December 2019 – Out With the Old, In With the Old

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Welcome to the very end of December 2019 one and all. Due to the time of year, there is a short break in the ‘Story of Modern Music…’. After 9 straight months of factoid overload, I have taken the executive decision to take a rest and reflect on the here and now. There are other advantages of a temporary hiatus in that this article is MUCH shorter than the recent monthly detailed dissection of music history. Abnormal service will be resumed as soon as impossible.

So, that was 2019, the year that was. Not only do we end the year with this article, we also see the culmination of the ‘teenies’. Before anyone corrects me, yes, I know that technically the decades don’t change here but pretty much everyone accepts it that way, so just for once – shock, horror – I’m going with the flow. I don’t know about you but the last decade, and indeed the last 12 months, seems to have passed in a blur.

I am sure you’re fed up with the traditional lazy television programming that seems to dwell on retrospectives and lists as is usual for this time of year. You may be displeased that I’m about to do the same, although I doubt that this tangential view of existence will ever get broadcast nationally.

Personally, it’s been a really, really bad year again, with far too much pain, misery and torment, and little sign of light at the end of a (collapsed and blocked) tunnel. I genuinely cannot remember what joy or pleasure feels like. For self‑preservation, I must look to the future with some hope and positivity for a bit of much‑needed karma, justice, salvation and redemption. There, I’ve got it off my chest and I won’t bang on about it again (or maybe just a little!).

Departures in 2019

As ever, we have to say au revoir to some great guitarists who have climbed aboard that spiritual transit van to the infinite jam session with the angels (and possibly the occasional demon). In contrast to recent years, this year’s list is thankfully short, although I expect those who are on it would prefer not to be. They and their music will be missed…

  • Dick Dale, 16 March, aged 81
  • Bernie Tormé (Gillan, Ozzy Osbourne), 17 March, aged 66
  • Boon Gould (Level 42), 30 April, aged 64
  • Leon Redbone, 30 May, aged 69
  • Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators), 31 May, aged 71

Non-guitarist departures included:

  • Ross Lowell (the inventor of gaffer tape), 10 January, aged 92
  • Jim Dunlop Sr. (Dunlop Manufacturing), 6 February, aged 82
  • Keith Flint (The Prodigy), 4 March, aged 49
  • Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers), 22 March, aged 76
  • Dr John, 6 June, aged 77 (NB. he did play guitar regularly)
  • Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith, Baker Gurvitz Army), 6 October, aged 80

Old in at CRAVE Guitars – vintage gear acquisitions in 2019

It seems to have been a better year for guitar‑related accumulation than I’d anticipated a mere 12 months ago. This is partly because of delayed house works (ggrrr!).

The trend of the last couple of years seems to be continuing, with a greater focus on the 1970s and 1980s. This is predominantly because 1960s artefacts are rapidly becoming well beyond my modest price range. Rather than pay nonsensical ‘silly money’ for older guitars just because they are old and expensive, I’m looking at what is currently a bit more reasonably priced from later decades, while also being selective about notable and interesting instruments. As you might expect, the purchases had to fit the CRAVE Guitars’ criteria (cool, rare, American, vintage electric) – the only exceptions being effect pedals from Japan and Europe. At least for the time being, some of this year’s purchases are just about ‘affordable’, while others were almost regrettably extravagantly decadent given my borderline financial disposition. Anyhoo, without further ado, time for some introductions…

CRAVE Guitars (9)

Before listing new ‘old’ arrivals, let’s just backtrack for a moment…

Example #1 – In 2016, I looked ahead and mentioned a couple of guitars on the ‘most wanted’ list. One was a 1970s Fender Starcaster and the other was a 1950s Gibson ES‑150. Perhaps not surprisingly, I failed dismally in 2017… and again in 2018.

Example #2 – In 2017 and again in 2018, I speculated about the possibility of getting a 1965 Gibson Melody Maker and… yup, failed again.

Example #3 – In 2018, I thought about finding a 1970s Fender Stratocaster and… guess what? Fail.

Remarkably, that has now changed and I managed to lay my grubby mitts on all four of the above during the last 12 months. I also went overboard just a little bit with some other spontaneous impulse buys.

So, 2019 actually saw 9 vintage guitars, covering 42 years from the 1940s to the 1980s, with at least one from each decade joining the CRAVE Guitars family. Herewith, the profligate plethora of pulchritude (apologies for the pompous alliteration)…

  • 1982 Fender Bullet H2
  • 1976 Fender Starcaster
  • 1979 Fender Stratocaster Anniversary
  • 1983 Fender Stratocaster Elite
  • 1983 Fender Telecaster Elite
  • 1947 Gibson ES-150
  • 1965 Gibson Melody Maker
  • 1989 PRS Classic Electric
  • 1959 Silvertone 1304
CRAVE New Guitar Arrivals 2019

CRAVE Amps (0)

Despite intensive but unsuccessful searches, there were no amplifiers that joined the family during 2019. Like with guitars, in both 2017 and 2018, I set out to find a 1970s ‘silverface’ Fender Princeton. To‑date, that lustful ambition remains unrequited… for now, the search goes on.

CRAVE Effects (5)

As it turned out, 2019 was a funny year for effect purchases. It was a case of quality over quantity and I did manage to lay my hands on two highly sought after iconic (and therefore exorbitantly expensive) pedals. These weren’t just gap‑filling, they have been on the ‘to do’ list for some time but considered them to be way out of my price range. Consequently, fewer budget purchases made them just about possible. They were…

  • 1987 BOSS RV-2 Digital Reverb
  • 1969 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face
  • 1982 Ibanez PT9 Phaser
  • 1981 Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro
  • 1980 MXR Micro Amp
CRAVE New Effect Arrivals 2019

Once the full ‘Story of Modern Music…’ has been published, I may well return to 2019’s purchases and explain the rationale behind what is a relatively diverse range of acquisitions.

Repatriation update

In addition to the newcomers, it was way back in January 2019 that I was pleased to welcome home 42 guitars, 40 of them vintage, from an extended period of enforced storage (long story!). I set out on an ambitious mission to re‑home them with respect and to lavish upon them some much‑needed overdue TLC. The aim is that they can once again be used for their intended purpose, which is to be played regularly. I wasn’t going to rush the exercise, so it has been a bit of a long haul. I wanted to ensure that each one was given the sensitive treatment it deserved. For some, it was just a clean‑up and a tweak here and there to set them up before they were re‑strung – job done. For others, some more intensive care was necessary and I have worked on them as far as I can take them, due to my lack of ability in the practical side of things. There are a few, however, that need more expert skills than I have to sort them out properly. Thankfully, I know my limits and don’t pretend to be a proficient technician.

