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Build Your Collection II

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Nigel Tufnel collection goes to eleven (that’s one louder than ten). Note which guitar seems to have an elevated position among the others. Sure looks like a blonde dot neck.

OK, so the idea of a guitar collection appeals to you and you’d like to get started. So, let’s get started. There are lot of approaches to collecting and each has its charms. A good place to start is to look at what you already have. Got a nice old Stratocaster from, say, 1961? Well, you could start filling the years or filling in the finishes or filling in the types. A nice Strat collection would have to include a maple board and a slab board, maybe a later curve board with grey bottom pickups and maybe a custom color or two. If you really have a Strat obsession, maybe one from each year from 54 to 65. Build slowly and look for great examples. That’s a dozen good years and with a bit of patience, you could build a wonderful collection that is manageable and impressive. Not cheap but vintage collecting of any kind seldom is. Strats too expensive? Collect Jazzmasters or Jaguars.

But maybe you feel like your collection only needs one Stratocaster. So, instead of collecting just one model, collect the classics. Most folks would want a Les Paul, a Stratocaster, a Telecaster or Esquire, a 335, a Martin acoustic and maybe a great 12 string like a Ricky and a Fender bass. Once you’ve done that, you can build on that adding perhaps variations of your chosen “classics”. A Les Paul Custom to go with your Standard. A slab board Strat to go with your maple board. A white guard Esquire to go with your black guard Tele. A 345 or 355 to match your 335 and so on. And you don’t have to stop there. A Junior and a Special. A hard tail and a custom color. There is no end to how you can expand your “classics” collection. It will, as long as you have space and can afford it (and your wife or husband doesn’t divorce you), take on a life of its own.

Or maybe a different approach. Folks born in the 50’s and 60’s love to do birth year guitars. It’s not terribly appealing to me since I pre-date most of the good stuff. My ’52 collection would be awfully dull. I’d have a nice Telecaster and maybe an L5. But if you were lucky enough to be born in a truly golden year like 59 or 60, you could do a spectacular collection. But I’m being a bit of a snob. I know of a collector who has a wonderful collection of 60’s Japanese imports. Teiscos, St. Georges, Kents and Guyatones make for an interesting and fun collection. Collecting a single brand can be rewarding as well especially if your favorite is something from Gretsch or Guild. These can be great guitars and there’s a great deal of diversity within the brand. Neither brand fetches prices at the Fender and Gibson levels and you can build a very comprehensive collection for relatively little money. Of course, if one of your goals is investment, you might want to reconsider your Guild collection. They have not shown much appreciation over the years.

How about oddball European guitars? Geddy Lee’s wonderful bass collection has a load of Italian Wandres which are as weird as they come. Or the British Burns’ or even the Czech Futuramas (Resonet). I think a collection of 60’s Vox guitars would be great-they made about a zillion models-some English, some Italian (Eko). Or maybe you’re a bit younger and have a thing for 80’s guitars. There are some seriously collectible 80’s guitars that haven’t quite reached vintage status. BC Rich, Hamer, all those “Superstrats” and even 80’s Gibson and Fenders are all still very affordable. They don’t have to be great guitars. They just have to be interesting and appealing (to you).

Bottom line: Buy what appeals to you. Don’t try to anticipate which guitar will be the next burst. There probably isn’t a “next burst”. And don’t get too caught up in the investment aspect. That’s not where the fun is. If you buy guitars that you love (and will play) then even if you break even after many years, you will have had all the positive feelings that go along with creating and owning a personal collection. Collecting is an active hobby and active hobbies keep you engaged and will make you a happier person. Even though I’m not a collector, I still feel like it’s Christmas morning every time a new guitar shows up for me to unpack. It simply never gets old.

Joe Bonamassa has a pretty serious collection and perhaps no one has been more vocal about the joys of collecting than Joe. You can see that he leans toward the classics and seems to like Les Pauls a lot. Collecting amps is almost as much fun as collecting guitars.

