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Happy Earth Day to You

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Guitar box central at OK Guitars. I reuse them and reuse them until they literally fall down. Then I recycle.

 

OK, what does Earth Day have to do with vintage guitars? Playing vintage is, after all, a recycling victory. But not totally. I have a few ideas and observations about recycling that have impacted me and I’d like you to be aware of them. I’ve always been something of an environmentalist-at least in thought and deed. I’ve never been an activist but I dutifully and regularly recycle just about everything. This is where you come in, vintage guitar folks. You can help.

I suppose there’s some comfort in the fact that everything in my inventory is used so that no trees are being cut to make the guitars I sell and no PCBs are being dumped into rivers to make semiconductors to manufacture the amps I sell. Small contribution, I know but there’s more. I ship about 60-70 guitars and amps a year. Each one requires packing material and a box (and usually some miles of driving either by me or the Fedex man). Packing materials are notoriously environmentally unfriendly but the safety of the guitars I sell is pretty important as well. Vintage cases don’t protect guitars very well. It would be ideal if everybody could agree to have their guitars shipped in a modern case by a shipper who is careful. Not gonna happen. So, we pack and we use horribly non biodegradable stuff to do it. But we can still minimize the impact by being sensible and creative.

Packing peanuts are horrible in nearly every way but they work really well and I sometimes use them for guitars but I never fill the box with them. I always leave enough room so the guitar can be pulled out of the box without a single piece hitting the floor. OK, maybe one or two escape. The idea is that you can get your guitar out of the box, dump the peanuts into a plastic bag and use them again. I never throw them away. And I never, ever use peanuts to pack an amp and if I ever get another amp packed in peanuts, it goes right back to the seller. The heavy amp crushes the peanuts into tiny pulverized styrofoam, static charged, clingy little bastards that get into every corner of the amp, every corner of my garage and stick to every article of clothing I wear when I unpack. Even the dog was covered with styrofoam bits when a tweed Bassman came from California packed in styrofoam peanuts, the worst kind. They get outside, they get into the river and the wildlife and they don’t go away. I know there are biodegradable peanuts out there and that’s a much better choice. So, if you’re going to use them for guitars (which don’t crush them into little pieces), use them more than once and try to use the biodegradable ones made from corn starch.

Much less annoying is the bubble wrap. It works great and doesn’t make nearly the mess that peanuts do. Use it more than once. I know it gets covered with packing tape and its a complete pain to remove all the tape but I do it all the time and I re-use bubble wrap until there are no bubbles left. I buy these huge rolls of what they call “kraft paper”. It does a great job of keeping the guitar from moving around the box and I use it over and over again. I probably have paper that’s been used 7 or 8 times. As long as your packing material fills the voids in the box, it will be effective at protecting the guitar.

And the box. Guitar boxes can be used as many as a dozen times before they become ineffective at their assigned duty. Recycle them when they no longer are stiff enough to protect the guitar and if the bottom becomes rounded. Huh? Yes, if the bottom becomes rounded and the box won’t stand on end, it’s time to retire it. A box with a guitar in it that easily tips over is, essentially, the same as dropping the guitar (in its case) from 4 feet in the air, flat on its back or face. This is an excellent way to break the headstock off or at least crack it. I’ve been pretty lucky with getting my guitars to clients in one piece. Only one busted guitar out of hundreds-and it was pretty minor. I’ve been less lucky with guitars shipped to me by others-5 broken guitars-again, out of hundreds.

So, let’s see if we can find a happy place where we re-use packing materials in a environmentally conscious way and still protect our instruments. Our environment is a lot more important than a bunch of old guitars. Our current EPA is a joke (or worse) and, truthfully, we, not the government, are the stewards of Earth.  So, do your part and be nice to our planet. Just don’t ship me an amp in packing peanuts. I mean it.

And here’s packing material central at OK Guitars. Everything gets used until it no longer functions in its capacity to minimize damage. Then it gets recycled.

Getting Started in Vintage

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Not a 335 but a Guild Starfire V from the late 60’s. I don’t generally buy these but I should.

I really like vintage guitars but you already knew that. I’m aware that this blog can look pretty elitist-I’m talking about guitars that cost $10,000 to over $100,000 and I don’t talk much about the really affordable stuff that has all the vintage vibe of a 59 335 and none of the sticker shock. In fact, it goes beyond the “vibe” and into playability and tone. There are guitars that are extremely well made and can be incredible players. These guitars are generally not on the serious collectors radar but should be on the serious player/collector’s radar, especially if you’re young and still making your way in whatever career you’ve chosen for yourself. And I’m not just talking to millennials. I’m talking to old guys like me who really love old guitars but don’t want or don’t have the means to drop $10K or more on a guitar. I have one word for you. Guild.