So far, 32 of the 42 returnees have been tended to, which means that there are still 10 repatriated guitars still to work on. Six of these are vintage guitars and are next on the to‑do list. Another two are vintage bass guitars which I suspect both need some neck work, so they will be near the back of the queue. The privilege (?) of going last will go to the only two non‑vintage guitars which I own. In theory, being the newest, they won’t need as much remedial work done on them. Fortunately, none so far have been ruined. Some have degraded a bit more than I would have liked but there is nothing serious to be concerned about. Phew!

Once the ‘conservation’ work has been completed and they are once again in good playing condition, they have been/will be photographed and documented. Feature articles have also been drafted on each one. The intention is to update the web site to exhibit them at their best. Then, it will be just a case of playing and enjoying them.

Building works

I cannot let the dastardly year dissolve into history without making a comment about the long overdue building works to convert the house’s dark, dank cellar into a safe, secure accommodation for the guitar members of the family. Due to egregious actions of spiteful and vindictive neighbours, it had to be deferred yet again. Basically, this means that no progress whatsoever was made during 2019.

Music albums released in 2019 (40-ish)

Surprisingly, after a (very) slow start it actually seems to have been a pretty good year for new music. I was quite sceptical up to about two thirds of the way through the year, despairing that the musical landscape was becoming ever more moribund. Then, out of nowhere, there seemed to be a veritable flood of interesting music to close the year out. I bought a shed load of old and new music in 2019 and the following are the diverse highlights of this year’s releases for me. One can hope that there may be some future ‘classics’ among them.

  • !!! – Wallop
  • Amon Amarth – Beserker
  • Beck – Hyperspace
  • Jade Bird – Jade Bird
  • The Black Keys – ‘Let’s Rock’
  • Blood Red Shoes – Get Tragic
  • Cage The Elephant – Social Cues
  • J.J. Cale – Stay Around
  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
  • The Chemical Brothers – No Geography
  • The Comet Is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
  • Cigarettes After Sex – Cry
  • The Cinematic Orchestra – To Believe
  • Crumb – Jinx
  • The Cure – CURÆTION-25: From There To Here | From Here To There / Anniversary: 1978-2018 Live in Hyde Park
  • Dream Theater – Distance Over Time
  • Billie Eilish – When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
  • Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1
  • Foals – Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 2
  • Rory Gallagher – Blues
  • Hawkwind – All Aboard The Skylark/Acoustic Daze
  • Hot Chip – A Bath Full Of Ecstasy
  • Khruangbin – Hasta El Cielo
  • Trini Lopez – The Very Best Of Trini Lopez (compilation)
  • Membranes – What Nature Gives… Nature Takes Away
  • The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
  • New Model Army – From Here
  • Rammstein – Rammstein
  • Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!
  • Joanne Shaw Taylor – Reckless Heart
  • Sleaford Mods – Eton Alive
  • Sleater‑Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold
  • Slipknot – We Are Not Your Kind
  • Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
  • Toro y Moi – Outer Peace
  • Robin Trower – Coming Closer To The Day
  • The Twilight Sad – It Won/t Be Like This All The Time
  • Underworld – Drift Series 1: Sampler Edition
  • Thom Yorke – ANIMA
  • Neil Young – Colorado

Plus (album-like) EP:

  • Black Stone Cherry – Black To Blues 2

Major concerts in 2019 (1):

Due to personal circumstances, there was just one major live music event in 2019:

  • Hyde Park – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Laura Marling, Cat Power, Sam Fender

Unfortunately, even Cornwall’s local Looe Live music festival wasn’t attended, despite it being right on the doorstep.

Social Media Quotes from 2019:

Over the year, I’ve been posting thousands of snippets on Twitter and Facebook. The following are actual comments from some very nice people about CRAVE Guitars that came this way during 2019. I don’t usually get much in the way of acclaim, and neither do I seek external validation for what I do, so these kind words of feedback felt extra special to me. They are truly appreciated and, frankly, I am humbled and overwhelmed by them.

“I love the variety of artistry you tweet about. Keep it up!”

“Thanks for the history lessons every day from @CRAVE_Guitars”

“Hey you bring it every day, man! You’ve turned me on to things I’d likely not see otherwise! Keep on rocking it!”

“Great people, knowledge, posts and positive vibes to all! 5 star”

“Thank you for expanding my guitar horizons!”

“Once again, I have been enlightened by CRAVE Guitars. They don’t teach this history in college.”

“I finally went to your website and understand you so much better now… Nice collection!!! Very eclectic and impressive! Great website, Crave!”

“You post such cool guitars. Ones that I’ve never seen before. Some truly unique ones too. Keep up the great work friend, you run a great account”

“Thank you! Hats off to crave guitars!”

“Love your photos! Thank you so much!!”

“Thank you for all your fabulous postings”

“…like always Awesome posts and great follow ups I really appreciate it, Respectfully from the USA!!!”

“Crave Guitars is one classy company”

“Thx Crave this is most excellent.”

“… thank you for sharing the great guitars and posts of Rock N Roll truly enjoy checking out your page daily.”

“Love guitars. Love music. Love Crave. <3”

“… I have to give you a separate kudos for the photography. What a picture…”

“I really enjoy these trivia posts as much as the guitar pictures. Thank you”

“That’s wonderful and thank you. Awesome page”

“You should have “A Potted History of the Guitar” as a pinned tweet. I know that you’re modest, but that thing is epic.”

“You have a great Twitter page my friend and always something to learn about with your topics.”

“Congratulations with Continued Success Great Crave Guitars!!!”

“Great stuff on your Twitter page! Love it! Keep it coming!”

“Great Twitter page! Love it. Keep it up. Always great informative and interesting.”

“You have a great Twitter Page. Love it. Great stuff. Keep it up.”

“I really like your collection. it’s very impressive and interesting.

Have a great day, Crave.”

“I totally dig your archives guitars & their players! So great! 100% fan”

Also, during November 2019, Twitter followers exceeded 6,000 for the first time. A huge “thank you” is extended to everyone who has shown interest and support.

CRAVE 6,000 Twitter Followers

So… looking forward… here is what might be coming up in 2020:

There, that’s the obligatory retrospective done, so it is now time to look forward to the coming year and the start of a brand new decade.

Vintage gear for 2020

I have been very cautious over the past few years about ‘most wanted’ gear, believing that circumstances would be very different. So, this year, I’m going to be a touch more ambitious in stating what I’m searching for in 2020, although I guarantee that not everything on the list will be procured. If the building works go ahead, the list will have to be shortened. It won’t be easy but I am back on the quest for some ‘forgotten’ models, which are more difficult to source, especially in good condition in the UK. However, apart from one wild expensive aspiration, the rest should (?!?!) be a bit more ‘affordable’ than some of this year’s purchases. I am not greedy and I don’t expect to achieve the full list, so it is purely indicative and should be considered more of a direction of travel.