Build Your Collection I

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

Scott Chinery’s collection was broad, diverse and famous. Just goes to show you don’t have to be a rock star to curate a great collection. Having deep pockets helps, however and Mr. Chinery was not a poor man. His collection consisted of over 1000 guitars including a collection of blue guitars that he had built by well known luthiers. His death in 2000 broke up one of the finest collections in the world. I’ve owned three of them (so far). He also owned the Batmobile.

I’ve been asked to sell most of a very important guitar collection. I was struck by the breadth and depth of the collected guitars and I took the time to talk to the owner about how a major collection like this gets put together. As a dealer, I do something similar. I don’t simply buy guitars that will turn a profit. I buy guitars that fill the broad needs of my clientele. But buying a guitar that is to be your main player is not the same as starting (or building) a collection.

A collection of any kind whether it’s guitars, classic automobiles, watches, art or any of a thousand other things serves a few purposes. Some are practical or at least relatively so. You can get to the grocery store in your 1937 Bugatti Type 57 but thank god you don’t have to. You can tell time with your rose gold Patek Nautilus. You can play your 59 Les Paul burst. But the limiting factor is usually that you can only use one at a time. OK, you could wear a dozen watches at once and keep track of time in twelve different time zones but I think you might be better served to just do the math. You get the point. But a collection goes way beyond practicality.

A collection is, often, an investment. I have made the point that you can’t play a song on your stock certificates. Guitars have been a generally good performer over the past two decades with only one real correction in 2008 when Wall Street greed broke the economy. There are ups and downs for sure but the general trend has been up. A collection also is a leisure activity that can border on obsession. Call it that or call it passion-it’s the same thing and that makes us happier than we might be without it. And it doesn’t matter if your collection is worth $5000 or $5 million. You get a high level of enjoyment simply knowing you have it and by spending time looking for the next acquisition. That is where being a dealer intersects with being a collector. While I don’t have a permanent collection, I seek out guitars the same way a collector does. I want the best possible examples and I want the best years and models.

That goes to the heart of collecting. I don’t know a single collector who seeks out the least expensive player grade guitars he can find. Players do that but serious collectors are much more discriminating. Playability and tone are everything to a player but just two elements of many to a collector. Originality, condition, rarity, provenance and beauty each play a significant role. The price does too but to a much lesser extent than those previously mentioned. Nobody wants to overpay but most collectors don’t want to have to explain the issues when it comes time to sell. And they don’t want to open the case and see those issues every time they do so. Put simply, most collectors want a great example of a great guitar. And once they have that, they want another great example perhaps in a different finish or a different year. That’s where the collection building process becomes important. Building a great collection isn’t randomly buying cool guitars that you like. An important collection is focussed, thematic and reflects the personality of its owner. The next post will address the various ways to curate a great collection that will make you happy (or at least happier), proud, wealthier (maybe) and probably drive your wife (or husband) nuts.

On the other hand, being a rock star doesn’t hurt either. Some of the largest collections belong to well known rockers. Keith Richards, Rick Nielson, Jimmy Page and, of course, Nigel Tufnel all have large important collections. Geddy Lee has perhaps the most important bass collection in the world. It is wildly diverse and yet focussed. Here is Geddy and me and 10 per cent of the red 60 ES-335’s ever made. Do yourself a favor and buy his bass book. It is beautifully done and worth the money.

Don’t Get No Respect. The ES-345

Sunday, August 25th, 2019
Here’s a photo you won’t find anywhere else. All 59 ES-345’s. In 59, they shipped 446 sunbursts, 32 blondes, 9 reds and 5 blacks. There could be more reds and blacks but they haven’t surfaced yet. There are at least two Argentine Gray ones (two tone sunburst).

It was 1959, arguably the pinnacle of Gibson’s guitar making empire. The ES (Electric Spanish) line had been well established and the thin bodied semi hollow entrants into the line had already established a respectable level of popularity. The ES-335 hit the scene in April of 1958 and, while not wildly successful out of the starting blocks, certainly merited note among the top brass at Gibson as a moderate success. The gilded ES-355, then only available in mono, showed signs of becoming a success as well as the calendar turned over and 1959 began.