When I was a teenager in the mid 60’s, Guilds were part of what we might call “the big four” of electric guitars. Lots of kids played Hagstroms, Teiscos, Kays and Harmonys but those of us who had a gigging band (or rich parents) played Fenders, Gibsons, Gretsches and Guilds. There were other good, though less common, American electrics-Rickenbackers, Mosrites (I played a 64 in the early 70’s),  Epiphones (I played a 61 Wilshire in the late 60’s) and maybe Standels (I owned one in 68) but they were outliers due to rarity and perhaps cost (Mosrites were really expensive). We know the virtues of Fenders and Gibsons and the good stuff is pricey. Gretsches can be hit and miss (in my opinion) although I’ve had a couple of really great early 60’s 6120’s, they were not cheap. But Guilds are consistently good and consistently cheap. And why is that? It’s not that rock stars of the era didn’t play them. Jerry Garcia (and Bob Weir) played them, Jack Casady played a Guild bass, Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful played a Guild Thunderbird which is a very cool guitar. Muddy Waters had one too.  Lennon had Guild 12 but he didn’t play it much, apparently. So, that can’t be it. To further that point, George played a Gretsch Gent and they aren’t terribly expensive either, so I don’t think the rock star thing holds much water.

So, I don’t really know why Guilds are so cheap. But cheap they are. The Starfire line which is somewhat derivative of Gibsons ES line can be really excellent, although sometimes heavy. The single cuts with DeArmond pickups, which are pretty great single coils, started in 61 and the double cuts with hum buckers followed a few years later. I’ve seen plenty of 60’s double cut Starfire IV’s, V’s and VI’s  for $2000-$3000. These were about the same price as 335, 345 and 355’s back in the 60’s and were considered good alternatives. I think Gibson made the better pickup but the playability is pretty close especially for mid to later 60’s which often have a wider nut than their Gibson counterparts. The early single cuts with DeArmonds cost even less.

Then there are the Guild hollow bodies from the fifties and into the 60’s. These are wonderful players and as beautiful as any big Gibson jazz box. Many had pickups made by a company called Franz and they are quite wonderful. Think of it as a P90 with manners. The nastiness of P90’s is legendary but the Franz has a sweeter tone when backed off and plenty of snarl when you cut them loose. I really like the three pickup Guilds (X-375,  with the pushbuttons which are simply selectors- not a Varitone). I like the more conventional two pickup X-175 and the CE-100 as well. And cheap? You can score a clean one for a couple of grand. When’s the last time you saw an L5 CES for that?

So, if you want to get into vintage for the love of playing and owning old stuff, Guild is a great way to start. I don’t think they are going to appreciate much any time soon but maybe they will if folks start buying them. Not because they are great investments but because they are great guitars. Now back to our regularly scheduled (elitist) programming.

I actually own this one. It’s a 60 X-350-I think they called it a Stratford. It’s full hollow and every bit as pretty as anything Gibson made. Those are Franz pickups.

Christmas at OK Guitars, Redux

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

No visions of sugarplums dancing in this head. Just waiting for Old St. Nick at OK Guitars.

I never re-run posts and I was going to write another Christmas post and try to be clever and make you all smile. Just for laughs, I pulled up the poem my wife and I wrote while on vacation in Mexico back in 2015. Well, no trip to Mexico this year and maybe I’m less creative in the cold and the snow, so I’m not going to write another Christmas post because this one says what needs to be said (and my very creative wife helped me-or maybe I helped her). So, here’s my first ever re-run. I promise, I’ll write a new Christmas poem next year.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the pad

I was playing my Gibson- not great, but not bad.

I remembered a blues lick and played it with flair

Just like in the days when I had all my hair.

The block necks were hung not too tight or too loose,

As I waited for Santa inside my caboose.

I had them all tuned and I played every one.

The truss rods were perfect, the strings tightly strung.

All of a sudden on the roof of my shop,

I spied an old fat dude just reeking of pot.

He fell off the roof and into the snow.

I asked him right in. Why he came, I don’t know.

There was ice in his beard and mud on his boot,

And I thought only rock stars could wear such a suit.

He took down a red one, just like Eric C.

His fingers flew faster than old Alvin Lee.

It was wailing and screaming all over the town.

I could hear my Dad yelling, “Turn that damn thing down!”

Who knew this weird guy, such a flash with a pick

And a love of guitars, would be old Saint Nick?

I couldn’t believe all the sounds in my ear.

He said, “You get good working one day a year.”

Now Jimi, Now BB, Now John, George and Paul

Would bow to this master, the best of them all.

“You remember that Christmas back in ’63?

