, as well as all its derivatives and distant relations, is probably well‑assured, at least for the foreseeable future. Whether it survives in the (very) long term or not, the world’s favourite musical instrument is undeniably going to be a hard act to follow, let alone surpass.

As with many industrial and technological revolutions, predictions have proved variable in terms of accuracy. As time passes, change tends to accelerate in both pace and scope. While progress may be inexorable, there is an unseen ‘force’ that tends to counteract unbridled advances and which acts as a bit of a restraint. That set of reins is the very human tendency to hold onto what is familiar while resisting change until it is either inescapable or desirable. This natural ‘drag’ effect has laid waste to many grand ideas and great inventions. Numerous well‑marketed ‘next big things’ have fallen at the hurdle of persuading the general public to take up something new or unfamiliar, especially if one’s respected peers haven’t bitten the bullet of early adoption either. Mankind’s flawed history is littered with countless failed marvels. This phenomenon isn’t, I hasten to add, just a trait of idiosyncratic musicians; it appears to be a fundamental characteristic of the human condition.

Anyway, as usual, I digress. It is time to get back to the point which is basically that whatever you read from here on has absolutely no basis whatsoever in fact and is highly likely to be extremely wrong! My consolation is that few people will regard it as portent or look back to judge its accuracy in a century’s time. There is nothing genuinely prescient here in the vein of Da Vinci or Nostradamus. Apologies if you were hoping for more in the way of a profound visionary insight. Unfortunately, my stock of that ran out last week.

General indicators of change

It is fair to suggest that popular music is often representative of, and in turn is dependent on, broader social, cultural and political movements, and guitars follow in their footsteps. Whether we like it or not, music is integral to our everyday lives, so it is not surprising that it is also inherently powerfully evocative. As a result, it can dramatically affect the way we identify with past events.

One of the key factors that drove guitar evolution has been the trends in popular music, so perhaps musical trends may provide a much generalised hint at parallel guitar developments. Let’s start by considering the (very simplistic) genre movements and the types of instrument used over the last century.  Starting with the post‑classical era, there was jazz (Gibson archtops) and blues (National & Dobro resonators) in the 1930s and 1940s, country and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s (Gretsch & Gibson hollowbodies), pop and rock in the 1960s (Fenders and Rickenbackers), progressive and heavy metal (Gibson solid bodies) and then punk (pawn shop guitars) and hair metal (pointy super Strats) in the 1970s. Then we get to the guitar doldrums of electronica, new age and rap in the 1980s, followed by revitalised guitar music of alternative, grunge in the 1990s, and indie (retro guitars) nu‑metal (PRS) and dance in the 2000s, etc. I struggle to think of a musical genre that so far defines the 2010s or perhaps many distinctive guitars to go with them. So there is some kind of link going on here. Google has attempted to map the progression of musical genres from 1950 to the current day (take from it what you will).

The type of guitars de jour used by famous musicians, including artist associations, during these epochs often reflected the style of contemporary music they played and these have largely been well covered in previous parts of the story. Just think of Chet Atkins with his Gretsch 6120, Buddy Holly with his Fiesta Red Fender Stratocaster, The Beatles with their Rickenbacker 300s, or Jimmy Page with his Gibson Les Paul Standard and EDS-1275 double neck. The various interconnections are manifold and too many to mention here, and many have been captured in photographs to become iconic in the annals of rock history.

Cinema and television music regularly use key songs to catapult us back in space and time without the need for narrative exposition to describe what’s happening. Just think about classic movies such as American Graffiti, Stand By Me, Almost Famous, Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club or 8 Mile among many, many others. Those random examples don’t include the numerous biopics (e.g. Sid & Nancy, Walk The Line, The Doors) and musicals (e.g. West Side Story, Grease) or original scores (e.g. Paris Texas) that use familiar, memorable and/or popular music to transport us to another ‘reality’. Then there are the one‑offs like the mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. TV programmes also picked up the strategy for domestic viewing since the 1960s and often featured manufactured artists such as The Monkees or The Archies. The lists of relevant examples are endless. Music is used to draw the viewer into the director’s vision of a certain bygone era. Many of the sound tracks of our lives rely heavily on evocative (guitar) music to manipulate us emotionally and, more importantly, intentionally.

The way that environmental factors affect local communities may spark a genre direction that is then promulgated more widely. For example, one could point to the rise of electric blues in Chicago, soul in Detroit, Mersey beat in Liverpool, punk in New York and London, rap in Los Angeles/Philadelphia, or grunge in Seattle, etc. What we cannot predict is what or where any future musical revolutions (if any) may emerge, from where, and what step‑change responses guitar builders may then make.

As with many other aspects of our 21st Century lives, the nature of music, how it is made, distributed and accessed suggests that anything genuinely ‘new’ will find it much harder to stand out from the mainstream. What is already there will continue in some form and anything new will simply be added to it, often at the margins of existing genres, hence the proliferation of sub‑genres, e.g. thrash or nu-metal in rock; house and techno in dance; raga and dancehall in reggae; dubstep and grime in urban music, etc. One only has to compare and contrast the mind boggling varieties of heavy metal music and then consider how they continuously diverge, converge and cross‑fertilise in order to keep it fresh and vibrant.

While some technological change may be more predictable, social change and the music that characterises it is certainly more unpredictable. When one looks at something as specific and tangible as the guitar, it becomes increasingly risky to anticipate with any certainty what change may occur over an extended period of time, say the next century or so.

One view is that we are powerless and don’t need to think about it, as what will be, will be. Another is that we wait passively and be subject to what transpires with little or no influence over it. A third way may be not to accept the status quo and take positive action to stimulate change, which can happen in oddly random ways. Being of an opinionated sort, I tend to fall into the latter camp. Apologies, that probably actually doesn’t help much!

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the guitar’s supremacy is likely to lie in the digital revolution that really started to make an impression in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the reason for the guitar’s seemingly unassailable success has been that it is a hugely expressive and flexible instrument, which actually makes its nuances extremely difficult to replicate in a world constructed entirely of binary 0s and 1s. We shall see whether digital advances can fully overcome the difficulties in recreating the subtleties provided by a very analogue instrument in the hands of discriminating (and generally quite conservative) musicians.

The evidence so far suggests that digital is making ever increasing inroads into the analogue guitar’s dominance and the discernible gap between analogue and digital output is decreasing all the time. How long will it be before even the most ardent luddites finally admit that they can’t really tell the difference (despite what they may say outwardly)? However, it isn’t just the sound of guitars that appeals to guitarists; it is also the feel and the look of them that matters, as well as how they allow musicians to communicate with each other in unspoken ways.

New generations of guitarists, however, may be looking for something very different from their predecessors.  What form will ‘the shape of things to come’ take? Will it be all hyper‑modernistic and crammed with tech and flashing lights and built from materials we cannot yet imagine, or will it be the same old bits of tree wood crafted into the familiar shapes of Telecasters, Stratocasters, Precisions, Les Pauls, ES‑335s and SGs that we covet today? Only time will tell how things pan out and it will be for future authors to use the convenient assistance of hindsight to determine and document what path the history of the guitar takes from here on.

Looking and learning from the past, one might simply extrapolate forward. Future guitarists may well be like their ancestors and pragmatically seek to mix the best of the past with the best of what’s to come, regardless of whether it is analogue or digital. My personal prediction is a typically ambiguous ‘sit on the fence’ one, in that guitars will probably become increasingly hybrid if they are to keep ahead of other comparable instruments. Let’s face it, there are not really any threats` to the guitar’s dominant popularity at the time of writing and it has always been a continuously evolving instrument, so it would be of little surprise if this were to continue. While the 1980’s temporary trend for synth and electronica attempted to eradicate guitar music in the minds of popular listeners, the guitar has proved very resilient and difficult to displace.

Since the 1970s, the guitar has been used to trigger digital electronics. However, while both signal tracking and polyphony still present problems, these barriers are gradually being overcome. There have been several attempts to introduce effective guitar synths over the years but they have really been analogue or digital filters activated by either an ordinary guitar pickup or by discrete signals from a hexaphonic pickup. Hex pickups, which output a separate signal for each string, were often added to an existing guitar and used to transform it into a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller while still able to be used as an ordinary guitar. MIDI was a standard specification published in August 1983 by Japanese electronics giant Roland and American synthesizer company Sequential Circuits, and is commonly used to control electronic audio equipment. While attempting to revolutionise guitar music, Roland’s excursions into guitar synths since the 1980s have still relied on a standard guitar as its starting point.

Other Japanese companies specialising in electronics have also experimented with MIDI control of external synthesis engines, for instance guitars from Casio (DG20) and Yamaha (EZ-EG). It seems incredible to think that these early electronic instruments are now being considered as ‘vintage’. Today, there are now plenty of guitars on the market with MIDI capability built in. Technology has moved on and the fundamental concepts of a digital source are now ripe for being reinvestigation and improvement.

Other pioneering companies such as Line 6, now owned by another Japanese giant Yamaha, introduced their ground breaking digital modelling preamp (the Pod) and digital modelling guitar (the Variax) to indicate the direction in which development might go. Line 6’s philosophy inspired and influenced subsequent successful products such as the Kemper Profiler and the Fractal Audio Systems Axe-FX. Computer control of complex parameters, presets, firmware and downloads are commonplace for amps and effects in the 2010s and we can certainly expect this trend not only to become de facto but also to become a requirement in the near future, so a laptop at live gigs is already almost a necessity to keep your rig running smoothly – not a comfort zone for many analogue technophobe musos.

Guitar making cannot stand still and neither should it. Even the companies with a century or more of history, such as Gibson, Gretsch and Martin, have to keep moving forward or risk being overtaken. However, the tightrope of appealing to customers who appreciate the heritage is also key to the future success of long‑established manufacturers. Newer, smaller companies, though, are not constrained by the time capsule factor.

It is probably safe to say that the future is likely to be a practical symbiosis of both the familiar to satisfy the conservative traditionalists and the whizzy new gizmos to appeal to the technologically savvy experimentalists and neophytes… just as it always has been if fact. Even Gibson has been toying with the addition of digital features into its guitars, including the Les Paul HD.6X Pro and the Firebird X models. Intriguingly, Fender and other major brands have yet to declare their hands. It will be the fine balance between the opposing forces that will enable lasting incremental change, via ‘chimera’ guitars, rather than a number of fundamental radical shifts. That eventuality could prove a bit boring though, don’t you think? However, sadly, it also seems to mirror the way that modern popular music is going as well?

Leaps of unadulterated conjecture:

This next section is pure fantasy and should not be relied on as authentic in any way. It came from an idea that it can sometimes be fun to imagine what things might be like in some near or distant future. One hopes, though, that what follows doesn’t come to represent some form of self‑fulfilling prophecy.

It may be that the guitar itself could become superseded by something completely different from what musicians (rather than video game players) use today. Could it be possible that something along the lines of the PlayStation ‘Guitar Hero’ controller may someday make inroads into real instruments to create real music? I would anticipate that the majority of guitarists would sincerely hope not.

There are already some very modernistic looking instruments out there, such as the HTG Hyper Touch and the Misa Kitara (note the use of the Greek name kitara from Part I of this long story). Are these all‑electronic ‘guitars’ the sorts of instruments that will replace our beloved classic designs and become de rigeur in the near future? Alternatively, perhaps the electric guitar could somehow morph into some form of fully digital instrument via the route of hybridisation. As a logical conclusion, is the ‘Digital Guitar’ with analogue playability a holy grail and, if so, for whom? Here are some current digital guitar innovations from the 2010s…

So… suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and take a tentative look ahead to the scary world of AIs, AAs, AVs and AM (spoiler alert – these acronyms may seem familiar but in this context, they don’t mean what you think they mean today). You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Read on…

10 years’ hence (c.2028):

Analogue vs digital – Digital technologies will be used increasingly to enhance the analogue signal chain rather than usurp it completely. We have already seen many examples of this appearing in effects and amps, so there isn’t really any clever insight in mentioning it. Digital control of analogue signals is already becoming commonplace especially in delay and modulation effects where digital manipulation gives much more precise control over what happens in the analogue domain.

It remains unpopular to sample the original signal through an analogue to digital converter (ADC), mess around with it and then put it back through a digital to analogue converter (DAC) to turn it back into a signal for further processing. Many purists say that the act of conversion using today’s chips taints the original signal. It will be a while longer before we make that bold step of a fully digital signal chain from fingers to ears but it is getting ever closer. It will happen but possibly not by 2028, mainly because of the difficulty in engineering effective fully digital instruments and loudspeakers.

Research will continue to develop a truly digital guitar ‘pickup’ that could compare to current electromagnetic pickups and provide the first step to more complex processing in the future. Digital modelling using DSP (Digital Signal Processing) chips will continue to improve and will become almost indistinguishable from analogue electronics in effects, amps and digital audio workstations (DAWs). There will be a hardcore fan base that remains wedded to the old school stuff for many, many years to come. The guitar itself is highly unlikely to become fully digital in the next 10 years, if only because there are far too many dogmatic people invested in preserving the status quo. Auto‑Tune for the guitar anyone?

Guitar Making – In the near future, it is highly unlikely that wood will be superseded by any other material as the primary input for the majority of guitars. Wood has proved over millennia to be a very flexible, durable renewable material. Let’s face it, it can also look wonderful. One major advantage of wood is that it contributes towards the organic tone and touch of an individual musical instrument. Many alternative materials have been used in the construction of guitars since at least the 1920s, including plastics, metals, carbon fibre and a wide variety of composites. To‑date, though, wood has prevailed in terms of structural integrity allied to inherent musicality. What will change, though, is the shift away from the use of endangered exotic hardwood species such as rosewood, ebony and even mahogany to more sustainable species. For instance Pau Ferro (Libidibia Ferrea, a.k.a Bolivian rosewood) is rapidly replacing the CITES‑restricted rosewood (varieties of the genus Dalbergia) as a popular fingerboard material. Quite how fussy musicians will accept unfamiliar wood substitutes, will be determined in due course. What is clear is that guitarists really have no choice but to go with the ecologically acceptable flow in the long‑term.

Like their classical musical counterparts, the guitar itself (whether acoustic or electric) will remain very much a natural instrument for a good few years yet. The guitar will still be supremely popular and will be making great music all over the world. Guitars will be made by a broad range of entities from one man band local custom luthiers up to multinational mass manufacturers. Competition, particularly from China, will be a threat to many established western companies until their economic bubble bursts, which it eventually will at some point.

Recorded music – The vast majority of recorded guitar music will be produced on digital equipment with a few retro studios still using analogue equipment including valve preamps and tape machines. The relative accessibility of convenient digital recording equipment will continue to provide openings for all sorts of artists from the home musician to the professional mega bands using famous dedicated studio facilities such as the famous Abbey Road Studio in London. Recorded music will be increasingly distributed and accessed online, although legacy formats will maintain a solid niche popularity.

Live music – Live music will continue to grow in popularity to become the cornerstone for many successful artists, provided that they do not price themselves out of live appearances and that over‑zealous regulations don’t stop large live events from taking place. PA and monitoring systems will continue to improve significantly and sound pressure levels at venues will be severely restricted, removing some of the visceral excitement of the live music experience.

30 years’ hence (c.2048):

Analogue vs digital – Digital will be the primary domain in which music will be made, recorded, distributed and accessed. The guitar will remain analogue, although it is likely that the entire chain from the pickup onwards will be predominantly digital. However, as with current classical instruments and music, there will still be an important place for traditional analogue guitars. Amps and effects are likely to be almost totally digital. Successors to the analogue electromagnetic pickup and the loudspeaker will be introduced to a point that digital sound will be common if not universal. ‘Old fashioned’ guitars will remain very popular and will experience regular revivals and rejuvenations, even if the overall battle will be won by the digital technologies of the 2040s. New digital connectors will proliferate, as the currently ubiquitous USB port will long since have been superseded, and the jack pug/socket will be purely of vintage interest.

Guitar making – Most of the large manufacturers will be producing some sort of digital instrument as the norm, even if the vital interaction between fingers and strings will remain as it is now. All guitar tone woods will be derived from sustainable sources by strict regulation and use of rare species tightly controlled (outside the unavoidable black market). The use of alternative materials will be in full swing, reducing the reliance on today’s natural materials. New guitars will be built to be recyclable. Automated manufacturing will be the norm and the demand for traditionally made guitars will be catered for by numerous specialist guitar builders. Pure wooden analogue guitars will be vintage only and regarded with the same respect as classical instruments are now. Guitar development will be relegated to refinements around the margins, rather than core revolutions. Hybrid instruments will be fighting a rear‑guard action, with digital beginning to win the final battle. Competition to the guitar will continue but will not succeed… yet.

Recorded music – Digital will almost totally dominate recorded music production, distribution and access. Diehard analogue fans will be regarded as geeks and nerds. Vinyl albums will, however still persevere… just.

Live music – Like recorded music, live music will be, apart from the musicians themselves, almost universally digital. ‘Loud’ live music will be a thing of the distant past. Music venues will begin to disappear as discrete locations, with personalised performance content delivered direct to the individual.

50 years’ hence (c.2068):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be like classical music is today, a popular, niche and a largely historic pastime. All other aspects will be digital.