It seems that when there are three models in a lineup, the middle one suffers. Automobile lines are a good indicator. The top of the line is great, the bottom of the line is you get what you pay for and the middle is neither. Same with middle children (I am one-4th out of 9). I remember an old aphorism that said “go first class or third class. Never go second class.” I think it was the author John Barth who came up with that and I actually took it to heart as a twenty something and have followed the wisdom of that statement ever since. I could get into why but it’s actually kind of irrelevant here. This is about the middle child in the ES semi hollow lineup, my old favorite, the ES-345.

If the 335 and the 355 didn’t exist, the 345 would be positively revered by guitarists. OK, the stereo wiring has become an anachronism and the technologically archaic Varitone circuit is beyond quaint but the rest of the package is everything I want in a guitar. My main player is a blonde 59 ES-345 with a couple of repaired holes and a new neck. Why a 345? I can have any 335 I want (one of the perks of being a dealer) or maybe a 59 mono 355. It’s pretty simple. I like the way the 345 looks. The parallelogram inlays are much more interesting than the dots or the blocks. The simple but not too simple body bindings are appropriate for a guitar of the caliber. The simple headstock of the 345 and 335 seems to show a little more class than the somewhat tarted up 355 headstock. The wood is often a little fancier than the 335 gets. I like a rosewood board over the ebony of a 355 and while I don’t care one way or the other about gold hardware, I really like the fact that you can buy a ’59 345 for about half the price of a same year 335.

Now why is that? Why is the bottom of the line twice as expensive as the middle and top of the line? Simplicity? Is a 335 a better guitar? No. Is it simply because a 335 isn’t stereo and it doesn’t have the Varitone? That’s part of it but not the whole story. If that was the reason then a mono 355 would be the equal of a 335 in value and desirability and it isn’t. I always thought the players were a big part of it. Eric Clapton, Larry Carlton, Alvin Lee and lots more. But wait. What about the 345 players? Freddie King, Elvin Bishop, Jorma Kaukonen and don’t forget Marty McFly who played one years before it was even invented. My conclusion? Guitar people are quirky. The LP Standard is way more desirable than a Custom. A Strat or Telecaster is more desirable than a Jaguar or Jazzmaster. A Firebird I is about equal in price to a V or a VII. I’m a pretty logical guy and logic doesn’t really come into play here. All that said, I still prefer a 345. Mine is now converted to 335 specs. The stereo and the weight were big considerations. Who wants to haul two amps to a gig on the second floor of a walkup building. And the Varitone? It’s an old school notch filter. It has some interesting tones that you might use for one song out of twenty. Or not. It weighs nearly a pound and you can find a pedal that does the same thing and doesn’t hang off your old, tired shoulder. But take the original circuit out or leave it in, the ES-345 is a wonderful guitar and perhaps among the best deals in vintage. You can take that to the bank.

This is my current main player. It’s an original finish blonde 1959 ES-345. It has had the neck replaced and a couple of holes filled. It has been converted to mono and the Varitone removed.

Gibson Custom Shop ca. 1959

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

Custom Shop logo on an 84 ES-335. Nothing “custom” about it.

Custom Shop. Sounds great, right? The idea of the factory custom shop is not new. Gibson first started using the term in 1984. Fender in 1987. But the idea was more of a marketing ploy than an actual shop that made custom instruments. How custom can it be if they make 100 or more of each model and none are made to actual customers specifications?  I think guitar players are particularly susceptible to marketing gambits that use the word “custom”. A Les Paul Custom is no more “custom” than a Les Paul Standard. Let’s take a quick look at Webster’s dictionary.

cus·​tom | \ ˈkə-stəm adjective. 1: made or performed according to personal order. Well, that’s pretty clear. And it also isn’t really what the Custom Shop actually does. The “Custom Made” plate used to cover the stud bushings on an early 60’s ES-335 (and others) is a good example. There are probably more than 1000 of them out there. They certainly could have continued to use the more attractive pearl dots that they used in 59 or the black plastic dots or the cut down studs. Or even a blank plate. They all would have served their purpose. But putting the words “Custom Made” on the plate somehow made your guitar (and you) special. It was so successful that folks were sending their guitars back to Gibson for the plate even if there were no stud holes to cover. In early 65, the Bigsby models still had the plate even though there were no stop tail studs under it. Eventually, they stopped doing that probably because it cost more to put a plate over nothing than it did to put nothing over nothing. I’m sure it saved them less than a quarter per guitar.

