July 2020 – More Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

Prelude

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

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

What are we actually talking about here?

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

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

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

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

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

Where they went and how they returned

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

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

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

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

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

Repatriation Guitar Cases

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

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

General Condition

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

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

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

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

1984 Gibson Explorer

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

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

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

Playability

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

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

1983 Gibson Corvus

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

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

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

General TLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1965 Fender Duo-Sonic II

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

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

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

Remedial Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

1975 Gibson Les Paul Standard

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

Parts and Accessories

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

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

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

1977 Fender Stratocaster

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

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

Documentation and Photographs

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

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

CRAVE Guitars – Database

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

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

The one I couldn’t put down

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

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

1965 Fender Jazzmaster

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

What next?

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

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

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

1967 Gibson Melody Maker SG

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

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

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

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

Help Needed

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

Learning points

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

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

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

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

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

Tailpiece

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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February 2019 – A General Update

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

State of Guitarville 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repatriation Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New in at CRAVE Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sign‑off

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

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

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

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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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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January 2018 – The State Of The Village

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

Music is the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiny, shiny new gear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live and recorded music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital rules… or does it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile devices

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

Vintage vibrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary and conclusion

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

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

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

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

CRAVE Guitars Logo

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2017 – A Map Leads To Some Hidden Gems

posted in: Event, Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

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

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Student’ Guitar Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

1978 Fender Mustang

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

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

That’s it for now. Until next time…

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

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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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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