When you found a new six string left under your tree?

You started to doubt that I was the truth,

But my gift to you then was a link to your youth.

So for all of the years that would come in between,

Way deep down inside, you’d still feel like sixteen.”

He picked up some cases by Lifton and Stone,

Some old Kluson tuners and a worn out Fuzztone.

“Now, Charlie Gelber you must hear my pitch,

‘Cause this is my time and payback’s a bitch.

The 335 please, the red 59.

I gave you your first one, now this ax is mine”.

And quick as a flash it was stuffed in his sack,

And he waved a goodbye as he snuck out the back.

He jumped in his sled and sparked up a j,

Flew into the sky and was off on his way.

So if feeling sixteen is what sets you right,

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

 

By Charlie and Victoria Gelber

With apologies to Clement Clark Moore

In case you can’t decide what to get yourself this Christmas, here’s the “A” rack at OK Guitars. Why is it called the “A” rack? Because all guitars whose serial numbers start with “A” a hung here (and a few that don’t)

The Least Popular ES Model

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Gibson basses never exactly set the world on fire. Here’s an EB, couple of EB-2’s and an EB-0 courtesy of Tom H. who runs the es-335.net site.

While the 335 is not the most popular guitar in the history of the Gibson line, it has been in production the longest. They’ve been in production since they were first introduced in 1958. 1958 saw the introduction of another innovative model that hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. Call it the 335 bass if you like. It is the never popular Gibson EB-2. EB stands for electric bass in case you’re wondering. Perhaps it would have done better if they had called it a 335 bass. In any case, it was not a rousing success.

It is, in most ways, a 335 bass. Like the 58 335, it had an unbound fingerboard, a full length center block, the same body and finish options but it had some differences as well. It had a single pickup mounted at the neck and, in 58, it was a single coil. There was a volume control and a tone control. The tuners were Kluson banjo style with plastic buttons. It was a pretty basic instrument but then, so was the leader of the pack- Fender Precision.

Like most Gibsons, changes were made along the way and, while they largely improved the model, it still wasn’t exactly selling very well. In fairness, Fender had a virtual lock on the bass market all through the 60’s and with only slight competition from Rickenbacker, into the 70’s. Hofner sold a lot of basses in the 60’s but not so much among the pro players. That was McCartney’s trademark bass and few others played them on stage. Alembic made big inroads in the late 70’s and was popular into the 80’s. Gibson was still largely absent. Quick, name one bass player who played a Gibson bass? OK, Jack Bruce played an EB-3 and Chas Chandler (Animals) played an EB-2 (and an Epiphone Rivoli which was nearly identical). I can’t think of any others off the top of my head. In 59, they changed the pickup to a humbucker, known by it’s nickname, The Mudbucker, for obvious reasons. They added a notch filter that they called a “Baritone Switch” which cut some of the low end from that huge pickup. And then it was gone. By mid 1961 or so, Gibson had enough and discontinued the EB-2.

But fast forward to 1964 and it was back just in time for the “guitar boom” caused by the Beatles and others in the mid 60’s. The 64 had the pointy cutaways like a 335 and the banjo tuners were gone, replaced by the usual elephant ear tuners that you see on Fender basses. Unlike the 335, the dot markers stayed.  A chrome pickup cover replaced the black plastic one and you could get an EB-2 in red but no longer in blonde. Still no binding on the neck but a string mute was added. By 66, a second pickup was optional (EB-2D) with a second volume and tone and a three way switch. The “Baritone” switch remained. By 66, in my opinion, it was a pretty good bass. The second pickup made up for the narrow tonal possibilities of the Mud bucker and, with the popularity of the 335 by the mid 60’s, I would have expected it to have been more successful. That’s not to say to was a flop. It wasn’t. In 1959, they sold 263 EB-2s. By 67, the number was 2746. That’s a ten fold increase. The 335 between 59 and 67 saw a similar increase, so you really can’t call it a flop unless you consider Fenders numbers which don’t appear to exist but I’m willing to bet they were at least 10 times the number of Gibson basses sold.

If you’re in the market for a vintage bass, you probably aren’t looking at Gibsons but maybe you should. I find the EB-2 easy to play (30.5″ scale as opposed to Fender’s 34″ scale which I can’t play at all with my small hands). If you can tame that pickup with an amp that has some good headroom, you can get some great tone out of it or look for the two pickup version. EB-2s  are not terribly expensive with prices topping out at around $8000 for a blonde 59. EB-2D’s from the mid to late 60’s can be found in the $1500-$2500 range and are readily available. You can get a 58-60 EB-2 for under $5000 although many have had their tuners changed from the banjo tuners to elephant ears.