Long before there was something called the Custom Shop, you could order a true custom made guitar from Gibson. For a price, they were happy to do just about anything you wanted. Inlays that spelled your name were popular with artists big name and not so big name. Custom fingerboards, added switches, custom colors, custom neck profiles, non standard hardware and a host of other personal preferences were all available if you had the money and the time. Some custom orders might be as simple as putting nickel hardware on a guitar that usually has gold. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, you could order a double neck with any two necks you wanted and your name on one fingerboard and your wife’s (or your dog’s) name on the other.

If you were a big name artist, you might ask Gibson to make a special guitar for you and if they liked your idea enough, they might make a limited run of them. The Everly Brothers model comes to mind. It was a black J-185 acoustic with two big tortoise guards and star inlays. Of course, the Les Paul model is perhaps the best example although Les himself was an incurable tinker and modded his own guitars pretty regularly making the Les Paul model more of an artist endorsed model than a true custom.

As a player and collector, I love the custom orders. My idea of a great find isn’t a mint 335 from under the bed but a one off that makes you scratch your head and say “what were they thinking?” It would never occur to me to order an ES-355 with a Super 400 fingerboard and a Byrdland tailpiece. I’m not sure a green burst 335 would be on my radar either. On the other hand, something as basic as a blonde 335 in 1963 was a custom order. As a dealer, the one of a kind custom orders pose all kinds of challenges. Pricing a unique guitar is difficult-it can be worth many times what a non custom is worth or it can be worth considerably less. For example, a guitar with someone else’s name inlaid in the fingerboard doesn’t compel many buyers to come running with their credit cards waving unless the name is something like “Elvis Presley” in which case, the guitar’s price goes from 5 figures to 7. But a black 59 ES-335 would sell in a minute or less

Some customs are pretty simple-an engraved guard and truss cover and an extra guard. Hey, Del…You’re not using that old double guard 64 anymore, are you? So, it’s got a coupla extra holes-I’ll still take it off your hands. Hey, I’m a walkin’ in the rain…just to get your 335.
How’s this for rare? The 1964 Greenburst from Rumble Seat Music’s collection. I’m guessing there isn’t another like it.
Rare as they come. Certainly a custom order. The fact that it has the “custom” trc acctually helps authenticate it and the fact that its a lefty helps too. Who would fake a lefty? It’s a stunning and important find. Too bad I’m not the one who found it.

Verities and Rarities

Saturday, July 27th, 2019
This guitar is crazy rare but not crazy expensive. It’s a 60 Epiphone Sheraton and you could probably buy one (if you could find one) for under $30K.
Two rare stop tail 355’s. They only made around a dozen. These are expensive because you want one.

One of the great truths about vintage guitars is the fact that rarity usually doesn’t count for much. We all know how valuable a 58-60 Les Paul is but there were more than 1600 of them made so it’s not exactly rare. A blonde 58-60 ES-335 can be had for less than half the price (still a lot of money) even though they made about 1/8 as many. Wait. It gets worse. Look at a less popular guitar like a blonde Epiphone Sheraton. A great, great guitar made right alongside the very pricey blonde 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. Some of those Gibson badged blondies have reached the $125,000 mark but a Sheraton? Not even close.