Guitar making – Standardisation and construction will be largely prescribed. Hybridisation will just about have peaked and on its way out. The majority of guitar production will move towards making AIs (Artificial Instruments). The focus will be on the technical facets of music making, rather than subjective, emotive ones. Guitars as we know them now will be of heritage interest.

Recorded music – Music will be manufactured in the digital domain with just a few maverick analogue‑obsessed musicians beavering away in the minority. The vast majority of contemporary recorded music will be created electronically, with few outmoded musical instruments as we know them now being used. Many artists will be AAs (Artificial Artists), rather than by artistically inclined human beings – the latter will concentrate on performing historic pieces from the golden heyday of guitar music.

Live music – There will no longer be a need to travel to a discrete venue where music is performed in person to a collective audience. ‘Live’ music will be created in computers, customised to an individual’s tastes and accessed in the home, in a domain known as an AV (Artificial Venue) giving the sight, sound and feel of a venue.

100+ years’ hence (c.2120):

Analogue vs digital – Analogue guitar music will be an historic vocation and largely a lifestyle pastime. All other aspects of ‘modern’ music will be entirely digital. Some authentic old‑style music will be recreated on historic instruments for research purposes, rather than as entertainment.

Guitar making – Even the last few old‑school luthiers will be migrating to alternative materials, automation and digital electronics. Hybrid instruments will be seen as a thing of the past. AIs will be commonplace and there won’t be a need for human musicians to learn the art or skills needed to make any type of contemporary music.

Recorded music – Popular music will be artificially created without the need for accomplished musicians. Music will be constantly morphing on a second‑by‑second basis, known as AM (Artificial Music).

Live music – Performance capture will be produced electronically and experienced direct by the listener’s visual and audio receptors, bypassing the unreliable eyes and ears altogether. Finally, the digital signal path from computerised source to the recipient’s brain will be complete and will require no human intervention whatsoever.

Alternative Reality

Or… in some alternative, perhaps more desirable dimension, the unwritten future could well be pretty much as it is today, with new generations doing just what we do now, rocking to good old electric guitar music. To many guitarists, the tactile and synergetic relationship between musician and his/her guitar in full flow with other musicians is unbreakable and simply cannot be usurped by some dystopian digital future scape.

One trusts that there will always be a place for creative artisans and a desire or the musically minded to enjoy the fruits of their vision for the guitar of the future. It is encouraging that many well‑known guitar makers are actually stepping back in time in order to move forward. This isn’t the paradox that it may first seem. Savvy guitar builders are investigating in great depth what made great guitars great in the first place and identifying what musicians actually want from their instruments today. Much of this current R&D is leading to a number of findings that indicate that what was important 100 and 200 years ago (and probably longer) is still important today but with modern consistency and reliability.

Perhaps the past masters did get it largely right in the first place and that is why their products, new or vintage, are still desirable artefacts today. While traditional manufacturers like C.F. Martin use modern production methods for some parts of the building process, they are also still using tools and equipment employed by successive cohorts of luthiers, as well as relying on many of the basic techniques and skills refined and passed down from one generation to the next. Most of the top flight guitar builders also work very hard to ensure long-term supplies of precious tone woods to make into future guitars. This focus on the best‑of‑the‑best perhaps suggests that guitars may well remain, for the large part, relatively familiar in 10, 30, 50 and 100 years from now but with improvements to the detail. Perhaps it takes that bold flight of fancy to realise that we already have what we and future generations of musicians actually need. Owning inspiring guitars inspires guitar playing and results in inspiring guitar music.

There really is no point in speculating any further ahead. The likelihood is that, even with advances in medical technology, most if not all of us reading this in 2018 will not be around to see anything beyond c.2020. The guitar is dead, long live the guitar. The passage of father time will inform just how accurate these flights of fantasy (or descents into nightmare) really are. Clearly, the further one looks into the future, the less precise any predictions become. Welcome to tomorrow’s very scary ‘brave new world’.

I, for one, am certainly not laying any bets. I’d like to think that there is something about our very personal instruments that will endure for many decades, if not centuries. If we lose that quintessential ‘something special’ about making guitars that make guitarists that make music, it will all have been for nothing. Watch this space.

Conclusion

So, that’s it. The long‑running and on‑going story of the guitar has finally reached a logical stopping off point, at least for now… However, it not the end of the story by any means. Somewhat disappointingly, the denouement to ‘A Potted History of the Guitar’ series seems to be a bit more of a whimper than some almighty bang. After so much history and so much personal investment in researching it, it seems a bit of a let‑down to leave the guitar’s evolution ‘hanging’ without some sort of definitive resolution to the script and with the various loose ends neatly tied up. Nevertheless, remember that this is not a fictional piece and let us not forget that this is definitely not the epilogue.

‘They’ say that a picture speaks a thousand words. So, to sum up the 3,500‑year, 8‑part journey in a single image that tells the story of the guitar from its origins to the possible near future, here is a fitting 27‑picture montage that possibly speaks approximately 50,000 words. Basically, I could have saved 9 months of my life and just posted this one composite picture. That, I guess, is one of the benefits of hindsight. I hope that you’ve enjoyed the expedition with me and that, like me, you have learned a little something about the guitar along the way. You wanted a potted history of the guitar? Well, how about…

From this point in time onwards is the start of the future and, whatever happens next. It will be fascinating to experience the on‑going next instalment of the long story and to observe with trepidation and excitement what is to unfold. Let us try to make it a bright and positive outcome for everyone who loves The Guitar and Great Guitar Music. Thank you for reading. Enjoy the future, whatever it holds for us guitar aficionados.

End of Part VIII and the end of this series

Now… I need a break from the relentless rigmarole of the research and write routine, which has, for the best part of a year (or more), been on top of everything else. As mentioned previously, at some point, I might adapt the eight separate ‘Guitar History’ parts into a more coherent and accessible feature set on the CRAVE Guitars’ web site.

Very shortly, I will try and start to prepare for 2019’s (hopefully slightly less) epic partner piece to this year’s gargantuan opener. For the rest of this year, it is back to opinionated hum‑drum ‘normality’ with stand‑alone observations of a more topical and transient nature.

One thing I have noticed is that I haven’t been playing enough guitar in recent months, hardly any at all in fact, which is deplorable. So perhaps now that this particular endeavour is over for now, it’s time to practice what I preach, pick up a lovely vintage guitar and plink away for a bit of cathartic enjoyment. At least, in doing so within the context of the past, I now have an enhanced appreciation of the history that led to it coming into my hands and why it is so important to conserve the heritage for that future. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Let’s be honest, the future is all we really have and it is the only thing we can do anything about”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VII

Welcome back to the latest in a long series of articles chronicling the history of the world’s favourite musical instrument. Last time, we covered the advent of production solid body electric guitars during the guitar’s ‘golden era’ from c.1950-1965. That article also covered some relevant later events, but the essence was about a period of intense invention and creativity, hence why it deserved a separate article dedicated to it, even though much of the content would be familiar to many.

This month’s article mostly focuses on ‘what happened next’ between c.1965-1987, although it does also cover the subsequent period up to the current day, albeit in less depth than the earlier years. Depending on how the rest of the story is covered, this 7th part is likely to be the penultimate episode.

If you’ve been following the various twists and turns along the way, you’ll know that I have tried very hard to strike a balance between light entertainment for the general reader and the level of detail that would appeal to the needs of the nerdiest of guitar geeks out there. As previously stated, this is not an academic thesis – I just don’t have the time or resources to reference every element along the way, so it probably will never make it into book form, which is a bit of a shame but ç’est la vie. However, once the 3,500 year history has been finished, I may try to bring it all together as a ‘box set’ feature on the web site, so it will be easier to find and come back to than monthly instalments. It also provides the opportunity to correct the content. I may also add a bit off the original longer version back in (!!) and to balance the various parts as a more coherent whole.

You may wish to recap on previous articles before starting here at Part VII. If so, the previous segments of ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, can be accessed here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the journey so far and will stick with it for just a little longer. For me, it has certainly involved a huge amount of hard work researching and learning along the way. There is an enormous amount of information that had to be excluded in order to make it digestible in an online format. As always, while I have been diligent, some errors and omissions will inevitably have crept in. Not only do I apologise if that is the case but also, I welcome feedback from readers in order to correct or clarify. I would also encourage readers who might wish to look at things either from a different perspective or with a different level of detail to explore the fascinating world of guitars for yourselves.

There are not many pictures this month, as the subject matter is largely narrative‑driven. Sorry about that, photo fans.

Post-Modern Reconfiguration, Rejuvenation and Consolidation

It has become generally accepted that the electric guitar’s so‑called ‘golden era’ started at the beginning of the 1950s with the introduction of Fender and Gibson’s solid body electric guitar models and ended in the mid‑1960s around the time that Leo Fender sold up in early 1965, followed by Gibson in 1969.

On the face of it, the years immediately after the mid‑1960s would appear to be of little historic interest, particularly as far as investors and ‘serious’ collectors are concerned. While the 1950s and early 1960s have been very well documented in countless learned tomes, the subsequent years have tended to be characterised by vociferous opinion and anecdote in a relative vacuum, rather than subject to objective scrutiny.

The Internet has, perhaps unsurprisingly, encouraged many already polarised opinions to become even more extreme. Assertive and often throwaway hyperbole of many self‑appointed ‘experts’ has possibly been consistently exaggerated to the point that they have gained some sort of historical validity. Widely read ‘unpopular opinion’ is often misinterpreted as indisputable definitive evidence. It isn’t gospel; there was more to it than what many would have you believe.

This version of the ‘facts’ is arguably simply that and, while every effort has been made to remain impartial, it should be read with a degree of realistic scepticism. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some ‘smoke without fire’, just that the flames may have been fuelled by circumstances and intensified by ill‑informed prejudgment.

The music industry wasn’t alone in coming in for acerbic over‑criticism; the American automotive industry was also subject to similar issues during 1960s and 1970s. The parallels extend beyond the superficial with the demise of many historic car brands and the inexorable rise of Japanese competition. As with guitars, some of these old models are now becoming highly sought after. The guitar industry during the latter part of the 20th Century, it seems, was symptomatic of wider deep‑seated socio‑political problems in the world’s largest capitalist economy.

Actually, ‘what happened next’ is an equally fascinating tale and one that is worth spending a little while looking at. At the same time, it’s also worth standing back and looking at the bigger picture as events unfolded. While it’s all a matter of degree, what transpired was rife with intrigue and machination. The appeal of these transitional years is one of the reasons that CRAVE Guitars tends to focus on ‘forgotten underdog’ and quirky cool American electric guitars from between around 1960 and 1989, although not exclusively.

Was that all‑too‑brief 15‑year ‘golden era’ the end of the story? Will guitars built in the ‘dark ages’ between 1965 and 1987 remain ignored most as gross errors of judgement? Will there be another defining period of electric guitar evolution or will musicians spend their lives experiencing mediocrity by default while harking back to that unobtainable time viewed through rose‑tinted spectacles? Perhaps digital technology will deliver the next step‑change with some Darwinian mutation that future writers will look back upon and write about. OK, enough of the rant, on with the story…

The Catalysts

The trouble really started once both Fender and Gibson been acquired by faceless corporations used to running commercial businesses, rather than important customer‑led operations. Despite post‑war prosperity and growth, the period between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s could possibly be described aptly as eventful and tempestuous. In hindsight, whichever way you look at it, the sale of the industry’s ‘big guns’ was a 20th Century watershed for guitar building.

Firstly, let’s take a quick look at what actually happened immediately after the ‘golden era’ drew to a close circa 1965. The subsequent corporate merger & acquisition activity impacted directly on American musical instrument manufacturing up to the end of the 1980s. A few choice examples may help to illuminate the significant strife that befell the industry for a couple of decades (in rough chronological order)…

Rickenbacker – The only one of the major American brands that didn’t ‘sell out’ during the 1960s was Rickenbacker. They had, in some ways dodged that particular bullet, as Adolph Rickenbacker had already sold his company to music industry businessman Francis C. Hall in 1953. In retrospect, the move to transfer the undertaking and to keep it in safe hands seemed both pre‑emptive and positively prophetic. Arguably, the timing enabled Rickenbacker to capitalise on 1950s creative growth and become more resilient to what was to come. RIC (short for Rickenbacker International Corporation) has remained under the ownership of the Hall family since 1953 with John C. Hall as CEO at the time of writing.

Fender – After Rickenbacker, Fender was the first of the big names to capitulate to big business ambition. In 1965, Leo Fender sold his company to CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) for just over $13m. The reason often given for the sale was Leo Fender’s health, although an injection of capital funding probably was also contributory. Other perspectives cite Leo Fender’s desire to pursue new ideas, which he possibly couldn’t do while running the company. CBS started making changes almost immediately and expanded capacity at Fullerton to increase supply. By agreement, Leo Fender was prohibited from setting up another music instrument company for 10 years, after which he went on to found Music Man (1974) and then G&L (1980). After 20 years under CBS control and on the brink of total collapse, division president William Schultz bought the company, forming Fender Musical Instruments Corporation (FMIC) in 1985. What followed was a period of intense restructuring, with guitar production temporarily moved to Japan for approximately two years before resuming full American manufacturing with the launch of the American Series guitars in 1987. U.S. manufacturing was moved from Fullerton to Corona, California and its headquarters were relocated to Scottsdale, Arizona. Fender was once again back on the path to success as an independent company and has remained so ever since.

Danelectro – Danelectro was originally formed by entrepreneur Nathan Daniel in 1947. Daniel built his business on the back of large scale, low cost department store and mail order demand for electric guitars, often branded as Silvertone and Airline. This enabled him to start building instruments under the Danelectro brand from 1954. By 1966, Daniel sold Danelectro to industry giant MCA (Music Corporation of America). MCA tried unsuccessfully to introduce the Coral brand and to restructure its distribution network. The outcome was that Danelectro ceased production altogether just 3 years later in 1969. The brand was resurrected by the Evets Corporation in the late 1990s and, after several faltering attempts to recapture market share, Danelectro remains in operation as a successful American company with overseas manufacturing based in China and Korea.

Gretsch – Gretsch was originally founded by Friedrich Gretsch in 1883. Two years after Fender and one year after Danelectro, Fred Gretsch sold the family business to the Baldwin Piano Company in early 1967. After many organisational troubles including relocation, factory fires, Chet Atkins withdrawing his endorsement, and misjudged model decisions, Baldwin finally ceased production of Gretsch instruments by 1981. Fred W. Gretsch acquired what little remained of the company in 1985, basically just the Gretsch name and rights ownership. After a number of abortive efforts, consistent output was eventually re‑established in Japan. Rockabilly guitarist Brian Setzer became a key endorsee for Gretsch in the 1990s and consumer interest in the brand was rekindled. Retaining family leadership, Gretsch has been under the patronage of Fender since 2002 and the famous brand is once again a significant player in the guitar industry.

Gibson – Gibson was really the last of the large American names to succumb to corporate ownership. Gibson’s parent company, Chicago Musical Instruments Ltd (CMI) followed the competition in 1969 when Gibson was taken over by a South American brewing company called ECL and then subsumed by Norlin Musical Instruments in 1974. Gibson survived cost‑cutting, relocation to Nashville and general mismanagement largely intact, although its hard‑earned reputation was severely tarnished. Gibson eventually returned to private ownership in 1986 through a consortium management buyout. Despite a major financial crisis and bankruptcy protection initiated in May 2018, there are signs of a positive future for the company.

These were just some of the big players who were able to weather the economic storms during the second half of the 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In addition to the big names, plenty of other well‑known American companies failed to survive, including:

  • Valco merged with Kay in 1967; a move that included familiar names such as Supro and Airline. However, the newly combined company went bust in 1968
  • National Dobro merged with Mosrite before the latter went bankrupt, also in 1968
  • Harmony lasted until 1975 before it ceased trading

Those that survived the volatility would continue to fight for survival at best. Overall, when viewed in hindsight, it proved a disastrous phase for American guitar making and collectively one that isn’t widely documented, other than in individual circumstances. The ‘golden era’ was, seemingly, definitely over.

