February 2019 – A General Update

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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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June 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part IV

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

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

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

Needing to be heard

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

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

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

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

The electro magnetic guitar pickup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The electric guitar amplifier

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

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

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

The Amplifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Loudspeaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Guitar Amps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get connected

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

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

End of Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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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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October 2017 – What Qualifies As A CRAVE Guitar?

When canvassing ideas for this month’s article, I was asked why I don’t feature bass guitars to the same extent as the 6-stirngers. I did point out that CRAVE Guitars is already home to Fender Precision and Music Man Stingray basses. However, such simple questions tend to switch on my stream of consciousness. Not content with answering just this question, I thought I might as well address the similar query I have been asked about acoustic guitars as well as other instruments, accessories, merchandise and even non‑guitar‑related stuff! There are not many pictures this month, as the narrative is mainly explanatory.

The short and simple answer is contained in the acronym C.R.A.V.E. (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars so, if that satisfies your curiosity, you can safely stop reading now. For the masochists out there, a little (!) more exposition is required; sorry.

Expanding the acronym is, however, probably a good place to start, so let’s begin with perhaps the most problematic letter…

C is for Cool (Adj.)

For starters, this has nothing to do with temperature. The cool I am talking about is a very subjective, value-laden word with many subtle and indefinable nuances. In its colloquial context, it can mean ‘excellent’ or ‘alright’, as well as ‘fashionable’ or ‘hip’. Slang dictionaries also cite ‘awesome’ or ‘trendy’. These all seem to me to be both superficial and insufficient when trying to convey what I understand cool to mean. To make it easier, perhaps, these adjectives convey a bit more relevance if suffixed with the word ‘dude’.

In relation to the world’s favourite musical instrument, there are the mainstream guitars, most of which have an inherent level of cool anyway and, as you are reading this article, I don’t think I need to state the bleeding obvious, especially where vintage is also a contributory factor (see ‘V’ below). It is, perhaps, the more unusual guitars, which to me radiate cool. Cool transcends simple descriptions such as character or quirkiness.

How on earth does a guitar become and stay cool, and is there a standardised unit of measurement to quantify just how much cool something has? Quite simply, it simply isn’t that simple. For a guitar to be cool it has to exude some sort of cachet or ooze some sort of wow factor. It may have some quintessential ingredient that makes it irresistibly, achingly desirable to those in the know. Things that are cool are utterly seductive despite any objective rational thinking to the contrary (it may be non‑PC but the same goes for women!).

What one person thinks of as cool can be a complete anathema to someone else, while another person may be completely oblivious to it. This suggests that cool is therefore intrinsically a very personal thing. The fascinating thing about cool is when there is an unwritten collective agreement and a shared understanding that something is more than it appears to be on the face of it. Cool, to me, is therefore an unconscious state of mind that has no palpable embodiment.

Sustained cool that is appreciated by like-minded people can lead to a cult status amongst a relatively small proportion of the population, which everyone else completely fails to grasp. Cool therefore also has a degree of exclusivity. Cool cannot be a universally accepted characteristic; it will always be appreciated by the few and ignored by the many. If something becomes popular on the mass market, it automatically ceases to be cool.

Last month, I mentioned the Fender Bronco, a modest single pickup offset ‘student’ guitar that languished in the vintage guitar doldrums until Alex Turner and Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene. The band was considered cool and the instruments that they used suddenly became cool simply by association. Consequently, the broad appeal for the Bronco coalesced pretty much overnight. Broncos are still cool and attract vintage guitar market values that were unheard of before the band came to prominence. There are plenty of other examples; for instance, would the humble Danelectro 3021 be the icon that it is today without Jimmy Page or the Airline J.B. Hutto be so sought after if not for Jack White?

The transferable phenomenon suggests that cool by association can be infectious. Cool is, however, not physical or perpetual, as it can disappear just as quickly and inexplicably as it appeared in the first place. Furthermore, you cannot make cool, sell cool, buy cool, or pass something off as cool if it isn’t. It therefore exhibits an unusual characteristic of being both intangible and valuable at the same time.

