August 2020 – Even More Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

Prelude

GREETINGS GREAT GUITAR people and welcome back to some ‘even more whazzup at CRAVE Guitars’, herein the third and final part of the triptych of guitar‑related ‘current affairs’ articles. You may be pleased to know that this one is a wee bit shorter than usual. You might well conclude that I pad out these monologues because I revel in writing voluble blurb for the sake of it. If there isn’t much to say, I won’t… or will I?

For the record, at the time of writing, current COVID‑19 statistics indicate that there are now over 25 million confirmed cases and 843,000 deaths recorded globally and still rising. These are scary and truly staggering statistics for a health pandemic during the modern era. Like every other responsible adult, CRAVE Guitars is not only weary of the enforced constraints of living through coronageddon but also aghast at the sheer arrogant stupidity of selfish covidiots who ignore the threat and risk prolonging the danger for the rest of us. GGggrrrr. Right, got that out of my system, now back to business.

While I cannot promise oodles of delightful entertainment, I can at least deliver on what I said that I would do two months ago which is to bring you all bang up‑to‑date with what else has been happening down here in the south west of the UK during 2020. As a rapid recap, the first slice of this recent 3-parter was to cover last year’s (2019) purchases in some detail, the second was to cover the on‑going vintage guitar repatriation project, and this third part is basically a ‘what’s new in at CRAVE Guitars’ in 2020 so far. So, getting right to the point, what shiny new old stuff has come CRAVE Guitars’ way?

New in at CRAVE Guitars in 2020, so far

Well, for starters, it has been a very quiet time for guitars recently. This is primarily because a) I’m trying futilely to save funds for the much‑vaunted but little‑actioned cellar conversion, and b) actually finding the 5 guitar Rs – the right instruments at the right time in the right place in the right condition at the right price. Then there is the COVID‑19 situation triggering the worst recession in living memory going on in the background, which is affecting the fundamental economics of supply and demand.

CRAVE Amps has been equally quiet but more eventful than last year. While there has been only one purchase, it is a doozy and one I’ve been after for a couple of years. Amps take up a lot of space and demand a lot of attention, as well as resources, so buying a whole bunch of them isn’t exactly a high‑priority large‑scale exercise.

It is CRAVE Effects where I’ve been most active this year; I’ve been a very busy boy (for me). Effect pedals have a number of advantages; they generally require less capital outlay per item (but not always!) and most take a lot less space to accommodate. There also seems to be a plethora of choice (unlike guitars at the moment). Under current circumstances, and with another deep economic downturn looming, effect pedals have proved less financially risky all round, which is a good thing as funds are very limited. Having said that, a couple of these pedals cost nearly as much (or more!) than an ‘affordable vintage’ guitar, so perhaps I need to have a rethink. Effect pedals also make a great complement to the guitars and amps and they can be great fun to amass. So… here is the shortlist of what has actually come this way in the last 8 months.

CRAVE Guitars (2)

  • 1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series
  • 1979 Peavey T-60

CRAVE Amps (1)

  • 1973 Fender Princeton Reverb

CRAVE Effects (11)

  • 1986 BOSS DD‑2 Digital Delay
  • 1984 BOSS DM‑3 Delay
  • 1980 Electro‑Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter
  • 1981 Electro‑Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini‑Chorus
  • 1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter
  • 1981 Ibanez PT‑909 Phase Tone
  • 1978 MXR Analog Delay
  • 1982 MXR Micro Flanger
  • 1982 MXR Phase 100
  • 1982 MXR Stereo Chorus
  • 1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz

Plus 3 replacements for existing pedals:

  • 1982 BOSS DM-2 Delay
  • 1975 MXR Phase 90
  • 1980 MXR Dyna Comp (compressor)

The whys and wherefores

Just sharing a list of gear doesn’t give any sense about the rationale behind searching them out or how they fit into the overall CRAVE Guitars strategy. Although unforeseen opportunities cannot be ignored, there is generally some rhyme and reason to purchasing decisions. In order to give some insight to what the heck I’m doing, it’s worth a little bit of exposition in each case.

1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series – Believe it or not, up to now I didn’t have a ‘normal’ Flying V. I was actually looking for a vintage Gibson Explorer E2 and got within a hair’s breadth of getting hold of a very nice example but sadly it proved ultimately unsuccessful. This was very disappointing, as it would have been a perfect partner for my groovy Flying V2. Anyway, I’d been holding off on a couple of other vintage guitars while looking into the E2, which were quite tempting. Then I came across this very nice example of a cool and rare all‑original Flying V Designer Series in pinstriped ivory. It was happily residing in restful retirement in sunny Florida, USA, so I took it upon myself to do a ‘Cocoon’ on it and transport it over to a chilly and soggy UK. Basically, I didn’t want to lose out on another guitar, so I bit the bullet and jumped in (darn that FOMO!). The exchange rate, customs duty, VAT and fees made it a highly unprofitable transaction but to heck with it. At least the relaxation in CITES regulations didn’t prevent the rosewood fingerboard from flying (sic!) my way. As it turned out, I think I was lucky to grab it when I did. Thankfully, I am not driven by monetary gain, as I’ll probably never get the full cost back, so I’ll just hang onto it and enjoy it, which is what CRAVE Guitars is all about. Original Flying Vs from the 1960s and now even the 1970s are getting incredibly expensive. I’m sure it won’t be long before the evil profit‑motivated collectorati get their heads around the up‑to‑now not very popular 1980s Flying Vs. Personally, I like them and that’s plenty good enough for me.

1984 Gibson Flying V Designer Series

1979 Peavey T-60 – I’d been interested in the Peavey T‑60 for a while, as it’s a bit of an underground underdog, which often piques my curiosity. The T‑60 was Peavey’s first venture into electric solid body guitars, so it really is the first of its kind. The people who have owned them tend to rave about them but they don’t tend to come anywhere near the top of the list for collectors (a good thing too, if you ask me). I thought I’d satisfy my inquisitiveness and try one out for myself. They are still relatively good value for a vintage guitar, especially when compared to the aforementioned Flying V for instance! The T‑60 is bit of a heavy beast at just under 10lbs (4.4kg), so that particular reputation is on the button but… remember that weight was seen as a ‘good thing’ at the time. It has very 1970s style with its slightly ungainly outline and natural ash finish. On close inspection, it is quite intriguing with its subtle carved top and now‑ever‑so‑trendy thin but tough satin finish. The T‑60’s electrics are unique in that the tone controls blend from single coil to humbucker, a feature that I think remains unique to this day. In addition, a small phase switch adds further flexibility when both pickups are in use, making the T‑60 a very versatile and underrated instrument. It may seem an odd choice for a CRAVE Guitar but, to me, it makes perfect sense – cool, rare, American, vintage and electric. Nuff said.