As is often the case, the causes of American guitar manufacturing woes between the mid‑1960s and the mid‑1980s are quite complex, based on deep‑seated structural flaws. Looking at the circumstances strategically, there were probably, amongst many other contributory factors, five key issues…

  1. Industry structure and stability – Inward investment and backing of large business should have provided a positive commercial injection to guitar companies who were either struggling with financial difficulties or were unable to grow quickly enough with existing management structures. What actually happened was that big businesses, as is their wont, were looking to cut costs and increase profit, seemingly unaware of the impact that they were having. The large companies tried to stimulate demand by experimenting and introducing new products without assessing whether what they were making was adequately meeting consumers’ needs. For small agile companies, risk taking was a vital part of the creative process, while the bigger firms focused on large scale, efficient production methods, conversely heightening the risks of failure. Remote and disconnected governing bodies tended to dictate business decisions based on balance sheets and shareholder return, rather than customer satisfaction. Arguably, though, the businesses were in dire need of ‘better’ rather than ‘different’ management both before and after takeover.
  2. Industrial relations – Strict operational disciplines, controlled production processes and rigorously applied policies are a fundamental requirement of larger bureaucratic organisations. These management styles were generally not part of the music industry’s ‘way of doing things’ at the time. Companies needed to be managed effectively rather than efficiently and, unfortunately, the pendulum swang too far towards the latter. Business managers exhibited a flagrant disregard for the expertise and skills required to make consistent, high quality musical instruments. Production facilities were relocated, often giving long‑term highly experienced luthiers a ‘move or go’ ultimatum. In addition distribution and dealership networks were changed with little regard for what went before. Unhappy employees and belligerent trade unions led to heated industrial disputes (and worse), thereby causing significant leadership and management problems. Decades of accumulated knowledge, skills, expertise and, perhaps importantly, attitude were lost to the industry in a short space of time – something that would take years to rebuild. The outcome was that quality fell, exacerbating existing deficiencies elsewhere in the industry.
  3. Industry culture – New corporate owners did not fully appreciate or take the time to understand why the guitar industry worked as it did, resulting in fundamental mistakes internally and externally. The latter disenfranchised those involved in the supply chain from distributors to dealers and, ultimately, impacting on paying customers. Crucially, working musicians’ requirements were not being met and, with that dissatisfaction, brand loyalty diminished as professional guitarists looked elsewhere for alternatives. In addition, musical tastes were rapidly changing and short‑lived fads required nimble organisations that knew how to adapt to changes quickly and appropriately. Smaller companies that were better‑tuned into what was going on could flex more easily. The larger corporations, however, were unable to spot change and respond, leading to mismatches and time lags between demand and supply. Many commentators suggest that it was because musicians weren’t running the show. However, guitarists don’t necessarily make good business people (or vice versa!), which might have contributed to the difficulties. Significantly, two of the most influential guitar innovators – Leo Fender and Ted McCarty – didn’t play the guitar at all. Nevertheless, they were effective leaders because they ensured that professional artists were closely involved with business decisions. Importantly, the time when musicians were listened to and relationships were actively cultivated had fallen by the wayside.
  4. Supply problems – Availability of consistent materials, particularly the all‑important tone woods, created challenges for large‑scale American production. Variable density and therefore weight of some imported tone woods meant that it was difficult to manufacture to dependable standards. Depending on the combination of materials, the shortage of quality inputs affected builders to different degrees. Around the same time, sustainability and environmental factors were becoming an issue, leading to further supply issues. Manufacturers started looking to alternative materials including metal (e.g. Kramer, Travis Bean), plastics (e.g. Ampeg/Dan Armstrong) and composites (e.g. Gibson) that were intended to improve consistency and streamline manufacturing processes. Other moves included building guitars not from single pieces of difficult to acquire, expensive wood but from cheaper, smaller, more available cuts. Consumers saw such actions as negative and symptomatic of other perceived underlying problems. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, customers were not impressed by ‘good intentions’ and the changes were seen as cost‑cutting measures taken a step too far. Many consumers saw through superficial claims and resented the big companies for making what they felt were false marketing claims.
  5. Far Eastern competition – Enterprising Japanese companies, revitalised by post‑WWII recovery and able to observe from outside, spotted that American labour and manufacturing costs were contributing to a combination of poor quality and high prices – an equation that would present opportunities to penetrate a previously U.S.‑dominated market. Companies such as Ibanez and Yamaha did two crucial things. The first was to use their structural advantages to make high quality instruments at lower cost, and to produce them in large enough numbers to compete with American products on their own ground. The second thing they did was to brazenly copy iconic American designs, presenting consumers with recognisable products built to (generally but not always) higher standards and sold more cheaply than the American ‘classics’. There is more on the Japanese competitive assault on American guitar makers below. They also used rapidly changing music trends to create openings for entirely new products, including their own designs, thereby beginning to build a strong and more ethical reputation of their own. When the inevitable backlash came (see below), the marketplace had already changed fundamentally.

Lawsuit Guitars and Trademark Protection

During the post‑1965 period, sales of major American brand guitars was in decline and the home industry was in disarray. This provides a broad background against which American companies had to contend. Generally speaking, the way in which the industry and marketplace was organised was not favourable for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Rickenbacker and many others.

The takeovers and general (mis-)management of American firms left the U.S. industry weakened and susceptible to aggressive business manoeuvres. American labour, tooling and material costs didn’t fall, so prices for finished instruments generally remained high for guitars that were increasingly poorly made. It is relatively easy to understand why the 20‑year period between approximately 1965 and 1985 was crucial to reshaping the global guitar making industry.

One particular Japanese guitar maker, Hoshino Gakki Gen, saw an ideal opportunity to enter the fragile American market. Cleverly, Hoshino recognised the potential animosity towards Japanese‑sounding products after WWII and adopted the Ibanez moniker. Incidentally, the Ibanez name was derived from Spanish guitar maker Salvador Ibáñez, who made classical guitars and sold them to Japan from the 1920s. When Ibáñez, failed during the Spanish Civil War (La Guerra 1936-1939), Hoshino acquired the rights to use the name, dropping the accents in the process. Hoshino’s next step was to take over an American company, Elger, which had already been importing Japanese guitars into the U.S. This move gave them ready access to the American territory, initially as Hoshino USA and then Ibanez USA. From 1970, Ibanez began systematically targeting and imitating popular American guitar models, particularly from Gibson, Fender, and Rickenbacker.

Initially, Fender and Gibson chose not to challenge these foreign copies unless they were identical to the originals, i.e. deliberate forgeries. Perhaps they didn’t see the early copies arriving in relatively small numbers as a significant threat and therefore not worth the lengthy and expensive battles through the American court system with no guarantee of success. Perhaps naively, they may have seen the copies as providing entry‑level experience that would lead consumers to trade up and purchase the ‘real thing’. Nobody really knows for sure. However, by taking their eye off the proverbial ball, the already struggling American brands were storing up a hornet’s nest of latent problems.

The relatively cheaply made Japanese copies often used bolt‑on necks, cheap materials and inferior hardware. Having said that, they were often reasonably well made for what they cost the consumer. The slavish copies appealed to many novice guitarists wishing to have guitars that, at least visually, looked like the more expensive American counterparts without the accompanying high price tags. Notably, and perhaps pertinently, Fender’s own low cost ‘student’ guitar lines (the Mustang ‘family’) and Gibson’s budget models (the Melody Maker) didn’t resemble their upmarket pro‑level instruments, further exacerbating the weaknesses in the eyes of customers.

The Japanese picture at the time is typically complex and confusing, particularly when trying to differentiate the production companies from the brands they made and the importers they used. Some of the companies such as Tokai, Greco, Yamaha and Suzuki followed Ibanez’s lead and jumped on the cloning bandwagon, making relatively faithful copies of American guitars.

The huge Kawai Teisco company was a mass producer that made guitars under many names, including Apollo, Domino, Kent, Randall, Sterling, Victoria and Winston. One brand, Antoria was actually a German company (Framus) that imported Japanese Guyatone (Suzuki) guitars that included replica Stratocaster copies. Others, such as British firm CSL (Charles Summerfield Limited) originally rebranded imported Ibanez guitars. Columbus was another brand that simply imported Japanese‑made guitars under its own name. Hondo was an American company that imported Japanese copies, giving them some home‑grown legitimacy. The Spanish‑sounding Fernandes, on the other hand, was a wholly owned Japanese company that also used the name Burny. Many companies made guitars for other companies, so the picture is further obscured. There were many, many Japanese manufacturers that were largely unknown outside the country but were indirectly contributory to the assault on America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, including Fujigen Gakki, the aforementioned Hoshino Gakki Gen (who also used the Tama brand), Matsumoku, Moridara and Tombo.

So… just what were all these Japanese companies actually targeting? In particular, Gibson’s Les Paul and SG models, as well as Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster came in for ubiquitous copying. Popular Martin, Guild and Gibson acoustics also came in for replication, as they were the world’s most recognisable acoustic instruments at the time. Acoustic copies including names like Takamine, Morris, Pro Martin and Ventura. Even the fonts used for headstock logos often mimicked the original American brand styles.

As volumes increased, the wave of imports understandably caused problems for the original manufacturers and it was only a matter of time before there was a defensive response. That reaction was based largely on Gibson’s famous Les Paul and particularly the outline shape of the headstock.

In June 1977, Gibson’s owners at the time, Norlin, filed a legal case against Ibanez/Hoshino for copying the Gibson ‘open book’ headstock outline. The case was settled out of court by February 1978, by which time Ibanez had already changed their headstock shape. However, since 1974, Ibanez had been astute enough to foresee the complication and had been developing and improving its own unique Artist guitar designs, thereby circumventing any further rights issues. From 1978, once the lawsuit was behind them, Ibanez focused purely on its own designs.

Despite appearances, there was, in fact, only one landmark lawsuit at the time and it only related to the design of the headstock on Gibson guitars. Presumably, other American manufacturers were watching and waiting for the outcome of the Gibson case. Not looking for potentially damaging confrontation in the courts, other Japanese companies sought to avoid the wrath of the American companies and changed their designs just enough so as not to fall foul of further litigation.

Ironically, some of the Japanese ‘lawsuit’ guitars have since become collectable in their own right. Although many copies that claim to be subject to the lawsuit aren’t, they are just guitars made during the ‘lawsuit era’ of the late 1970s. Generally speaking, Japanese guitar making – having made its mark for better or worse – went on to plough their own furrow in the multinational market, establishing a successful business model on which they could build.

The imitation game hasn’t gone away completely though. Many ‘knock off’ guitars in the 21st Century are emanating from China, where there is little effective means of legal challenge. While some of the guitars originating from China replicate American designs and are produced in large volumes, some of the fakes are appearing in small quantities as very convincing forgeries of rare and valuable vintage instruments.

Also, somewhat ironically, the big American brands struck back by strategically shifting manufacture of lower cost instruments off‑shore. Fender made guitars in Japan from 1982, only later changing the name to Squier to differentiate them from the American originals. Similarly, Gibson started Far Eastern manufacture of Epiphone guitars in Japan in the early 1970s, then in Korea from 1983, before relocating production again in 2003 to a dedicated Epiphone factory in Qingdao, China.

In 1984, PRS guitars was established by luthier Paul Reed Smith and has since become one of America’s major guitar manufacturers. To cater for all price points, PRS also introduced Korean production facilities for its SE‑branded guitars in 2003. While on the subject of lawsuits, after PRS had released the PRS Singlecut in 2001, Gibson filed a trademark infringement claim against PRS for allegedly copying the Les Paul design. Gibson’s lawsuit failed at appeal and PRS resumed production of the Singlecut, albeit slightly altered, from September 2005.

Fender now actively defends its trademarks, which exist in perpetuity, unlike patents that have a limited duration. To illustrate the issues, Fender’s defence of its trademark headstock design reads as follows, “The headstock is the key source-identifying feature of the modern electric guitar. In particular, the shape of the headstock (which, in the types of guitars at issue here, is part of a single piece of wood that also includes the guitar neck) is nonfunctional and primarily serves to identify the brand and model of the guitar. Fender owns trademark rights and federal registrations for the shapes of its headstock designs. These marks are instantly recognizable to generations of musicians and music fans as indicators of the source of Fender’s products and of the immense history and goodwill associated with Fender.”

Furthermore, Fender lost a 2009 application to trademark its guitar designs retrospectively. Opponents stated that consumers had had decades of unopposed exposure to those shapes from a wide variety of other guitar makers. This particular ruling opened the door to many look‑alike guitars, bar the familiar and distinctive headstock shapes.

Rickenbacker, unlike many of its counterparts, trademarks its important designs and vigorously protects them through the courts, hence why there are generally fewer Rickenbacker copies on the market compared to Fender and Gibson clones.

The whole issue of who owns what and how owners’ rights can be protected in a global market rife with replicas is a hugely complex issue and the nuanced legal debates are not for this story, so it is time to close this particular case and move on.

The Fallout and Time for Objective Re-assessment?

The Gibson law suit was, however, a wakeup call for American guitar building, as it proved beyond doubt that they were vulnerable to competition. While it may seem a relatively small isolated incident, it was contributory to the way in which guitar making, distribution and sales had to change. It was time for a shake‑out. By getting back to the basics, the rebuilding of American production that took place from the mid‑1980s resulted in vastly improved fortunes, even though it would take years for several companies to return to prosperity. Gibson and Fender were back in private ownership, Rickenbacker had sustained its business and, although Danelectro and Gretsch would find success, it took some time to regenerate historic popularity.

Despite what naysayers, respected journalists and wealthy vintage guitar collectors will delight in telling anyone who will listen, not all guitars built between 1965 and 1987 (when Fender introduced the landmark American Standards) are bad. Yes, there are many examples of poor quality instruments produced during those ‘dark ages’ but, let’s be honest, that has always been the case. Just look at some of the cheap and nasty instruments from the 1950s and early 1960s produced during the ‘golden era’.

Being a bit provocative and controversial, it is the author’s considered belief that there were many very good instruments built in the 1970s but these tend to be overlooked and caught up in the sweeping generalisation that ALL instruments from that period are sub‑standard. Some unique and interesting models only appeared during the 1970s and 1980s as part of the drive for experimentation. Some of these experiments were often made for relatively brief periods before they disappeared again. As a result, many of these rare examples are highly likely to be of interest to collectors in the future. As vintage prices of 1950s and 1960s guitars are rapidly increasing beyond many enthusiasts’ ability to purchase them, 1970s and 1980s guitars are also creeping up in value and are likely to become the ‘next big thing’ in the vintage marketplace. When they do eventually become desirable, which they will, that critical labelling of ‘poor quality’ is likely to be conveniently forgotten as the wheat is separated from the chaff.

Generally speaking, with the introduction of automated and computer controlled construction technologies, instruments from c.1990 onwards are generally consistently well‑made. This means that poor quality instruments are fewer and further between. Value‑for‑money since the 1990s has never been better with some very good guitars available at relatively low prices compared to the past. Broadly categorising the ensuing years between, say, 1990 and 2000 as a period of rejuvenation, resurgence and consolidation in the face of significant and multifarious challenges including economic downturn. The dawn of the new millennium saw further change including diversification, growth and a degree of reconfiguration. The reality, perhaps obviously, isn’t simply a case of general classification though, so such broad descriptions may best be regarded as a bit of artistic licence on the author’s part.

It may seem strange but it was often the inherent manufacturing variations and inconsistencies that have led to the handmade ‘golden era’ guitars becoming so desirable in the first place. As the idiosyncratic traits of the past have been ironed out, consumers have had ready access to consistent, reliable and higher quality guitars at virtually all price points. However, the increase in standardisation means that many modern mass‑produced guitars are often described as ‘generic’, samey and bland. It is also that lack of variation that has led to the boom in boutique, custom and modded guitars in the 21st Century.

Only time will really tell whether some of these maligned 1970s guitars will be re‑evaluated and achieve better recognition. Good examples will undoubtedly become increasingly sought after and collectable.

Recovery and Rejuvenation

Musical tastes continued to change and the 1980s and 1990s were no different. One trend was a move away from guitar music to highly produced electronic keyboard music. Japanese giant Roland (owner of BOSS effect pedals) tried to popularise the guitar synthesizers on the back of the electronica trend, as did consumer electronics company Casio who were more famous for calculators rather than guitars.

Another trend in musical taste was the explosion in popularity of glam, hard and ‘shred’ rock. Ironically, it was companies like Ibanez, once the scourge of copy guitars, which was ideally placed to cater for the trend with some cleverly designed genre‑appropriate instruments, such as their Destroyer, Iceman and Jem guitars.

Ibanez had cleverly repositioned themselves and continued to do so in order to sustain competitive advantage. In another canny move, Ibanez courted the new breed of virtuoso instrumental rock musicians, which proved successful. American guitarists such as Steve Vai and Joe Satriani were regularly seen using and advertising the Ibanez brand. Other Japanese companies followed suit, such as Yamaha and ESP/LTD. American brands such as Dean, Jackson and BC Rich also exploited the growing market for pointy rock alternatives to the old‑hat rock shapes such as Gibson’s Explorer and Flying V. Times had moved on and the traditional industry stalwarts were once again looking tired, on the back foot and at a strategic disadvantage.

By the time that some sort of equilibrium was restored from the late 1990s, the music and guitar landscape was very different from the end of the ‘golden era’. There was room for big music companies to grow, such as Peavey and Ernie Ball, the latter having bought out Leo Fender’s Music Man in 1984. The ‘big four’ brands were still there – Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and Gretsch, who continued to expand their ranges into high‑value custom shop as well as low‑priced models. In addition, once the barriers to entry were lowered, there were many small, opportunistic companies that sought to grow market share on their own terms, such as PRS. There was also a whole thriving boutique sub‑industry that focused heavily on producing custom instruments built to individual guitarists’ requirements; a healthy trend that continues to flourish well into the 21st Century.

The 2000s saw a reversal of fortunes with synth‑based dance and pop music becoming clichéd and well‑worn. This change of fortune facilitated a major resurgence in guitar music across a whole range of musical genres but specifically the burgeoning indie/alternative music scene. Indie music also triggered a renewed interest in retro‑styled instruments often evoking quirky designs from the past. This revitalisation enabled many gone but not forgotten guitars to experience a new lease of life. In addition, metal, progressive/contemporary, alt‑country and blues/rock genres have also seen rejuvenation and/or revivals, together with relevant instruments to suit. Even the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Danelectro and Rickenbacker have benefitted through reissues of previously defunct models. All in all, many guitar‑based musical styles continue to flourish and guitar sales benefit from the 21st Century appetite for diversity.