Guitars

  • 1960s Danelectro (no specific model)
  • 1970s Fender Bass VI
  • Any one (or more) of the ‘forgotten’ Gibsons from the 1970s or 1980s, e.g.:
    • Gibson Challenger
    • Gibson Firebrand
    • Gibson Marauder
    • Gibson S-1
    • Gibson US-1
    • Gibson Victory MVX
    • Gibson Les Paul DC XPL 400
  • 1970s Guild (S-100 and/or S-300)
  • 1970s Peavey T-60

Amps

  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Fender Princeton Reverb
  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Fender Deluxe Reverb

Effects

  • 1980s BOSS DD-2 Digital Delay
  • 1970s Colorsound/Sola Sound Tonebender (fuzz)
  • 1970s Electro‑Harmonix Bad Stone (phaser)
  • 1970s Electro‑Harmonix Small Clone (chorus)
  • 1970s MXR Micro Chorus

Help needed (x3)

I know my limitations on several fronts. It therefore makes sense to seek outside assistance with a number of up‑and‑coming key tasks. These are NOT New Year resolutions but they are effectively my self‑imposed targets for 2020. All three, however, rely on other people’s expertise.

Task #1 – I would dearly like to make progress with the long‑deferred cellar works. The first step is to understand what may be involved. If that looks promising, I may well finally proceed. I need someone who knows how to ‘tank’ a 90‑year old cellar effectively and to ensure it stays dry, warm and well‑ventilated enough for safe and secure guitar storage.

Task #2 – Routine completion of the repatriation programme should be reasonably straightforward and achievable. In terms of more involved remedial work on a number of instruments, I am looking for a competent luthier/guitar tech, experienced in working on vintage electric guitars, based local to me in south east Cornwall UK, and who would like to work with me on this extra degree of ‘restoration’.

Task #3 – In addition, I would really like to improve my guitar playing. I’m not starting from scratch but I have limited competence and confidence. I am sure I also have a number of bad habits. This means taking up guitar lessons on a one‑to‑one basis, principally for the interaction, as I’ve never got on well with self‑learning books or videos. I have never been formally trained and feel that I could do much better. I would benefit from an additional level of inspiration, technique and knowledge that a tutor could bring.

If there is anyone out there who could either help or knows someone who could help with one, two or all three of the above, please contact me. I shall report back on degree of achievement, if any, during and at the end of 2020.

Major gigs

There will be very few opportunities to see live music in 2020. However, one major concert has been lined up, which I’m really looking forward to:

  • Rammstein (Cardiff in June 2020)

Hopefully, I might get to participate in the local Looe Live festival in September.

Web Site

Another thing that I really, really must get to grips with is a long overdue major overhaul of the CRAVE Guitars’ web site. The material is there, so it will be a case of expunging the procrastination and get on with it.

Proceed to check out

I really don’t think that there is much more that I can add at this juncture, so it is time to wrap things up for 2019 and the ‘teenies’. Roll on the New Year and hope that the (roaring or whimpering) twenties are an improvement on the last 2 challenging decades.

On a broader front, one has to remain optimistic that humankind will come to its senses and live in sustainable peace, equitable prosperity and cordial harmony. One can dream.

On a practical level, ceteris paribus, I will hopefully get back to the ‘Story of Modern Music…’ next month. In the meantime, it’s back to refurbishing and playing some vintage guitars. Result!

Happy New Year/Decade everyone. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “The idea of peace, love and music may not have the power to change the world in the way we might hope but just think about what the world would be like without it.”

© 2019 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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December 2017 – That Time for Guitar Lists and Stuff

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So, yet another infernal year draws to a close. Why infernal? Well, I was never going to like 2017 on principle, as 2,017 is a prime number. My dislike of prime numbers is one of my weird traits – I have no idea why – at least I’m not primonumerophobic, i.e. fearful of the darned things. At least the next prime year is 2027, which is a whole decade away yet. Fun Trivia: while many people fear the prime number 13 (triskaidekaphobia), many primonumerophobes fear the number 2, it being the only even prime number.

Anyhoo… I digress, as is my wont. In tried and tested (and predictable) fashion, it is time to reflect on the year now departing from platform 2017, re-assess the way things are now, as well as to look forward to new opportunities in the year ahead. One cannot change the past but one may be able to influence both the here and now as well as the future, so it’s a time to take a deep breath, muster up one’s energy and be both positive and forward thinking.

2017 in retrospect

Well, 2017 was certainly a year of major change, that’s for sure, with events during 2017 definitely impacting on CRAVE Guitars.

At the equivalent point last year, the relocation was looming and structural works were underway to make the ‘new’ (90‑year old) place safe, if not fully habitable. The move has now taken place but that is just the start. The structure still needs considerable work before even the basic works can be described as complete. At the time of writing, it is even now only barely habitable with little in the way of what many people expect of basic ‘home’ comforts. Carpets? Nah. Curtains? Nah. Heck, we’ve only just got heating and hot water after 7 months. Getting trustworthy, cost-effective workmen is proving aggravatingly difficult.

However, something about the ‘old’ life had to change and along with that realisation came major risks. After weighing up the cons and the even bigger cons, we embarked on the new venture with our eyes wide open. The two main drivers for change comprised basic economics and quality of life due to family health issues, so it had to be done, as the alternatives were simply unsustainable. So here we are in the south west of the UK.

As a direct result of the relocation, the major part of the vintage guitar ‘collection’ is currently in temporary storage until I can create safe and secure accommodation for them in the new location. This is why I haven’t been able to update all the photos on the web site. I am very, very concerned about the far from ideal environmental conditions at both the old and new places, so there is no easy answer. However, beggars can’t be choosers and, as ‘they’ say, needs must. The precious (to me) guitars will just have to endure their enforced incarceration for a while longer. I can only hope and pray that they aren’t unduly compromised by the interlude. Until they can be retrieved and re-homed, I just won’t know for sure what condition they are in. They are a couple of hundred miles away and I now have to be at this end, so all I can do is hope for the best. At least I have a few modest vintage guitars available here to pluck in the meantime, whenever I get a few rare moments to spare.