Bum bum, bum-bum-bum-bum-bum…remember the opening notes to “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by the Animals? That’s Chas Chandler playing an EB-2.

Thanksgiving 2017

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

I’m thankful for my dog, Zoubi who doesn’t really appreciate my playing that much.

As usual, I have plenty to be thankful for this year. There’s the usual things-my wonderful wife (who takes very good care of me), my son who has not “borrowed” a guitar from me for years now and his fiancee and my dog (Zoubi) and my eight brothers who have always been there for me and my health (OK, I’ve got back surgery coming up but after that, I should be lifting Twin Reverbs again). Then there’s the other stuff.

I am very fortunate to have the business that I have. I worked for 45 years in the film and TV business and, while I was a very well regarded editor and sometime director, I sometimes struggled to keep it fun and engaging. Some of my clients were, predictably, difficult and some were incredibly cheap. Because editing was the last step in the production process, I simply didn’t get paid sometimes. The producers simply ran out of money and didn’t bother telling me. Happily, that doesn’t happen in this business. I’ve been a guitar dealer full time for 6 years now and I have had very few bad days. This is my retirement but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s a lot of work but I love every day of it. Gotta be thankful for that.

My clients (and readers) are the nicest, most knowledgable and most appreciative people in the world. I have many here in the USA and all over the world. I just checked–I’ve sold guitars in 21 different countries and I have readers in every country in the world except for seven countries in Africa (c’mon Somalia, get with it). I’ve sold guitars in every state and every Canadian province. Player, collector, beginner, hack (like me)…it doesn’t matter. The love of guitars makes us all the same. The common ground brought to us through these instruments is priceless. Whether you spend $300,000 on a 59 Les Paul or $900 for an old ’61 Epiphone Olympic, the anticipation and the joy when you open that box that shows up at your door after way too long in transit is the same. Gotta be thankful for that. Even after many hundreds of “new” guitars, it’s still like Christmas morning every time one shows up at my house or my shop.

Please feel free to continue to email me to ask questions about 335’s and the like. I’ll try to help with other guitars but there are plenty of other dealers who know more than I do. Also, feel free to email me about a 335, 345 or 355 that you are considering buying and I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t make a mistake. Of course, it’s hard to know everything from a photo but I’ll make sure you know what questions to ask. There are no inside secrets here. If I know something, you know it too. And if I disparage your 1979 ES-345 and you love yours, please don’t take it to heart. There are good ones and there are not so good ones. Your guitar only needs to speak to one person. You. Gotta be thankful for that, too.

The “A” rack at OK Guitars today. It changes a lot and often. I’m thankful for the A rack.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Friday, November 17th, 2017

I was supposed to do part 2 of my “Secret Sauce” post next but I was blasting around Ebay-which I don’t do so much any more and found a few things that made me question the sanity of some of the folks who buy and sell vintage gear. I know collectors are pretty nutty. A white pickup ring is worth 20 times what a black one is worth. An obsolete plastic switch tip (catalin) is $200 (and I buy them all the time). The top of the ES line is worth half what the bottom of the line is worth (355 vs 335). So much of the vintage guitar business is counter intuitive and we’ve all come to accept most of it’s silliness. But not all of it. There is no shortage of misguided sales and misguided sellers. Today, I found some real beauties.

How much is this worthless pile of plastic worth? Did I say worthless? This is VINTAGE, baby. Read on.

Broken parts generally aren’t worth much but that didn’t stop the seller of a completely off gassed 355 pick guard from putting it up on Ebay starting at $99 and noting it is “for repair”. Well, you can’t repair an off gassed guard that’s in dozens of pieces. It’s a worthless pile of celluloid. Maybe if the binding was intact, you could use that to repair an intact guard that had a compromised binding but c’mon, 99 bucks for a pile of plastic shards? I suppose if you had a 355 with a repro guard and you wanted to put the off gassed one in the case to prove you still have the original might appeal to someone but putting an off gassing piece of celluloid in a case is a really bad idea. They give off nitric acid which will trash your hardware. Hey, I put original tuners with shrunken tips in the case pocket of 59’s all the time but at least the new owner gets the option of retipping them. If I get a 58 325 with a collapsed low profile ABR-1, I always put it in the case but I don’t think I would go out of my way to buy a broken one to put in there.

Duane Allman played through this speaker. Well, not this cone but he did own this speaker frame. Easily worth 6 times it’s usual retail price, right?