Let’s look at some raw numbers. There are only perhaps ten 59-64 blonde 355’s. They will sell in the $75K-$125K range depending on year. There are only 12 Sheratons from 59-60 (NY pickups) and 29 from 61-63. A 59 or 60 will cost you perhaps $28K if you can find one which I assure you, you probably can’t. A 61-62 blonde Sheraton will cost you maybe $22K. Need a

Anyway, you get the idea. Rare doesn’t count much especially in models that aren’t very popular. But there’s a whole ‘nother kind of rarity that needs a little sunlight. Take a very, very popular model like a 335. Within every year, there are rarities that you simply don’t see. The factory customs and one offs that you may not even be aware of. The blonde block neck is one of those. I know of two of them. A 63 and a lefty 64. There are probably a couple more out there but, believe me, you won’t see many of them. A red 59 dot neck (or a red 58) is another. I know of 6 red 59’s- most of which have Bigsby’s and, famously, one 58. There are around 10 red 59 345’s. There are 5 black 59 345’s and, as far as I know, 3 black 59 355’s, one of which belongs to Keith Richards. Here’s the reality. There is no logic to the values.

But a blonde block neck is rarer and impossible to set a fair value on. I’d rather have the more common blonde dot neck just because I like the earlier 335’s and they are so much easier to find. 211 blonde dot necks . 2 blocks. Do the math. A blonde block neck should be outrageously expensive. Block necks from 62-64 are wildly popular and not cheap-$20K plus for a good stop tail. So, where does that put a blonde 62-64 ES-335? Conventional wisdom used to be double the price of a common color. OK, the a blonde 63 should be $42K or so. Then why is a collector grade sunburst 59 dot neck $40K but a similar blonde is three times that (and 100 times more common than a blonde block)? Like I said, there is no logic.

There is an easily understood explanation to the seemingly random and illogical valuation of rare vintage guitars (this is the “verities” part of the post). It’s simple. Do you want one really badly? Yes? Then expect to pay some very serious money for it. That’s how it works.

How about a 60 355 with a Super 400 board and a Byrdland tailpiece? Probably one of a kind but not particularly valuable. Probably because it never occurred to you to want one.
They didn’t make any block neck 335’s in blonde. Except this 63 and a lefty 64. As rare as they come but not six figure expensive. I want one. Do you?

I Learn Something New

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

A guy walks into my shop with a guitar and would like an appraisal. It belonged to his late brother and, while it has sentimental value, he wonders whether it has vintage value. I open the case and it’s a thin body, single cutaway, double humbucker Gibson. The neck volute tells me 70’s but there is no label and no serial number-only the letters BGN on the headstock. Well, for those who don’t know, BGN stands for “bargain”. BGN guitars were, essentially, factory rejects-too substandard to be called a “second” and too good to toss in the trash bin. But that’s another post all by itself (which I think I already did). It looked like an ES-125 with hum buckers and parallelogram inlays. Or an ES-175 with a thin body.

I’m not an expert in 70’s Gibsons but, in general, the model names didn’t change all that much during the much maligned “Norlin” period (1969-1985). I don’t think I can remember a Gibson guitar coming in my shop that required my having to research the model. I thought ES-135? No, that came later and had stacked hum buckers that look like a P90. ES-137? No, that was later and had different inlays. It also had a very strange finish. Almost blonde but maybe more like a cherry sunburst that had been left in a shop window for year or two. It was, essentially, dark reddish blonde around the edges and blond everywhere else. I recall that Ibanez made a lawsuit thin body that looked like a 175 in the 70’s that had a finish that looked like that but this guitar had a Gibson neck and logo. Nobody is dumb enough to counterfeit a Gibson and put the BGN designation on the headstock. So, I conclude (yes, Dr. Watson, its definitely a Gibson, says so right here on the headstock) that it’s a Gibson.

To the Googler…I search ES-135 and 137 and they are, as I thought, later and a bit different. But wait, there’s a photo that looks right in with the 135’s and 137’s. If I was Homer Simpson, I’d smack my head and go d’oh. It’s an ES-175T. Never heard of it? Neither had I. The ES-175T is exactly how I described the guitar in the first paragraph…a thin body ES-175. How did I miss this? It was introduced in 1976 and sold poorly. According to the information available online, it was gone by 1980. Except it wasn’t. This one has pot codes from 1981 and pickups from November of 80. So, it’s likely an 81.