Interestingly, in the 2000s and 2010s, with the renewed interest in both retro and vintage designs, many of the old American brand names that went out of business in the 1960s have since re‑emerged, including Supro, Valco, Airline, Harmony and Kay.

The global recession that started in 2008 has been the longest and deepest since the 1930s severely dampened demand for discretionary purchases such as musical instruments. However, the desire to own and play the world’s favourite instrument endures, despite regular proclamations of the ‘death of guitar music’.

Music Trades data shows that total guitar sales in America, either by number or value, have shown a general increasing trend per year since 2009:
Year    Number  Value
2009    1.65m     $924m
2010    1.74m     $922m
2011    1.94m     $921m
2012    2.34m     $903m
2013    2.34m     $821m
2014    2.50m     $839m
2015    2.49m     $935m
2016    2.47m     $1,001m
2017    2.63m     $1,070m

In comparison, the number of electric guitar sales in America has remained largely steady since the start of the recession. Where these figures will go in the future and whether sales will regain pre-crash levels anytime soon is a betting man’s game. The market is, judging by these indicators, likely to stay challenging for some time to come.

One very positive trend is that research by Fender in 2018 shows that 50% of new guitarists in the U.S. and the UK are females, suggesting that equality is finally making progress in the music industry.

Modern‑day guitarists have learned to become fickle and much more discerning. No longer could a few privileged brands expect musicians to be loyal or for their products to be accepted as the default ‘go‑to’ solution. While slower to adapt, the American ‘big four’ fought back and, although often constrained by their past, were forced to innovate and compete or die. Not all of those experiments have been successful but the point is that they are trying to adjust to the inevitability of the brave new world.

Looking at the bigger picture, the diverse structure of the guitar industry is healthy for both producers and consumers. While things will change again, the fragmented nature of the marketplace in the 2010s means that risks of major step change are reduced. For the long‑established brands, the asset value of the ‘classics’ is now cemented and, to some extent, can once again be relied upon in terms of quality and value. The reliance on industry standards also creates a problem for the likes of Fender, Gibson, Gretsch and Rickenbacker, as it inhibits what they can do in a way that consumers will accept, witness Gibson’s failed attempt to move into consumer and lifestyle electronics.

Ultimately, nothing is set in stone and there is very little that can be considered genuinely ‘new’. The only certainty is that change will be continuous and necessarily incremental. Digital music technology will continue to be both a threat to, and an opportunity for, manufacturers. The hybridisation of analogue instruments and digital technologies is still in its infancy and only time will tell, which companies will respond positively and which will fail to adapt and fall by the wayside (again).

That brings us pretty much up to the current day, at the time of writing (2018). As English punk rock pioneer Joe Strummer of The Clash once said, “The future is unwritten” and how true that is. We are nearing the end point of the guitar’s long story… except that the story will continue in perpetuity. All that is really left to do is to describe the current position (again at the time of writing) and to speculate, somewhat idly, about what that unwritten future may hold.

End of Part VII

Here we are at the end of yet another episode in the guitar’s extended tale. We are pretty much up‑to‑date and therefore almost at the end of the journey, with (I think) just one more article to go. I hope that you’ll join me, hopefully next month for the conclusion… as far as there can be one.

I am now beginning to deliberate about a companion series of articles for next year (2019). Before that happens, I need a rest from this massively resource intensive exercise. I can’t yet reveal what that new series is, as I am thinking about things I haven’t thought of yet (if you get my drift). I will have to consider how it might be done in a way that I haven’t seen elsewhere up to now – I need to bring something new to the subject matter, otherwise it is just regurgitating what others have already done. Watch this space… In the meantime, I have to start planning what I’m going to fixate upon for the remainder of this year.

Right now though, it’s time to stop writing about guitars and to start playing one of the darned things, so I’m off to plink my plank! Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Whatever was pre-modernism like?”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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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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July 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amplified Archtop Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Early Solid Body Electric Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part V

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

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

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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June 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part IV

Without further ado, let’s get stuck into Part IV of the history of the guitar. As the story was left at the end of the last article during the 1920s and early 1930s, something new was needed to ensure that guitars would not only be able to compete with other instruments in a live situation but also become the catalyst for a musical revolution to mirror what was taking place in wider society. Just in case you were lulled into a sense of coherent continuity, this month’s article is a bit different from what has been covered so far.

This part is presented as part of a whole. If you wish to recap on previous articles in the ‘Potted History of the Guitar’ series, you can access them here (each part opens in a new browser tab):

Please remember that this is written purely for entertainment purposes and is not intended as an academic tome. While I have tried to be diligent in my research, there are undoubtedly improvements that could be made, so corrections and clarifications are genuinely welcomed. This is quite a long article, so I hope you are sitting comfortably.

Needing to be heard

The problem for guitarists in the 1920s was a simple but fundamental and frustrating one. The amount of volume that could be attained from purely acoustic guitar designs had got as far as it was likely to get at the start of the 1930s. Guitarists were still struggling to be heard in noisy live music environments as part of jazz, swing, big band and dance orchestras. Despite the strengths of steel strung folk guitars, archtop guitars and resonator guitars, the lack of volume continued to be a problem for guitarists throughout the early part of the 20th Century. A number of clever innovations attempted to help acoustic guitarists cut through the mix but they didn’t really capture mainstream attention and passed into obscurity, leaving demanding musicians still yearning for louder instruments.

Creative inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs were determined to find a workable solution. Perhaps the biggest game‑changing watershed in the entire history of guitar building was about to take place in America in the 1930s. The transformation depended on coincidental and mutually dependent developments; the magnetic pickup, the portable valve amplifier and its associated loudspeaker(s). Undoubtedly, the amplifier came first, simply because it could be driven by other inputs, such as early microphones, while the pickup followed to take advantage of the opportunity. Logic suggests that the converse would make little sense, as a pickup without some means of manipulating the signal s essentially redundant.

By the end of the 19th Century, early microphones were being used in telephone, broadcasting and recording industries. In 1916, the first condenser microphone was invented and in 1923, the first moving coil and ribbon microphones were developed. Given the timing, it seemed logical to experiment with microphones to capture the sound from acoustic guitars. However, the results weren’t particularly successful and the microphone proved to be a dead end for guitarists at the time. A more practical and reliable alternative was required to capture the physical energy produced by a stringed instrument and convert it into a usable electrical signal that could then be amplified and output.

Before starting to look at the early electric instruments that changed modern guitar music forever, it is worth taking a temporary detour to look at the catalysts that led to the step change. Once the technical inhibitors had been overcome and the various elements combined, electric guitars became a realistic and achievable proposition.

The electro magnetic guitar pickup

By the 1920s and 1930s, the science of using magnetism and wire coils to induce an electric current had been understood for several decades. It would, however, take some ingenuity to apply the various scientific principles involved to overcome the specific practical problems experienced by guitarists of the time. Within this context, we need to go right back to basics as a starting point.

An electromagnetic guitar pickup is basically a passive transducer that uses Faraday’s law of induction, named after English scientist Michael Faraday (1791‑1867), to produce an electromagnetic force. The physical movement of the vibrating steel string of a strummed or plucked guitar disturbs the magnetic field and induces a small voltage of between 100mV and 1V through the coil. This differs from a simple microphone, which works by converting pressure variations in the air (sound waves), into the mechanical motion of a diaphragm, which in turn produces an electrical signal (depending on the type of technology used).

A simple electromagnetic guitar pickup is generally constructed from one or more permanent magnets, wrapped many thousands of times in a coil made of fine copper wire. Most early guitar pickups comprised only one magnet and coil, hereafter referred to as single coil pickups. The weak electrical signal is then passed down an electrical lead to a separate amplifier where the signal is multiplied many times to drive a passive loudspeaker that reproduces the original signal at greater volume.

Unlike a microphone, the electromagnetic pickup does not reproduce the actual acoustic sound waves emanating from the guitar. The natural resonance of the instrument may cause the strings to vibrate in a certain way and this variation is picked up by the transducer, which may explain the differences in sound between two instruments using the same pickup, electrics, amplifier and speakers. As a result, at least in the early days, the characteristics of the pickup combined with the rest of the signal chain probably had more to do with the sound that audiences heard, rather than that of the actual instrument itself. There are innumerable permutations in which the basic components of magnets and wire can be configured to produce different outputs and over the years, pickup designers have used these variations to differentiate their pickups from those produced by others.

Gibson employee, Lloyd Loar had experimented with stringed instrument pickups as early as 1924, shortly before he left the company. Loar attempted to produce an electrical signal from vibrations passed from the strings through the bridge to the magnet and coil. Loar’s work did not lead to a successful product and guitarists had to wait a while longer.

American inventor and musician, George Beauchamp, who had been involved with the National String Instrument Corporation and the development of their resonator guitars, was also involved with another resourceful enterprise at the beginning of the 1930s. He teamed up with Adolph Rickenbacher to form the company was originally called Ro Pat In Corporation, which later became Electro String Instrument Corporation and later still, Rickenbacker, a name that most guitarists will recognise. Ro-Pat-In was instrumental in taking a fundamental new approach to electric guitar design.

Through Electro String, Beauchamp filed a patent in June 1934 setting out his pickup design as part of a complete ‘Electrical Stringed Musical Instrument’. Beauchamp’s ‘horsehoe’ pickup design comprised two ‘U’‑shaped magnets encircling the strings. Beauchamp’s application was granted by the U.S. Patent Office in August 1937. The patent was important because it was for a solid body electric guitar using a magnetic pickup, not just the pickup on its own – the development of the instrument will be covered in the next part of the story so, for now, the focus is solely on the pickup.

Ironically, in February 1936, Guy Hart filed a patent on behalf of Gibson for an ‘Electric Musical Instrument’ and this was awarded by the Patent office in July 1937, just 28 days before Beauchamp’s earlier patent application was confirmed.

Although unknown at the time, another single coil guitar pickup patent was filed in September 1944 by American inventor and entrepreneur Leo Fender. That application was for a ‘pickup unit for instruments’, which was awarded in December 1948. Although not as historically significant as other pickup patents, it was a clear indication of the direction that Leo Fender was heading prior to founding the company that would bear his name.

Another important principle of basic physics caused a significant problem for early pickup designers, and it still does even today. In addition to the desirable characteristic of electrical induction for guitar pickups, electromagnetic coils also act as directional antennae. As far as musical instruments go, this unwanted ‘feature’ means that single coil pickups not only pick up string vibrations but they also pick up interference from alternating mains current used by electrical appliances. Depending on position of the pickup in relation to other electrical equipment, of which there are usually many in a live music venue, the interference manifests itself as a continuous and insistent hum, which is then in turn amplified by a guitar amplifier.

One ingenious solution to the problem of mains‑induced hum was to invent a guitar pickup that still produced a signal from string vibrations while eradicating the interference from nearby electrical equipment. The clever answer was the invention of the ‘humbucking’ pickup, which uses two magnets, each with a coil of wire wound in opposite directions. Electrically induced mains interference affects both coils equally and, because each one is wound in opposing directions, the interference is cancelled out, thereby eradicating (or ‘bucking’) the hum. More importantly, not only do the coils still induce a voltage, they output a stronger signal because there are two coils instead of one. As the problem is all but removed at source, there is no hum to be amplified.

Arguments persist as to who invented the humbucking guitar pickup. Many commentators give the accolade to Seth Lover (1910‑1997), who was an electronics designer working for Gibson at the time and filed a patent in June 1955. Lover’s closest competitor in the race to be recognised for the humbucking pickup came from Joseph Butts, who later worked for Gretsch. Butts filed another humbucking pickup patent some 18 months later in January 1957. It was Butts’ application that was awarded first in June 1959, while Lover’s patent was awarded in July 1959. As far as many working musicians were concerned, the invention was successful and that was all that mattered.

Generally speaking (but not always, especially if obscured by a cover), it is relatively easy to spot the difference between slim single coil pickups and their larger dual‑coil humbucking counterparts. The latter normally have two coil bobbins traditionally mounted side‑by‑side. Within these two broad types, there are many, many different makes and styles of pickup to suit most needs.

Hum is not the only affliction that electric guitar builders have to deal with. All electromagnetic pickups, even those produced today, are prone to audio feedback, which is often heard as an undesirable high pitched shriek or howl. Feedback is a phenomenon called the Larsen Effect after the Danish scientist Søren Absalon Larsen (1871-1957) who discovered it. Audio feedback is caused by a sound loop that exists between an audio input such as a pickup or microphone and an audio output such as an loudspeaker fed by an amplifier. The electrical signal from the input is amplified through a loudspeaker and is then picked up again by the input and so on, continuously. The sound of the feedback is shaped by the resonant frequencies and proximity of the various components in the loop, including room acoustics. Most of the time, feedback is considered problematic and often unpredictable. However many guitarists have learned to harness and control feedback in a positive musical way to create additional sounds.

Some contemporary pickup manufacturers go to great lengths to replicate the authentic tonal characteristics of vintage pickups. One of those widely imitated pickups is also probably the most famous of humbucking pickups. Used on Gibson guitars from the late 1950s, the PAF (Patent Applied For), named after the black sticker on the baseplate, has come to define Gibson’s sound for many guitarists. The PAFs are particularly revered, as they were used in sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standards from 1958‑1960, often regarded as the ‘golden years’ for Gibson.

Today, many independent pickup builders not only pay homage to vintage designs but also strive to create their own distinctive reputation. Third party pickup builders may make OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and aftermarket pickups in a huge range of types. Such companies include Seymour Duncan, Di Marzio, EMG, Lollar and Bare Knuckle, among many others. Pickup choice in the 21st Century is very much down to personal preference and the options are nigh on infinite – very different from the 1930s.

The sounds generated by single coil and humbucking pickups are noticeably different. Not only do single coil pickups tend to produce a weaker signal, they sound thinner and cleaner, while more powerful humbucking pickups tend to sound fatter and warmer. Guitarists noticed this variation and took advantage of the differences to shape their own playing style and develop their distinctive tone. In addition, humbuckers are often considered better suited to overdriving pre‑amplifiers, thereby adding some controllable, distinctive and desirable harmonic distortion, making them popular in higher gain rock music.

By the 1950s manufacturers were commonly using two or more pickups on a guitar for added tonal versatility, initially adding a second or third pickup of the same type, for instance commonly used configurations include 2 humbuckers (e.g. Gibson Les Paul) or 3 single coils (e.g. Fender Stratocaster). Many guitar makers today mix different types of pickups on one guitar to broaden the range of sounds available.

Some pickup arrangements also allow pickups to be engaged in series or parallel or in/out of phase to give musicians a greater number of tonal options. Since the 1970s, pickup designers have enabled the signal from the two coils of a humbucking pickup to be ‘split’ (NB. not ‘tapped’). By using a switch, guitarists may enable a split humbucker to sound either like a traditional humbucker or to emulate the distinctive sound of a single coil pickup. All these various techniques provide guitarists with greater flexibility from their pickup(s).

Simplistically, guitar pickups may also be described either as passive or active. Passive pickups are the basic devices that have been described so far, while active pickups incorporate some form of electronic circuitry in the guitar to modify the signal, normally powered by an on‑board battery. Outwardly, there is often little to distinguish whether pickups are active or not. Putting active electronics into a guitar has been around since at least the 1960s and can range from a simple pre‑amp to boost the pickup signal to elaborate on‑board effects or even low powered amplification.

Since its inception 1930s, the humble guitar pickup has been adapted into many diverse forms. The majority of pickups in the early 21st Century remain passive single coil or humbucking types. However, there have been other pickup innovations along the way diverging from the norm. These alternative technologies include, amongst many other pickup types; hexaphonic (that feed individual string signals to MIDI/synthesizer controllers), piezoelectric (using crystals to induce current), microphonic (converting sound wave vibrations to electricity), electrostatic (using a capacitor to vary electrical capacitance), optical (interrupting a beam of light detected by a sensor), etc.

The understanding of the science behind pickup materials and dynamics between the components has been improved and refined significantly since the 1930s. However, the basic principles behind the passive transducing electromagnetic pickup remain pertinent today and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Magnetic pickups are, by far, the most common type used by electric guitars in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. This may be about to change.

With the digital revolution, there are numerous innovations occurring today that will lead to radical new pickup designs in the future. Future musicians can expect many new ways of converting the vibrations from humble plucked guitar strings into electrical signals that can be manipulated in ways we cannot yet contemplate. The possibly unstoppable migration from analogue to digital technology will continue. We can only speculate as to how far digital processes will encroach into the hitherto staunchly analogue domain of the guitar. Already, we have seen digital devices that enable the output from a guitar’ pickup to ‘model’ other types of guitar and even other instruments by modifying the signal digitally. We have also seen guitars as being a source trigger for external synthesis and various guitar synths have been around since the 1970s. It seems somewhat ironic that the digital age is enabling ever more accurate simulations of the earliest analogue pickups including the original’s crude and accidental inconsistencies.

While this section of the story is about guitar pickups, it is worth remembering that pickups have also been used successfully on many other types of stringed instrument.