CRAVE Guitars isn’t about what I think other people may like, it is primarily about what I like. I wouldn’t be arrogant enough to try to tell you whether CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are cool or not, that is for you to decide for yourself. I just hope that I have a certain taste that others can appreciate and relate with. However, just for the record, I think they are pretty darn cool individually and, perhaps more importantly as a ‘collection’. I try to raise awareness of some interesting guitars (and amps/effects) and then pose some questions to challenge broadly held preconceptions. Perhaps you might make the irrational shift of ill‑informed choice and agree with the dude (or not, I sure ain’t gonna argue!).

R is for Rare (Adj.)

You’d think this would be obvious… but there is more to it than that. Rare in this context doesn’t actually mean that they are all genuinely scarce in absolute terms. By rare here, I mean that they are limited in number and therefore finite because there cannot be any more new guitars for a certain model from a certain manufacturer for any given year. This is an undeniable fact.

By rare, I’m also suggesting that each one is essentially irreplaceable. If a vintage guitar is destroyed or dismantled, there is a unit reduction in the total number of that model that will ever be available. Whether there were only ever just a handful or many thousands of a particular model produced, there will only be a certain number of each guitar in existence that can feed the vintage guitar market now or in the future. Newer instruments will eventually become vintage but these will be additional to, not substitutes for, what went before.

In addition, each vintage instrument will now be absolutely unique in its own way. Several or many decades of (ab)use bestow certain vestiges of age that are individual to that instrument and which cannot be reproduced (sorry, relic fans). It is this distinctive and natural aging that gives an instrument its uniqueness. Even better if guitars have some sort of genuine story associated with them (or sense of mystery if not).

I should also say that rare in this context does not imply value – there are many other characteristics in addition to rarity that dictate whether a guitar is valuable or not. None of CRAVE Guitars’ instruments are truly valuable, sadly, I wish they were. However, some guitars are rarer than others and therefore have a degree of interest associated with them purely because there are not many of them to go around. Others were mass produced at the time and remain plentiful on the vintage market but only for the time being, as attrition will inevitably occur. Just because something is (relatively) abundant, it doesn’t diminish its appeal.

& – At his point, I might as well comment on the ‘&’ in the CRAVE acronym. It doesn’t mean that every guitar is Cool AND Rare. These adjectives are not mutually exclusive. To be honest, a title where the ‘&’ means ‘cool and/or rare; possibly one or the other, perhaps both or maybe neither’ doesn’t make any sense. It is therefore not a qualifier; it is simply a necessary vehicle of the English language, so get over it grammar pedants (say I hypocritically).

A is for American (Adj.)

You might also think that this criterion is straightforward and, of course, it isn’t. Some guitars in the CRAVE family are all-American, which makes things simple. Some, however, have original materials and/or parts imported from other countries. As far as I am aware, none of my guitars (or basses) were wholly manufactured outside America.

I would actually argue that there have been very few instruments that are actually 100% American so, as with other factors, it is all a matter of degree. So we have to start with the premise that ‘American’ implies a significant but not necessarily total part of the process of producing guitars.

It isn’t just that they are designed by American-owned companies. Danelectro, for instance, has its headquarters in the USA, designs its instruments in the USA and manufactures them in China. Other American firms may import the key elements to be assembled and/or QA’d in the States. Does this make them American? I would argue in both circumstances that it doesn’t. To make things easier, I don’t believe that there are any non-American companies that manufacture in the USA for all sorts of political, social, economic, legal and environmental reasons.

What about some of the key parts of a guitar that customers demand and expect? For example, could a guitar with a Brazilian or Indonesian rosewood fingerboard or a Honduran mahogany body genuinely be called American? In this instance, I believe that it can, as this refers to the source of raw materials, not the manufacturing process. The same applies to hardware, e.g. German tuners and bridges, Mexican switches and Japanese potentiometers. We have to accept that American guitars are partially imported in one way or another.