CRAVE Guitars – Cases

Also back in December 2016, I declared my hand and stated an ambition to secure two specific vintage instruments during 2017 – a 1970s Fender Starcaster and a 1950s Gibson ES-150. How did that turn out? Regrettably, I have to report that I failed dismally on both counts. In context, it really doesn’t matter a jot. I possibly could have achieved what I set out to do but circumstances and timing didn’t align to make it possible. Now, in the absence of sufficient lucre, I need to reassess and reprioritise my aspirations.

At the start of 2017, I was about to embark on a culling of the (guitar) herd to strengthen the focus on vintage gear. As a consequence of the clear out, I had the rare opportunity to reinvest some of the proceeds in a small number of ‘cheap’ and unusual vintage guitars (see below). I prefer the term ‘cool and rare’ but let’s be honest, there have been some peculiar budget vintage axes that have crossed my path this year. I wanted to use the funds to invest in maybe 1 or 2 great guitars, as mentioned above, but ‘best laid plans’ and all that.

The year hasn’t been without many other significant difficulties, particularly around significantly deteriorating family health. I’m afraid that’s the way our cookies tend to crumble. Don’t expect details; this article is supposed to be about guitars and music!

Still, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, at least there remains a way forward on a few fronts, albeit experiencing very slow and frustrating progress.

CRAVE Guitars acquisitions in 2017…

On a more positive note, there has been more instruments than I expected to be inducted into the CRAVE Guitars family over these past 12 months. I had anticipated that 2017 was going to be quite a barren year guitar-wise, especially with everything else going on.

There were some interesting acquisitions that were intentionally offbeat and not at all what one might have predicted 365 days ago. This unorthodox approach is now kinda becoming CRAVE Guitars’ raison d’être. As it turned out, there were no ‘classic’ models at all, probably because – to be honest – they would have represented ‘more of the same’. If you have followed these monthly articles, you’ll have picked up the conscious rationale for venturing off the beaten track. I must admit that, on reflection, even I have been surprised by the way things have panned out, which was actually a nice surprise. 2017 purchases included…

Guitars (7):

CRAVE Guitars – 2017 Guitars

Given that seven non-vintage guitars left the fold during 2017, there was a net increase of… zero guitars overall. It also represents more than double the number of vintage guitars purchased in 2016 (only 3).

Amps(1):

1979 Fender Musicmaster Bass

That is an overall net reduction of one (non-vintage) amp on this time last year.

Effects (6):

CRAVE Guitars – 2017 Effect Pedals

This represents an overall reduction of seven effects in the year. Just 6 purchases in 2017 compares to 17 vintage effects bought in 2016. Admittedly, I was on a mission last year and limited funds meant that expenditure tended towards effects rather than guitars.

All in all, I think that is not bad going under circumstances.

Guitarists that departed us in 2017 (9):

As is inevitable, all things come to pass and this year, like every other before it, has seen the demise of some truly inspirational musicians. At this time of year it is customary to take a few moments to contemplate those guitarists that we have lost in 2017 and recall what musical treasures they have left us. Their talents will be sorely missed and it is sad to think that there will be no more distinctive music from these guys (no gals). Rest in Peace ineffable rock dudes and forever rock the big gig in the sky. Sad losses include:

  • Deke Leonard (Man) on 31st January, aged 72
  • Larry Coryell on 19th February, aged 73
  • Chuck Berry on 18th March, aged 90
  • Allan Holdsworth on 15th April, aged 70
  • Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) on 27th May, aged 69
  • Glen Campbell on 8th August, aged 81
  • Walter Becker (Steely Dan) on 3rd September, aged 67
  • Tom Petty on 2nd October, aged 66
  • Malcolm Young (AC/DC) on 18th November, aged 64

New recorded music in 2017 (18):

One of the things I learnt from the late, great British DJ John Peel is to appreciate fresh new music as well as the respected classics. I had expected that access to new releases would have been a bit limited in 2017 but it seems to have been roughly on a par with previous years. There seems to have been a wealth of good music released this year from both established and new artists covering a broad range of genres. 2017 new music album purchases include (in artist alphabetical order):

  • !!! – Shake the Shudder
  • Bonobo – Migration
  • Cats In Space – Scarecrow
  • The Correspondents – Foolishman
  • Dub Pistols – Crazy Diamonds
  • Eric Gales – Middle Of The Road
  • Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator
  • The Jesus And Mary Chain – Damage And Joy
  • Kasabian – For Crying Out Loud
  • King Creature – Volume One
  • LCD Soundsystem – American Dream
  • London Grammar – Truth Is A Beautiful Thing
  • Imelda May – Life Love Flesh Blood
  • Prophets Of Rage – Prophets Of Rage
  • Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?
  • The War On Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
  • The xx – I See You
  • Neil Young – Hitchhiker

I don’t think that I have a single ‘album of the year’ from this modest but diverse bunch, as my tastes change with mood. One wonders if any of these releases will be considered timeless classics in years to come.

Live Music in 2017 (2)

As you may know, I am also a big fan of live music of all kinds from street entertainers through pub gigs and concerts of all types and sizes, right up to minor and major festivals featuring a broad range of interesting musical experiences. One great thing about live music is that there is always something new and surprising to discover. I am also regularly amazed at the quality of musicianship exhibited across the board, including by artists that one may never hear of again. The talent out there is phenomenal and sadly puts my playing abilities to shame.

Due to constraints imposed by family health, live music attendance has had to be very limited in 2017 with just one major concert (Black Sabbath’s amazing ‘The End’ tour in January) and one boutique festival (Looe Music Festival in September/October, punching well above its weight). Now we are located in the south west of the UK, getting to major music venues is proving more challenging than in previous years.

Social Media

There were a couple of minor achievements during 2017. CRAVE Guitars more than doubled the number of followers it has on Twitter, now standing at over 2,700. The number of followers also now consistently exceeds the number followed, another small landmark. A heck of a lot of hard work went into cultivating this social media audience. Although it earns diddley-squat at precisely £0, it is, I hope, an investment in the brand, at least in terms of time and diligence. Along the way, I have learnt quite a lot, so there is a modicum of knowledge gain. It’s a shame that other social media platforms have proved less successful, so the proportion of effort has to be targeted at Twitter.

2018 in Prospect

Looking forward, it looks like 2018 is going to be a really, really tough year. The family health situation that partly precipitated the move is likely to be life changing and VERY challenging during the year ahead. It is all very sad and the inevitable outcome is beyond my (or anyone else’s) ability to change.

At least there is not another relocation to manage on top of increasing caring duties. It also looks like the renovation works are likely to take most of the year and all my patience, as well as resources. Of course, it isn’t possible to predict what will actually happen and experience suggests that the unexpected is likely to do its best to derail any reasonable plans. It is therefore best to approach the next 12 months with trepidation and no fixed expectations.