1979 Peavey T-60

1973 Fender Princeton Reverb – I have been using American valve amps for years and the Fender Princeton Reverb has been top of the ‘wanted’ list for a quite a while. I was fortunate enough to find one in the same county, so off I trundled just before the coronavirus lockdown and brought her home with me. It was just what I was after, a 1973 ‘silverface’ Princeton Reverb in fantastic condition. I am not wealthy or pedantic enough to aspire to a ‘blackface’ or ‘tweed’ Princeton, so this will do very nicely thank you. It is still hand‑wired and true to its origins. My vintage Fender Champ and Vibro Champ have been reliable little home workhorse amps and my Music Man 210 ‘sixty five’ can deliver big noise when needed but I was pining for some valve driven spring reverb in a small package and this is just the ticket. I had been using a BOSS RV‑2 Digital Reverb with the Champs but this brings all the basics together in one neat solution. It has been modified to a 240V UK mains power supply, a very practical mod, which is fine by me. I have to say that it sounds awesome for its diminutive size. The valve tremolo is not as pronounced as other Fender amps but apparently that is quite normal and I can live with it. I am now looking for a vintage ‘silverface’ Fender Deluxe Reverb to compare the Princeton’s 10” speaker with the Deluxe’s 12”. Is that getting greedy?

1973 Fender Princeton Reverb

1986 BOSS DD‑2 Digital Delay – You may already know that I am a huge fan of analogue solid state echo pedals. However, the limited delay time usually tops out at c.300ms and the tails can get a bit mushy. Sometimes, longer delays and crisp clarity are called for. The DD‑2 was Boss’ first digital pedal and the first compact digital delay. It is one of the few digital effects worth having that appeared before my vintage cut‑off year of 1989. Last year, I got hold of a 1980s BOSS RV‑2 Digital Reverb and they go well together, so here they are, now part of the CRAVE Effects family. If nothing else, it shows that I’m not a complete digital‑phobe.

1986 BOSS DD 2 Digital Delay

1984 BOSS DM‑3 Delay – Going back to analogue delays after my digital excursion (see above), the DM‑3 fits that bill. It is remarkably similar to the outgoing DM‑2. The internal circuit was tweaked to improve fidelity and reduce noise but there really isn’t that much between them. The only visible difference is the screen printing and the unique knobs used on this model. Other than that, it is business as usual and it does sound very similar to its predecessor. So, an interesting variation on the classic DM‑2. The DM‑3 was the last analogue delay pedal made by BOSS until they released the DM‑2 Waza Craft in the 2010s.

1984 BOSS DM 3 Delay
[Image: 1984 BOSS DM 3 Delay]

1980 Electro‑Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter – The EHX Bad Stone was another pedal that I had back in the 1970s, so I have a soft spot for it. I had retained a Small Stone but the Bad Stone obviously ran away with a better guitarist than me. So, it was a case of reuniting with an old friend and feeling that comfort that comes with rose‑tinted familiarity. It sounds great, just like it did back in the day. All’s well that ends well. Good EHX Bad Stones are getting surprisingly expensive on the vintage effect market. Welcome home, mate.

1980 Electro Harmonix Bad Stone Phase Shifter

1981 Electro‑Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini‑Chorus – Now here is another big‑time elite (a.k.a. expensive) classic pedal. I was never really into chorus pedals when I was younger, so this was a new one for me. I preferred my faithful trio of EHX pedals, the Big Muff Pi (fuzz), Electric Mistress (flanger) and Deluxe Memory Man (echo). The Small Clone didn’t really achieve reverential status until Kurt Cobain used it to great effect (sic!) in Nirvana’s revolutionary grunge exploits. Yes it is good for what it is but is its hallowed status truly warranted? I guess so if you want to imitate the past but there are many other competent chorus pedals out there. Original vintage Small Clones seem to be very scarce and when they do come up they are pricey and/or in a bit of a state, so I think I was fortunate to grab this one.

1981 Electro Harmonix EH4600 Small Clone Mini Chorus

1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter – Compressor pedals are strange things. They aren’t in‑your‑face effects that will immediately blow you away. They add a glossy sheen to playing that is very effective but also quite subtle. They give a studio produced feel to playing dynamics when used properly. Compact pedals are very simple compared to their studio counterparts and a bit of experimentation is needed to hit the ‘sweet spot’. Good compressor pedals are probably best left on full‑time and it’s only when they are switched off that you realise what magic they have been weaving. The ‘9’ series Ibanez CP9 was made famous by David Gilmour, so everyone then jumped on the CP9 bandwagon in a vain attempt to sound like him. Probably a pedal for the guitarist who doesn’t have one and didn’t know they needed one. The CP9 is still very good value on the used vintage market despite the strong artist association.

1982 Ibanez CP9 Compressor/Limiter

1981 Ibanez PT‑909 Phase Tone – Alongside the iconic Ibanez TS‑808 Tube Screamer, there were a whole range of other ‘0’ series pedals sporting the familiar square footswitch. The PT‑909 is one of those ‘other ones’. Ibanez got through a huge number of phase pedal models in a short period of time and this is just one in that long line. It’s a phase pedal and it sounds like most other phase pedals, which pretty much says it all. Incidentally, I actually have more phase pedals than any other type of effect. I guess I’m a bit jaded or perhaps it’s just a phase (sic!) I’m going through. The PT‑909 does its job well but it doesn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd (more below). It is, though, better sounding, more ergonomic and sturdier than the previous ‘narrow box’ PT‑909. Another vintage stomp box that remains reasonably priced at the moment.

1981 Ibanez PT 909 Phase Tone

1978 MXR Analog Delay – Right, now we’re really talking. The 3rd echo pedal in this catch‑up and the 2nd analogue one. The now‑vintage Electro‑Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man is my all‑time favourite delay pedal and I’ve had mine since new, so there is a lofty pedestal with which to compare. The Japanese BOSS and Ibanez delay pedals are all very well but there is something about good American delay effects that sets them apart. The MXR Analog Delay is a large, unwieldy, mains powered box with just 3 controls and, boy, does it do a grand job? I really, really respect this analogue delay for its warm, lush repeats. OK, so the delay tops out at the typical c.300ms but when it sounds this good, does it really matter? Well, sometimes, to be honest. The enclosure paintwork is a little scuffed here and there but that’s nothing, as it is the sonic signature that excels. Does it beat the EHX? No, not quite but it really is a marvellous effect. The MXR Analog Delay is much heard on recordings but for some reason, it isn’t much talked about. They are quite scarce, so they tend to be quite pricey. However, in my humble view, they’re definitely worth it. Don’t delay… or, on second thoughts, do.