American trade rules were/are very strict about what items can carry the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ label. I won’t delve any deeper into this thorny issue in this article. Suffice to say that, as far as I am concerned, as long as it complies with the definition imposed by the federal USA government, it is ‘American’.

I have often been asked why I don’t go for guitars from other regions such as Europe or Asia. There are some fantastic instruments from non-American territories (see the CRAVE Guitars article from August 2017 – ‘A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars’ → Read here). For now, to open the flood gates to global guitar collecting would, I believe, dilute what CRAVE Guitars is all about. Also, I just couldn’t cope with it all – it would be way too much for such a small enterprise. For now at least, integrity of the American ‘collection’ is paramount.

Where I do consciously blur geographical lines is in effect pedals where European and Japanese pedals qualify as part of the ‘family’. Why? Simply because they are such an integral part of the British/American music scene from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll onwards. Plus, there are so many global cool and rare effects that it doesn’t make practical sense to be strictly exclusive. As effects are not the primary focus of CRAVE Guitars, I can be a little more lenient. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Should I need to liquidate funds though, the non-American effects would be at the front of the queue.

At the moment, my vintage amps are strictly American, although I have been tempted by vintage English amps from, for instance VOX, Marshall and Orange, although less so WEM, Hiwatt and Laney. Perhaps it’s because I started playing electric guitar in the 1970s, I also have a soft spot for vintage solid state amps such as H/H from England and Roland from Japan, so I’m not a complete valve snob. I may also be tempted to blur the lines here one day but not for now. There are plenty of great American amps to admire. One difficulty is that they are just too difficult to import and adapt for UK mains supply, let alone maintain. To be honest, I also don’t have space for a lot of amps, so that makes things simpler.

V is for Vintage (Noun/Adj.)

I have covered the various definitions and interpretations of what might constitute ‘vintage’ in relation to guitars before, so I won’t reiterate those discussions here.

Essentially, there is no clear start date for what might become a CRAVE Guitar. Perhaps the early‑mid 1930s might be a legitimate starting point, representing the dawn of electric guitars. However, if someone were to offer me an early 1900s Gibson Style O acoustic archtop or a 1920s National acoustic resonator for instance, I am not going to turn either of those down! Hint, hint.

The end point is necessarily arbitrary. I tend to think of mid-late 1980s as the general cut‑off for many reasons. Anything from 1990‑on is of personal interest, rather than something eligible for CRAVE Guitars. I have retained a couple of modern Gibsons that I use as modern benchmarks and reference instruments to compare with older guitars (and for sentimental reasons). I no longer have any modern Fenders, although I’d like a modern Stratocaster or Telecaster for comparative purposes. Being purely pragmatic, I generally focus on electric guitars from the 1950s to 1980s inclusive – at the time of writing, the earliest is 1959 and the latest is 1989 – a period spanning just 40 years which, in context of guitar history, is nothing at all and may prove to be too restrictive in the future. For now, though, there are plenty of vintage guitars on the market made in those four decades from which to choose.

There is a bigger question about whether vintage is ‘better’ than new. This is not the time for such a complex discussion. However, for instance, in a blind test where touch and sound are the only stimuli, whether a guitar is physically old actually adds anything to the overall music‑making experience or not is debateable. New guitars can be made to look, feel and sound old but, no matter how good the craftsmanship, they cannot actually BE old.

Much also depends on the use to which a guitar will be put. For most working musicians, reliability and durability are probably far more important than age, especially in a live concert environment where the subtle nuances of vintage tone can be completely lost. A gigging situation is also environmentally demanding, never mind the practical risks of taking a valuable and irreplaceable vintage instrument on the road. In principle, modern guitars are in so many ways a much more appropriate solution than their vintage counterparts, particularly for the professional musician. Personally though, modern guitar ownership is no longer for me and what I do, so my focus is for older, lived-in but not worn out instruments.

E is for Electric (Adj.)