Once the concept had been proven, the next step was to apply actual real‑world pickups in a practical way. There were essentially two methods of implementing an electromagnetic pickup for use on a guitar. One way was to add a pickup to existing acoustic instruments and the other was to invent an entirely new type of guitar with the pickup as an integral part of the design. How these two approaches came about will be covered in the next part of the story.

The pickup on its own, however, is of little use in isolation. Another crucial part of the equation was to take the weak signal from the guitar’s pickup and manipulate it electronically to make it much louder, which is where a completely different solution was needed.

The electric guitar amplifier

Possibly the major challenge with introducing guitar pickups was to turn the tiny voltage produced by the pickups into a sound that provided practical real‑world volume and tone for working musicians playing in noisy bands on the road.

The essential piece of equipment actually comprises two crucial components, the electrical amplifier and one or more loudspeakers. Amplifiers largely fall into two broad categories – either as discrete units comprising the electronics in a ‘head’ unit with loudspeakers installed in a separate cabinet, or with both amplifier and speaker(s) integrated into a single ‘combo’ amp. It is worth looking at the origins of both the electronics and the loudspeaker separately.

For travelling musicians from the 1930s on, amps also needed to be portable, so size and weight were particular considerations, as was electrical safety, durability and reliability. In addition, some degree of industry standardisation to enable interchangeability between instruments, electronics and venues was important.

The Amplifier

In the early days, amplifying a signal from a pickup was all that a guitar amp was really required to do. Controls were very basic, usually just a single input channel with a volume and, maybe, a tone knob. It would take some time before more flexible electronics were added to these basic amplifier circuits. Nowadays, the diversity of amps ranges from the very simple to the incredibly complex. The latter often including, just for starters, multiple switched channels, gain controls, effects loops, digital modelling alongside advanced EQ, flexible on‑board effects and digital interfaces. However, the fundamental principles of amp utility haven’t really changed that much since amps were first invented in the 1920s and when guitarists started to use them in the 1930s.

Put very simply, an amplifier is made up of active electronics that are designed to take an input signal, multiply it many times in strength and output it to a loudspeaker at a volume that is considerably louder than the original input. The electronics of an amplifier comprise essentially two discrete parts, a pre‑amp that controls the incoming signal and shapes it ready to be boosted and output by the power amp section that then drives the loudspeaker(s). It is these two amp sections that determine the overall character and volume of the audio output.

Amplifier output is usually measured in watts and provides a crude indication of power output (volts x amps = watts). The relationship between watts and sound pressure levels heard by the human ear is logarithmic. Generalising, it takes ten times the output power in watts to double the perceived audio volume. In addition, it takes considerably more amplifier power to reproduce low-frequency sound, especially at high volume, so bass amps tend to have higher power output ratings.

While early amplifiers were configured to the environment in which they were most likely to be put, such as practice, studio or stage amps, many modern amps use various techniques to minimise this artificial distinction, such as master volume controls, power attenuators or circuits used to modify amplifier stages to suit.

Up until the 1970s, thermionic valves – also known as vacuum tubes – were a principal electronic component and one that contributed significantly to both the power and sonic character of the amplifier. A valve is a relatively simple device used to control electrical current between its electrodes. The first valve was invented in 1904 by English electric engineer John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945).

At its most basic, a valve comprises an external glass container used to maintain a vacuum is attached to the valve base. Inside the valve there is a heater, an electron‑emitting cathode/filament and an electron‑collecting anode/plate. Electrical current, in the form of negatively charged electrons, flows through the vacuum in one direction only from the cathode to the anode. An electrical grid can be used to control the current and is the one often used for amplification because the grid can be used to vary the number of electrons reaching the anode and, thereby, controls the amount of gain. Valves are often described by the number of electrodes, for instance; diode, triode, tetrode  or pentode valves (2, 3, 4 and 5 respectively). The humble valve has been used in many applications, such as amplification, rectification, switching, oscillation, and display.

Valves come in many shapes and sizes and vary according to the function they are required to perform in the amp stages. Generally speaking, pre-amp tubes tend to be smaller, while power amp valves tend to be larger.

There are numerous alternatives and variations of valves and there isn’t room to cover the range of technical differences. Thankfully, there has been a degree of commonality in amplifier design over the decades. Typical valves used in pre‑amps include models such as the 12AX7/ECC83. Typical valves used in power amps include models such as the EL-34, EL-84, KT66/77/88, 6L6/5881 and 5150. Valves impart a characteristic ‘natural’ sonic signature and tend to be sensitive to a guitarist’s playing dynamics, which is why they are still widely favoured by many musicians to this day. While technically outdated and obsolete, there is a notable modern‑day industry built around valve production, amp manufacturing and valve amp maintenance.

The valve is the technological precursor to modern semiconductors. Semiconductors are often made of silicon, although they can be made from other materials, such as germanium. A transistor is a solid‑state semiconductor that roughly performs the same function as a valve and is commonly used for amplification. Transistors are smaller, cheaper, lighter, run cooler, are more reliable and more resilient than valves. Some manufacturers produce hybrid amps that aim to take the best characteristics of both valve and transistor technologies.

Taking things even further away from archaic valve technology, electronics using complex digital microprocessors are commonplace. Not only can DSP (Digital Signal Processor) chips produce their own sounds but also they enable a single unit to model a multiplicity of amplifier models that would be impossible using traditional technology. In addition, they can also emulate multiple effects, speaker cabinets, microphone placements, studio interfaces, and so on. Reliable and robust digital processing amps able to be used equally well at home, in the studio and on stage are once again attempting to usurp territory previously held by archaic analogue amps.

Specialist amps are made to make the most of other, albeit similar, electric instruments. For instance, electro‑acoustic guitars (acoustic guitars with pickups) produce a wider frequency range and tend to be ‘cleaner’ sounding than electric guitar amps, which has led to increasingly elaborate amp electronics to cater for the particular needs of acoustic guitar players. Bass amps and speakers are also engineered specifically to provide for the demanding amplification used by bass guitarists. There are no hard and fast rules, the lines are not always clearly drawn and there is inevitably some interchangeability between the general types.

One of the keys to success is to match the characteristics of the amplifier stages to the loudspeakers, so it is worth looking next at the humble loudspeaker and the important part it plays in the guitar sound’s signal chain.

The Loudspeaker

The latter part of the 19th Century was ripe for invention in the field of sound reproduction. As with other sections, only a few of the key milestones can be covered here. Prior to the invention of the modern loudspeaker, megaphones and bulky ‘radio horns’ had been used to increase acoustic volume. However these proved impractical because of their size and weight, limited frequency range and low sound pressure levels.

German teacher, Johann Philipp Reis was, perhaps, the first to develop a rudimentary type of experimental electric loudspeaker in 1861. Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent his loudspeaker design in 1876 for use in his telephone, shortly followed by Ernst W. Siemens who patented his ‘magneto-electric apparatus’ in 1874. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were also experimenting with sound around the same time. By 1898, Horace Short was working with compressed air drivers and Oliver Lodge was developing a ‘dynamic’ speaker using magnets and moving coils with horns to amplify sound. Danish‑American engineer Peter L. Jensen (1886-1961) is often cited as co‑inventor of moving coil speakers in 1915 and he started applying the technology for use in real world situations. Jensen founded his company, Magnavox, in 1915 to market products for telephones and public address (PA) systems. Magnavox is now part of the massive Philips corporation.

Things changed considerably in the 1920s with the introduction of the first amplified moving coil loudspeaker using a conical paper speaker diaphragm, which was invented in 1925 by Edward W. Kellogg and Chester W. Rice, both of whom worked for General Electric in New York, USA. Their research was important as it established both the principle of the amplifier to boost a signal and a speaker able to reproduce a wide and uniform frequency range. Rice filed a patent for the electrodynamic direct radiating ‘loud speaker’ in 1925, which was awarded in April 1929. Their speaker was introduced to the market under RCA’s Radiola brand in 1926.

Early speakers used powered electromagnets, as permanent magnets were scarce at the time, although Jensen released a fixed magnet speaker in 1930. Lightweight Alnico alloy magnets became available after WWII, making the technology more accessible enabling further innovations to take place. Other inventions along the way included, for example, 2‑way systems using a crossover to separate frequency bands (1937) and coaxial speakers (1943). Once the concept of the moving coil speaker had been proven in practical applications, it has become the de facto standard within the music industry for nearly a century.

The loudspeaker, as we know it today, is essentially a mechanical electroacoustic transducer that serves the opposite function to a microphone in that it converts an electrical signal into sound waves. A traditional moving coil speaker is passive in that it relies on an already amplified signal being fed to it and it doesn’t require its own power supply. The incoming amplified signal is fed into a coil of wire, known as the voice coil, suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. The voice coil is attached to the apex of a conical diaphragm known as a speaker cone, originally made of paper. The outer edge of the cone is mounted within a fixed metal chassis, usually within a cabinet. The electrical signal makes the voice coil move back and forth rapidly within the magnet thereby pushing on the cone to produce sound waves. The more air that the moving speaker cone displaces, the louder the perceived sound is. Different sizes and types of speaker are used to deliver different sound frequency ranges. Generally, larger speakers are used to deliver lower bass frequencies and smaller ones used for higher treble frequencies.

Loudspeakers are usually attached to a flat panel (baffle) with circular holes cut into it such that the sound waves produced by the speaker cones can escape directly into the listening environment. The baffle with its speaker(s) is normally mounted inside either an open‑back or closed‑back wooden cabinet.

Like amplifier outputs, speaker output is usually measured in watts, which is the electrical power needed to drive the speaker. More watts generally, although not always, indicates greater volume. Like all electrical devices, a speaker provides some opposition to the signal being fed into it, called impedance, measured in ohms. Some speakers are ‘hard to drive’ and have a low impedance, which means that it requires greater current from the amplifier to result in the same output level than a high impedance speaker. As a result, it is important to match a speaker’s characteristics to the amp that is driving it.

Most loudspeakers, even those produced today, are relatively inefficient devices with only about 1% of the electrical energy being converted into acoustic energy. Most of the remaining energy is converted into heat. The sensitivity of the speaker describes how much relative electrical energy is converted into sound pressure level, measured in decibels.

The other important factor for loudspeaker performance is its frequency response. Human hearing generally covers the range 20-20,000 Hertz (cycles per second). People’s sensitivity to frequencies is not uniform and it varies depending on pitch. Human hearing is usually most sensitive in the 2,000-4,000 Hertz range.

Famous names in the field of loudspeaker manufacturing today include Celestion, Jensen, Weber, Electro Voice, JBL, Bose, Fane, Altec Lansing, Mackie, and Peavey amongst many others.

Despite its many drawbacks, the moving coil loudspeaker was (and generally still is) the most effective mechanism for the job and they remain in very wide use today. Speakers come in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes and are used in so many different ways. However, like the pickup and amplifier, the basic principles of speaker design can be traced back to the early part of the 20th Century.

 

Guitar Amps

Initially, bulky battery‑powered valve amps and speakers were used in PA systems and in movie theatres of the time. Because of their bulk and relative fragility, these early systems tended to be fixed installations. From c.1927, portable AC mains‑powered amps became available and musicians started to adopt the technology.

In 1928, Stromberg‑Voisinet advertised the first electric instrument and amplifier package. However, it was not a commercial success and no verified examples exist today. In 1929, Vega introduced a portable amplifier to be used with banjos.

It wasn’t until 1932 when the Electro String Instrument Corporation – later to become Rickenbacker – was formed to bring the electric guitar to market that things really took off. Electro launched a ‘high output’ guitar amp to accompany their new solid body electric lap steel guitars, as Hawaiian music was highly popular at the time across America. The first commercial solid bodied electric guitar and amplifier made by Electro String essentially established the format for early combo amps comprising an electronic amplifier mounted inside a wooden cabinet along with a speaker. The new combo amp also had a carrying handle to make it portable and, shortly after, the company added metal corners to protect the cabinets in transit.

In 1933, Dobro introduced the first guitar amp combo with twin 8 inch speakers. By around 1935, the demand for amplified electric guitars became unstoppable and the electric guitar music revolution had begun. Other companies such as National, RCA Victor, Audio-Vox, Vivi‑Tone, Premier, Vega, Kay, Valco and Volu‑Tone, promoted their own amps to musicians, with varying degrees of success during the 1930s and 1940s. Gibson was also experimenting with amplifiers in the early 1930s although none were made commercially available at the time. Most of the early valve amplifiers were low powered by today’s standards, usually less than 10-15 watts and using small speakers, often of 10 inches or less in diameter.

In 1938, American electronics technician, Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender (1909-1991) established Fender Radio Service to repair a wide variety of electronic equipment. He found that musicians would come to him for PA and amplifier repairs and rentals. Seeing the potential of the music industry and started to focus more on musical equipment manufacture. Fender began a short‑lived venture in 1944 with Clayton ‘Doc’ Kauffman, a former employee of Rickenbacker called K&F Manufacturing Corporation with the intention to build Hawaiian lap steel guitars and amplifiers.

In 1946, after Kauffman and Fender parted company, Leo founded the company with which he will forever be associated, Fender Electric Instrument Manufacturing Company, based in Fullerton, California. Shortly thereafter, they introduced the first guitar amps carrying the Fender name. Early Fender combo amplifiers included the Fender Princeton (1947-1979) and Champion 800 (1948-1982).

In 1952, shortly after Fender introduced their Broadcaster guitar which would become the legendary Telecaster, the company introduced what would be, perhaps, its most celebrated combo amp, the famous Fender Twin. The Twin moniker derived from its dual 12 inch speakers. The Twin has been released in many versions over its long history, with its power output ranging from its original 25 watts to a high of 135 watts in the late 1970s. The perennial Fender Twin remains in production today and has become an industry standard.

Meanwhile, based in Kent, England Tom Jennings (1918-1978) founded British company Vox in 1947 to produce musical equipment. It wasn’t until 1958 that Vox released its first guitar amp, the 15‑watt AC15. A year later, at the request of The Shadows’ guitarist Hank Marvin, Vox introduced its most famous model, the AC30, intended to compete with America’s powerful Fender Twin amp. The AC30 proved to be a very successful product and in updated form, it remains in production today.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that mass produced guitar amplifiers really became commonplace and incorporated many of the features now expected from an amp including, for instance, multiple tone controls, tremolo and reverb.

In addition, contemporary popular music of the time was developing rapidly and guitarists began to experiment by overdriving their amplifiers to distort the guitar’s sound at much higher volumes. From the mid‑1960s guitarists sought to control the level of overdrive and distortion (also known as clipping) as a creative tool. One particular characteristic of natural valve distortion is that clipping also tends to compress the signal as the volume is increased, meaning the output tends to sound ‘thicker’, rather than louder, emphasising the guitar’s sustain.

Guitarist Dave Davies of English band The Kinks is often credited with popularising guitar distortion. On one occasion, Davies himself admitted to slashing the speaker cone of his Elpico AC55 ‘little green amp’ with a razor blade out of frustration and in the process of doing so, he made it sound distorted and nasty. The Kinks’ song, ‘You Really Got Me’ (1964) is often cited, rightly or wrongly, as the first hit record featuring heavy guitar distortion (using a Vox AC30).

The search for new guitar sounds in the 1960s helped to ignite the drive for compact guitar effect pedals, initially with simple fuzz and wah effects. A whole industry developed during the late 1960s and 1970s including brands such as Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, Maestro, Boss and Ibanez, amongst many, many others. Effects have ever since been used to complement guitars and amps as an integral part of a musician’s signal chain. The market for effect pedals has grown into a massive industry in its own right.

The development of guitars, amps and popular musical styles of the 1950s defined the template on which succeeding generations of guitarists would build incrementally. Many modern amps and amplifier innovations hark back to the best examples of this ‘golden’ period. Driven by the success of the 1950s, particularly the popularity of Fender amps, the quest for more volume seemed unquenchable. The first 100 watt amps were made by Leo Fender for surf guitarist Dick Dale, while Jim Marshall of legendary British amplifier manufacturers Marshall did the same for Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of rock band The Who.  Dr. Jim Marshall OBE was affectionately nicknamed, ‘the father of loud’.

High power, high gain valve guitar amps became the norm at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s. It was not uncommon to see large stages filled with gargantuan ‘stacks’ of loudspeaker cabinets powered by banks of high powered amps. Marshall is the brand most associated with the classic guitar stack, which at its simplest comprises a 50 or 100 watt amp on top of two 4×12” closed back speaker cabinets, thanks again to Pete Townshend of The Who as well as the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. The guitar stack has since become inextricably linked with hard, heavy and metal rock music. Music and its essential components very much reflected the cultural and social changes of the times.

There have been several technological challenges to the humble valve. A concerted trend away from vacuum tubes towards solid state transistor amps occurred in the 1970s, led by companies like Roland, Peavey and H/H. Other manufacturers adopted a best‑of‑both‑worlds approach by making hybrid solid state/valve amps, led by Leo Fender during his time with Music Man.

Arguably, Fender, Marshall remain the two predominant and recognisable amplifier brands and, respectively, have come to define the ‘American sound’ and ‘British sound’ respectively. Notably, unlike Fender, Gibson has never had much commercial success with building guitar amps, despite producing some credible models along the way. There are now a myriad of other amplifier manufacturers including famous brand names such as Mesa Boogie, Peavey, Ampeg, Randall, Rivera, Bogner, PRS and Supro in America, and Vox, Orange, Blackstar, Victory, Hi-Watt and Laney in the UK. Outside the USA and UK, there are many successful brands including Hughes & Kettner, Engl, Line6, Roland, Yamaha, BOSS, etc. In order to keep production costs down, many budget models are now produced in the Far East, while the majority of small boutique amp builders cater for the high‑end, being manufactured in limited numbers in America and Europe.