As a result of the uncertainties, the operating status of CRAVE Guitars’ is resolutely in ‘ticking over’ mode and I suspect that it is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. I intend to maintain a modicum of incremental improvement and will endeavour to keep foundation‑building in the background while I can. The hope is that the venture should be ready to fly, given half a chance.

So… being a bit more specific, what music gear tops CRAVE Guitars’ affordable vintage ‘most wanted’ list for 2018? I have relinquished any hope of acquiring last year’s ambition for a Fender Starcaster and/or Gibson ES-150. This coming year, I will have to set my sights at an altogether different level and go for something on a more realistic budget. I am casting the net a bit wider and shallower this time. If I can get just one guitar, one amp and one effect from the following list this coming year, I’ll be content:

Guitars:

  • 1960s Danelectro (no specific model)
  • 1970s Fender Bronco
  • 1960s Gibson Melody Maker (type 3)
  • 1970s Guild (perhaps a S-100 or S-300D)
  • 1970s Peavey T-60

Amps:

  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Princeton (with or without reverb)
  • 1970s ‘silverface’ Fender Champ

Effect pedals:

  • 1980s BOSS CE-2 Chorus
  • 1970s Electro Harmonix Zipper (envelope follower)
  • 1980s Ibanez PT9 Phaser
  • 1970s MXR Micro Chorus

In order to achieve even 2018’s moderate ambition (just 3 items over 12 months), a lot of penny pinching is still likely to be required. I also don’t have much leeway to ‘trade up’ existing models. For instance, I wouldn’t mind some selective substitution, i.e. replacing a couple of later-year instruments with examples from earlier years, or to swap out a couple of current guitars for ones that are in better condition or are more original. The intention is really not to grow the ‘collection’ but to consolidate and improve it. All this needs funding of course. I also have to keep options open for those unforeseen, unmissable opportunities that might arise from time to time during the year, i.e. when the dreaded irresistible temptation strikes! We’ll just have to wait and see what transpires.

Hopefully, despite constant building setbacks on the residence, I want to try and create a safe home for the majority of the guitar ‘collection’. Currently, while this is top of my personal priorities, it isn’t top priority overall (grrr, argh). The necessity for very basic habitability and adaptation must come first. Finances are either completely used up or committed and now that I’m a full‑time carer, there is no other income on which I can rely, so I really hope there are no (further) unforeseen expensive catastrophes to contend with.

Frustratingly, I actually have the physical space earmarked for on-site guitar storage. Unfortunately, in its present‑day state, it is far from suitable. The space currently comprises a small, dark, dank and musty cellar suitable only for severely vertically challenged troglodytes and the occasional adventurous spelunker. Basically, the cellar is mostly underground (built into a solid rock cliff face) and is pretty much as it was when the house was built 90 years ago (single‑skinned concrete block walls with no damp‑proofing), so it needs some pretty extensive work(!).

The first step is for the walls and floor to be ‘tanked’ and drained to reduce rampant damp. Once dry, insulation, heating and ventilation are needed to keep the relative humidity and temperature within acceptable parameters for storing vintage musical instruments. Due to the adverse environment conditions, it may also require active de‑humidification. In addition, there needs to be suitable interior access to the cellar so all the guitars can be swapped around regularly but this has implications for the rest of the ground floor. The list goes on and on… lighting and power are essential to provide basic utility. Finally, reasonable security is required to keep pesky scoundrels and ne’er‑do‑wells out. I’m not too bothered about prettying it up to make it presentable; it is far more important that it is functional and fit‑for‑purpose. That’s all!!!!!

CRAVE Guitars – Cellar

Considering the current condition of the cellar and what needs to be done to make it usable, this is one heck of a project to take on, especially on a shoestring budget with everything else that needs doing. The trouble is that the works can’t really be broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks – it currently looks like an all‑or‑nothing exercise. If the project could be phased over a longer period, it would certainly help, although it would extend the current storage compromise – it is something worth exploring though. Despite the obstacles, it is an exciting proposition and something I would really like to take on if I can. If nothing else, it would be a welcome distraction from some of the other difficulties.

Even then, because of the adaptations required, it will never be ideal, particularly the limited accessibility and very low headroom. I can only work with what I’ve got. For instance, it isn’t possible to excavate into solid rock and underpin the existing (poor) structure. Financially, it won’t be an investment. If I am going to be making a long‑term success of CRAVE Guitars, it has to be able to work under one roof. It is essentially the only feasible option I have and there is no ‘Plan B’. If I can’t do it, I will have to think again about the viability of CRAVE Guitars and/or its location. If I can embark on this ‘exciting’ venture, I will try to log progress through these regular articles. Wish me luck.

If I can liberate all the stored guitars from their enforced confinement, I am pretty sure that I will need to find a local luthier/guitar tech to work through any conservation work that needs to be done to get/keep them in as good a condition as can be expected after their prolonged period of internment. Most of the remedial work is likely to comprise setups and tweaks but I suspect that a few guitars may require some expert intervention. For instance, a couple could have potential truss rod issues, which may or may not turn out to be complicated, and there are probably also some electrical issues that need investigating (scratchy pots, intermittent switches, dodgy sockets, etc.). There may also be some finish or corrosion problems.

I have to be honest here – I am not one of those tinkerer types; I hate changing guitar strings, let alone anything more involved. I am wise enough to understand that I should leave anything complex to the specialists, especially if it involves a soldering iron! I am pretty certain that, by attempting to do any serious guitar work myself, I would probably make any problems worse. Where vintage guitars are concerned, a cautious approach makes a lot of common sense – leave it to the experts every time.

Changing the subject matter a little bit. Strange as it may seem after 40 years of playing, I would actually like to take some guitar lessons. I am not sure that tuition could do much to improve my technical or theoretical skills (see previous articles) but it might be able to inspire me to make better noises than I do now. It might also motivate me to play with others again and maybe, just maybe, encourage me to play live with a band again. I’m not committing to anything and it looks unlikely that 2018 will be the year that it happens. I’m running out of years though, so perhaps I’d better get a move on if I’m to achieve that particular bucket list item. Even if learning is purely a recreational exercise, my playing could definitely do with significant improvement. Like many musical types, I suffer crippling self‑doubt, so I’d hope that my confidence would benefit greatly as well. If I don’t enjoy the fruits of such hard work, it isn’t worth doing, so I’m a bit dubious. Acquiring skill is as much in the mind as it is in the physical dexterity. The trouble is that I’m very much a loner in my old age and I’m not sure I could collaborate easily with others. I would, however, also like to record some of my guitar music, if only for personal gratification and, perhaps, posterity.

