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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November 2017 – New In: Underdog Vintage Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

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

1983 Gibson USA Map

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

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

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

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

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

Two ‘Forgotten Fenders’

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

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

1981 Fender Bullet

1981 Fender Lead

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

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

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

1981 Fender Bullet

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

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

1981 Fender Lead I

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

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

One ‘Forgotten Gibson’

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

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

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

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

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

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

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

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

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

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Forgotten Fender & Gibson Guitars

Lessons

The lessons learnt from acquiring these underdog guitars include:

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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September 2015 – My Top 10 Vintage Guitars (So Far)

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For this article, I thought I’d explore my top 10 favourite vintage guitars and why. As usual, this isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. There are so many great guitars to choose from and that’s just from Fender and Gibson, never mind the wealth of wonderful instruments from a multitude of other manufacturers. Here I focus on guitars from the big 2 brands only – an ‘alternative’ selection may be for another time.

That got me thinking and then agonising about what to include, what to leave out, what order to put them in and how on earth I was going to justify my selection. They aren’t just CRAVE guitars (unfortunately!), they simply represent what I see as the epitome of vintage guitar awesomeness, even if it is not the accepted view of the pinnacle of guitar greatness. What are my criteria for short‑listing you ask? In the end, there was actually only one criterion, my own personal value judgement. I make no excuse for being biased and, in some ways, prejudiced in my choices. To be clear though, it has absolutely nothing to do with financial value, which in my opinion is the abhorrent side of vintage guitars and should not be the starting point for inclusion (or indeed exclusion).

There are some predictable entries and, I hope, some less than obvious ones on the list. So… here we go, the CRAVE Guitars top 10:

1. Gibson SG – specifically, for me at least, the Gibson SG Junior from the early-mid 1960s claims the prize at number 1. The single P90 pickup screams and a good one is just SO alive in your hands. The Junior can be a truly inspirational guitar to play and is clear evidence of ‘less is more’; its innate simplicity is also its vital strength. Don’t get me wrong, the Special, Standard and Custom all play their part admirably and are great instruments in their own rights with or without the bling. Whichever model you prefer, the SG is light, resonant, powerful, and has exceptional upper fret access. Many pundits relegate it unjustly to hard rock or metal duties because of its ‘devil horns’ shape but that overlooks its abilities. The SG is such a versatile guitar whether using P90 or humbucking pickups. Taking it to an extreme, just think of Jimmy Page with his twin-neck EDS-1275 in the ‘70s at Led Zeppelin’s peak. On this occasion, t’s the humble but astonishing SG Junior that takes the top spot, and deservedly so in my opinion. Simply sensational.

1965 Gibson SG Junior

2. Gibson Explorer – unbelievably designed in the late 1950s, the Explorer is unique, avant-garde and a fantastic experience. Contrary to some views, they are surprisingly comfortable to play either standing or seated, although finding a guitar stand for one can be tricky! I have a soft spot for the ‘modernistic’ style, which in 1958 would have been shockingly radical for a musical instrument, even more so ‘out there’ than Fender’s Strat. After a brief reissue in the ‘70s, the Explorer was reintroduced in the 1980s and endowed with the mighty “Dirty Fingers” humbucking pickups which are something else when overdriving the right amp. They also released the arty Designer series, a flamed maple top of the E2 and CMT variations, as well as a few with 3x P90 pickups! Also like the SG, it is misunderstood – it isn’t just a metal guitar, although it is undoubtedly the progenitor of, and the archetype for, so many heavy rock guitars that followed. Like its shape, the Explorer demands something from its player – take the challenge head on and don’t shy away from it – it’s well worth it.

1982 Gibson Explorer CMT

3. Fender Telecaster – the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar, the humble but expertly designed Tele has endured for over 6 decades and is still evolving today (the intriguing Cabronita, anyone?). For me, the standard Tele is a fabulously versatile ‘do it all and more’ guitar. However, my particular interest stems in the CBS-era variants, such as the wonderful Thinline, the Gibson‑infused Deluxe and the ‘Keef’ influenced Custom, all blessed with terrific Seth Lover designed humbucking pickup. Unfortunately, I can’t afford an original single-pickup Esquire or the Custom Telecaster with the bound body but I keep looking. In the early 1980s, there was also the “Dan Smith”‑era Elite, with active electronics to mix things up a bit. Why not search out a Tele derivative and explore what it can do, you may well be surprised? While the more esoteric models will never replace the professional’s workhorse, they complement it nicely. Like the Stratocaster, the early ones are sadly now becoming too expensive for most of us.