1978 MXR Analog Delay

1982 MXR Micro Flanger – Once again, I find the American pedals beat the Japanese, even though the latter make some very good effects and sold them very successfully. I can’t be objective as to why I feel that way, so perhaps it is just a subjective bias. This rather demure looking MXR Micro Flanger is one is one of the later ones with LED status light and DC power input, so it is immediately more convenient than the older ones. It also sounds great. It isn’t up there with my favourite flanger, the Electro‑Harmonix Electric Mistress but it is very creditable. I’m now on the lookout for a large box, mains powered MXR Flanger to see what it can do that the Micro Flanger can’t. I think it may improve on it by a small margin and perhaps challenge the EHX, let’s see. Watch this space.

1982 MXR Micro Flanger

1982 MXR Phase 100 – I’m already a lucky owner of a vintage ‘script’ MXR Phase 45 and the iconic Phase 90. One of those aforementioned unforeseen opportunities came up to get my grubby hands on a large box Phase 100, so here it is. This pedal is unique in the MXR Innovations canon in having this size/shape of enclosure, somewhere between the familiar ‘micro’ boxes and the larger mains powered big boxes. I haven’t had a Phase 100 before and it really was an epiphany for me; this thing sounds awesome. Given that I’m a bit blasé about phasers, using that adjective is saying something. It has a 4‑way preset switch and two rotary controls so, compared to its smaller single‑knob peers, it is very flexible. Perhaps it’s the 6‑stage phasing that raises it above its competition. Whatever fairy dust MXR sprinkled on its innards, it worked and I wasn’t really prepared for the engaging sounds it exudes. It is also in fantastic original condition, which is icing on a tasty cake. The Phase 100 has quickly become my favourite vintage phaser. Sorry Bad Stone, your post has been pipped.

1982 MXR Phase 100

1982 MXR Stereo Chorus – Around the same time that I came across the MXR Analog Delay, I had the opportunity to get this enhanced version of the MXR Micro Chorus (which, to be honest, was the one that I was actually looking for and still don’t have). Like the Analog Delay, the Stereo Chorus is a large, bulky, mains powered behemoth with three controls. Like phasers, I can’t put my hand on my heart and assert that the chorus effect is the bee’s knees but it is certainly very creditable. Comparing this to the Small Clone revealed the answer to my previous question about whether the EHX pedal deserves its post in chorus royalty. Spoiler warning: not really. This one is in exceptionally clean condition and actually quite a bargain as well. Result!

1982 MXR Stereo Chorus

1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz – Okey dokey, now we’re getting serious again. Last year, I ventured out of safe territory and acquired two iconic (and very expensive) vintage effect pedals, a 1969 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and 1981 Ibanez TS‑808 Tube Screamer Pro. The Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz is another of those exclusive vintage pedals, which is a little surprising given its roots in cheap British effects of the 1970s. It also came under the banner of the British Colorsound brand. I had a Tone Bender back in the day and this was an interesting reintroduction, albeit just a bit (!!!) pricier nowadays. This version of the Tone Bender is based largely on the Electro‑Harmonix Big Muff Pi, so if you’re familiar with that, you know you’re in the right ballpark, tone wise. Plenty of fuzzy goodness. This one is in very good all‑original condition and fuzzes, fizzes and froths in all the right ways. I adore great vintage fuzz pedals. A classic, for sure, but why SO expensive? Really.Hhhhh’jdf

1976 Sola Sound Tone Bender Fuzz

I won’t go into the three replacement pedals here, suffice to say that they were all bought to improve marginally on the ones I had, which can now move on to good homes elsewhere. The image below is of the new replacements (from left to right), 1982 BOSS DM-2 Delay, 1975 MXR Phase 90 and 1980 MXR Dyna Comp (compressor). All very cool effects.

Other 2020 Pedals

One good question might be, how do these purchases all tie together? Well, believe it or not, there is an inherent coherency to the plan. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (as said by Polonius in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’).

The two new old guitars integrate seamlessly into the other vintage guitars in the family. Similarly, the amp is very complementary to my other vintage amps and, although I don’t have many, that’s plenty enough… for now. The effects fall into three main camps, the Japanese BOSS and Ibanez range, the American Electro‑Harmonix and MXR lines, plus the odd one or two from Europe or other manufacturers. They generally all derive from the 1960s to the 1980s so, once again, job done.

Full features on both these guitars, amp and effects will appear on the CRAVE Guitars web site in due course (see more below).

Help Needed

Apologies, this is the 3rd article in a row where I’ve made this earnest plea. A few of the effect pedals above have minor electrical issues like extraneous noise, non‑working DC or battery input, LED faults, etc. If there is someone out there with the requisite skillset to help maintain these vintage effects as well as the guitars and amps, and who is local to SE Cornwall in the UK, I would be interested in exploring mutually beneficial opportunities. Is there anyone out there attracted to the proposition? If there is, please contact me at the e-mail address at the bottom of every page on the website. Talking of which…

CRAVE Guitars Web Site

I will probably cover this in more detail in coming articles but I thought that this might be a good place to mention it. For over 2½ years, the CRAVE Guitars’ web site remained largely static and unchanged. This was largely due to more pressing personal circumstances, as it takes a lot of time to do it properly. I have, at long last, finally started the desperately‑needed updates to the web site. Overall, it won’t look much different and its structure remains the same, it’s the content that matters.

CRAVE Guitars – Web Site

So far, the underlying technology has been brought right up‑to‑date and many behind‑the‑scenes components have been made current. It is actually quite a fundamental change to the mechanics, which aren’t immediately apparent when viewing the pages – it’s a bit like a car’s engine rebuild hidden away under the bonnet (a.k.a. hood for American readers).

I have also started the process of introducing a whole raft of new content. Again, at the moment, it isn’t immediately obvious because I’m starting off by replacing what is already there before moving onto adding brand new material.

To give you an idea, there are over 120 existing pages and more than 70 monthly articles. There are 60+ incumbent guitar feature pages to revamp and 15 new guitar feature pages to add. There are only 2 amps to add, then there are 30+ effect pages to overhaul and 26 new effect pages to add. Then there are all the galleries, new features on brands and model histories to add. The resources pages need to be completely re‑worked as they are completely out of date, often irrelevant and error‑prone. Even the main CRAVE Guitars logo has been very subtly refined.