At this particular juncture, it really isn’t possible, or advisable, to look any further forward or to speculate more strategically about what may happen either more generally or to CRAVE Guitars. So, it is probably best to let 2018 play out as it sees fit. I must trust that good things will happen and let fate take its course. They say you make your own luck, so I will try my hardest to influence good fortune. Let’s face it, despite my best endeavours, luck hasn’t been on my side for many years but I persevere and try to do the right thing to the best of my abilities and hope that things will work out alright in the end.

What else is in store for 2018? Well that depends on many other things. If possible, I would like to improve the CRAVE Guitars web site and enhance the social media content on platforms other than Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. I would also like to spend a little more time researching and writing seriously about my obsession with guitars and contemporary music. However, being brutally realistic, 2018 will simply be just keeping things going on the back burner. I would dearly like to say that it will be a year of exciting new developments but I think I’d be raising expectations beyond what I’ll physically be able to deliver.

In terms of recorded music, I have to admit that I am a Luddite as far as streaming and download services are concerned. I like to go into retail stores and purchase a tangible product that I can take home and appreciate visually as well as aurally. My tastes are not stuck in any particular period and I am a big fan of both old and new music alike. Who knows what new recorded music will be released in 2018 but I look forward to finding out.

I also don’t think that there is much likelihood of attending many live music events in 2018. However, all other things being equal one of my all‑time favourite bands is playing live in 2018 and tickets are already booked. Indie rock legends Robert Smith and The Cure are celebrating their 40th anniversary by playing London Hyde Park BST concert in July. I also hope to repeat Looe Music Festival in September if I can.

A message of hope for 2018 and the future

Fundamentally, I don’t like to plan things out in great detail for two principal reasons: a) things never seem to work out for me and I would only get downcast when things don’t go as intended and, b) no-one really knows what is going to happen and prescribing a set of immutable circumstances in advance inhibits the potential for the sort of spontaneous opportunity that may make life really worth living (one can hope!).

One thing experience has taught me is that life is too short to get hung up on trivial things and maintaining a positive mental attitude is the only way to deal with life’s harsh realities. Perhaps it is the juddering realisation of one’s mortality that hangs over us all (but some more than others) like the proverbial sword of Damocles that makes me so philosophical. One cannot afford to be laid back about life otherwise precious time will be squandered in the pursuit of idle mundanity. So, I will take one day at a time, aim to do the best one can in every situation, make the most of every moment, and see what transpires. If I can be more profound and fundamental, I shall attempt to do so. I hope that I’ll still be here waffling on interminably this time next year (December 2018).

I am not a religious person. However, the Buddhist philosophy tends to resonate with my own outlook on life, so I will share the following quotes ascribed to Buddha. I reflect on these (and other) words of wisdom from time to time in an attempt to find internal solace, particularly during difficult times. Perhaps, through sharing, they may make a difference for others too:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

“Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.”

“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act.”

“To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent.”

“Better than a thousand hollow words, is one word that brings peace.”

What does all this have to do with vintage guitars, you may well ask? Well, if I can get everything else turning out positively, it may increase the likelihood that CRAVE Guitars could prove to become a success. It is, at least, something on which I can focus. Call me crazy but I remain determined to make something of CRAVE Guitars sooner or later, preferably sooner. It may not become a reality in 2018, but, as long as I can keep things moving forward in the right direction, however slowly, it may just happen… eventually. The following quotes are others that seem appropriate…

 “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward” – Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion” – Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

I don’t have any great words of comfort, grace or insight to impart either in retrospect or prospect, other than the obligatory monthly CRAVE quote (see below). Praying for world peace, an end to suffering and justice for all seems trite, given the current poor state of world affairs. So, perhaps, a simple personal message of “I hope that 2018 will be good for you” to all guitar aficionados out there will suffice.

That’s it for now. The holiday season should be a time to sit back and plink one’s plank(s), so I’m off to pick up a geetar (or two). Play on. Until next time (and next year)…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Inspiration is everywhere around. Think deeply about what you experience every day and then act on what matters to change some things for the better.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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

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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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July 2017 – Happy Birthday: 10 Years of CRAVE Guitars

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CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars hits its double-digit birthday this year. Yep, ‘it’ has been in existence for 10 years now. This isn’t cause for a stupendous jubilee or anything like that (although I’m open to offers!). However, perhaps, for selfish reasons it deserves a moment of reflection, recognition and celebration of a modest milestone.

I don’t recall a specific date when, on one day CRAVE Guitars didn’t exist and the next day it burst into fully-formed existence, big-bang-like. I don’t think I’ve really thought about how CRAVE Guitars emerged from the primordial swamp and learn to breathe on dry land for the first time. Like a primitive heterotroph, it has become aware of its surroundings, still crawling about on all fours but unable to fend for itself or take advantage of the resources around it.

In terms of determining its own destiny, there is no driving ambition for the future. So… perhaps it is an opportunity to review CRAVE’s journey from infancy, through adolescence to what adulthood might hold for it. Before we delve headlong in, please bear in mind that this is a modest amateur enterprise built on a shoestring over many years of frustrating obsession.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin… Here’s how CRAVE Guitars came about. The journey began in the 1970s, experienced a frustrating hiatus during the 1980s, received a faltering nudge in the late 1990s, spurred into growth in the noughties, dealt disaster in the early teenies and is now beginning to repair the damage and put things back together around 10th anniversary-time.

1970s:

I started playing guitar as a young teenager in the early 1970s when my father gave me a used acoustic, not realising that it would have long‑lasting and far‑reaching effects. After attaining a level of competence that enabled me to play in bands and then realising that I wasn’t competent enough to earn a living at it, guitars became a benign hobby, rather than an occupation. I had a few favourite guitars left over from playing days, including a 1977 Fender Stratocaster hardtail, a refinished 1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard, a 1978 Music Man Stingray bass and a cheap old nylon-strung classical guitar, all of which, unbelievably, I still have!

1977 Fender Stratocaster
1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard
1978 Music Man Stingray Bass

1980s:

Ah, the odious decade of all-consuming ‘adult responsibility’, when guitars and guitar playing were relegated to a tertiary interest, left drifting aimlessly in the doldrums of work and family life. I have always put my own needs secondary and that, as they say, was that – my life was subsumed by the mediocre routine of daily existence. I did manage to keep hold of the core three electric guitars, hanging on a spare bedroom wall, relatively unloved. The least said about these ‘lost’ years the better in this context. The passion for guitars was, however, dormant rather than extinct. Perhaps my subconscious knew that, someday, that sleeping volcano would lumber back to life.