It is my opinion that the very bottom of Gibson/Norlin’s quality troubles occurred during this very period. Sales were down and the company had squandered 80 years of customer good will by making some pretty awful guitars and ruining some really good ones. In 1980 (I think), somebody decided it was time for Gibson to make decent guitars again and by 1981, they actually started doing so. Tim Shaw (yes, that Tim Shaw) was an engineer at Gibson at the time and was instrumental (no pun intended) in getting Gibson back on track. Again, that’s another post for later.

But back to the mystery guitar. It hadn’t been played in decades but seemed to have weathered its years in the case without major damage. The label was gone and I dunno about that finish. The truss rod needed some adjustment and the strings were 30 years old but those are easy fixes. The pickups are dated embossed t-tops which makes sense for the era and the bridge is a Nashville type-also makes sense. It isn’t pretty but it does play reasonably well and there’s nothing wrong with t-tops. So, I took the guitar as a consignment. Let’s see where it goes.

Life Changing Moment.

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

I was eleven. Eleven and a half, to be precise. The rule in my parents house was no TV in the living room, so the big old black and white Zenith was in the basement playroom (remember basement playrooms?). We didn’t get a color TV until a few years later and most of the programming was in black and white anyway. As I recall on February 9, 1964, there were four of us sitting in front of the TV to watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. My brothers Bob, Frank and Brian and me. My oldest brother, Ben, was a classical music snob and wanted no part of the “noise” made by these British interlopers (Oddly, he was a big Elvis fan 5 years earlier when he was 11). My parents were not interested although my father generally watched the Ed Sullivan Show and made a short appearance in the basement to offer his opinion. “You call that music?” and he stomped off up the stairs (he did a lot of stomping off). I was enthralled.

It’s easy to look back and try to analyze what goes through the mind of an eleven year old boy. While you would think eleven was a little young to want young girls screaming for you, I can assure you that at age eleven, I was well aware of the attraction of the opposite sex. We knew the music already. It had been on the radio since the Fall of 63 and the four brothers were already, to varying degrees, fans. I loved the music and, as most of you know, I still do. I can play 95% of the catalog with relative competence. I know every word to every song and can sing the harmonies to them. I can recite the American album songs in order from memory (and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning). I remember sitting a foot from the screen, trying to read the brand name on the headstock of Lennon’s little guitar and it sure looked like Rickenbacker to me, although I’d never heard of the company but then that’s no surprise because at the age of eleven, I hadn’t taken up the guitar. Not yet, anyway. That’s where the life changing moment comes in.

I knew, at the moment the first notes of “All My Loving” left Paul’s lips, that I was going to be a guitar player. Not a bass player, not a drummer, maybe not even a rock star, but I was going to play guitar. It was, in part, the screaming young girls or to expand, the adulation from nearly all sides or, more simply, the sheer attraction of being noticed and appreciated. It’s worth noting that when you grow up as a middle child in a family of nine (yeah, nine) brothers, a little recognition and a small bit of praise goes a long way. There was precious little of that. Of course, I loved the music but the visceral desire to play that instrument was so much more than that. It was more like a calling and I planned to do something about it.

I was eleven. I had no income. My father didn’t believe in the “allowance” so saving money was next to impossible. The only money earning options were a paper route (I tried that and failed miserably-too early in the morning), raking leaves for my parents-they paid 10 cents an hour (seriously) and shoveling snow (it was February in upstate New York so there was plenty of that). I’d walk around the neighborhood with a snow shovel over my shoulder ringing doorbells. For a buck, you’d get your walk shoveled. That didn’t exactly pay off either, so I took the next most promising approach. I started bugging my father to buy me a guitar. And, to my surprise, he came home one day in March or April with a Kay flat top that cost him $15 at Woolworths (remember Woolworths?). “Learn how to play this and I’ll get you a better one…and you have to take the garbage cans out to the curb for the rest of your life.” Deal. By the way, a family of 9 kids generates a lot of garbage. I was on my way to something..stardom? adoring fans? a musical career? OK, none of the above but my life would have been very different without the guitar. Very different and not nearly as good.

So, it started with the words “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you…” It ends the day I stop breathing. The guitar takes a back seat only to my wife, my son and his wife, my brothers and my dog. And it fits very nicely in the back seat, so I’m happy with that arrangement.

