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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?

Rosewood Ban

Monday, January 30th, 2017
It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it's all rosewood.

It used to be that only Brazilian rosewood required a CITES permit. Now, it’s all rosewood.

I’m a big environmentalist and I understand fully the actions taken by governments to protect endangered species. Protecting elephants by making trafficking in ivory illegal is laudable and necessary. Prohibiting the cutting of dalbergia nigra trees is important as well. So is acknowledging and acting on climate change. The problem is not in the acknowledgement of the crises. The problem is in the methodology undertaken by governments to address these crises.

It doesn’t save any elephants to strip the ivory off an antique piano. I wrote a post about this a few years ago when a client told the story of her antique French Erard piano being refused entry into the USA. Find that post here. The government approach to preserving Brazilian rosewood has been flawed and unwieldy but made some sense. It took too long (up to 90 days) to get certification and was fairly expensive ($100 per guitar). But the exemption of pre ban guitars (1992 and earlier) was reasonable. All you had to do was prove the guitar was made before that date. All of this was a pain in the ass but conservation of endangered species is important. I don’t know what the countries where Dalbergia Nigra grows have been doing to keep poachers from illegally cutting the trees that remain. Once the wood is cut, all the regulations in the world won’t bring back that tree. You have to keep it from being cut. This is where the time, money and effort should be going. I hope the government is taking the money collected for certification is spending it to keep the remaining trees from being poached. But the game has changed.

CITES has banned ALL rosewood. You can thank the Chinese for this since the bulk of the rosewood being cut is going to China as furniture. Apparently, the supply of Indian rosewood and a few other species has been affected in a detrimental way  (Vietnam was cited as a prime example). There is still, apparently, plenty of Indian rosewood left but trying to fix the problem before it becomes a crisis is good management . There was, however, another reason for doing this as I understand it. The Customs officials couldn’t tell Brazilian rosewood from Indian rosewood, so the solution was to ban it all. It’s a little like saying that since your doctor doesn’t know your spleen from your appendix, he should just remove both of them. You didn’t need them anyway. That adds a ton of paperwork and a not insignificant amount of dollars to the cost of all guitars-not just vintage ones. I don’t know all the details yet but if the wheels of the bureaucracy turn as slowly as they have in the past, you aren’t going to get your guitar anytime soon. And you’ll end up paying an additional fee for the certification. Once the guitar is certified, it’s certified so when you go to sell it, you will have the correct documentation in hand.

Note that this only affects international shipments. All types of rosewood can still be shipped domestically. I’m taking a wait and see approach to the new rules. I don’t ship many pre ’92 guitars anyway, the changes probably won’t affect me much. Also, the fact that they weren’t all that diligent in seeking out rosewood made it pretty manageable. I only had two guitars stopped by Customs for “illegal” woods. In both cases, they were wrong but it did hold up my shipment. Mostly, it seemed that they didn’t pay much attention-certification or not. That is likely to change. Without the proper certification, Customs can take your 59 ES-335 and confiscate it. You have no recourse. So, if you’re a big exporter, get your “Master File” in order. If not, be ready to wait 60-90 days to get your guitar certified

 

Politics Anyone?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

 

If I had won the election (and I probably could have), this would be the new seal.

Well, the 2016 election which pretty much consumed most of the attention of the news media for, oh, the last two years or so is over. We are all surprised. Some are elated and some dismayed. I’ll keep my own politics out of it because this isn’t a political blog but politics can affect our interest.

The last time the economy tanked (thanks Wall Street), the vintage market tanked with it. Granted, we were in a bubble (thanks in part to more Wall Street types who decided guitars were a great investment even if they didn’t play them) and the bubble burst and a lot of folks got hurt financially. Those who love their vintage guitars and had no intention of ever selling them weren’t hurt at all. The lesson? Buy what you love and forget about the price the day after you buy it. But some of us buy to play and to invest. Certainly any vintage dealer will follow the same rule that guides nearly all investments—buy low and sell high. If you bought a 335 in 2010 after the bottom fell out of the market and those who were clinging to the slim hope that guitars weren’t affected had thrown in the towel, you did great if you held on. The market for good vintage guitars has been rising slowly and steadily-the way you want a market to rise. A gentle climb makes it somewhat less likely that a steep decline will follow barring some worldwide catastrophe. And speaking of worldwide catastrophes (or not), we circle back to the 2016 election.