I never thought I would see something more dodgy than the $100,000 64 “Clapton” 335 that the seller felt commanded a 500% premium over a run of the mill 64 (because it was 90 serial numbers away from Clapton’s) but now I think I have. A typical re-coned JBL D-120F is a $175 speaker and they are really excellent speakers if you play clean. But this one is $1035-a 600% premium. Why the big markup? Because Duane Allman played through it except it’s been re-coned so he really didn’t. OK, he owned it and that’s a bit of a conversation starter but 6 times the usual price? I have a set of stereo speakers that I played an Allman Brothers record through, so isn’t that kind of like Duane playing through my speakers? It’s not like any of Duane’s DNA comes through the amp or anything. Artist guitars and gear are not something I deal in for this very reason. The way I see it, unless the artist is closely associated with the guitar (or is a huge star, like a Beatle), I think it’s a fool’s game. I’ve had a few famous players come into my shop and play a bunch of guitars but I wouldn’t dream of asking a premium because that player played it. I can see this on Ebay …”1960 ES-335 dot neck played (with photo) by [insert famous guitar players name here]…$125,000 complete with DNA and sweat (it was a hot day). I will sell the DNA separately if requested.

Finally, here’s a piece of masking tape from inside a Fender guitar or amp with the name of the worker on it. Remarkably, somebody actually paid $30 for it. Nutty? I rest my case.

Old masking tape with the name Rene on it. Put this in the control cavity of your Telecaster and increase it’s value by a buck. How do you authenticate this? I could probably sell “Lupe” reproduction old masking tape for your old tweed amp for $20 a pop.

Burning Question

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Mid 60’s Kay Value Leader. Pretty cool looking and old enough but is it vintage or just old?

A guy came into my shop today and said he had a question. “OK, shoot”, I said. He said, “What is a vintage guitar?”

To be honest, no one has ever asked me that before and I answered without giving it any thought at all. “It’s old. It’s used.” That boils it down to its essence without a hint of explanation as to any difference between an old, used guitar and a “vintage” one. Is “vintage” a particular age? Is it a particular brand? Value? Is “collectible” the same as “vintage”? This is going to require some thought and more than a little finessing, I think.

Let’s look at three old guitars. A 1963 Gibson ES-335, a 1983 Zemaitis Custom and a 1963 Kay Value Leader. All three are old. All three are used. I would argue that all three are collectible. The differences? The Gibson is expensive at around $20,000 as is the Zemaitis at around $25000. The Kay is relatively cheap at around $600. But are they all “vintage” guitars? I would argue that “vintage guitar” is something of a contrivance cooked by the guitar community to differentiate old guitars that are highly sought after and highly regarded from those that are simply old. My basis for that is the word vintage itself. It refers, of course, to a bottle of wine. In general, it refers to a wine from a particular year. But there are good vintages and bad vintages. But when most folks refer to vintage anything, they are considering it a good thing. OK, that makes sense but in applying it to guitars, I suppose that quality is the deciding factor and that, as in wine, is pretty subjective stuff.

Most decent wine tastes pretty much the same to me. It tastes better than cheap wine which generally tastes pretty awful to me. The subtle distinctions are, however, lost on me. I couldn’t tell a rare  64 Chateau Petrus at $10,000 from an easily available high end 2009 Napa Cabernet at $200.   And I don’t like white wine at all, so I’m not much of a judge of quality for half of the wines out there. Guitars, however, are not all the same to me. Interestingly, age, desirability and quality are not necessarily  factors in the value of used guitars.

Let’s consider age first. I’ve heard arguments on the various guitar forums about the “cutoff” for vintage. Many consider guitars from the 80’s to be too new to be vintage. So, what is that 80’s Zemaitis? Simply a used guitar? I think not. Is an 80’s 335 vintage? How about an 80’s BC Rich? And that 1963 Kay Value Leader? It’s from the 60’s which is considered vintage by pretty much everybody but maybe the quality of the Kay isn’t up to snuff. Maybe it’s the vinegar or rotgut in the mix here. Is a Kay Value Leader a vintage guitar and if it isn’t what is it? Just an old guitar? Nobody will argue that the 335 from 63 isn’t vintage. It’s got the age, the quality and the desirability to be considered by nearly everyone as vintage. But look at 70’s Gibson’s and Fenders. We all know the quality of these brands suffered in the 70’s. In fact, many believe the vintage market was created because the 70’s guitars were so inferior when compared to those from the 50’s and 60’s. So, age is part of it but certainly not all of it.

Quality is certainly a factor but there are plenty of old guitars that are of dubious quality and plenty of non newer that are wonderful. So, let’s assume vintage has to be high quality and old. How old? I don’t know. I could pick a year and get a good argument pro and con for any given year. Thirty years old? That makes an 87 vintage. That doesn’t seem right. Forty? Fifty? The problem is that the really great stuff is more like 60 years old. If I had to pick a cutoff  year, it would probably be 1969. That coincides with Gibson being sold and the quality starting its downhill slide. I would argue that Fender, even though it was sold in 65, didn’t really go too far downhill until 1972 or so (three bolt Strat). Brands like Martin and Guild didn’t suffer much, if at all,  in the 70’s at all but 70’s guitars seem to be tarred with the same brush and considered less desirable than 60’s guitars. But something like an 80’s Zemaitis throws that out the window. Hmm.