Also, the bass guitars have gone from the site, as have the newer guitars that don’t (yet) qualify as vintage. This makes the material a bit more focused than it was. I hope to re‑introduce CRAVE Basses in the future but it’s not an immediate priority.

In coming weeks and months, I hope to make many fundamental changes. Well over 1,000 new photographs have been taken and many dozens of new features have been written. It is a colossal task and one that I’ve been actively prevaricating (?!) for way too long. Now that I’ve started, I will actually relish rejuvenating the site and making it a lot more relevant, and hopefully a respected resource for people to enjoy. There is so much to do that it will probably take until the end of the year before the project is completed (and then the on‑going updates and maintenance). By the time the main job is done, every single page and post will have been updated in some way or other. Some pages have already been finished and have gone live. I will work through the immense backlog as quickly as I can.

If anyone has any positive and constructive thoughts or ideas about what you’d like to see on the web site, let me know and I’ll give it serious consideration. Also, some typos and errors will undoubtedly creep in, so I would appreciate being informed of any corrections and clarifications to help improve the quality of the narrative.

Tailpiece

There isn’t a lot of time to go now until the end of a thoroughly miserable and depressing 2020. There also isn’t much time to take action to acquire some of those elusive items that were on last year’s ‘most wanted’ list. I think I’m going to fail big time on the guitars but I’m very content with how other things are going. I realise how fortunate I am to have all these great vintage guitars, amps and effects, so I’m not going to complain about my lot… much. Anyhow, the quest continues and it’s time to get back to the graft!

Who knows what I’ll be pontificating about for the next article but I’m sure I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, I will be in splendid misanthropic solitude and voluntary seclusion to work on the web site and play vintage guitars. Sounds good to me. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Why are so many people so determined to be so stupid?”

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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June 2020 – Whazzup at CRAVE Guitars

Prelude

WELCOME BACK ONCE again guitar fans and hello to any new visitors. We are now half way through an extraordinary 2020 and the world is still turned upside down in so many concerning ways. While there may be glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel for COVID‑19, there is still a long way to go and there will be profound ramifications that it will leave in its sizeable wake. At the end of last year, we had no inclination as to what was about to befall, yet here we are now. Perhaps us hooman beans really aren’t as clever as we seem to think we are (shock, horror – hold the front page!). It seems that we also still have some way to go before all people are deemed equal and can live their lives freely, responsibly and peacefully. The first half of 2020 has passed by very quickly and, frankly, good riddance to it. I don’t like wishing life away but it has been 6 months that I’m sure we could all have done without, everything being on‑hold.

Well, here we are and no more historical facts, quotes or predictions on which to ponder this month. I said at the very end of the last article that I would get back to pontificating about ‘cool & rare American vintage electric’ guitars and, at last, I can deliver on that promise/threat (delete as applicable).

There are 3 themes on which I’d like to embark this month. Firstly, I mentioned in my December 2019 article that I had bought some gear (big surprise… not) during last year but I didn’t go any further than to list what they were, without any indication as to the whys and wherefores behind the spending spree. Secondly, after 18 months, most of the 42 repatriated guitars have now been properly assessed and worked through as far as I am able. So far, I haven’t given any real sense about what I found and what I learnt from the exercise. Thirdly, there have been a number of purchases during the first half of 2020 and in due course I can reveal what those are and how they relate both to the existing ‘collection’ and to the ‘wanted’ list from that same December 2019 end‑of‑year/look‑forward roundup.

I think that there is more than enough material to occupy one article, so without further ado, let us begin at the beginning. Sitting comfortably? Good. Then, we’ll begin…

2019 CRAVE Guitars’ Purchases

An Introduction to the 2019 CRAVE Guitars

2019 was certainly an interesting year. Due to circumstances, I started out not anticipating much in the way of guitar purchases. The relatively modest vintage guitar ‘wanted’ list from December 2018 included a Danelectro of some sort, a Fender Starcaster and a Gibson Melody Maker. These had all featured on the target list for more than one year, so it seemed a fairly realistic expectation. What actually happened was a bit more fruitful than I foresaw and I think it deserves some rationale to indicate why they weren’t random purchases. In fact, 2019 resulted in nine new additions to the CRAVE Guitars family, spanning five decades (1940s‑1980s with at least one from each). I couldn’t really afford the outlay but, although it meant sacrifices in other areas, it has probably been worth a bit of hardship. I hope you find this array of short stories moderately interesting.

1982 Fender Bullet H2

This is what happened when esteemed Fender designer John Page was tasked with creating a low cost student model to carry the ‘Made in U.S.A.’ decal and replace the outgoing Mustang and Musicmaster? The result was the Fender Bullet. I’d already acquired a 1981 Fender Bullet which was essentially a Telecaster‑on‑a‑budget model. Several aspects of the first iteration intrigued me and I set about looking for a second generation model, with the more Stratocaster‑like body outline. Initially, I was looking for a ‘standard’ one with twin single coil pickups and the integrated bent steel pick guard and bridge assembly, just like the ‘Tele’ Bullet. Instead, I found a cool Fender Bullet H2 in great all‑original condition in very smart red and white with a maple neck. This version has a more robust standard integrated hardtail bridge/tailpiece with through‑body stringing. The H2 features what at first glance appear to be standard twin ‘humbuckers’. However, looks can be deceiving. The pickups aren’t actually traditional humbuckers – they are actually 4 single coil pickups arranged as two pairs in humbucking configuration. In addition to a normal 3‑way pickup selector switch, the H2 has two additional buttons that ‘split’ the humbucking pickup pairs to give a wide range of tonal options including genuine single coil sounds (unlike most tapped or split humbuckers). When it arrived, one of the 4 pickups wasn’t working and it had to be sent to a pickup expert to fix. Thankfully, it was a weak connection between the coil and pickup lead, so easily sorted. Like the earlier Bullet, the H2 has a very nice standard Telecaster neck. The diverse sounds available from this guitar are nothing short of remarkable and it makes me wonder why this particular unique configuration hasn’t been widely used since. The early USA‑made Bullets were misunderstood and tend to attract a lot of unfair criticism from purists. As a result, like the Fender Leads of the time, they weren’t manufactured for long. Judging it on its own terms, this is really not the cheap Stratocaster imitation it may seem at first glance. I realised that the Fender Bullet H2s are both cool and quite rare, so fit the CRAVE criteria. I never envisaged that it would be so fascinating and collectable while still being affordable. This Bullet H2 came with its original (if battered and stickered) Original Hard Shell Case (OHSC).