As far as acoustic guitars are concerned, sorry, but they just don’t do it for me. I don’t know why. This applies equally to nylon strung classical guitars and steel strung acoustics. Perhaps it’s the sound, perhaps it’s the playability, or perhaps it’s the aesthetics. To be honest, my knowledge of acoustics is very slim compared to their electric counterparts, so I may be missing something obvious in terms of appeal.

I acknowledge that without the acoustic guitar, we wouldn’t have electric guitars as we know them, so the historical significance is fully understood. I am interested in the acoustic guitar’s position in musical antiquity and I am writing about that as a separate piece of research. However, given a choice of picking up a comparable acoustic or electric, the latter would win 9 times out of 10. Personally, I like to plug my guitars in and experience the diverse sonic pleasures of an electric guitar being used for its intended purpose. For recording or stage use, I find microphones for an acoustic guitar a complete pain, whereas I can just plug in an electric, so the latter also wins on practicality.

I often play electric guitars unplugged when practising or noodling. An unplugged electric gives a good indication of the natural resonance of the ‘old wood’. It also focuses the senses on playability and ergonomics. I might suggest that a good electric guitar will come across as good when it is played either acoustically or plugged in. However, vintage electric guitars really come into their own when driving a vintage valve amp, perhaps with the odd vintage analogue pedal added to the mix. In this setting, electric guitars can feel alive with dynamics, touch‑sensitivity and sensory feedback in a way that an acoustic just can’t match, at least for me. I would argue that an electric guitar is also far more versatile with an array of different sounds and tones that it can produce.

OK then, here’s the crux… How many rock guitar gods from the halcyon days of Santana, Green, Clapton, Richards and Hendrix, through the experimentalist era of Page, Beck, Blackmore, Iommi and Zappa to the post-modern virtuosos such as Van Halen, Slash, Vai, Satriani and Vaughan have plied their trade exclusively playing acoustic guitars? None to my knowledge, that’s how many. The truth of the matter is that it’s the cutting, screaming, wailing, sighing, jangling and shredding of the amplified, effected electric guitar in the hands of musical geniuses that has forged the mainstay of the rock (‘n’ roll) paradigm over the last 6 decades or so. There are, admittedly, many acoustic guitar prodigies but they don’t feature on my ‘top guitarists’ or ‘top albums’ lists. I rest my case m’lud.

Arguably, it’s the music that matters, rather than whether instruments are amplified or not. In fact, one of my favourite live albums is Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994), so I’m not averse to acoustic music, it’s a simple matter of personal preference. I would also contest that, unless one is within a few feet of an acoustic guitar played live, the sound is amplified in one way or another, whether by an amp, a PA, a TV or a hi-fi. I don’t want to get into arguments about which is better; to me, they are just different.

There are many superb vintage acoustic guitars on the market and in the hands of collectors. With the usual finite resources (time, money and space), acoustic guitars will, for now, remain outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. In addition, there are currently no real vintage electro‑acoustics out there to tempt me. Whatever the reasoning behind my bias, I’ll leave acoustics for the many specialists already occupying that particular space.

I would, however, like to have a good vintage acoustic to hand, just for those occasions when the mood strikes and one wants to strum or fingerpick a tune for a change. I agree that playing an acoustic brings a whole different outlook on composition, arrangement and performance and they are therefore a great complement to electric guitars. You never know, I might be tempted. Something like an old Martin D28 or Gibson J-200 perhaps? Again… hint, hint.

Guitars (Noun)

This will, hopefully, answer the original question at the start of this article about basses. Basically (haha), I am first and foremost a guitarist and I therefore focus on 6-string instruments rather than basses. For the record, I like playing bass and I think that it is good for guitarists to be able to play bass effectively, as it can improve rhythmic and timing abilities as well as adding a different perspective to songwriting. As mentioned at the top of this article, CRAVE Guitars actually has 2 vintage basses and a vintage valve bass amp as part of the ‘family’, which is enough as far as my personal need goes.