Christmas at OK Guitars (Again)

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

OK Guitars (not at Christmas) but this is the place where it all happened

I was going to write a new Christmas poem this year (like I promised last year) but I re-read the one my wife and I wrote in 2015 and threw up…my hands and said, “I can’t do any better than this. I know my limitations”. So, for the third time (first time if you’re new to the site this year) here is “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas at OK Guitars”

‘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

The Space Between the Notes

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

D’Angelico Style A from the 30’s. Not just a great looker but a wonderful player. I didn’t want to put it down. It wasn’t particularly loud but for some reason every note took on a life of its own. It was quite an eye (and ear) opener.

I’ve been playing more acoustics lately and one of the characteristics of a good acoustic has become clear to me as I play more and more really good ones. Some guitars have what I can only describe as more separation between the notes. Even when playing chords, it is apparent that some guitars are better than others at keeping the notes coming out of the guitar distinct and separate. I use the term “articulate” to describe this. With an electric guitar (plugged in) it can also be a factor but many electric players, especially those who like some dirt in their tone, want just the opposite. Part of the beauty of distortion is the fact that it fills the space between the notes making you sound perhaps a little more proficient than you actually are. I know that when I was playing gigs as a teenager, I relied heavily on the ol’ Fuzztone to make my solos sound a bit more coherent. I also learned that practicing  said solos playing clean made me a better player. I’m sure many of you can relate.

Most electric guitars are not terribly articulate when plugged in. It may have more to do with your ears and your amp than the guitar. Some amps seems to enhance note separation and some do the opposite. The 5F6-A tweed Bassman is famous for bringing out the individual notes from any guitar and is, because of this, considered an amp that forces you to be a better player. It is not forgiving until you get really loud. For an electric, a 335 is a fairly articulate guitar. Unplugged it always seemed pretty good to me until this week when I played a guitar that was in another league entirely when its comes to note separation. It was a 1936 D’Angelico Style A. I’ve seen plenty of D’Angelico’s but I had never played one for more than a strum or two. My good friend, Bob, traded his 68 Johnny Smith for this particular guitar and brought it to me to go through it.

I don’t generally fall in love with a guitar. I don’t actually own any keepers. Anything I play, I have for sale in my shop. It’s a simple rule that keeps me from having 150 guitars in my rather small house. But this one could have broken the rule. What was so interesting and compelling was, of course, the great separation between the notes. While arch tops are not generally considered a finger pickers guitar, that’s how I usually play an acoustic and that’s how I played the D’Angelico. I do a lot of hammer on and pull off technique and a lot of grace notes when I play acoustic. Some of it always seems to get lost. My test song when I pick up an acoustic is usually “Anji” and it’s a great test of a guitars articulation. I’m not a particularly good player but somehow, I sounded really good on this guitar. The song is loaded with hammer ons and pull offs and every note just jumped out of the guitar. The double stops were clean and clear and the chords seemed more like three or more individual voices than a chord. Pretty cool.

I’m not going to start playing a D’Angelico and get rid of my 335’s. I’m an electric player most of the time and all that wonderful articulation isn’t necessary for most of what I play. I also generally play through a tweed Bassman or Bandmaster and both of them are pretty articulate, so I get some of it whether I like it or not. It’s a factor that I never paid that much attention to before but now I get it. I need to do a little more experimentation and research before I can figure out just what factors make this happen. It’s probably like figuring out what makes a Stradivarius sound like it does. They’ve been trying to figure that out for 300 years or so.

Fathers Day 2018

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Me and my Dad circa 1958. No guitars yet but they were coming. Nice shirt.