There is some concern among the economic mucky mucks that the Trump presidency will tank the economy. It was my concern that if that happens, it will take the guitar market with it but then I gave it some serious thought. What tanks a collectible market is too many folks dumping inventory on the market in a desperate attempt to recover their investment before it loses value. Just like last time. But it isn’t just like last time this time. The Wall Street “investors” never came back in significant numbers-at least not to me. 99% of my clients are players, not investors and of that 99%, nearly all love their 335’s, 345’s and 355’s. And they love their Strats and Teles too.  Of course, circumstances arise and you have to sell stuff but that happens no matter what the economy is like. My point is that the current vintage market seems pretty stable and if our new president does something that adversely affects the economic picture, I think the guitar market will be affected less rather than more. That’s not to say that the market will stay where it is. High end guitars are a luxury item and luxury items don’t follow the same rules as necessities. You could certainly argue that if the Trump tax cuts-which are wildly skewed toward the rich-go into effect, then wealthy folks will have more money to spend on things like high end vintage guitars. Not so true of the middle class who will get something like a $300 break. That will buy you a t-top. So much for saving the middle class.

So, bottom line? Keep your guitars and enjoy them. You already spent the money, so stop worrying about your investment and play your guitar(s). There’s nothing better for taking your mind off of politics.

Fathers Day 2016

Saturday, June 18th, 2016
Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt. I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

Dad and me in 1958. I think he gave me that haircut. And the cowboy shirt.  I had nothing to do with the bow tie, however.

A number of years ago, I wrote a memoir about my unusual family. It was very well received by a number of publishers who then unanimously rejected it. It seems a book about a family where no one was locked in a closet and starved or chained in the basement with rats won’t sell and that was the end of that. The book was called Centerboard (my father loved to sail) and followed the nine Gelber brothers (and Mom and Dad) through the fifties and into the 60’s.  In honor of my Dad and Dads everywhere, Chapter One is today’s post.  Enjoy (and call your Dad).

CHAPTER ONE

The Pram

 My father was of the opinion that the laws of physics didn’t apply to him. For that matter, I don’t think he subscribed to the laws of nature either. He did, after all, father nine sons in a row. It was 1957 or maybe 1958 and my father, a surgeon who took great pride in the accomplishments of his very gifted hands, decided to build a sailboat. Well, actually, it started out as just a boat. It was later that he decided that it should sail.

We all lived in a big house overlooking a small lake in a quiet village in upstate New York. The house was pink. It was pink the day we moved there in 1956 and was pink until we sold it in 2011.

One evening late in the fall, right after dinner, I went down to the basement – not to the playroom where the TV was, but to the workbench. The workbench was the personal domain of my father. You messed with his tools at your peril; bending dimes in the metal vise attached to the side of the workbench was attempted only during the working hours of a surgeon. If he caught you or even suspected you were messing with the vise, you were in trouble. Big trouble. He had an odd sixth sense about his tools. He could tell if someone had so much as touched a chisel or taken a shot at the wall with his staple gun. He didn’t know who, but he knew.

That evening, I went down to watch my very talented father yell and curse at a sheaf of papers that I can only assume were the directions. There was a large pile of wood, mostly cut into odd, vaguely boat-shaped pieces. There was also a lot of sawdust and the smell of glue – not Elmer’s glue like today, but glue factory glue probably made from the hides of old race horses that couldn’t even muster a show in a claimer at Saratoga.

Laid out in a boat-like pattern were the big pieces of wood and alongside, some smaller deck-looking things. He was trying to figure out just how to attach the sides of the boat to the bottom without whacking holes in it. The directions must have said to nail the sides to the bottom but he was having none of it. Put nails in the bottom of a boat, he must have thought? How dumb is that if you want the thing to float?

He barely acknowledged my presence and kept on working and cursing and working a little more. There were many evenings that fall and winter that I watched and sometimes even helped. He’d let me hold a piece of wood after he’d glued it or used me for a third hand if he needed it. I even felt that maybe there was some camaraderie going on here, although at the age of six I didn’t exactly know what camaraderie was. He was, however smiling more and cursing less.