Yes, I’d like a vintage Fender Jazz bass and I’d happily accommodate a short-scale vintage Fender Mustang or Musicmaster bass, mainly because they are so cute, funky and cool. I’d also be quite happy with a vintage Gibson EB-0 or a Rickenbacker 4001 bass if a good one came along at a reasonable price and doesn’t displace a sought‑after guitar. Bridging the gap between guitar and bass, a vintage pre-CBS Fender Bass VI has been on my ‘most wanted’ list for a long time but original ones are becoming way, way too expensive. For the third time, hint, hint.

There are many other variations on the stringed instrument theme from diddley-bow guitars with only a single string through cigar box/oil can guitars, tenors and baritones, 12-string guitars, to harp guitars with many strings, as well as double or multi-neck instruments. Then there are are banjos, mandolins, zithers, hurdy‑gurdys, lutes, bouzoukis, balalaikas, not to mention many Asian instruments, as well as numerous European classical and folk stringed instruments. Again, if only for practical reasons, they are all outside the scope of CRAVE Guitars. As with acoustics and basses, there are plenty of specialists focusing on some wonderful exotic stringed instruments from all over the world, so that means I don’t have to.

While on the subject of CRAVE Guitars eligibility, there are a few other factors that come into play. NB. All of these conditions apply equally to amps and effects.

Condition – Condition is very important for me. This doesn’t mean that a guitar has to be museum or collector-grade, far from it. A well-used vintage instrument will have many visible signs of use that give it much of its charisma. If a guitar is 50 years old but looks as if it was made yesterday, it lacks that unwritten backstory of being used that might make it desirable (at least to me). Conversely, an abused ‘players’ guitar’ is of little interest to me, as it is likely to be in relatively poor condition through misuse – a lack of respect for an instrument is generally not a good sign. Once a guitar has been seriously compromised, it will never be the same again. Even if it is professionally restored, a knackered guitar loses so much of its integrity and originality (see below). The issue of restoration to protect and conserve important musical instrument heritage is another story for another day. Badly damaged guitars are a big no-no for CRAVE Guitars, including major damage like neck/headstock breaks, bad repairs, etc.

Originality – Originality is also very important for me. Irreversible modifications are an issue, including refinishes, routing for pickups, holes, adaptations, etc. I have one refinished guitar, my ‘signature’ 1975 Gibson Les Paul, and I regret having it done back in the late 1970s – it had a lot of buckle rash from the previous owner and it seemed the sensible thing to do at the time. I tolerate minor changes such as replacement pots (where there was a fault), tuners, etc. Several CRAVE guitars have had reversible minor modifications and each one is considered on a case‑by‑case basis. In theory, most bits of hardware can easily be put back to original condition if the correct parts are available. If guitars come with original cases, great: if they come with the original tags, manuals and case candy as well, even better. However, it’s the guitar that matters, not the case.

Affordable – I am a financially poor enthusiast with very limited funds, so my spotlight tends to fall on ‘affordable vintage’ guitars. Fortunately, the cool & rare criteria often make some relatively inexpensive guitars available, compared to the elite high‑end investment‑grade instruments. Market accessibility is therefore an important factor for me. I sympathise with neophytes who are interested in and want to own vintage guitars but find the whole scene too ‘exclusive’ – we all have to start somewhere. The ‘easy entry’ end of the vintage market is another reason why I like to focus on a wide range of instruments including some interesting oddballs within reach of many wannabes. Just to qualify, ‘affordable’ doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, it means cost‑effective and value‑for‑money, which can mean different things at different price points. Recently, I have paid (considerably) over market value for a couple of instruments in which I had a specific interest, so I’m not a very good businessman with an eye on future profit margins.