So that leaves desirability which is a bit of a slippery slope because it changes over time. In 2017, new guitar heroes are an endangered species. Many of the 60’s guitars are desirable because one of our guitar heroes played one. A red 64 ES-335 is the easiest vintage Gibson to sell because Eric Clapton played one. But, a 63 Gretsch Country Gentleman, as played George Harrison, is neither valuable nor easy to sell. While I would consider a 63 Country Gentleman to be a vintage guitar, it is not a particularly desirable one.  Plenty of guitar heroes played or play Stratocasters and they are certainly desirable because of that and they are good guitars. It makes sense that when they went downhill, the desirability went down as well. So, perhaps, the Stratocaster is the one that best proves the rule. A vintage guitar has to be old. It has to be desirable. It has to be good. That leaves me with this: How old? How desirable? How good?

It’s pretty subjective stuff and there will be plenty of disagreement. To me, good means great tone, playability and looks. Desirable means there will always be more buyers than there are guitars. Old means…I dunno. I think the 80’s were like only yesterday but they were 30 odd years ago. So, maybe the 80’s are ready to be vintage. You decide and let me know.

1984 Zemaitis Hummingbird. Very cool but maybe not old enough?
I would call it vintage but you might not.

 

Reelin’ in the Years

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

 

Walter Becker  Feb 20, 1950- September3, 2017.

Walter Becker
Feb 20, 1950-
September 3, 2017.

 

Walter Becker died today. He was 67, about the same age as I am, and that, faster than the guitar break in Bodhisattva, will make you stop and consider his contributions (and your own). Rock gods have a nasty habit of dying too soon but few, if any, would call Walter Becker a rock god. He could play guitar (and bass) but the heavy lifting on the albums was generally done by guys like Skunk Baxter, Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, Rick Derringer, Mark Knopfler and Elliott Randall who actually played the solo on Reelin’ in the Years.  Here’s how I see it: It’s as if Becker and Donald Fagen decided that they would write the most musically demanding and complex, lyrically subversive and cynical jazz infused rock songs ever written and then get the best musicians they could find to play them. And it worked for decades. Notably (to me anyway) there is hardly a Steely Dan song that I can play with any competence.

The songs are still, in my opinion more sophisticated and innovative than anything I’ve heard since. And no, I’m not a jazz guy so please don’t write to me to tell me this jazz piece or that one is more sophisticated. I’m sure they are plenty sophisticated musically but nobody wrote lyrics like these guys. This is mainstream rock and roll for folks with a brain.  The lyrics could range from philosophical to silly and from introspective to invective and everything in between. The love songs (Hey Nineteen) could be kind of dopey but they were dopey with a wink-they knew they were dopey. They could also be quite moving in their simplicity (Aja). The story songs were always my favorites (Caves of Altamira, Charlie Freak, Don’t Take Me Alive) because that’s what songs were invented to do. Tell a story.

I honestly don’t really know how Becker and Fagen worked. Did they write everything together or, like Lennon and McCartney, generally write their own songs and put both names on them. It doesn’t matter to me. The lyrics are often brilliant, surprising and as clever as anything Cole Porter ever put to paper. That’s saying something. I can gush over great musicianship (as a less than mediocre guitar player ) and have a great appreciation for complex musical structure, rhythm and innovative melody and harmony. I get that stuff, but it’s born of a lack of musical knowledge whereas when I look at the lyrics Becker and Fagen turned out, I see it from a different perspective. I can make the words dance on a page when I put my mind to it. Writing is one of the things I can actually do. But I can’t write like Becker and Fagen.

I’ve never grown tired of the music and every time I hear it, I hear something new that I missed. A dazzling chord change or even a dazzling chord. A turn of a phrase that makes me stop and think. A half dozen Steely Dan songs live forever on my little iPod shuffle that I use when I walk or run. The only band with more songs on it is The Beatles. If the only back seat you take in (my) life is to Lennon and McCartney, then, Walter Becker, you did pretty good.