I’ve been a guitar player since I was 11 years old and I probably don’t give my father enough credit for moving my guitar playing “career” along in the early days. My father was monumentally unmusical. Couldn’t carry a tune, couldn’t play an instrument but he appreciated music and listened to it frequently. There was always something playing on the “hi-fi” in the living room. It was usually either classical (Beethoven was a big favorite) or show tunes. My father loved “South Pacific” probably because it echoed his WWII experience on Christmas Island in the middle of  the, you guessed it, South Pacific. So, I got to have “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” running through my head when I barely knew what a “dame” actually was. But rock and roll was not allowed on the big stereo in the living room. You want to hear “that awful music,” play it upstairs in your bedroom (on the crappy little portable 45 player). A 45, for anyone under 50, is a record that contained two songs, one on each side – yes, you had to physically flip over to play the “B” side. They were also called “singles” and they cost around a buck which was a lot of money to an 11 year old in 1964.

So, while he didn’t much like rock and roll, he was OK with me playing guitar. I had already taken violin lessons from grade 4 to grade 6, double bass after that and organ for a couple of years after my oldest brother, Ben,  convinced my father to buy an electric organ for the living room. So, taking up the guitar wasn’t met with a lot of resistance. In fact, the day after The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in February ’64 was the day I started bugging my father to buy me a guitar. So, one day, probably in April or May (it took some fairly persistent bugging), he came home from work with a Kay flat top with no case. $15 at Woolworth’s. Again, under 50? Woolworth’s was a “five and dime”- the 50’s and 60’s equivalent of Walmart today. “Learn to play this and I’ll get you a better one…”

So, I found a guitar teacher in Schenectady. His name was Charlie Orsini and he, like my Dad, hated rock and roll. He was a jazz guy and was happy to teach me the stuff he liked but not the stuff I wanted to learn. Fortunately, I learned a lot of useful chords and a little theory but the pentatonic scale never came into the picture. The lessons lasted less than a year but I kept on playing. Dad eventually (in early ’65) took me to the notorious Hermies Music Store in Schenectady where retail was a vague, nebulous concept. Retail plus 10% was more like it. I tried out a ’65 Fender DuoSonic and Princeton amp and my father sprung for the $159. “I’ll set it up and send it to the house,” Hermie said. When it arrived, it wasn’t the same guitar I played. It was a left over ’64 (three way rather than slide switches). He tried to upsell my father with the Princeton Reverb but Dad was having none of it. “Twenty bucks for one extra knob? Are they nuts?” So, the non-reverb unit would have to do. Also the phrase, “turn that *$@$%!! thing down” entered the family lexicon.

Less than a year later, my little brother, Brian, two years younger, decided he would play the guitar and he would get the hand-me-down DuoSonic and I would get a new one. By this time, I was playing in a band pretty regularly, making pocket change -$25 for four of us was pretty standard for a 3 or 4 hour gig. We only knew about 20 songs, so repeats filled the last hour or so. I had learned that Hermies was jacking up the prices on Fenders and that a Stratocaster could be gotten in New York City for around $200 – Hermie wanted $410. New York was three hours away but Dad loaded me into the car and made the trip to Manny’s on 48th St. to buy my next guitar. I wanted either an Epiphone Crestwood (I still love those guitars) or a Stratocaster. Strangely, the only Crestwood they had was Inverness Green and I wasn’t about to play a green guitar. I wanted a sunburst. Even more oddly, there were no sunburst Strats available either. There was a white one (the DuoSonic was white and I was sick of it) and a Sonic Blue. A baby blue guitar? Are you kidding? So, I got my father to spring the extra $35 for a sunburst Fender Jaguar -fanciest guitar on the lot. I played the Jaguar for at least a year but by then Dad said he was done buying guitars. I did get him to spend $600 on a Vox Royal Guardsman amp before he gave up though.

Dad died in 2011 at the age of 95. He still didn’t like rock and roll but grudgingly accepted The Beatles into the living room somewhere along the way. He actually bought a full set of Beatles CDs when they first came out. I think he was a closet Beatles fan all along (except for the long hair but that’s a long story for another Fathers Day). So thanks Dad for helping me find a lifelong passion. It’s still working for me 55 years later. Not every Dad does that for his children and I appreciate having had a Dad that did.

That’s me playing a Gibson ES-330 in 1967 or so at a gig at the Ridgewood Swim Club in Glenville, NY. The Jaguar was gone by then. I owned the DuoSonic until 2004 though.