1975 Fender Starcaster

The Fender Starcaster (and, no, that isn’t a spelling error) has been a long‑standing ‘wanted’ guitar, ever since I got a 1960s Coronado. There is very little similarity between the two models but as there are very few semi‑acoustic electrics in the brand’s history, I was once again curious. Unusually, I bought this one from a retailer, so I probably paid more than I normally would have considered but it was worth it. Where the Coronado is fully hollow, the Starcaster has a solid centre block running under the pickups and the massive hardtail bridge/tailpiece assembly. Surprisingly, the Starcaster has through‑body stringing like a Telecaster. While the Coronado has DeArmond single coil pickups, the Starcaster uses the sublime Seth Lover ‘wide range’ humbuckers as used on several Telecaster variants from the 1970s. While both the Coronado and the Starcaster use bolt on maple necks, they are, again, very different and the latter is unique to the model with a maple fingerboard. Both the Coronado and Starcaster were reissued by Fender in 2013 although neither are a patch on the originals. The vintage Starcasters are instantly recognisable because of the distinctive bridge assembly and the 5 controls (2 volume, 2 tone plus master volume). When going over the guitar on arrival, I found it was a rare very early 1975 (pre‑production?) model. It has been well used but is still in remarkably good condition with the sort of genuine patina that only age can bestow. The tobacco sunburst and sunburst flame maple is just gorgeous. It is also a fantastic guitar to play with a great neck and I really like the (in‑vogue) offset body shape. Even better, it doesn’t play or sound like any other Fender, ever made. The Starcaster didn’t prove popular on its original release and wasn’t produced for long before being quietly discontinued in 1982. I can understand why it didn’t sell in large numbers but that misses the point about its exclusive charms. Make no mistake, the Starcaster is a high quality instrument just waiting to be rediscovered. This beauty is not to be confused with cheapo far‑eastern Strat imitations from the 2000s that unfortunately carried the ‘Starcaster by Fender’ moniker. The case, while vintage, is not an original Fender Starcaster case. Obtaining a Fender Starcaster was a long‑standing aspiration achieved, which can now be removed from the ‘wanted’ list. These babies are now becoming extortionately expensive on the vintage market, as the ‘collectorati’ are now cottoning onto them. Seems I got this one just about in time‑ish.

1979 Fender Stratocaster Anniversary

I already have a 1977 Stratocaster hardtail and I was kinda looking around for one from the early 1970s with a vibrato before they become unaffordable (rapidly heading that way now). Along the way, I became distracted by the 1979 Anniversary Stratocaster. I missed out on a couple before I finally attained one (once again at a higher price than I intended, unfortunately). The Anniversary is distinctive in that it was Fender’s first foray into limited edition commemorative models, celebrating 25 years since the original Stratocaster’s introduction in 1954. I was attracted by the classic look of silver, black and maple fingerboard. Whether one can regard a massive 10,000 examples as a ‘limited edition’ is debatable. It also comes with a very unsubtle ‘Anniversary’ logo emblazoned on the bass horn plus a much more understated 25th anniversary neck plate which carries its serial/issue number. This one comes with its original certificate of authenticity and most (but not quite all) of its case candy, as well as its ABS OHSC, all of which is nice to have. Like all Anniversary models, this one is heavy at 10lbs (4.6kgs) but I can live with that because of the part this model plays in electric guitar heritage. It looks cool, sounds great and plays very nicely, although the action is a little high. Fundamentally, though, it is essentially a standard Stratocaster with a few aesthetic embellishments. This guitar is in excellent, almost mint condition, which suggests that it was kept as a memento rather than an instrument to be played, which in my view is sacrilege. These aren’t especially rare instruments and many purists would say they aren’t cool. Well, I’m going to stand my ground and say that I like it, which is why it now has a safe home here at CRAVE Guitars.

1983 Fender Stratocaster Elite

This is the first of a pair of Fender Elites that I bought in 2019 (and the second Stratocaster!), both of which I think are quite desirable. As background, the Elite series was only produced in 1982 and 1983 before it was withdrawn shortly before CBS sold Fender in 1984. It is the innovative electronics that really set the Elites apart. The signal chain starts with 3 ‘noiseless’ single coil pickups including an additional dummy coil to reduce hum. These pickups are distinguishable by the Fender logo covers with no visible pole pieces. Instead of a 5‑way pickup selector switch, there are 3 on/off buttons, 1 for each pickup, giving 8 permutations in all (including all ‘off’). This arrangement provides easy access to more sounds than the standard Stratocaster of the time. The switching is unusual but also very intuitive (far better than Fender’s current S‑1 switching). The signal then passes through an on‑board active pre‑amp powered by a 9V battery. The controls are different too and not just the nice soft‑touch logo knobs. There is the usual single master volume complemented by two master tone controls, comprising Fender’s propriety MDX (MiD‑range eXpander) boost and TBX (Treble/Bass eXpander) circuit. The Strat’s iconic jack plate is also absent, with the output moved to the body edge. The bridge assembly is also unique, here it is a top‑loading hardtail Fender Freeflyte bridge. In use, it plays just like a Strat, although it is a touch on the heavy side. The sounds though are, as you might expect, quite different from a normal Stratocaster. Before the purists clamour with cries of sacrilegious iconoclasm, the electronics went on, albeit modified, to be used in both the Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy signature guitars, so the Elite wasn’t an abortive experiment. This example looks particularly cool in creamy Olympic White with a lovely rosewood fingerboard. This Elite is in lovely all‑original excellent condition and comes with its ABS OHSC. Like many 1970s and 1980s Fenders, these are now becoming more desirable on the vintage market. These original Elites are not to be confused with the similarly named but otherwise standard Elite series instruments issued by Fender between 2016 and 2019.