Other Stuff – Another question I’ve been asked is why I don’t sell ‘other stuff’ to support the core vintage guitar enterprise. Three principal reasons; a) I don’t have the money to spend on ‘other stuff’ even if it could partly subsidise the core ‘business’, b) I don’t have sufficient time or space to achieve the core ‘business’, let alone anything extra‑curricular, and c) I’m generally not that interested in ‘other stuff’. I would like to diversify into CRAVE Guitars merchandise such as t-shirts, mugs, plectrums, cards, etc. (orders, please). I might also be tempted into vintage guitar related miscellanea such as jewellery, memorabilia, etc. Diversification also relies on surplus amounts of a) and b) above which, frankly, is looking highly unlikely. The discipline of focusing predominantly on Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars (now that it has been defined) has to remain relatively pure or I will never be able to make a going concern of it.

The CRAVE Guitars Brand – Brand identity is essential to back up the umbrella CRAVE Guitars trademark. Strategically, if I had more time, money, energy and space, I would definitely create 2 key partner enterprises for vintage instruments to complement CRAVE Guitars. Despite what I said above, CRAVE Basses and CRAVE Acoustics would be on the cards. The ‘E’ part of the acronym becomes a bit less relevant for acoustics (however, I have thought of a solution to that too) but the spirit remains integral to the original concept. My long‑term intention is to create a further 2 complementary enterprises for CRAVE Amps and CRAVE Effects. I may permit someone else to use CRAVE Drums, CRAVE Keyboards and CRAVE Stage & Studio though (unless I change my mind in the meantime). Just be aware that, in terms of copyright ownership, I thought of these first – royalties in an envelope please! I would consider flexible partnership arrangements with a like-minded obsessive keen to expand the CRAVE franchise into these areas, as long as the necessary resources accompany the mission.

Virtual CRAVE Guitars – Social media, predominantly Twitter, takes up a considerable amount of time as does the web site (www.craveguitars.co.uk), including researching and publishing these articles. The social media topics covered are essentially guitar‑related but draw from a very broad interest, encompassing material way beyond the tight C.R.A.V.E. criteria. The problem I have with it is that it is highly resource intensive and the activity intrinsically will never make any money, it is purely about entertaining a diverse audience and raising the profile of what CRAVE Guitars is all about.

In Summary

So, to précis all the above, I use a few simple rules to separate out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. Regardless of brand, price or reputation, CRAVE Guitars should be:

  1. Cool – Quirky, unusual, unique or a variation on a theme, preferably with some added character and interest
  2. Rare – All things being relative, supply is limited, including short-lived or small‑run production models
  3. American – Possibly my one hard and fast rule, the all‑important ‘Made in U.S.A.’ mark
  4. Vintage – Manufactured between c.1950 and 1989 – possibly earlier and unlikely to be later
  5. Electric – I’m not really an acoustic guitar fan. Electric archtops, semis, hollow bodies and resonators are fine though
  6. Guitars – Mainly 6-string instruments. Basses are included but they are not the primary focus

In addition, being pragmatic, a CRAVE Guitar needs to be:

  • In good condition with no serious damage or alterations
  • All‑original or very close to it with no irreversible modifications
  • Cost‑effective and good value‑for‑money

One last pertinent comment before I shut up is to mention the alternative meaning of the word ‘crave’, which is ‘to desire’, ‘to yearn for’ or ‘to want greatly’. This double‑entendre is both important and intentional. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple rhetorical question when looking for vintage guitars (et al), “Is this a really cool guitar that I would want to own and play?” If the answer is “yes”, I would want to showcase it for others to (hopefully) appreciate. However, if I can’t live with a guitar, I wouldn’t dare to presume that it might be of any interest to anyone else. If I don’t hanker after a particular guitar, it doesn’t join the CRAVE ‘family’ no matter how much it is worth.

It is only when all these factors come together that a guitar is likely to join the CRAVE Guitars clan. I am not a dealer and CRAVE Guitars is strictly a not‑for‑profit passion project. Once adopted, a guitar tends to hang around for a considerable period of time. I tend to enter into relationships with my guitars, which means that I’m not one to buy and sell instruments on a whim. I would need strong persuasion to part with one of the ‘family’.