Many other famous brand names have passed into history, such as Traynor, Sunn, Multivox Premier, Univox, WEM/Watkins, Sound City, H/H, Selmer, Cornford and Carlsbro although, to be fair, some of these continue to operate in some form or other and may well be rejuvenated at some point. There are far too many brands, past and present, to mention here.

Ironically, there is increasing interest in capturing the retro sound and looks of the earliest guitar amplifiers. Many companies are now recreating classic analogue models of the past, often incorporating modern adaptations for reliability, safety and convenience to meet the demands of today’s guitarists. There are many boutique amp builders looking to take the best of old and new and present something different from the current mainstream manufacturers.

At this point, no article focusing on guitar amps would be complete without mentioning Dumble amplifiers. Dumble amps are made in very small numbers by Alexander ‘Howard’ Dumble in L.A., California, often by request of well‑heeled professional musicians. The Dumble Overdrive Special is widely regarded as the zenith of limited production boutique amps and, as a result of their quality and rarity, new or used examples have gained almost mythical status and demand extremely high values on the open market.

Despite the remarkable sustained popularity of valves, digital modelling technology is now making major inroads into the tube’s traditional territory. As the technological advances behind digital modelling processors that began with the iconic Line 6 Pod through to ever‑improving digital advances from companies like Fractal and Kemper. The audible difference between the ‘antiquated’ originals and modern digital recreations is rapidly diminishing to the point where professional musicians see a competitive advantage in moving to a digital platform.

Despite stiff competition from solid state and digital circuits, the valve guitar amp currently remains the de facto standard for many discerning professional guitarists, despite the decidedly old-world technology involved. It will be interesting to see how long genuine valve amplifiers will continue to prosper in the face of the digital revolution. Only time and hindsight will tell. It is likely that valve, analogue solid state and digital technologies will be able to coexist for many years yet.

Get connected

Guitars need to be connected to an amp in order to work, often with effect pedals in between. Before wireless and/or digital technology takes over completely, the venerable guitar lead has been the necessary link between input and output since the 1930s. At each end of a traditional interconnecting lead is a remarkable piece of analogue kit that most guitarists rarely think about but cannot live without. Similarly, guitars, amps and effects also have the other part of the same connection.

The essential connector in question is the ¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and its associated socket, which originally dates from c.1878. The first jack connector was invented by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manual switchboard at the telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. It is astonishing that, after nearly 1½ centuries, this enduring piece of industry standard equipment is still in ubiquitous use today, long after it became obsolete in telephone systems.

End of Part IV

This has been a self‑contained article that departs from the usual topic of guitars per se. While it might seem a lengthy, in‑depth examination, it only just scratches the surface. As I don’t have the space, knowledge or resources to write comprehensively on the subject, I highly recommend that readers wanting to delve into the historical detail take a look at the innumerable resources available on the ever‑present hinterwebby thing. NB. Credit to all original photographers for images used from Google Images.

Arguably, without the complementary inventions of the electromagnetic pickup, the dedicated valve amplifier and the moving coil loudspeaker, the revolution in guitar technology that started in the 1930s and which really took off in the 1950s would not have been possible. It is notable that the scientific principles underpinning today’s electric guitars are still relevant nearly a century later. It is, at least to me, remarkable that, technically, we haven’t really evolved a great deal over the intervening decades. Advances have been incremental refinements, rather than ground breaking. Digital technology may change all that. Watch this space.

At long last, in Part V, the story will finally unleash the breakthroughs that led directly to the early electric archtop and solid body guitars. The next revolution in guitar music making was about to happen. Who could possibly have anticipated the impact that the congruence of the three seemingly innocuous bits of music technology covered above would have when brought together.

I hope you have enjoyed the journey thus far and thank you for reading. I also hope that you’ll come back and join me on the next part of the guitar’s long journey to the current day. Time to get some vintage gear out and plug in. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Excess in any form does not indicate wisdom; rather it evidences the lack of it”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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May 2018 – A Potted History Of The Guitar Part III

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

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

Modern Era (1900-present)

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

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

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

Acoustic Archtop Guitars

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Gibson Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Competition

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

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

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

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

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

Acoustic Resonator Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of National and Dobro Guitars

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

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

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

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

1939 National Tricone Resonator

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

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

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

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

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

Post-War Resonator Guitars

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

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

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

End of Part III

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2018 – The State Of The Village

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Welcome to 2018, albeit a tad belated. The previous CRAVE Guitars article (December 2017) was an introspective look back at 2017 and a tentative look forward to 2018. That article looked only at CRAVE Guitars’ personal experiences, apprehensions and aspirations. What it didn’t do was to look more broadly at the music industry landscape and to make some sort of sense of what’s going on out there in the global guitar village, hence the somewhat intentionally ambiguous title of this month’s article. The timing also coincides with the U.S. President’s annual State of the Union Address, so there is some rhyme to the reason. I don’t expect anyone to agree with my assessment (quite the contrary in fact), as it is purely a personal view of the world from the margins of the sector.

Looking across the whole industry, it is in a good enough state considering the severe difficulties experienced by just about every sector of the global economy over the last decade. Business has been, is now, and will remain very challenging and it will only get harder for manufacturers to achieve competitive advantage in rapidly changing markets. Things are looking positive though; maybe not everywhere but there are certainly areas of buoyancy and there is reason for optimism, generally. Yes, there are always ups and downs and it is often a case that firms need to be adapting continuously in order to stay current and relevant. There have been fundamental, structural changes taking place in the way people experience music and the likelihood is that those changes will not only continue but also accelerate as technology enables new and better ways to get into the groove. Generally, the industry is both driving innovation and meeting the needs of musicians, which is a good sign for manufacturers, distributors and consumers.

Music is the law

The thing that I keep being reminded of is that people are still actively making music and people are still listening to music; something that I believe is a universal constant that will not change. I have covered the science of music in previous articles and, as music is subject to the physical laws of the universe, it is essentially necessary for the continuation of the human condition. How and where people experience music changes but the basic (and I believe, elemental) human need for music ensures that demand will be sustained, although I hesitate to use the word ‘forever’.

“Music is a necessity. After food, air, water and warmth, music is the next necessity of life” Keith Richards (1943-)

“Music is the universal language of mankind” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807‑1882)

“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe” Laozi (6th Century BCE)

The challenge for the industry in the developed world is that music, as an artistic and cultural pursuit, is discretionary and people’s ability to access music is a matter of individual choice, subject to inevitable economic constraints and lifestyle priorities. Fortunately, at least in the western countries, personal freedoms mean that music is an integral and essential part of most people’s lives. Furthermore, most post‑industrial societies recognise the value of art and culture to the well‑being of its citizens as well as being a principal contributor to the national economy – music earns a great deal of money and thereby raises a considerable amount in taxation.

An appreciation of this ‘macro’ context is important in order to evaluate what is happening on the ground at the ‘micro’ level.

Shiny, shiny new gear

That’s the ‘big picture’ set out. Now let’s start with what’s happening with new gear out there. At the time of writing, Winter NAMM 2018 in Anaheim, California has just ended and there is plenty to be excited about. NAMM is the trade show where the major manufacturers in the business sport their wares for the coming year.

Although my primary focus and main interest is with vintage guitars, as well as vintage analogue effect pedals and vintage valve amps, it may surprise to you to know that I still have a keen interest in modern gear as well. OK, so I don’t spend my meagre lucre on new musical equipment any longer but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate exciting, shiny new‑fangled stuff. Like most eager G.A.S.-obsessed guitarists (you know who you are and what that acronym stands for), I am not alone in that I have the frequent pangs of lust for whizzy modern gear. I may not have the intimate knowledge of new equipment that others do, so my comments are therefore largely general and observational.

First off, the quality of equipment coming onto the market these days is extremely high and many leagues ahead of the sub‑par stuff that was available in most guitar shops when I was young, eager and willing. For people who are starting the journey of guitar discovery, it is very easy to buy a very high standard of instrument these days, even on a tight budget. The baseline is that there are very few poor guitars in today’s market. That doesn’t mean that poor examples don’t exist, of course they do. Sometimes, though, consumers can be critical of what is on offer, although this may be result of not being clear about what they need and then not making informed choices of gear. This mismatch may cause as much disappointment as bad gear per se. I regularly hear the “piece of cr*p” argument levelled at the tools of our trade and I feel that this is possibly more to do with assertive conceit to cover up a poor experience in the first place, rather than an objective evaluation of the kit itself.

Part of the reason for the bar continually being raised is the influx of mass‑produced equipment from the Far East, particularly the growth in products from China. Chinese output is in turn exerting pressure on other Pacific Rim producers, such as Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan and Malaysia to up their game in the face of stiff Asian competition. Japan has suffered economically for many years and is now facing many of the commercial squeezes that America faced several decades ago, including increasing labour, regulatory and raw material costs and increasing inability to compete on price in a saturated global market. Let’s face it, there are only so many guitars that can be sold, so if there is over‑production, this places downward pressure on costs and therefore effectively capping retail prices. Improved quality and low prices are good for the consumer but cause many headaches for many manufacturers trying to earn a living.

As a result of global trading arrangements, established American brands like Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, PRS and Danelectro will continue to take advantage of offshore production in order to compete at the lower‑cost, higher‑volume end of the market.

The over-supply of generic products at the budget end of the market does, however, open up all sorts of opportunities for the niche guitar makers who are small, agile and able to meet individual customers’ needs for something different. The boom in independent luthiers from all over the globe is a healthy phenomenon of the early 21st century. These custom builders are producing innovative and appealing guitars like never before. There are way too many small‑scale builders to mention but just take a look and you’ll discover a plethora of superb bespoke equipment just waiting to be tailored to your individual requirements. There is even a guitar show specifically showcasing small luthiers – the annual Holy Grail Guitar Show in Berlin, Germany.

The losers in this more volatile and fickle arena tend to be the mid‑sized producers of classic instruments who are constrained by their history and a certain amount of preconceived public expectation.

Gibson, in particular, has had a number of difficulties over recent years. Strategically, they are caught between a rock and a hard place with their traditional customer base being eroded by competition while not being able to create a loyal new following. The introduction of the Modern Double Cut is evidence of how Gibson continues to split opinion (NB. for what it’s worth, I like them). It may seem that Gibson doesn’t know where it is going. I would argue, though, that whatever direction it goes, it is likely to struggle, so I don’t envy the company executives who have very difficult jobs at the moment. Gibson’s custom shop is producing excellent wares but the size of that niche is limited to a relatively few well‑off discerning customers. It is Gibson’s Memphis division though, responsible for its semi‑acoustic products, that is a shining light. The Memphis plant is producing some exciting, beautifully made instruments in relatively low numbers. If they can replicate the success and reputation of their Memphis division in other areas, they may well experience a resurgence in fortunes. In the meantime, Gibson’s absence from U.S. industry trade show NAMM 2018 in favour of CES may be symptomatic of their problems. Sadly, the words ‘shoot’ and ‘foot’ spring to mind.

Conversely, Fender seems to have fared better in keeping things afloat. They have done this by rejuvenating some of their lesser known instruments (e.g. the updated offset Duo‑Sonic and Mustang, as well as the semi-acoustic Coronado) to a customer base that wasn’t generally aware of the originals. The Jaguar and Jazzmaster are also proving to be popular and very cool, especially with alternative and indie musicians. Fender is also tweaking its classics, the Strat and Tele. Fender’s, current ranges have an exciting freshness at keen price points that are attracting young players wanting to differentiate themselves from the old guard. Fender also has an advantage in material sourcing, as they generally use woods that are less exotic and therefore more available and sustainable. Compared with Gibson, Fender also has a highly lucrative amp and bass guitar business, both of which provide industry standard products. The Gretsch brand (part of the Fender empire) is also producing some very fine instruments across its key lines.

Fender therefore seems to have the upper hand of the ‘big two’ at the moment, although this could change easily and rapidly. Like Gibson, Fender could do with some credible, long‑standing all‑new guitar and bass designs to reinforce their reputation and ensure their long-term prosperity.

When this article was published, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations prohibiting, or at least severely limiting, the international trade in rosewood will have been in place for a whole year. The full long‑term impact of this has still to be felt. However, most guitar makers are urgently seeking viable alternatives – easier said than done. Ebony is likely to be next and who can predict what will follow after that (mahogany?). The import burden imposed by CITES has pretty much stopped CRAVE Guitars from purchasing instruments containing rosewood from outside the EU. As if importing from North America wasn’t bad enough (including dire currency exchange rates), Brexit will probably impose further barriers to buying products from the near continent. These burdensome trading restrictions are definitely not good for small enterprises like CRAVE Guitars.

Will online selling result in the disappearance of physical off‑high street guitar shops? Internet sellers will try to gain market share and brick‑built emporiums carrying expensive display stock will struggle in the same way as many other retailers grappling with the same conundrum. However, as with other parts of the retail sector, it will probably result in a mix of retail and online channels providing customers with choice about the way they buy their gear.

I always advocate actually playing something before buying but it doesn’t always suit everyone and sometimes it just isn’t possible. As an example, some of the guitars in CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’ simply couldn’t be sourced locally and many had to be acquired over the Internet, usually in eBay or Reverb, many from across the Atlantic or in Europe. There is obviously a risk in doing so but these can be mitigated to a degree by doing one’s homework. Diligence should always rule over desire when making unseen purchases. Even so, I have made many costly mistakes but on the whole, one develops a nous for buying guitars this way, especially when there is no alternative option.

The fad for ‘modding’ guitars is as strong as ever with many 3rd party after‑market companies producing just about anything you could ever want for your guitar, effect pedal or amp. In particular, the evolution of quality after‑market pickup manufacturers seems to have followed the growth of luthiers, focusing on quality, tone, character and individuality. Small changes can have a significant improvement to an otherwise bland, generic instrument (but realise that it may devalue a vintage piece of equipment).

Specialisation and differentiation is increasing in the accessories market as well, which includes anything from strings, leads, picks, pedalboards, cases, straps, merchandise, and just about anything else you can think of. In a similar vein, front‑of‑house concert tech such as mixing, PAs, monitoring and lighting are all evolving very rapidly.

One downside of a market flooded with cheap imported product is the resurgence of copies, knock‑offs and fakes affecting both old and new guitars. Long gone are the days of winnable ‘lawsuit’ cases, so replicas are rife. The topic of 1970s and 1980s ‘lawsuit’ cases against Japanese copies is fascinating (not for this article though). Many cheap lookalikes sail close to infringing trademark violations.

As the value of rare vintage gear rockets, there is a temptation to capitalise on reproductions that are so well done that even experts can be fooled. There have always been fakes of course but the stakes seem to be so much higher now. The origin of fakes seems to be from countries over which there is little or no jurisdiction, therefore bringing those accountable to justice is nigh on impossible. Few companies have the resources to track the forgers down, enforce their rights and drive them out of business. Even if they are successful, it is only a temporary sticking plaster, as the culprits simply disappear underground, only to pop up again somewhere else with an alternative ruse to rid the unwary honest of their cash. Beware!

Another massive growth trend over the last few years is in boutique effects. This is, I believe a reaction to the trend towards multi-effects and digital modelling products where major companies crammed so much versatility and functionality into these boxes that it became difficult to make music without embarking on an engineering degree. The back‑to‑basics approach of the small specialist effect makers has mirrored the boutique guitar and pickup makers. Their tactic was to take the best of the past and bring it up to date without falling into the trap of over‑cramming. The quality is excellent and the only problem for the consumer is possibly the abundance of choice (and sometimes price). Great examples from 2017 include pedals from Keeley, Electro‑Harmonix, Orange, Digitech, Way Huge and Earthquaker Devices. If you want full-featured effects, well you can have that too if you want.

One unforeseen benefit to the explosion of stomp boxes is that it has stimulated a boom in power supplies and clever pedalboard switching systems. Following the established GigRig (now in G2 form), Japanese giant Boss has jumped on the bandwagon with their highly successful MS-3. There is a negative to complexity in that the level of tinkering needed to find THAT killer tone is considerable and it can actually distract us guitarists from actually playing guitar! Not a good thing in my view.

Another idea spun off from effects is for crossover tech such as ‘amps in a pedal’, frequently used in a modern amp’s effects loop to push an amp’s power stage by bypassing the amplifier’s pre‑amp. These intriguing boxes of tricks are just emerging onto the market – expect them to be popular in 2018.

Amp manufactures, like luthiers and effect builders have followed a similar track by diversifying and honing in on specifically what 21st century musicians’ need. Live gigging has changed massively and so has the business that supplies it. Apart from arena bands, the crowded backline of insanely powerful amps and stacked speaker cabs has pretty much gone by the wayside. There is still a place for muscle amps but tone quality has largely replaced volume quantity in the modern gigging environment. The move towards ultra-high quality and often low output boutique valve amps (e.g. Two Rock, 633, Bad Cat) and cute/cool ‘lunchbox’ amps has been particularly notable, with many established amp manufacturers following suit at the next level down (e.g. Victory, PRS, EVH). The choice of amps for the budget conscious is impressive with some great options (e.g. Fender, Vox, Orange, Blackstar, BOSS, Yamaha). The change is revolutionary and on‑going. It will be fascinating to see where it leads. Archaic valves still seem to be beguiling the affection of serious musicians, so we won’t see the imminent end of those pretty glowing glass vacuum tubes just yet. It may well happen, just not soon.