1972 Fender Telecaster Thinline

4. Gibson Les Paul – I’m not talking about just any old Les Paul here, let’s take a walk on the wild side within the iconic family. For me, it’s the early single-cut Les Paul Special in TV Yellow or tobacco sunburst with 2 P90 pickups that is really, well, special. The double-cut Junior and Special are also hugely underrated compared to their brethren with a delightful body shape to boot. On this occasion, though, the Special beats the Junior. More leftfield is the Recording, a low impedance design favoured by the legend with his name on the headstock. Then there’s the Deluxe with its cute mini-humbuckers giving it a unique voice. Going more mainstream, there is the Custom with all its uber-rock flamboyance which, as a young aspiring guitarist, was bewitching in its appeal. Finally, who can deny the historical significance of a ‘50s Standard in either original gold top or later sunburst finishes; if only they weren’t way out of the reach of us mere mortals. Sigh.

5. Fender Jazzmaster – another late ‘50s design. Quite bulky but, wow, what a departure from the established Strat and Tele lines. The unique single coil pickups, the rhythm circuit and the bespoke muted vibrato give it a special place in electric guitar evolution. The Jazzmaster’s partner in crime, the Jaguar is equally notable with its shorter scale and even more complex electrics. Both represent an innovative alternative to the norm. Intended to be top of the Fender range, the Jazzmaster failed to find favour with the set-neck, archtop brigade, and found its niche in surf rock of the Beach Boys, post punk, like Elvis Costello and, more latterly, with dirty indie music from the likes of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. There is another notable variation on the offset body theme, the quirky Fender Bass VI, a phenomenal instrument if you can attune to its idiosyncrasies. Another quirky variant is the Electric XII, more than simply adding 6 extra strings. If you can lay your hands on a vintage Jazzmaster or Jaguar in a custom colour, grab it, play it, and smile… a lot.

6. Fender Mustang – this may not be everyone’s choice but in my opinion, the Mustangs, along with siblings, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic (and obscurely, the Bronco) are not only cute but also crucial to making quality instruments available to a wider mass audience. They demand more respect and credibility in some quarters. Not everyone could afford premium instruments… or even physically play them! The quality is top notch and, looking beyond the ‘2nd class citizen’ stigma, they actually sound great and, for some, are easy to play. Without the Mustang family, many guitarists may never have picked up a guitar and eventually turned pro. As a guitarist, I find using one up makes me play slightly differently, so they are good when inspiration or a change in mood is needed. Although they are now going up in value, vintage Mustangs et al are under-appreciated by collectors and, as a result, are certainly more accessible to ordinary people on a budget which, let’s face it, is probably most of us. Recommended.

7. Gibson Firebird – now here’s an interesting instrument and one deserved of greater adoration. The Firebird dates from early ‘60s industrial design. First there was the neck-thru ‘reverse’ body with the side wings, awesome mini‑humbuckers and banjo tuners, perhaps the model most observers are familiar with. Originally not that successful and prohibitively expensive to construct, they went and changed it completely! Gibson went through a short period where more traditional manufacture was needed and the ‘non‑reverse’ body came along, which in my view is just as worthy of critical attention and, is arguably, aesthetically very attractive. Some say the ‘non-reverse’ shape ripped off Fender’s Jaguar/Jazzmaster, you decide. And… what’s with the model numbering – I, III, V, VII? The Firebird design also spawned the remarkable Thunderbird bass. The whole aura surrounding the Firebird is eccentric and intriguing. OK, so the ‘reverse’ body is unbalanced and a bit of a handful but, what the heck, just let those ‘birds fly. Like the guitar’s namesake, the phoenix has risen from the ashes for the new millennium and it really rocks.