I saw them last at the Beacon Theater in New York City in maybe 2007.  I paid a fortune (scalpers suck) for two tickets- one for me and one for my son who was maybe 19 at the time. Fourth row center and we were dazzled (and he wasn’t that much of a Steely Dan fan). Notwithstanding the douchebag who kept standing up in front of us and singing along, it was a great show. The awesomely talented Jon Herrington had to be all those guitar players I mentioned up top and Walter Becker, age 57 or so, looking a little shopworn, was holding his own on guitar and just looking like there was somewhere else he’d rather be. I’m guessing he’d rather have been at home writing. It was, after all, the thing he did best. Goodbye Walter. We will miss you.

Walter and Donald just standing around thinking about the next brilliant song they would write.

Walter and Donald just hanging around looking really serious and maybe thinking about the next brilliant song they would write. Or maybe wondering what’s for dinner. They look kind of hungry. Hard to know with these guys.

 

A Little Nostalgia

Sunday, August 27th, 2017
This might have been the coolest catalog of all. They made about a gazillion different guitars and even though they were never at the level of Gibson or Fender, they had the cool factor above everyone else.

This might have been the coolest catalog of all. Vox made about a gazillion different guitars and even though they were never at the level of Gibson or Fender, they had the cool factor above everyone else. I carried this around with me all through ’66.

Imagine a world with no internet. OK, if you had to imagine it, you’re too young to get this post. But if you remember how life was before everyone was connected-like it or not-this may speak to you.

Within the first minute or so of the Beatles first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, I decided I would be a guitar player. I share this moment with a few million kids around my age. I was 11 and a half at the time (February 9, 1964) and immediately started bugging my father for a guitar. He brought home a Kay flat top from Woolworths that cost him somewhere around 15 bucks. “Learn to play it and I’ll get you something better.” I think he figured he was safe since follow through was not my greatest strength as a child. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Hermie's in Schenectady where retail rules. Still there with the same sign out front. I'm pretty sure Hermie himself is no longer with us, however. I haven't set foot in the store since 1964 but it looks exactly the same- from the outside anyway..

Hermie’s in Schenectady where retail plus 10% rules. Still there with the same sign out front. I’m pretty sure Hermie himself is no longer with us, however. I was thrown out of Hermies at least 25 times.

What strikes me now is how hard it was to know just what guitars were out there and who made them and how much did they cost and what made this guitar better than that guitar. We had just a few ways to learn about them. There were two music stores in Schenectady, NY where I grew up. The oft maligned (by me) Hermie’s who sold Fenders and Martins and would charge full retail plus another 10% to set up the guitar and deliver it (who charges to set up a new guitar?) The other music store was Georges and they sold Gibsons and cheap Japanese junk with the name St. George. The Gibsons were mostly big jazz boxes that were lined up in a glass case. Nobody was allowed to play them and especially not little kids. Hermies was even worse. Hermie would literally toss us out of his store if we didn’t intend to buy anything. Later-in 66 or 67, he would throw you out if you had long hair. So, at least we could see some of the guitars that were available from the big manufacturers and find out how much they cost. I remember asking for a Gibson brochure at Georges and a Fender brochure at Hermie’s. They both said essentially the same thing…”these brochures cost money” (which they didn’t-they were always free to dealers)-and “come back with your parents if you want one.” So, no brochures or catalogs.  At least not from the local dealers. We would write a letter to the company and about 6 weeks later, get a catalog in the mail. I heard back from Fender, Gibson, Epiphone and Vox. I took them with me everywhere I went. They were in tatters from thumbing through them and drooling.

TV was a great way to get a good look at the guitars of the day. The first 335 I ever saw was in the hands of Johnny Rivers on the after school TV show “Shindig” or was it “Hullabaloo”. It was red but it was hard to tell on black and white TV. We didn’t get a color TV until around 67. Those two TV shows (and Bandstand) and a couple of others often gave us our first glimpse of a Jazzmaster or a Sheraton or a Vox Phantom. I remember seeing the Hollies on “Hullabaloo” and playing “Look Through Any Window” with Tony Hicks playing a Phantom 12. Coolest thing I ever saw. I went out and bought the single the next day and the Hollies were a personal favorite from that moment on. It was a pretty crappy 12 string once I got to play one years later but the coolness factor was off the charts. I remember getting the Vox brochure which was a big foldout affair that said “Vox: It’s What’s Happening.” A few years later, I would buy a Vox Royal Guardsman amp. Worst piece of crap I ever owned. Nice speakers though (Celestion Silvers) and a half decent built in fuzz. The thing was broken more often than it worked. Traded it for ’64 Showman 15. The Fender brochure always had lots of cool stuff but the one that caught my eye was the Bass VI. Cool design, three pickups and a whammy but it was a bass and I was a guitar player. Why couldn’t they use that cool half Strat/half Jazzmaster body for a guitar? I didn’t actually own a Bass VI until last Friday when one walked into my shop and I bought it. Still a really cool guitar (uh, bass).