All in all, gear‑wise, it’s been a fascinating 2017 with lots of exciting new product hitting the scene. The growth in small‑scale companies suggests that a shakeout may occur at some point, with larger corporates buying out smaller entrepreneurial companies. The big companies do this to acquire successful new products without having to do all the R&D and testing and the risks that go with it. This process of rationalising the supply chain is quite common in post-recessionary periods of economic growth, so expect some announcements of mergers and acquisitions. The flood of imports from Asia is likely to increase further in 2018 and will continue for the foreseeable future, echoing the massive growth of Japanese brands in the 1970s and 1980s. As long as the standards are good and the prices reasonable, consumers will keep spending money.

Live and recorded music

Live music seems to have overtaken recorded music in terms of significance to the sector. It appears that consumers are increasingly demanding the immediacy and exclusivity of the live concert experience. This also seems to coincide with the fact that it is also where management and bands are making their money. The demands of touring make for a great deal of hard work for professional musicians – it isn’t the endless rock ‘n’ roll party of sex and drugs that naïve outsiders think it is (or would maybe like it to be). The key to success for artists is to achieve longevity, rather than the harsh spotlight of overnight success followed by the abyss of obscurity.

Like many, I am trying hard to work out where the guitar heroes for the next generation are coming from. There are so many very good guitarists out there and it is tricky trying to determine what it will take to stand out from the crowd. Once they do get attention, will they then have the credentials to stay in the frame for decades to come? Personally, I would dearly love to be able to record my music. At the moment, I don’t have the time, patience, resources or equipment to do it.

Like live music, the way that music is recorded and distributed has also been revolutionised with major recording studios being replaced by modest home recording environments using impressively powerful DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). Never has it been easier and cheaper to record music. The quality of the music recorded, though, is another matter. The regretful tendency towards the celebrity‑driven vacuous and generic is an enduring concern. Thankfully, there are still enough leftfield artists with integrity to keep the cauldron of creativity bubbling. Britain and Europe seem to be pushing the boundaries more than America, although this may be a perception based on local exposure, rather than reality.

The abundance of people who believe that they know best how to make, record and sell music also has an effect on what the consumer hears. We have a situation where the OCD can delight in correcting every last flaw in the production process and, perhaps unknowingly, they rob much modern music of its vitality and rawness in the process. There is also a tendency towards uniformity and conformity that I can only put down to ‘artists’ seeking short‑term fame and success, rather than producing excellent new music for the long­‑term. Having said that, the ability to create and distribute music has enabled musicians to get their music heard in a way that they wouldn’t have done in the past, as well as for listeners to find new artists.

The investment in time and effort required to master recording technology is immense. Even then, the technical skills and expertise may dominate over the ability to create something worthwhile. However, this is no different to putting a novice at the controls of a traditional studio desk. Those who can and do master the technology have my respect, not only for learning and being able to do it in the first place but also in keeping up to date, which must be a complete nightmare. Having worked in IT for over a decade, currency of knowledge is essential and it is the same with recording technology.

Distribution of recorded music has been transformed by downloads and streaming services like iTunes and Spotify, rather than tangible product or traditional media broadcasting. The benefit is that it provides greater choice and diversity. The issues around licensing and royalties are lagging behind the technological changes, meaning that predatory lawyers will no‑doubt benefit from the inevitable wrangling over rights ownership and originality for years to come.

So… what of the consumer? UK sales of music in 2017 were higher than for any year in the previous 20 years. Streaming (excluding YouTube) accounted for just over 50% of all music consumption in the UK, equating to 68.1 billion songs and contributing £1.2bn to the economy! Vinyl still accounts for about 3% and grew in absolute terms in 2017. Both CD sales and downloads have been declining in percentage terms for the last 5 years, which is a bit sad. All this indicates that entertainment industry scare stories about the Internet and streaming killing off music have proved quite the contrary, given the evidence.

Unlike music sales, there are some areas where innovation is certainly lacklustre, for instance in music videos. For most bands, music videos are still an essential medium but there is little in the way of ‘must watch’ material, compared to the past (think 1980s video). It’s difficult to see what could rejuvenate the platform. If it were me, I’d be looking to work with successful video game producers for an injection of much‑needed new ideas and talent.

Digital rules… or does it?

The analogue versus digital debate would seem to raise its head at this point but to many observers, the lines are currently reasonably clear. There is a place for both and both have their well-argued positives and negatives. Put bluntly, digital is here to stay; get used to it. However, many musicians remain wedded to analogue gear and it is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Heck, we can’t even eradicate vinyl records after decades of digital ‘supremacy’, so the best of analogue will be around for a while yet.

Thanks to the likes of the Line6 Pod before it, innovative digital products like the Fractal FX-II, Line6 Helix and the Kemper Profiler have proved hugely successful. This is notable, mainly because of the way these products replicate or emulate the tone and dynamics of decades‑old valve amps. This suggests that new music technology may be more likely to succeed when imitating old technology. The same applies to many new digital effect pedals that strive to reproduce the lo‑fi characteristics of clunky old analogue pedals. Go figure!

I remember back in the 1970s when solid state tried to oust the vacuum tube in amplifiers – it failed. I also remember solid state (analogue) effects replacing, for instance, tape echoes – it succeeded. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of mileage in transistor amps and they are very good at what they do. At the risk of repeating myself, there is a place for everything in the right context. The future will undoubtedly feature a mix of both analogue and digital domains, each suited to their strengths.

I foresee a whole area for growth in hybrid ‘cyber’ guitars, ones that balance traditional characteristics with digital tools that appeal to new age tech‑savvy musical pioneers. While many companies have toyed with the idea, it hasn’t taken off yet but I reckon the flood gates will soon open and they will push the sounds guitarists are able to create to new levels. Where digital excels, for instance, is in the recording environment where it is almost universally standard. Will digital guitars completely replace our beloved instrument? Not in my lifetime.

Guitars will undoubtedly accommodate and adapt to digital technology but digital won’t make what we have now obsolete. After decades of electric guitars, we are devoted to the beauty and tone of our instruments. Will new generations demand an all‑digital guitar and will such an instrument be able to replicate the best of the old tech? I don’t believe that it can but you never know. Counter‑intuitively, electronic music has only made guitar music stronger since the 1980s, when synths and ‘electronica’ attempted to eliminate ‘old‑fashioned’ guitar‑based music. It failed then and it would almost certainly fail again now. I think we’ll be sticking to our traditional woody guitars, the essence of which hasn’t changed since the 1930s (for electric hollow body guitars and the early 1950s (for solid guitars). I think we will see an increase in hexaphonic pickups, i.e. ones that are able to send separate signals for each individual string to external digital processors/controllers. This is actually nothing new!

Therefore, some sort of mutual co-existence will probably exist for many decades to come, without an ultimate resolution to the digital versus analogue debate. In the end, it’s all about compromise. Fine by me, I’m happy to sit on a fence and continue playing my vintage guitars without them becoming totally obsolete.

Trivia: The original ​¼“ (6.35 mm) jack plug and socket, the ubiquitous industry standard for connecting electric guitars to effect pedals and amplifiers originally dates from c.1878. An early type of the humble jack connector was created by George W. Coy and was used for the first commercial manually operated switchboard at the telephone exchange he created in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. Note: Other connectors have been tried in the past, including a few companies that attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace the jack plug/socket with the common DIN connector. I will wager that the digital USB port, currently being fitted to a few guitars these days will not endure for the next 140 years in the same way as the jack plug/socket has. You’ll have to wait until the 2120s to collect any winnings on that particular bet.

Mobile devices

Where do our mobile phones and tablets sit in this brave new world? Like other electronic visual interfaces, it is simply a different way of looking at the same thing. They have their place but it will probably remain at the margins of music production, largely due to the effects of continual progress and obsolescence. I would suggest that guitarists, generally being quite a conservative bunch, probably won’t adopt mobile technology in quite the way many companies might like. While portability and convenience is undeniable, standardisation and compatibility need to be established before they become commonplace.

Vintage vibrations

Moving onto things vintage… The ‘investment’ boom years between 2000 and 2008 came to an abrupt end with the financial crash and the subsequent recession that followed it. Many commentators point to a 30% loss in value across the vintage guitar market. The market has just about recovered to the point that it was before the crisis. There are always exceptions to the rule of course. Some aspects, particularly the affordable low end of the market remain very problematic with prices varying wildly and with considerable inconsistency.

The upper end of the market did, and probably always will, ride out short‑run economic fluctuations relatively unscathed. The wealthy are far better equipped to ride out commercial ups and downs and that’s where the big profits are likely to end up. Pecuniary speculation may be rewarding for the well‑healed musician or collector but for everyone else it is challenging and I can’t see that changing for the foreseeable future. My usual bleat of ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’ still holds true, especially as I am firmly in the latter category – apologies, this is just the chip on the shoulder of sour grapes talking (no apologies for intentionally mixing metaphors).

Some things still surprise on the vintage front. As a simple example, a relatively modest original early‑1980s Ibanez TS9 overdrive pedal seems to have certainly bucked the trend. I bought one for a reasonable market price about 18 months ago, now you can’t find one offered at less than four to five times what I paid. What the heck is going on there? Crazy. It may be riding on the back of its scarce and collectable predecessor, the venerable TS-808, but that’s no guarantee of anything. Other prices, for instance late 1970s/early 1980s Fender Stratocasters, seem to bouncing along in a very unpredictable fashion compared to similar guitars from the early 1970s, the prices of which are beginning to climb steeply.

I am concerned that the vintage guitar market is increasingly at great risk of repeating the pre‑recession ‘boom and bust’ cycle. Anything ‘classic’ from the 1950s is already at a premium, while most models from the 1960s are likely to increase in value significantly until they are equally out of reach. Gear from the 1970s, 1980s and newer is still not fashionable… for now. If the climate changes dramatically, which it could, the probability of the bubble bursting (again) will increase. It will happen again; it’s a case of when, rather than if. Looking at the long-term, the vintage guitar market will survive for as long as there are vintage guitars to be bought and sold.

One thing I’ve noticed over the decade‑long slump is that sourcing specific guitars, effects and amps has become so much more difficult. The same also goes for vintage parts that are needed to conserve vintage instruments for the future. There used to be much broader choice and availability for punters. Now, particular items are either unavailable or very hard to find. This lack of supply linked to sustained demand would suggest an inevitable increase in market value (one of the basic laws of economics) but that only seems to apply piecemeal. I’ve said it before and it still holds true, the vintage guitar marketplace remains a bit of a minefield at the moment.

Another thing I’ve observed is that my UK online feeds for vintage gear are being flooded by items from Japan, the Russian Federation, China and Australasia. I would urge extreme caution if considering long-distance purchases from these underdeveloped territories. Prices are high, the exchange rates into the UK are poor, import duties, taxes and charges are disproportionately exorbitant, and the regulations are increasingly onerous (CITES again). It is not difficult to deduce that it just ain’t worth the risk.

Moreover, be aware that many Japanese items are not owned by the actual seller. They list the item and only when a customer clicks ‘Buy it Now’ do they then try to source the original and, if it has been sold in the meantime, you may either not receive the item at all or you may get a substitute that can be very different from what you believe you ordered. As if to corroborate this, it is not unusual to see the same item being offered by different sellers. Do you think you’d have any sort of come back in the event of an issue? Nah, forget it. Never has the contract law principle of ‘caveat emptor’ (literally from the Latin, ‘let the buyer beware’) applied more. If you do risk it and end up getting burned, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you are interested in gambling on vintage guitars to make a return on investment (not my thing, I reiterate), the trick is to anticipate what might be ‘the next big thing’ just before it takes off. Do I have any advice on this front? Yep, but I’m keeping it very much to myself. Why? Not because I want to profit from my hard‑earned insights (which would be nice) or because I hate greed (which I do), it’s because of the numerous uncertainties involved. I would hate to suggest something only for that advice to implode (i.e. my sort of luck). I really don’t want to be held to account for giving poor advice… or for pricing myself out of a purchase because I end up competing with someone who took my advice.

Summary and conclusion

So, there you have one person’s view of the ‘state of the village’. The market for new music gear continues to evolve in a positive way. With western economies emerging from the deepest, harshest recession ever, the industry will thrive, innovate and change providing a wealth of choice and options for guitarists of every age, level of competence, income bracket and musical style. The vintage market, while currently erratic, will always remain relatively niche as supply and demand is limited – expect vintage market values to escalate in the year (or two) ahead.

The operating environment for manufacturers and retailers will continue to be challenging and they will need to adapt to meet musicians’ fickle needs while appealing to traditionalists and neophytes alike. The firms that will survive will understand both the external pressures affecting them while also engaging actively with what guitarists most value in their diverse gear-focused world. A much‑needed injection of authentic customer service would be welcome too.

The future looks exhilarating as the technology continues to evolve and challenge existing preconceptions about what music‑making is all about. The business is not going to go away but it will change and do so more rapidly than it has in the past.

I am optimistic that the best of the past and the best of the future will find a sustainable equilibrium where there is something for everyone. More importantly, the products that we use on a daily basis, whether created in the past, the present or the future will continue to inspire, motivate and enable more of us to produce some fantastically creative music. That music will, in turn, hopefully excite and evoke deep emotions for millions of listeners of both recorded and live music all over the world. Music is a wonderfully powerful medium that has the potential to change individual lives, communities and societies to create a better, more peaceful world. Now that’s an ambitious agenda. Sign me up!

CRAVE Guitars Logo

Whatever transpires, I’ll watch with great interest. Wanna play? I do, so I’m off to plink my planks (despite badly hurting my little finger on my fretting hand). Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “The best way to keep music alive is to keep music live.”

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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November 2017 – New In: Underdog Vintage Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

A couple of articles ago (September 2017 – ‘A Map Leads To Some Hidden Gems’ → click here to read the article), I looked at the unlikely significance and influence of the 1983 Gibson USA Map, which was at the time the newest addition to the CRAVE Guitars fold. The Map was an unusual promotional guitar that Gibson produced in very small numbers for a very short period, for a specific purpose.

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

In that article, I explored some of the other ‘forgotten’ Fender and Gibson guitars from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. I suggested that, despite being minor relatives in the guitar family tree, the ‘lost’ models merited greater exposure and recognition. In order to understand the context within which these ‘forgotten’ guitars appeared and subsequently disappeared, it’s worth looking at what was happening during those 10-15 years.

Up to the late 1970s, two guitars from the same batch could be quite different and others were cobbled together from what was available at the time. This disparity was a problem for manufacturers, dealers and musicians alike. During the 1970s, the unpredictable variation in materials, processes and standards was seen as a bad thing from a quality assurance point of view. The big corporations that owned both Fender and Gibson at the time (CBS and Norlin respectively) partly tackled the issue by increasing mechanisation and automation, as well as exploring the use of alternative materials. They also sought to experiment and innovate in an attempt to overcome some of the perceived problems in supply and distribution chains, which resulted in a swathe of new models at all price points. By the mid‑1980s, Fender and Gibson had moved mass production of their budget brands off-shore (as Squier and Epiphone respectively) and American manufacturing had become more ‘industrialised’. The benefits of industrialisation included greater construction consistency, as well as improved economy and productivity. Management didn’t understand that the unintended downside for many musicians was that the changes removed some of the quainter charms of experimentation, problem‑solving and hands-on guitar building that players actually valued. I believe that these inherent tensions are integral to current‑day criticism of many American guitars from that period.

Due to public demand since that time, the rise of big‑brand custom shops, independent luthiers and computer controlled tooling made it easier to diversify and differentiate, thereby enabling greater innovation, customisation and modification. My current vintage cut-off is actually the end of the 1980s. Don’t get me wrong, many fine instruments have been produced since, and many of them are much ‘better’ made than many of the guitars that I showcase. It’s just that the fascinating manufacturing quirks and parts‑bin machinations became less… well… random!

I mentioned at the end of that September 2017 article that the research done to bring some of the ‘forgotten’ guitars to prominence stimulated my interest in some of these marvellous (?!) overlooked, creative ‘mutants’. So, not having really laid my hands on some of these ‘generation-x’ guitars, I put my money where my mouth is and decided to track one down (or, as it happens, three!). So this month also has some ‘new ins’ at CRAVE Guitars that hopefully prove that I am not a vintage guitar snob.

Two ‘Forgotten Fenders’

While the age distribution is fairly even across the CRAVE ‘family’, I am well aware of the numerical imbalance between Fender and Gibson models, so my attention was initially drawn in the direction of the big ‘F’.