I am amazed that, reflecting on the ‘rules’, they have hardly changed in over a decade, which is encouraging. 10 years ago, when I started to thin the herd and began to refine the ‘business’ model above, the focus was quite strictly on acquiring vintage guitars made by Fender and Gibson. I now realise that this was too exclusive and the net is now being cast more widely. I do, however, remain selective and anticipate that the mainstays of the ‘family’ will remain vintage instruments from ‘Big 2’. Why? Quite simply, that’s what I grew up aspiring to own one day and I suspect that the same applies for many other guitarists who grew up in the 20th Century. The future may well be different and that will be for someone else to take up the mantle long after I and CRAVE Guitars have faded into posterity.

I can put my hand on my heart and swear that I believe that (most of) the guitars that have made up the ‘family’ over the last decade conform to these basic principles. As a core operating model, I think that the principles are helpful and clear, which may become an advantage should CRAVE Guitars become a successful business one day. The principles also differentiate what I do from the competition.

You may well disagree with my philosophy and choice of guitars (et al) but, to be uncompromisingly blunt, that’s not my problem. CRAVE Guitars is internally consistent. If you want to do your own thing using your own preferences, that’s entirely up to you and I wish you well.

In conclusion, now having defined the objective, justified the criteria and articulated the rationale, I hope that the idea behind CRAVE (Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric) Guitars makes some (common) sense. I think that I have also provided answers to both of the specific question about bass/acoustic guitars, as well as the bigger picture question of what it takes for an instrument (or amp/effect) to be considered a member of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’.

What’s coming up? Well, I hope to have some ‘new in’ headlines for the November 2017 article. In the meantime, I think that it’s time to warm up those vintage valves and plug in my ‘guitare de jour’… now which one shall I go for? Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “Integrity is doing what you believe to be right and your conviction to stand up for it in the face of concerted opposition.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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January 2016 – The Guitarist’s Friends: Amplifiers and Effects

posted in: Opinion | 0

Most of my previous articles have focused on the venerable (electric) guitar – the source of the electrical signal that becomes music. This month, while there is probably a bit of ‘preaching to the converted’, it is perhaps worth reflecting for a moment and going back to basics.

As may be blindingly obvious, the instrument itself is only one part of the equation when making amplified music. On its own, unplugged, an electric guitar would be no good in front of a big audience. As we all know, electric guitars are dependent on some sort of amplification to convert the low-level signal from the guitar’s pickups to the speakers. Losing your amp mid-gig can be embarrassing and not great for your reputation. Even an acoustic guitar needs to be amplified in order to engage a modest sized audience and there is a whole industry now built around dedicated acoustic guitar amplifiers. This isn’t really my thang, so I won’t pontificate on what I don’t understand.

The oft-forgotten component in this signal chain after the instrument is the venerable lead. I express no opinion on this essential piece of kit other than to say that good quality interconnects are vital. If you use RF transceivers, the same principle applies. These items are integral to your overall sound and it is generally worth every penny to preserve your and your guitar’s inherent musical characteristics. They may not be shiny or ‘sexy’ but scrimp on them at your peril.

Then we get onto one’s amplifier of choice. These can be anything from a diminutive, battery powered box to an impressive backline of Marshall stacks turned up to 11. It’s amazing to think that the venerable Marshall stack was 50 years old in 2015. The advent of home recording has led to an explosion in digital modelling and even the use of the iPhone/iPad can bestow tone-enhancing functions beyond the dreams of many recording pioneers. The Line 6 Pod brought about a revolution in digital amp modelling, embraced by many musicians who could see the potential opportunities of technology. Interestingly, rather than create something unique and innovative all of its own, the digital world has gone to enormous lengths to simulate the soundscape of our favourite vintage valve amps and cabinets, perhaps suggesting that those pioneers got something right in the first place.