By the spring, all the wood had been used up. The directions, once neatly packaged, were stained and wrinkled and in a state of disarray. The floor was covered in sawdust, bent nails and wood chips. And there, by the stairway, next to the workbench, sat, wonder of wonders, a boat. A pram they called them. Squat and squared at both ends, it looked more like a bathtub than a thing of seaworthiness. It wasn’t painted yet and the caulk and glue oozed from every join and miter. My father stood over it – proud, defiant, larger than life. He had built a boat.

“Charlie, my boy, what color shall we paint it?” he said to me.

“Blue”, I said, knowing that he had already bought the paint and sparing him the explanation of why red is a lousy color for a boat.

“Blue it is.” And he opened the can of blue gloss marine paint. No primer, of course. Primer was for losers, he must have thought. Real men use paint. Only pantywaists and sissies bother with primer. It must have occurred to him four or five coats of blue gloss marine paint later that he should have primed it first. Cover the wood a little better, maybe.

At some point between screwing in the oarlocks and that little brass eye that goes through the bow, my father had an idea. A really good idea. There were a few pages left in the directions that were labeled “optional sail package instructions.” All he had to do was order the pre-made spars and sails, put in a mounting bracket for the mast and rudder and …cut a hole in the bottom of the boat for the centerboard.

“What the hell is a centerboard?” he said to no one in particular even though I was standing two feet away from him. I didn’t know and didn’t hazard a guess.

“I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to cut a hole in the bottom of my new boat”, he said, again to no one in particular. So my father added the optional sail package, leaving out what he interpreted to be the optional centerboard.

The sails arrived as did the day we were to take our maiden voyage. Maybe it was because my three older brothers took less interest in his big boat project or maybe they were scared or smarter than I was, but my father asked me to go out in the new sailboat with him.

Next order of business, bring the boat up the stairs. My father asked my oldest brother Ben, who was eleven, to help him hump the ungainly boat up the basement steps and out into the backyard. The lake was in back, down a steep embankment with a winding trail to the bottom. The trail was part of a network of trails around Collins Lake worn into the hillside by generations of kids off on adventures. Everyone called it “The Monkey Trail.”

“How do you know it’ll fit through the door?” my brother asked. My father ignored the question.

“Don’t scratch it on the banister. Look out for the wall. Watch what you’re doing.” He rattled off a series of commands that met with no response. This was not an invitation to have a conversation.

The boat was at the top of the stairs on its side. The door was clearly high enough to accommodate it but the opening was too narrow.

“Gotta take the door off. Take it back down. Watch out for the wall,” my father said. Again, no response was required.

Back down the stairs they went with the boat, setting it back into its place among the sawdust. My father, hammer and screwdriver in hand, went up to dismantle the door. The door came off pretty easily and was now leaning up against the pink stucco of the house. There was no screen door so the basement was now open to any and all bugs lurking in the yard. I don’t know where my mother was at the time, but I’m sure she would have complained about the open door had she seen it. Once again Benjy – he wasn’t to become Ben for another few years – headed up the basement stairs with my father, the blue boat and a newfound respect for measuring tapes.

“Godammit”, my father rarely used any other profanity in the presence of his children but godammit was perfectly acceptable. The boat still didn’t fit.

“Where’s the goddamn crowbar?” he roared. I swear I didn’t know whether he was going to whack Ben in the head with it or take off the door frame. The boat went back down the stairs again and my father went back up the stairs wielding the crowbar. I can’t imagine why my father even had a crowbar. Maybe it was for times like this. It didn’t take long for him to pry the door frame away from the plaster walls. The wooden frame pieces made a kind of shrieking sound as they were ripped away.

“That ought to do it”, he said.

I watched from my usual spot next to the workbench as my father for a third time ascended the staircase with his eldest son and a slightly scraped blue boat. With considerable body english and an expletive deleted, the boat popped out of the doorway and into the back yard.

“Charlie, go get the sails and carry them down to the lake.” So, with a combination of fear and delight, I headed for the garage. The sails had already been attached to the wooden spars and the whole rig was rolled into an unwieldy package of dangling ropes, canvas, all manner of unusual brass hooks, fasteners and wooden poles. It was also three times my six-year-old size.