1983 Fender Telecaster Elite

More?! OK then. Onto the second in the pair of Fender Elites. This one is a 1983 Telecaster Elite in lovely translucent Sienna Burst with a gorgeous rosewood fingerboard. Like the Stratocaster Elite, it is a fascinating variant on the classic design. The electronics here comprise dual‑coil noise‑cancelling Alnico 2 pickups routed through an on‑board active 9V preamp with 2 volume controls allied to the same MDX (mid‑range) and TBX (high‑range) tone controls as found on the Stratocaster Elite. Like its sister model, it has the unique top‑loading hardtail Fender Freeflyte bridge. The body has cool single binding on the top edge, similar to the original Custom Telecaster from the 1960s. For some inexplicable reason, the designers at Fender felt that a Telecaster would look good with a Les Paul‑like scratchplate. They were wrong, it doesn’t. Fortunately, the scratchplate was provided in the case, rather than being attached and even then, it could be stuck on with double‑sided tape. Personally, I prefer it without the scratchplate, revealing the woodgrain through the finish. Like the Stratocaster, the Telecaster is a touch on the heavy side but I can forgive that because of its unique position within the Fender canon. This little beauty is in near mint condition and includes its OHSC. The Elite is far from your average Telecaster and, on my unending quest for something cool and rare, it has found a good home here at CRAVE Guitars. Both Elite models (and there was also a Precision bass in the range as well) are harder to come across than standard models, so the prices tend to reflect their relative scarcity. The Elites are unequivocally ‘curio’ guitars from the last dying days of Fender’s notorious CBS era, so they tend to be frowned upon by purists, which makes them all the more appealing to the maverick side of my enduring addiction to the quirky and idiosyncratic guitars from a generally unloved period of guitar history.

1947 Gibson ES-150

Thus, we move onto the ‘Big G’. The author sadly hit one of those dreaded ‘big birthdays’ in 2019 and without much else to celebrate, I figured that I would mark my passing years with something self‑indulgent. I had been keeping my eyes peeled for a vintage Gibson ES‑150 for several years and watching as the prices escalated to, frankly, silly levels. I couldn’t afford one of the carved top pre‑war models with the Charlie Christian pickup, so I was looking around for a newer model, which would be cheaper. For those that may not know, the Gibson ES‑150 was introduced in 1936 and is acknowledged as the first commercially successful electric Spanish guitar. I eventually found a lovely 1947 ES‑150 from the first year of post‑war production and sporting a single P90 pickup. This one was way, way more expensive than I could normally justify so, because of my impending mortality, I was tempted to go for it. In fact, it is the most I’ve ever spent on a single instrument to‑date. This ES‑150 was residing in Italy, so I imported it before Brexit shuts down all opportunities to access vintage fare from our European colleagues. Owning a really old hollow body non‑cutaway jazz guitar is new territory for me, so it was with some trepidation and excitement that I was delving into this particular art form. The guitar itself is in fine all‑original condition with just surface crazing to the lovely sunburst nitrocellulose finish. There is no serial number or Factory Order Number (FON) which, along with the features, dates it to 1947. Playing it is a different experience altogether, as it needs heavy semi‑flat wound strings to get the laminated top vibrating. Then there is the limited upper fret access to contend with, so it takes some time to acclimatise to the technique. Being deep‑bodied and fully hollow, this one actually works quite well as an acoustic jazz guitar too. As you may know, I really like single pickup guitars, so there is less to get in the way of pure P90 tone. The ES‑150 is currently a bit of an outlier within the CRAVE Guitars family. One thing is for sure, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Definitely not the ideal guitar of choice for metal heads though.

1965 Gibson Melody Maker

This 1965 Melody Maker was a bit of a gap filling exercise. Between 1959 and 1971, Gibson released four versions of their ‘student’ guitar, the Melody Maker. The first was a single cutaway Les Paul shape (1959‑1961), the second was a unique and really cute double cutaway model (1961‑1965), the third iteration was a somewhat crude and short‑lived double cutaway model (1965‑1966) and the final generation was SG‑shaped (1967‑1971). This is one of the rather ‘ugly duckling’ models from 1965 (weirdly often called the ‘type 2’, even though it’s the third body shape), which completes the set. The Melody Maker comprises a slab mahogany body with double cutaways, a set mahogany neck with the typical narrow headstock, one single coil pickup, and comes in a reserved cherry nitrocellulose finish. Unsurprisingly, this model has never been reissued by Gibson, although there has been a Joan Jett signature guitar. The Melody Maker name has re‑appeared a number of times since the 1960s. This example is not in pristine shape but is all‑original and it comes with its OHSC. At least this one hasn’t been butchered over the years unlike many. I was shocked that a recent guitar magazine article (which I won’t name but they really should know better) was recommending that the vintage Melody Maker body should be routed and the pickup replaced with a P90 or humbucker! Unbelievable and indefensible! I think that the narrow single coil pickups give the Melody Maker a distinct tone, which is very underrated by purists. Melody Makers are unique in the Gibson history books and unmolested examples deserve much more credit in my view. They are made from the same materials in the same Kalamazoo factory by the same people as other highly prized models and should be regarded (and treated) as worthy vintage instruments in their own right. They are very light and resonant, making them really easy to pick up and play. Compared to many Gibsons from the 1960s, Melody Makers are still relatively affordable on the vintage market and represent a good starting point for people interested in collecting vintage guitars from a major American brand. Personally, I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of this pointy body shape but now that I own one, it is growing on me.

1989 PRS Classic Electric

Having dipped my toes into the world of Paul Reed Smith (PRS) guitars with an elegant 1988 PRS Standard, I was looking around for other early hand‑finished guitars that were made in PRS’s original facility in Annapolis, Maryland. These early, so‑called ‘pre‑factory’ models are becoming increasingly collectable, especially as they are now beginning to get to vintage age (and price!). The early PRS Customs are becoming incredibly expensive, so my eyes settled on an early PRS model that was initially called the Classic Electric when introduced in 1989. The model was swiftly renamed as the CE after a legal dispute with Peavey over the original name. NB. The CE is not to be confused with the far Eastern PRS SE (‘Student Edition’) guitars. I also had my sights set on the early solid Electric Blue metallic finish, which I think is stunningly beautiful. This example is a very early Classic Electric, being only the 473rd guitar off the production line, distinguished by its 24‑fret, bolt‑on maple neck and the plain headstock carrying the block ‘PRS Electric’ logo (soon to change to the familiar modern ‘Paul Reed Smith’ signature script logo). There are quite a few marks including one significant ding to the body and the finish on the back of the neck has worn down. The wear indicates that it has been well played, which is often a sign of a soundly put together instrument. OK, it doesn’t have the flashy flame or quilted maple cap, faux binding, bird inlays or set neck but it is still a very creditable guitar that plays very well and sounds great. The CE is one of those under‑the‑radar PRSs that the collectors tend to overlook, although genuine owners praise them very highly. PRS finally got around to re‑releasing the bolt‑on CE model in 2016 but the new ones really aren’t the same as these early ‘handmade’ examples. Despite the wear and tear, it is all‑original and comes with its OHSC but no case candy. You can’t have everything. A vintage PRS Custom to add to the Standard and Classic Electric sadly has to remain on the wish list for the time being.