8. Fender Stratocaster – the Strat is just SO significant in modern music history that it has a following of almost religious proportions. Its past, present and future is pretty much cemented and, arguably, it would be heresy to mess with the basic premise too much. It remains a stunning guitar even today, let alone in the mid-‘50s when it was let loose on the public for the first time. For me, though, it hasn’t quite had the diverse range of interesting, experimental derivatives to excite its way to the top of the list (compare the Telecaster and Les Paul entries). The Strat’s historical dominance almost imposes a moral obligation to include it here. My other axe (sic!) to grind is that pretty much any pre‑‘70s U.S. Strats are just so expensive on the vintage market, meaning that a genuine, good condition old Strat is now for the pros and collectors only. Undoubtedly the Stratocaster is a great instrument that, on its merits, justifies inclusion in any list of greats, although not simply by default. Equally, it cannot be ignored because of its innate familiarity, so here it is at number 8. P.S. Don’t get me wrong, one of my favourite guitars is a ‘70s Strat!

9. Gibson Melody Maker – a chart entry warranted on much the same basis as the Fender Mustang at number 6. So why, you might ask, is the unassuming Melody Maker 3 positions down from the Mustang? I think it’s a lack of coherency over its short original life, like it was trying to find its real sense of purpose and place. The early, short-lived (and therefore rare), Les Paul-like single cuts are fabulous and the 2nd generation MMs have, in my opinion, one of the prettiest body shapes that isn’t famous or in current use. The 3rd incarnation, in my view, is plain ugly, especially compared with what went before. The 4th and final vintage shape was (lazily?) based on the SG, which undermined both instruments’ credibility (but still cool). So, a bit of an identity crisis but cutting to the chase, underrated and much, much better than the traditionalists (snobs?) would have you believe. The Fender-like single coil pickups didn’t find favour with pro musicians seduced by humbuckers and P90s. Unbelievably light, resonant, easy to play and those cheeky single coil pickups are funky and cool. There is a potential ‘bargain’ to be had for many vintage enthusiasts.

1964 Gibson Melody Maker

10. Gibson ES-330 – perhaps another controversial entry, given all the hyperbole and plaudits associated with the ES-335. Perhaps that’s why I want to raise the profile of the P90-equipped ES-330 semi. While the humbucker-endowed ES-335 has the solid maple block running through the body, the ES-330 is fully hollow. People heap praise on the Epiphone Casino but not so much on the understated ES-330, despite the fact that they are essentially the same design, suggesting some sort of unfair partiality (and perhaps The Beatles affiliation). The single coil pickups combined with the hollow body make it light, resonant and give it a distinctive vintage vibe all of its own. OK you wouldn’t want to use it in high-gain situations but, come on, it isn’t a heavy rock/metal guitar anyway. In today’s low-decibel world, they are finding proper recognition. Acknowledgement is bestowed on the ES-335 and its upmarket siblings, the ES-345 and ES-355, as well as the Trini Lopez signature model. However, for my list, it’s the modest ES-330 that takes the last-but-not-least place in this particular top 10.

1963 Gibson ES-330 TDC

There you have it. What was left out? Well there is the Gibson Flying V mainly because it is such an impractical beast and just such a difficult instrument to play sitting down or even to put on a normal stand. I haven’t included the seminal Fender basses because, let’s be honest, I’m a guitarist, although they deserve acknowledgement. Furthermore, I would advocate every guitarist picking up a bass every now and then to take a different perspective on making music. There are plenty of other ES-range guitars, such as the ES-150 (top of my ‘wanted’ list) and ES-175, both great guitars and, for me, both just outside the top 10. The Fender thinline semis (Starcaster and Coronado) just didn’t make the grade in this company, sorry. Extending the selection to Gretsch and Rickenbacker is beyond the scope of this article (and my knowledge). Also, the list has to stop somewhere.

So there you have my opinion, as at the time of writing. It’s not right or wrong, or arrogant, just my personal perspective. It is likely to be a different list tomorrow, next week, and in 5 years’ time. Take from it what you will. How about composing your own list, along with saying why and share it with others to debate? One thing I will guarantee, your top 10 will be different from mine and that can only be a good thing. Discuss… Until next time…

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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