After a couple of bidding battles on eBay (loathe it), CRAVE Guitars has now adopted two fine new baby Fenders, although sadly not quite the bargains thy might have been…

1981 Fender Bullet

1981 Fender Lead

It’s the first time I’ve owned either of these two models. I have to say that I am not disappointed by either acquisition. Getting both at the same time makes for some interesting (at least for me) comparisons and observations. The two instruments not only look different, they feel and sound very different. Good! That, after all, was one of the points I was making in my previous article, i.e. you can’t easily pigeonhole or generalise about these instruments, let alone disregard them simply because of their ephemeral existence. Another advantage of these ‘lesser’ guitars is that they often haven’t had the hard life of being on‑the‑road like some more workmanlike ‘professional’ models. In addition, many of the ‘forgotten’ vintage guitars don’t sell for big bucks so they can be picked up for a relatively reasonable sum (at the moment). I have to accept that, while they are now attracting moderate collector interest, they will never turn a decent profit should I deem to sell them on at some point. C’est la vie; at least I can enjoy playing them in the meantime.

The series 1 Fender Bullet is definitely a low-cost entry‑level model, clearly made to a budget during its short production period (1981‑1982). The Bullet was the brainchild of legendary designer, John Page (Fender R&D, then co‑founder and head honcho of the Fender Custom Shop). Page was tasked by the then new management team at Fender (including Dan Smith who was brought in to rejuvenate the brand) with making a guitar that cost only $65 to manufacture (the retail price was $199). He got it down to $66 through some ingenious engineering, e.g. ‘that’ toy-like bent steel tailpiece extension to the scratchplate, which Fender patented.

There seems to be confusion about the source of materials used, with suggestions that some parts were imported from Korea and assembled in the States. Even John Page can’t recall the details with any certainty, so there’s little hope for the rest of us. Strict American trade laws stipulated that it had to have enough genuine American content and added‑value to warrant the all‑important ‘Made in U.S.A.’ decal on the headstock. That’s good enough for me – I am not that much of a vintage guitar elitist to split hairs. I have to say that, of the two acquisitions, the Bullet feels more ‘manufactured’ rather than hand‑crafted but, let’s be honest, that’s not really surprising given its age, target audience and price point. The series 1 Bullet’s body looks to me to be slightly out of proportion compared to its forerunner, the formidable Telecaster. The unusual aesthetic, however, gives it a distinctive indie look which you’ll either love or hate. Its quaintness is all part of the appeal to me – kinda like lusting after the plain redhead girl‑next‑door rather than the pretty blonde prom queen. In fact – confession time – I like the Bullet so much, I think I might try to find an equivalent series 2 Strat‑a‑like version with a maple neck to keep this one company. Watch this space.

1981 Fender Bullet

The Fender Lead I on the other hand is quite a different animal. When is a Strat not a Strat? Well, the Lead kind of fits that bill, taking inspiration from both the Strat and the Tele. Like the Bullet, it had a short production period (1979-1982) and, because it has never been reissued, numbers on the vintage market are limited. The Lead was targeted at professional guitarists on a budget, comprising solid wood, a vintage‑inspired Stratocaster neck, natty electronics, etc. If anything, it suffered from being squeezed into a niche between Fender’s budget ‘student’ guitars and the pro‑level ‘classics’. The Fender Lead also seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of what need it was trying to fulfil. The Lead I and III had clever Seth Lover‑designed split coil hot humbucking pickup(s), making the guitar pretty unique in Fender heritage. The inspiration for the single pickup Lead I seems to stem from the trend for early ‘superstrats’ around the 1980 period (cheers Mr Halen & co.). The dual‑humbucker Lead III was only made in 1982 and sometimes appears in a nice Sienna Burst finish. Seemingly in contradiction, the Lead II had 2 single coil pickups like a cut-down Stratocaster. In fact the Lead II’s X-1 single coil pickups went on to appear in the Stratocaster. For me, the Lead I is a great single pickup axe and sufficiently different from both the Lead II/III and other Fenders of the time. The Lead therefore has a bit of that cool & rare interest that keeps CRAVE Guitars growing.

Once Fender Japan was established, the company played with the original American Bullet and Lead designs to the extent that they lost the essential ingredients that made them American in the first place. The guitar lines were rationalised by Squier and subsequent models basically became a Far Eastern Stratocaster copy.

1981 Fender Lead I

One thing is for sure, while I was researching these models both before and after buying them, I was struck that both guitars have a very strong cult following among people who have actually owned and used them. I was prepared to be lemming-like and agree with many vintage commentators that these aren’t serious American Fender guitars but, thankfully, I decided to take the plunge anyway and experience them for myself. I’m glad I kept an open and curious mind. Are they great guitars? To be honest, no, they aren’t up there with the classics that inspired them. Personally, I still have a preference for Fender’s offset ‘student’ guitars like the Mustang but then again, that’s what I grew up using, so I guess it’s not surprising. However, neither are they rubbish (as many might claim) and they acquit themselves well enough to sustain interest as part of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’.

Commercially, neither of these models really caught the public’s imagination on release, which is why they aren’t commonplace now and why Fender hasn’t reissued them. I quite like that they exist under the radar and remain unfamiliar to most players. All of these factors encouraged me to take up the cause on behalf of these cool, underrated, humble and modest ‘forgotten Fenders’. So that’s Fender covered; now what about Gibson?

One ‘Forgotten Gibson’

It isn’t only Fender that had some ‘lost’ guitars during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also in my September 2017 article, I took a look at some equivalent ‘forgotten Gibsons’. The early 1980s was a period of intense R&D activity for Gibson. It amazed me that, while I have a number of Gibson oddities from the period, I have relatively few of the ones that I highlighted. Like with the Fender models above, I started a quest for an all‑original, good condition Gibson to start filling the gaps in the jigsaw puzzle.

I decided to start with one of the most unloved models and went in search of what many commentators describe as the lowliest of the low in Gibson’s canon. After yet another bidding battle on eBay (grrr), I secured a lovely example of a much-berated instrument:

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

While I can appreciate why there is universal criticism of the poor old Sonex-180, it doesn’t mean that I totally agree with it. Now that I’ve played it and reflected on its position in history, I think the mass hysteria about how awful it is, is overstated and unfair. Yes, Gibson were trying to cut corners and reduce manufacturing costs and they even had to bypass their own dealer network (hence ‘The Gibson Company U.S.A.’ on the headstock). However, the approach they took with the Sonex-180 attempted to tackle head‑on a number of other issues facing the guitar industry at the time, such as variable quality and quantity of tone woods (and an eye to future timber sustainability), known drawbacks of wood under extreme stage conditions (humidity and temperature), durability (Gibson’s Achilles heel with neck breaks), and manufacturing inefficiencies in production/finishing processes. The innovation and forward looking creativity backfired big time and the instrument was soon consigned to history as a misfire, as did several other models created during the experimental late ‘70s and early ‘80s, each suffering varying degrees of hostility. In my view, at least they tried to break the mould and we should be thankful for that.

If the Sonex-180 had been produced by anyone other than Gibson, it might have had a different reception. When compared with guitars coming from Japan at the time, both Fender and Gibson’s eccentric models could not compete with high quality/low price and mainstream appeal of many far eastern products (often blatant copies of US designs at the time). This polarisation of a competitive market tended to result in exaggerating the consumer’s already negative perceptions of American brand quality.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to put the Sonex‑180 (et al) on a par with the Gibson classics. However, when viewed in isolation and with hindsight, the Sonex‑180 is certainly unique and, despite its reputation, is historically noteworthy within the broader context. I believe that there is a lot to commend this carefully selected Gibson Sonex-180.

To lambast the Sonex‑180’s use of composite materials is a touch unfair. Alternative materials have been used in guitar bodies for many decades. Res-o-Glas (fibreglass) used by National, Airline and Supro, Masonite (hardboard) used by Danelectro, acrylic polymer (Plexiglas/Lucite) used by Ampeg/Dan Armstrong, plastic (Lyrachord) used by Ovation, carbon glass/resin used by Parker, as well as laminate (plywood) used by Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Martin and many others. James Trussart has popularised the use of metal in guitar bodies while carbon fibre and plastics (e.g. by 3D printing) are now also being used extensively by luthiers.

In addition, many high end Gibsons and Martins now use Richlite, a combination of paper and resin for its fingerboards now that rosewood is a restricted wood and ebony is likely to follow soon (Google CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – for further information). Within this context, I suggest that the degree of animosity directed specifically towards the Sonex‑180 is a bit over‑the‑top. For many, though, ‘resonwood’ was seen as a desperate attempt of a failing organisation unable to compete on price or quality.

Furthermore, bolt on maple necks never hurt Fender’s reputation, so why criticise Gibson for using them on the Sonex‑180? Gibson had already used bolt‑on necks on other models including the Sonex‑180s predecessors, the S-1 and Marauder, as well as the Corvus and Ripper/Grabber basses.

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

The case for the prosecution (and rebuttals by the defence)

When undertaking the research for this and previous articles, I recently came across an article by an esteemed guitar magazine that looked at ‘guitars Gibson should never have made’ (including the Sonex‑180 and several other CRAVE-owned models!). In the spirit or hindsight, Gibson’s business strategy may have been imprudent but to claim that they should never have been made is to miss the point completely. The world would be a very boring place if companies only made things that someone thinks they should have made. It also seems poor populist journalism to malign the industry in such a negative way simply because of hindsight. This headline was just one of many misjudged rants out there.

 

I also dipped my toe in the unsanitary toilet bowl of Internet forums. As anyone who attempts to uncover any sort of definitive truth on the Internet will know, forum diatribes are a minefield of everything from helpful assistance and utter hogwash. Facts are frequently frustratingly incomplete and/or often aggravatingly blatantly incorrect. Only through rigorous corroboration and an intuitive nose for plagiarism and BS can one hope to get anything resembling fact. As if the ‘horse’s mouth’ of credible web sites (including Fender and Gibson’s own) wasn’t bad enough, many of the forums are extensively riddled with what I can only describe as illiterate hokum, ignorant opinion and inaccurate assertions. Amongst the tripe, there is, however, valuable material to be had. I don’t claim to be scientifically diligent but I do my homework and aim to be objective with a smidgeon of common sense. This doesn’t mean that I am right, as I freely acknowledge how little I actually know.

As far as the guitars in question are concerned, I can just hear the Internet rife with mutters of, “there’s a very good reason why these guitars should be forgotten’. I think that’s also a bit harsh and I don’t agree with censoring history, as each one is important in its own right. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and there are offbeat pleasures to be had. It’s a bit like that slightly chubby barmaid you’ve secretly fancied for ages and never had the nerve to ask out. While none of the three guitars I’ve covered here are likely to become my favourite go‑to guitars, they are very playable and they are now part of the diverse CRAVE Guitars’ family for a good reason. It is much easier to slag something off without justification than it is to explain in rational terms the positives. There are many supporters of these guitars but their enthusiasm is generally outweighed by the vociferous minority.

You may also well ask, “Why on Earth did you waste all that good money on three pedestrian guitars when you could have got one much better one?” Well, that kind of misses the point of preserving the diversity of guitar heritage, not just the best. Let’s face it, someone has to. History is (or should be) as much about the proletariat as it is about the aristocracy. A viable society needs the peasants as much, if not more so than, the royalty. Had I overlooked the vernacular, I would have missed out on three very interesting and underrated guitars that few other people will have even noticed, let alone considered playing or owning. In any case, I have a few (!) other guitars that fit the ‘better’ bill, so it’s about being able to experience a wider gamut of what’s out there and sharing it with others. Moreover, these new additions certainly fit the criteria for CRAVE Guitars that I covered in last month’s article, ‘What Qualifies As A CRAVE Guitar?’ (October 2017 → Click here to read the article)

The Fender Bullet, Fender Lead and Gibson Sonex-180 featured here and on the CRAVE Guitars web site are in my opinion, unsung, underdog guitars resulting from well-intentioned corporate miscalculation. Fender and Gibson may not have grasped the fundamental needs of musicians in a way that the Japanese did in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the results are for us to debate with the benefit of measured hindsight. My hope is that the vintage guitar community will eventually embrace, rather than attempt to eradicate the underdogs. Perhaps, we should be celebrating creative solutions to known problems and applauding innovations to improve the breed, regardless of whether they were commercially successful at the time or not. When considered in context, it is not surprising that there were some unusual evolutionary dead ends along the way. These are esoteric instruments that are very much of their time. As their many fans will attest, give them a go; they are really much better than you might have been led to think.

Yes I am, once again, challenging established conventions. My aim is to recalibrate public appreciation by just a tiny amount and do my bit to bring about a new equilibrium between the recognised classics and these disadvantaged orphans. I’m not going to be pompous (!?!?) and suggest these lost souls are the best things since sliced bread but they are certainly fine for making toast! It seems a thankless task and it feels like I’m trying to swim upstream against a relentless torrent. Acquiring the product of these strange evolutionary offshoots is, for want of a better way of putting it, intentionally sticking two fingers up at the ‘snobbish’ conservatism of the vintage guitar establishment. Ultimately, it will be the free market that determines values and, although my ability to influence the market is infinitesimal, I have at least tried to buck the trend. Someone has to stand up and advocate for the poor underprivileged urchins.

Forgotten Fender & Gibson Guitars

Lessons

The lessons learnt from acquiring these underdog guitars include:

  1. ‘Lesser’ instruments can still have plenty of character to warrant owning and a real plus is that they look and sound different to what everyone else is using
  2. Overlooked non-collectables can provide plenty of vintage ‘bang for your buck’, especially if you are on a modest budget and as long as you do your homework
  3. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of prejudging a guitar just because everyone else has an opinion. Note: they are not necessarily right!
  4. Some of the ‘forgotten’ guitars are actually pretty cool and rare if you look beyond the superficial contradictory rhetoric. It’s OK to be brave
  5. The mission of an obsessed gearhead in pursuit of vintage guitar treasure is never ending. Next!

The one advantage of auctions on eBay is that, unless there is a crazy bidding frenzy by determined buyers out there (as there was with my Ovation Breadwinner that went for about double what it was worth), the final selling price will generally reflect the prevailing market value. ‘Buy It Now’ prices generally tend to be over‑inflated and ‘offers’ also tend to result in poor value. The days of getting real bargains from ‘no reserve’ auctions are long gone and there are now usually plenty of savvy people who know what they are doing. All three guitars featured this month were won in auctions and probably represent fair prices on the vintage market. This means that there is little likelihood of a high ROI but that’s for those in competitive business rather than the no‑for‑profit regime of CRAVE Guitars.

Perhaps I am fortunate that I am rarely disappointed with a vintage purchase and it is very unusual that I don’t get on with a guitar. Some people seem to have a much harder time connecting with their instruments than I do and, as a result, they seem to have quite a high turnover of guitars that they aren’t happy with. Perhaps I am more diligent and do my homework first, so that there is greater alignment between my expectations and reality. Every instrument has its idiosyncrasies but things that drive other people up the wall don’t tend to get under my skin to the same degree. I tend to tolerate (or even celebrate) a guitar’s unique eccentricities as long as they don’t affect the fundamental purpose of the instrument, which is to translate a guitarist’s intentions into music. I don’t believe it is because I am ultra-selective. I do my research and try to buy all‑original, good condition examples; an approach that usually proves to be worthwhile in the end.

Given the sorry state of the world these days, I am frequently reminded how fortunate I am that I have the opportunity to explore my passion. Owning and playing a wide range of vintage guitars is a privilege that I can’t overstate, even though I’m not in the realms of the exotics. There are, of course, downsides of vintage guitar ownership, including rampant poverty to support the addictive cause. There are always new discoveries to be made.

For me at least, once a guitar becomes part of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’, I usually don’t want to let it go again – there is too great a risk of that sense of regret one gets from selling ‘the one that got away’. Been there, done that, don’t care for it. Some people treat guitars as disposable items to be bought and sold on a whim with scarcely a further thought. I don’t, and I don’t really understand those that do. That’s probably just me and I’ll mind my own business on that subject.

Conclusion

As usual, I have probably overstated my case to make an unnecessary point. However, in conclusion, don’t underestimate or disregard the ‘forgotten’ Fenders and Gibsons just because some self-appointed guru pronounces that they are “a piece of cr*p” (and that’s a polite quote taken from the forums!), especially if they cannot back up their standpoint with credible evidence and/or rational argument. At the same time, you shouldn’t take my word for it just because I pose a counterpoint to such blinkered doctrine. All I can really ask is that one pauses and thinks before putting finger to keyboard because one might just end up looking foolish. Oops! Too late! Heehee.

Finally, I am proud to plough a different furrow from the masses and have the courage to stand up for the vintage guitar ‘losers’ as much as others do for the widely‑recognised classics. I may be in the minority but I believe that there are valid grounds for doing so. The more the naysayers shout and denigrate these bastard offspring, the more I feel obliged to stand up and defend the runts of the litter. In my view, there is a plenty of space in the collective guitar world for all of them. I, for one, will enjoy the occasional walk on the wild side, rather than conforming to the mundane and uniform.

I can pretty much guarantee that there won’t be any more guitar purchases this year, meaning that there won’t be any more ‘new old’ CRAVE Guitars in 2017. I wonder what 2018 will bring. In the meantime, I will enjoy playing my newly adopted ‘budget’ Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “I have to fight for the underdog because I am the underdog.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2017 – A Map Leads To Some Hidden Gems

posted in: Event, Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

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

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Student’ Guitar Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

1978 Fender Mustang

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

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

That’s it for now. Until next time…

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

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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