1990s:

In a rollover from the 1980s, guitars and everything that goes with them remained quiescent (oppressed?) during the majority of the 1990s. Until… my interest was rekindled in c.1997 on a day visit to Cardiff, Wales. Little did I know at the time that this would provide the catalyst for later events. While wandering the city streets, perusing the typical high street shopping facilities, I chanced upon Cranes Music Store, which has been in business since 1851 and is still going in Swansea (see: http://www.cranes.co.uk/). Looking around the shop, my attention was drawn to a fairly ordinary black 1988 Fender Telecaster for £400. To that point, bizarrely, I had never owned a Tele, so I was vulnerable to that worst of all situations… strong craving and overwhelming temptation. This was compounded because we were only there for the day, which meant that a snap decision had to be made. The combination of circumstances led to the inevitable acquisition of said craved Tele. At the time of writing, it is still a CRAVE Guitar.

1988 Fender Telecaster American Standard

I had been missing guitars and playing, and this single event rekindled my appetite for the instrument. Bear in mind that this was about 10 years before my thoughts and ideas would aggregate into something more tangible. However, the seed had been planted. No further guitar purchases took place at the time. I bought a Fender Princeton Chorus 2×10” solid-state amp, so that I could at least make quasi-musical noises again.

2000s:

The focus at the turn of the millennium, however, was not on vintage gear. During the early noughties, I bought a few diverse new guitars, amps and effects here and there, whatever took my fancy at the time. My mother left me some money, so I was able to purchase some brand new quality guitars including a 1999 Fender Stratocaster a 1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC, a 1999 Gibson SG Standard, a 2002 Gibson ES-335, and a 2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard. These are all great modern guitars. Three of those have now gone, which says something about the new versus old debate going on in my head. The trouble, if that’s the right word, was a lack of direction and no real motivation to change it for something else.

1999 Fender Stratocaster American Standard
2002 Gibson ES-335 Reissue TDC
1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard DC
2002 Gibson Les Paul Standard
1999 Gibson SG Standard

That is until… the defining moment came during a day out to Brighton in the summer of 2007. Wandering in North Laines, I saw a rather nice but not pristine black 1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom – perhaps the most iconic of all rock guitars and another model that I hadn’t previously owned. While it wasn’t (yet) vintage, I was attracted by the patina and it had just enough signs of use to give it ‘that’ look. I wasn’t actively searching for a guitar, so I didn’t know how much it should cost but it seemed quite reasonable compared to new prices at the time. It also looked way cooler than the shiny new ones on sale nearby. Like the Telecaster before it, a snap decision was required. The craving got the better of me again and consequently, like the Tele 10 years earlier, it came home with me. Also like the Tele, that Les Paul Custom is still a CRAVE Guitar.

1989 Gibson Les Paul Custom

Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to get into vintage guitars at the time, it triggered a curiosity in older instruments as well as the history behind older guitars, the wider music industry, and the socio-political context which it helped to influence. CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars, which had been SO long in gestation, was thus delivered unto this world as a ‘thing’. While the concept didn’t have a discrete identity at the time, I was hooked and I haven’t looked back since. From that moment, most brand new instruments, while nice to look at, now hold little or no allure.

I started researching and buying some rather nice vintage guitars, some imported from America, when the exchange rate was much more favourable than it is now. As a direct result of the epiphany, the ambition for a vintage guitar business idea began growing. The name came first, being a play on words as well as the strong emotion that overcomes any attempt at futile resistance to guitar ownership. The first ‘logo’ was simple typography (see below), rather than properly designed. The first ‘catalogue’ from early 2008 comprised 27 guitars, all from the Fender and Gibson stables.

CRAVE Guitars Original Logo 2008

All guitar purchases since 2007 complied with the CRAVE Guitars simple criteria, i.e. Cool, Rare, American, Vintage and Electric. As far as possible, they are all original and undamaged/unmodified. The majority of those instruments now form the core of what is now CRAVE Guitars’ ‘collection’, ‘stock’ or whatever you want to call it. It was during this period that many of the guitars originating from the early 1960s guitars were secured. Thank heaven for that – I certainly couldn’t afford to buy them now. Likewise, none of the CRAVE Guitars’ fold can be classified as collector-grade instruments; I couldn’t (and still can’t) fund that level of quality.

It was about to turn into a realistic alternative to ‘working for the man’ when… two really, really bad things happened. The first was the global recession – the worst economic downturn in living memory. Completely oblivious to the impending financial crisis, I had been buying vintage guitars just as prices were reaching their peak. Bad idea! At the end of 2008, the bubble well and truly burst. The crash practically wiped out all hope of any sort of business start-up, asset management or return on investment. Market values for vintage guitars, arguably a discretionary ‘luxury’ good, plummeted pretty much overnight and are only now, albeit inconsistently, beginning to increase to or above 2008 levels. The second was a personal catastrophe of monumental proportions, from which I still haven’t recovered. I won’t go into detail but it was so profound and fundamental that it almost ended everything. Any idea of CRAVE Guitars becoming a viable business entity was firmly put on ice for another decade. Best laid plans, eh?

2010s:

The consequence of these coincidental calamities meant that the majority of guitars had to go into safe storage. Some didn’t make it to sanctuary and the rest had to be sold off. That early part of the decade was the worst time of my life. I never, ever want to relive or repeat that bleak period. My dreams were well and truly cast into the wilderness. Graffiti art credit: Banksy.

However, either by delusion or resilience, I wasn’t about to give up that easily. By 2014, I began to regain a modicum of, albeit wavering, hope and control. Guitar buying resumed modestly in 2014 after a 5-6-year break. In addition, the scope expanded into vintage amps and analogue effect pedals to complement the guitars. At first, the emphasis was, and to some extent still is, on affordability. CRAVE also started looking at some other important American brands beyond just Fender and Gibson, for instance, Danelectro, Epiphone, Gretsch, Guild, Ovation, Rickenbacker, Silvertone, etc.

Late 2014 and early 2015 saw the building of the CRAVE Guitars’ web site and its social media content. The name remained the same but a more visual approach was required, including some form of coherent brand identity to go with the moniker. The first ‘proper’ CRAVE logo came from experimentation with the name, several pieces of paper and a fat marker pen. It was coincidental that the letters could conveniently form a stylised outline of a Les Paul. Sorted! This crude attempt was then worked up to something a bit more presentable. A professional graphic designer friend doesn’t like my amateur attempts but I think it works well for the ‘brand’. One day, I would like it properly designed but keeping the spirit of the original. NB. Fun insight folks – the intentional ‘bumpiness’ of the lines making up the logo is intended to convey an impression of musical resonance and vibration.