1959 Silvertone 1304

I had a bit of a mad spell towards the end of the year when I was buying several guitars for the sake of it. I was looking for a vintage Danelectro and came across this funky little 1959 Silvertone 1304 with its single cutaway and dowdy brown finish. It is very similar to the Danelectro U1 (differentiated by pickup position and headstock logo), which is no surprise seeing that Danelectro manufactured Silvertone guitars for the Sears & Roebuck retail and mail order company at the time. The 1304 is actually a pretty rare model being only available in Sears & Roebuck’s ‘Wish Book’ Christmas catalogue and related advertising of 1958, 1959 and 1960. The neck and familiar ‘coke bottle’ headstock is also rare, being finished in natural, rather than colour matched to the body, apparently due to supply shortages at the time. It also has the circular electrics cover on the back and the squared off neck joint that confirms its age and lineage. The ever present Lipstick pickup and body‑edge tape will be familiar to Danelectro fans. It also feels, plays and sounds just like you’d expect a vintage Danelectro from the 1950s, i.e. great. This was the last of the Danelectro single cutaway body shapes before they moved to double cutaways in the 1960s. The single pickup and simple controls let you focus on playing and getting the most out of a very cool and groovy (and lightweight due to semi acoustic construction) instrument. It is a lot of fun to pick up and play and hard to put down. The action is a little high but that resistance actually forces one to play differently compared to a more ‘refined’ guitar. Like others in this résumé, it is in fine all‑original condition, although it sadly doesn’t come with an original 1950s case. These cool Silvertone and comparable Danelectro guitars are still amazingly affordable for vintage guitars from the so‑called ‘golden era’, perhaps because they were (generally) made in large numbers and sold to a largely undiscriminating ‘student’ audience at the time.

2019 CRAVE Amps? What Amps?

Right, that’s the 2019 guitars covered, so what else was new? Well CRAVE Amplifiers didn’t achieve anything at all in 2019 – no new additions and no losses. Nada. As it turned out, I was quite happy running two relatively similar modest little units as daily go‑to amplification during the year, a 1978 Fender Champ and a 1978 Fender Vibro Champ both in ‘silverface’ livery. Don’t underestimate these diminutive 5W Class A valve amps, they are really great for what they are. I acknowledge that I’m not a vintage amp specialist, so they are not hugely abundant here at CRAVE Guitars. Owning vintage valve amps demands space, time and effort as well as oodles of filthy lucre, so I’m not in a huge rush to buy up large numbers of vintage amps.

An Introduction to the 2019 CRAVE Effects

CRAVE Effects did a little better during 2019, although there were only five new pedals to join the clan. Having said that, two of those were outstanding examples of the type. As with amps, because I am not a vintage effect expert, I’m sticking to a few well‑known global brands from the 1960s to 1980s, rather than go too far into the realms of the unique, idiosyncratic and unusual.

1987 BOSS RV-2 Digital Reverb

It may seem heretical to many but this is the first vintage digital effect to join the CRAVE club. This Japanese BOSS RV‑2 was sought out principally because there are few vintage compact analogue reverb pedals out there. Yes there are the bulky (and expensive) vintage valve reverb tanks from the likes of Fender but I wanted something small and convenient to add an extra special dimension to the aforementioned Fender Champs, neither of which have on‑board reverb. So, a digital reverb was the way to go with this rather plain looking but flexible 1987 BOSS RV‑2. It provides a range of reverbs and it sounds quite natural without too many sibilant digital artefacts, although not quite the soft and cuddly warm tones of traditional analogue reverbs. Still, it does its job very well and it is from the right era (pre‑1990s), which is why it’s here. Interestingly, the high current draw of the digital circuitry in the RV‑2 means that it cannot be powered by batteries and requires a BOSS PSA power supply in order to do its ‘0’ and ‘1’ digi‑thing.

1969 Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face

This is the first of two iconic classic pedals acquired in 2019. The humble but fabled English Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face rose to stardom mainly because of none other than Jimi Hendrix. This isn’t one of the earliest Fuzz Faces that used germanium transistors but one of the first to use silicon transistors, this one dating from c.1969. It is amazing what a few cheap electronic components can end up being turned into. Truth be told, I didn’t actually intend to get this pedal. It came along via an eBay auction and I decided to take a punt and put on a (relatively) low bid and… what happened? No‑one came along at the last minute to beat me and I ended up getting it. Yikes! Yes, it was hideously expensive but not as bad as it could have been. Therefore, while it was not exactly a bargain, I suppose it was still a reasonable price for what it is. Fortunately, it delivers its fuzzy glory in all the right ways, so that’s OK then. It is in excellent all‑original condition and in perfect working order, so my initial reticence was soon overcome. It actually looks pretty cool in red too. By today’s standards, its circular form factor does take up a disproportionate amount of pedalboard real estate but, c’mon, it is a vintage fuzz pedal – what’s not to like? The original Fuzz Face was definitely a batteries only zone back in the 1960s and neither is there an LED status light to indicate when it’s on. Great though it undoubtedly is, this is clearly not one of those pedals you’d want to gig with down the local pub, that’s for sure.

1982 Ibanez PT9 Phaser

At totally the other end of the value scale from the Fuzz Face, we have a fairly widely available and averagely collectable 1982 Ibanez PT9 Phaser. CRAVE Effects has somehow accumulated more phasers than any other kind over the years and that’s probably because the late 1970s and early 1980s experienced a surfeit of these simple analogue modulation effects. Let’s be honest, your average phaser really isn’t the most exciting of guitar effects compared to what else is out there, especially in these days of ubiquitous boutique eccentricities. The PT9 is pretty utilitarian and sounds OK, but not necessarily exceptional, which is probably to damn it with faint praise. I’m guessing that Ibanez chose to change their colour scheme from the previous blue/white PT‑909 Phase Tone to the orange/black PT9 in order to compete on looks with the all‑dominating and very orange MXR Phase 90 of the time. I had been on the track of a PT9 to fill a gap in the collection for a while, so the gap was duly filled. Original PT9s are still relatively affordable phasers and they are, perhaps, a good entry point for neophytes to get into vintage effects before getting into more exclusive and expensive fare. Time to move on… Next!