So… what’s your favourite sounding amp? And, before you start, yes they do have a sound of their own, irrespective of what’s played through them. Fundamentally, it’s down to individual taste. Personally, I tend to favour the ‘American sound’, such as the classic Fender amps, rather than the stalwarts from this side of the Atlantic, typified by Marshall, Vox and Orange. Gibson, surprisingly, has never been as commercially successful at making guitar amplifiers, leaving opportunities for other US makers such as Mesa/Boogie and Peavey. How about some other classic names from the past, such as WEM, H/H, Roland, Laney, Sound City and Hiwatt, amongst others – some still going while others are history. The differences between the various brands are, unsurprisingly, manifold. Nowadays there is a plethora of amps ranging from the far eastern mass-produced to the US and UK boutique builders. Ultimately, it is down to individual taste and, perhaps, what guitar you play. For info, I currently use a vintage Music Man (click here to see the amp feature…) and a modern Cornford Carrera combining the best of US and UK heritage. It is with much sadness that neither are still in production. I recently purchased the wonderful mid-70s vintage Music Man 210 ‘sixty-five’ amp to use as my main amp of choice. This means that some tranny practice and studio gear may have to become ex-loved CRAVE items soon.

Over time, there have evolved recognised and well-accepted guitar/amp pairings, such as the humbucker equipped Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall amp, or the single coil loaded Fender Stratocaster through a Fender amp. However, there are now so many different permutations that provide limitless possibilities for creating one’s own personal signature sound. Why so many guitarists strive to recreate the sound (and style) of others rather than seek a unique, individual signature of their own is probably best left for another debate. For practicality, modern valve amps are safe, reliable and sound great, while digital alternatives give a very good impression of many classics that, let’s face it, most of us will never get to play (let alone own) for real, so let’s not get too snooty. Whether you go for a traditional approach or you adopt a mix-and-match attitude to differentiate your sound, you can experiment to your heart’s content. There is no right or wrong, just what inspires your creativity. That’s the joy of our beloved hobby.

Then, in addition to amplification, there is an abundance of effects units (a.k.a. FX, stompboxes, pedals, etc.) from the mass-manufactured giants to the tiny custom-built independents. The choice is plentiful. The history of stompboxes really started in the 1960s with the fuzz and wah-wah, and has flourished ever since. Now, you can create almost any live or studio sound that you want, from subtle enhancement to unrecognisable noise sculpting. Take your pick between analogue, digital or hybrid, whatever takes your fancy. Personally, I have a soft spot for 1970’s lush vintage analogue Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, such as the Big Muff Pi, Memory Man and Electric Mistress. For modern effects, I generally use Boss and Line 6 units. So much choice, so many opportunities, so little time to experiment. One could spend a lifetime exploring the creative tonal capabilities of effects alone without ever really listening to what the guitar itself can do. Again, it is worth investing in quality leads and power supplies to avoid degrading the magic of your performance.

One characteristic I’ve noticed is the traditionalism that extends from guitars to amps and effects. Many of today’s designs are either copies of, or are heavily influenced by, the past, for example emulating the classic Ibanez Tube Screamer, Dunlop Fuzz Face/Cry Baby or MXR Phase 90. Occasionally, there is genuine innovation; the Digitech Whammy pedal or Roland Loop Station spring to mind? I wait in anticipation for the ‘next big thing’ to challenge our usually conservative prejudices. In the meantime, there is a growing interest in acquiring vintage amps and effects to add to instruments and therefore (re)create the original setups heard on iconic stages and in countless studios for what seems a lifetime of great music, effectively reconstructing the soundtrack of our lives for new audiences. A subject for a future article.

CRAVE guitars are frequently played unamplified to get a feel for the way they resonate and respond to touch without any electronics. Other times, when the mood takes, it is fun just to pile on ridiculous amounts of modification and enjoy the sonic chaos created by rampant knob‑twiddling. Isn’t the electric guitar a wonderful thing, especially when allied to your favourite sound enhancing electronics? Where would we be without them all? Enjoy. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Learn from other musicians; don’t copy them or the best you’ll ever be is an average plagiarist”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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