Crave Guitars Logo 2014
CRAVE Guitars Logo 2015 to-date

Where we are today:

That pretty much brings the story up-to-date. The recent sell‑off of non-vintage and non-American gear, as a result of the relocation was an opportunity to refine the model further. The move is intended to provide a more stable basis on which to explore and build opportunity, everything being relative of course. While I consider it no mean achievement that CRAVE Guitars is still here at all, the last 10 years doesn’t demonstrate a great deal of success. I am not happy with the status quo (no not the band), so something has to change.

The baseline position at the time of writing is that CRAVE Guitars comprises a personal ‘assemblage’ of almost 50 guitars (95% of which are vintage), a small handful of vintage amps and over 30 vintage analogue effect pedals. The period covered (other than the 2 modern Gibsons), ranges from the late 1950s to the late 1980s.

→ See full list of featured instruments

→ See full list of featured effect pedals

→ See full list of featured amps

CRAVE Guitars’ 10th Anniversary:

To mark the 10th anniversary of CRAVE Guitars, I did something impulsive and appropriately retrospective. My first ‘serious’ guitar in the 1970s was a 1978 Fender Mustang in natural finish with a rosewood fingerboard. Within a year, I traded up to a ‘real’ 1977 Fender Stratocaster hardtail, a decision that I have long-regretted – not because the Strat is bad or the Mustang good – they were just different. In hindsight, I should have found a way to keep the Mustang.

To signify the events past and present, I paid way, way over market value on a very nice example of that same model Mustang. I did this purely for sentimental reasons and, like the Ovation Breadwinner mentioned in last month’s article, it will probably never turn a profit but, frankly, that wasn’t the point. In some way, it provides a fitting commemoration for the almost 40-year journey from the 1970s to now.

1978 Fender Mustang

→ See feature article on the 1978 Fender Mustang

What next for CRAVE Guitars?:

Well… now this is the BIG question and one that I am struggling with. I am not sure that I’ve learnt a great deal over the past 10 years to inform the future (other than desperate attempts at survival). What direction does CRAVE Guitars take and what happens to it from here? Now the relocation has taken place, it seems opportune to do some thinking and planning. The options appear fairly limited, including:

Do nothing – This is not a particularly satisfactory option. I like playing guitar but so what – is that really enough to warrant so many classic instruments? It certainly doesn’t do the guitars, effects and amps justice.

Establish a Private Collection – I don’t see my role as a collector, so it isn’t really a private guitar ‘collection’ per se. In any case, while collectable, these aren’t really investment-grade guitars. The guitars have precious little historical provenance to add value. As a matter of principle, I hate the idea of hording them away.

Form a business – CRAVE Guitars is not a business (at the moment). These are my babies and selling them as a dealer just isn’t me. Apart from that, I don’t have the ‘killer instinct’ to make it a viable, profitable business concern. Put simply, I’m rubbish at selling. There are also plenty of people in the country with better skills, experience and knowledge than I possess. I also don’t have the resources and I don’t have the appetite for fierce competition in a ruthless commercial (and volatile) vintage guitar market. I also don’t have the space to grow ‘it’ any further, so there is a finite limit to its size.

Exhibit the heritage – CRAVE Guitars doesn’t have sufficient historical merit, scope or scale to warrant establishing any sort of guitar museum and, let’s be honest, there has to be something really special to attract sufficient numbers. America has the ‘National Guitar Museum’, which is a travelling exhibition based in Florida and ‘Songbirds Guitar Museum’ in Tennessee. Sweden has ‘Guitar – The Museum’ serving Europe. Online, there is ‘Guitar Museum’, which is a sparsely populated webspace, so it exists only in a virtual way. The major manufacturers and major artists have museums but these aren’t the same thing. There are plenty of online resources (including CRAVE Guitars’) but it is very diverse and dispersed in nature.

As an observation, it seems incredible (scandalous?) to me that the UK does not have a local, regional or national institution protecting the country’s heritage and its enduring association with the guitar. WTF? There is clearly an opening here but it is probably way beyond my means and capacity. On the downside, there is something about passively cocooning guitars in glass cases that is an anathema to me. Guitars are meant to be played and heard but that ultimately that conflicts with the need for conservation. Alternatively, I believe that CRAVE Guitars’ instruments reflect sufficient heritage that their delights should be shared in some way (but not physically before I get inundated with offers to take them off my hands. Donations are, though, gratefully received).

Put them in storage – Heck, dire circumstances and the relocation dictate that some are still and will have to be in storage for the time being (which I also hate). It is my aim to provide safe, secure, environmentally appropriate space in which to keep them and have ready access to them so they can be used as the makers intended.

Sell the assets off and do something else instead – NOT happening! Period!

Any other ideas – ‘Answers on a postcard’ please to: info@craveguitars.co.uk. Any sensible advice greatly received.

What is my reaction to these options? I would prefer to explore what heritage conservation might mean, although I would need to find a way in which the ‘exhibits’ would be used, rather than locked away in cabinets in the traditional museum-like way. I would like to ‘rescue’ vintage instruments and ensure that they have a safe long-term future. To be honest and realistic, I really don’t think that this option is likely or possible, so it may have to become a commercial operation and I’ll have to learn how to detach myself from the labour of love that it’s been to-date. I’d also have to harden myself to the practical realities of creating and running a trading business. The lack of capital funding means that a physical location (i.e. a shop) is out of the question, so it would have to be a gradual conversion to some sort of virtual operation, probably building on what’s already in place. A great deal will depend on personal circumstances and, perhaps the blindingly obvious… money. Partnership may be an option and one that I haven’t really explored up to now.

Well that’s it for now. It took a considerable while to get here. It will be interesting to see what transpires from here on in. I wonder if CRAVE Guitars will exist long enough to reach its next decennary (and, yes, it is a genuine word, albeit an archaic one not in common use) in 2027. I hope you’ll accompany CRAVE Guitars through its next evolutionary step, whatever it may be.

In the meantime, I feel that it’s time to give that little old 1978 Fender Mustang a little TLC while singing “happy birthday”. I have a feeling that once it’s shipshape, it might well become a go-to guitar. I also hope to get back to doing some serious practising and playing. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “How on Earth do you get recognised for being an unrecognised genius?”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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November 2016 – Where to Start with Vintage Guitars

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

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

What does the word vintage mean for guitars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should I buy a vintage guitar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is so special about vintage guitars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where should I start?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do your research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning your vintage guitar

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

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

Selling on

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

Finally…

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

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

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

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

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2015 – Vintage Guitar Supply and Demand

posted in: Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

1966 Epiphone Olympic
1966 Epiphone Olympic

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

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

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

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars

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