1981 Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro

… and here is the second iconic classic pedal procured in 2019. The otherwise ordinary green Ibanez TS-808 Tube Screamer Overdrive Pro rose to hallowed status via another guitarist association, this time with the inimitable Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like the Fuzz Face, the original vintage TS‑808s are now inordinately expensive on the vintage effect market, with prices increasing all the time. This was one of those times when I felt a ‘now or never’ moment and bagged a reasonably good one dating from 1981 at just below average price. At this point, I’m going to proclaim ‘emperor’s new clothes’ and say that, while it is undoubtedly a very competent pedal, does it really deserve the unchallenged accolades above all the other competent overdrive pedals out there? Just why we guitarists spend thousands of pounds/dollars on vintage instruments and vintage valve amps and then rely on some dirt cheap solid state components to make them sound ‘better’ is beyond me. To some extent, the same goes for the Fuzz Face but at least that is a down ‘n’ dirty fuzz pedal! I understand all the well‑rehearsed arguments about compensating mid‑boost and clean low gain drive into the front end of an already cooking valve amp. Perhaps I’m missing something else obvious but I really don’t think so. I also know that it goes against the grain to defer from perceived wisdom and to test the TS‑808’s seemingly unassailable reputation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the Tube Screamer and what it does. I just believe it is somewhat overrated for the crazy market prices being asked. Anyhow, one of the green meanies is here now and is part of the growing ranks alongside other Ibanez ‘0’ and ‘9’ series pedals. At least I no longer have to keep scanning the market endlessly for a good one at a reasonable price.

1980 MXR Micro Amp

… and right back to the other end of the value scale again with a humble 1980 MXR Micro Amp. Essentially, all a boost pedal does is to increase the signal level hitting the front end of a (valve) pre‑amp, therefore not only adding a bit of volume, but also hopefully some natural compression and a bit of smooth distortion without affecting the underlying tone. Once again, there is something of a question mark about relying on a few cheap bits of electronics to make vintage gear ‘sing’. Having said that, the Micro Amp does its job perfectly well and it can be a really useful tool in the right circumstances. However, let us be clear that it is not exactly the most exhilarating or far out stomp box out there. As an idle observation, it is funny how things come round again given long enough. Outboard pre‑amp pedals are now a ‘big thing’ in the 2020s, albeit a bit more complex than this little MXR. There are many modern‑day compact pedal pre‑amps out there, including the Hudson Electronics Broadcast, Catalinbread Epoch Pre and Fredric Effects 150 Preamp. At least the unassuming little white MXR Micro Amp doesn’t take up much pedalboard space and is oh‑so simple in operation with only a single ‘Gain’ control. Like most un‑modified MXR pedals back in 1980, the Micro Amp only eats batteries for breakfast and doesn’t come with either an LED status light or DC input.

Help Needed

Vintage guitars, effects and amps need attention from time to time to keep them working at their best. While I can undertake basic maintenance, set ups and general TLC, I know that my skills are finite. I am looking for a guitar tech or luthier who can, from time to time, take on a vintage guitar and do some sympathetic remedial work, whether it involves fretwork, electrics, repairs or whatever. I’m also looking for someone who can do occasional work on effects and amps, which is basically electronics, switches, leads, soldering, etc. With over 60 vintage guitars, more than 50 vintage effects and 6 vintage amps, I need some expert help every so often. If there is someone out there with the requisite skillset for any or all of the above, and who is local to SE Cornwall in the UK, I would be interested in making a connection. Anyone interested? Please contact me at the e-mail address at the bottom of every page on the website.

Tailpiece

Actually, I think this is a good place to pause, so I’ll stop there for now. Nine guitars and five effect pedals is enough for one month.

At this point, I must stress that I did not buy any of these items as a pecuniary investment – anyone familiar with CRAVE Guitars will know that is not my motivation. However, given that savings accounts in the UK are currently offering just 0.01% interest rate, I would prefer to be broke and have great vintage guitars, amps and effects to play with and look at. The last recession that began in 2008 apparently saw 30% wiped off the value of vintage guitars, albeit temporarily. To me, it’s still a no brainer, when funds become available, eBay here I come for some vintage gear hunting. The other thing I would add is that all of the new additions are consistent with CRAVE Guitars larger strategic grand plan to conserve ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitars, amps and effects as important musical and cultural heritage. Oh, and it’s also an unhealthy obsessive addiction as well but I guess you’ve sussed that out already.

At the top of this article I mentioned that there are three themes to work through and I’ve only covered one of them. I am conscious that the ‘History of Modern Music…’ series resulted in lengthy articles and this is, compared to them, quite short. I’m also a bit fatigued by the demands of lengthy researching and writing exercises. Thus, I’ll leave the rest for future article(s). I reckon that it is best to keep these reflective articles relatively consumable. Besides, there really is no rush, is there? Are we going anywhere, anytime soon? No, I thought not.

Believe me, there is still plenty of stuff to be getting on with here at CRAVE Guitars, so I guess I’ll be getting on with stuff then. Who knows what the world will be like in the coming months. Despite the continuing stresses and challenges of COVID‑19 et al, I hope that you’ll return here in due course for your prescribed diet of diversionary diatribes. Stay home, stay safe and stay (in)sane. Remember this simple but important mantra while civilisation unravels around us, Peace, Love & Guitar Music. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “I can see where this is going because I’ve been where it went.”

© 2020 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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

posted in: News, Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

Departures in 2019

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

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

Non-guitarist departures included:

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

Old in at CRAVE Guitars – vintage gear acquisitions in 2019

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

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

CRAVE Guitars (9)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRAVE Amps (0)

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

CRAVE Effects (5)

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

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

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

Repatriation update

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

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

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

Building works

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

Music albums released in 2019 (40-ish)

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

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

Plus (album-like) EP:

  • Black Stone Cherry – Black To Blues 2

Major concerts in 2019 (1):

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

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

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

Social Media Quotes from 2019:

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for expanding my guitar horizons!”

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

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

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

“Thank you! Hats off to crave guitars!”

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

“Thank you for all your fabulous postings”

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

“Crave Guitars is one classy company”

“Thx Crave this is most excellent.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great day, Crave.”

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

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

CRAVE 6,000 Twitter Followers

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

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

Vintage gear for 2020

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

Guitars

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

Amps

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

Effects

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

Help needed (x3)

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

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

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

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

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

Major gigs

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

  • Rammstein (Cardiff in June 2020)

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

Web Site

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

Proceed to check out

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

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

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

Happy New Year/Decade everyone. Until next time…

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

© 2019 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-Modern Reconfiguration, Rejuvenation and Consolidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catalysts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawsuit Guitars and Trademark Protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fallout and Time for Objective Re-assessment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recovery and Rejuvenation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part VII

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

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

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI

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

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

The Modern Solid Body Electric Guitar

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

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

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

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

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

Bigsby Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fender Solid Body Electric Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibson Solid Body Electric Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Major American Electric Guitar Brands

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Guitar Brands From Around the World

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

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

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

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

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

Other Factors

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

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

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

End of Part VI

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

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

© 2018 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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