Album covers were the other way to learn about guitars. I remember seeing my first Esquire on the Yardbirds “Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds” in Jeff Beck’s hands (half hidden behind Keith Relf). I thought it was the ugliest guitar I had ever seen. We were all familiar with John’s Rickenbacker 325 and George’s Country Gentleman and Paul’s Hofner from photos on the albums (“Something New” had the classic lineup). I recall Gene Cornish of “The Rascals” on the back on one of their albums with a black Barney Kessel. Haven’t seen one since. Then there was Brian Jones with the white teardrop Vox and also with a Firebird VII, Roger McGuinn with a Ricky 360-12 (I think he was still Jim) and David Crosby with a Gretsch Tennessean? Zal Yanovsky’s Guild Thunderbird still sticks in my mind as well. Those were the days…

First 335 I ever saw was played by Johnny Rivers (sitting down) on "Shindig"

First 335 I ever saw was played by Johnny Rivers (sitting down) on “Shindig”

 

Made in America Week

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

 

It's Made in America" week and Mr. Trump is talking about how great it is that all these great products are made here. Except, of course, his and Ivanka's.

It’s Made in America” week and Mr. Trump is talking about how great it is that all these great products are made here.

I know you’re all waiting for the second installment of my set up post but I’m afraid it will have to take a back seat to President Trump’s “Made in America” week. With our country being run by a reality TV show host and his made for TV (Dynasty?) family, it’s no surprise that PR stunts are part of the program. I can’t wait for “Income Equality” week or maybe “Give Me your… Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free” week. Mr Trump’s personal approach is, of course, “do as I say and not as I do” so we’ll probably see these “theme weeks” in the weeks to come. Emma Lazarus would not be proud. But President Trump would probably say that “she is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” Just like Frederick Douglass. But, it’s “Made in America” week and I couldn’t be more proud.

Each state offered up it’s very best. Tennessee, of course, dropped a bunch of Gibson guitars off at the White House showing the world that we Americans still make the best guitars on the planet. New York offered up Steinway Pianos-a great product even if it’s not quite as American as Apple Pie. But there’s good old Vermont maple syrup and California wine. There are helicopters from Sikorsky (also an immigrant like Mr Steinway) in my home state of Connecticut and Stetsons from Texas.  It’s pretty clear that some great stuff is made here in America.

It’s largely about pride. Even if your product is New Hampshire’s Cider Belly Doughnuts-not exactly a household name-they should be proud that the doughnuts they sell here in America were made in an American factory with jobs for American workers. The money they make here in America is spent here in America. When you buy American, you aren’t just supporting the American companies who make this stuff, you’re supporting the businesses big and small that make the American economy work. Florida sent along Tervis tumblers-you know those insulated plastic cups that keep your cold drink cold and your hot drink hot? They’re a big deal in Florida but most of us have never heard of them. You can go to Amazon and buy a set of Chinese knockoffs for $18 for four of them or you can pay $38 for the real thing, made in America. Why spend the extra $20? Because you are supporting all of us here in America. Because it’s almost certainly a better product. Because who knows what the Chinese are putting in their plastic-especially plastic you are drinking from?

I sell American guitars and American amps. They were made by folks who are probably dead now but they are a great source of pride for an America that often doesn’t seem to exist except in the memories of old guys like me. When I was a kid, every appliance in every kitchen was American. No Miele dishwashers, no LaCornue or Aga ranges, no Gaggenau ovens. When I was a kid, the only non American cars you would see on the road (and not very often) were sports cars. An MG, a Triumph, maybe a Porsche 356 like my friend, Gil’s father owned. No Toyotas, no Lexus’s (Lexi?), no Fiats or Alfas either. As a teenager, the only guitar you ever wanted was a Fender or a Gibson or maybe a Guild or a Gretsch or a Rickenbacker. All American. There were plenty of Japanese guitars but the only time anybody bought one was if they couldn’t afford “a good one” meaning an American one. Nobody and I mean nobody dreamt of owning a Teisco del Rey.

Now, of course, the Asians (and others) make some great guitars and some great cars and great TV sets and maybe even great doughnuts. OK, maybe not the doughnuts. But, if you really want to make America great again, you don’t have to be a Trump supporter. You just need to take some pride in what you make or what you sell and take a little pride in what you buy. I’m going out to my local Sikorsky store right now to buy a helicopter. Made in America.

My state of Connecticut sent along another great American product. The Sikorsky company was, of course, founded by a Russian immigrant. Does the president need any further proof that this country was made great by immigrants?

My state of Connecticut sent along another great American product. The Sikorsky company was, of course, founded by a Russian immigrant. Does the president need any further proof that this country was made great by immigrants?