By the time I wrestled the “sails” out of the garage and onto the back lawn, my father and Ben were halfway down the trail to the lake. I needed some help. It’s an odd thing. At the time, there were seven children and, on that day, only two were accounted for. Bob was probably in the basement watching TV because that’s where he always was, but what about Frank and Brian? Frank was seven and Brian was four, certainly old enough to help me haul the sails down to the lake. They were nowhere to be found.

“What’s the problem with those sails?” my father yelled. “Don’t you want to go sailing?”

Now here’s what must have happened. Based on prior knowledge, I knew that my brother Ben, being the oldest, was by orders of magnitude, my father’s favorite. I also knew that Ben understood, even at the age of eleven, that getting into a boat that my father had built, centerboard or no centerboard, was potentially life threatening and he would have no part of it. Ben was also the only one with any sailing experience since he had tried it the preceding summer on Lake George at Camp Chingachgook.

“It won’t sail straight without a centerboard, Dad.” Ben said.

“Since when are you an expert?” said my father. That was his standard reply whenever anyone told him anything unless, of course, he was speaking to an actual expert. It’s worth noting that when speaking to an actual expert, my father would listen intently, taking detailed mental notes so that he could recycle the information with an air of “expertness” to any who would listen. Had he spoken to an actual sailing expert earlier that day, the conversation would have been more like, “You know, Ben, the centerboard’s function is to counteract the thermopassive force vectors of the prevailing hydromolecular pressure caused by the wind so that even if the wind is in your face, the boat goes forward.”

“I’m not going.” Ben said.

“Fine, I’ll just take Charlie,” my father said as I dragged the sails, spars and ropes onto the rickety wooden dock he had built a few summers before. In fact, substitute “dock” for “boat” in this story and knock a couple years off all the ages and there’ll be no need to tell that one.

My father and Ben carried the blue pram to the end of the dock and carefully slid it into Collins Lake. It did, indeed, float. My father attached the rudder without incident and then began to tackle the sails. Since they were already attached to the mast and the mast to the boom, it should have been simply a matter of stepping the mast and raising the sails. But it wasn’t. The mast didn’t fit in the hole that had been drilled in the plywood plank that was nailed over the front seat to hold the mast. The mast was supposed to fit through that hole and through a hole in the front seat and set into a wooden block in the bottom of the boat. It didn’t.

“Goddammit, the mast is too big,” he roared. And he stormed up the hill with what appeared to be steam coming out of his ears.

Since there was no electricity down at the lake, the reasonable approach to the problem would have been to take the boat out of the water and back up the hill, run an extension cord into the backyard and drill the holes a little larger. A really long extension cord from the house to the lake also might have worked, but he probably would have electrocuted himself in the process. The battery-operated drill hadn’t been invented yet. A hand drill might have worked but not very well because the hole was so big.

Minutes later, my father came down the hill, hammer and chisel in hand.

“Couple of whacks with this thing and it ought to fit just fine.” And he went at it with an air of determination I have always associated with warfare and disaster movies.

“Try it now”, he said, the sweat dripping from his bald head.

The holes, which were perfectly round before, looked a little like three leaf clovers or the club suit on a deck of cards. The mast slipped easily through the holes and actually set perfectly into the block in the bottom of the boat, which apparently had been the right size all along. The problem now was stability. The mast moved around in the now slightly oversized hole.

“The wind will keep it from moving too much”, he said with more hope than conviction.

“Let’s go, Charlie,” he said, turning to me as I sat watching from the shore.

The wind was blowing from directly behind us so the boat was pretty much sailing even before I got in. Ben was trying to hold it at the dock as we boarded, my father in the back seat and me in the middle seat. I could see little beads of water forming where the sides of the boat joined the bottom.

“Don’t worry, the wood expands when it gets wet and it seals the joints”, my father said.

“Yeah, right,” I thought, “since when are you an expert?”

With the wind behind us, the lack of a centerboard wasn’t much of an issue. As I learned later, you can sail a refrigerator straight downwind without a centerboard. I have to admit that, for the five or so minutes it took to get from our dock to the other side of the lake, it was fun. I’m not sure if I got more pleasure from the sailing or watching the look of sheer pride on my father’s face. Then, as they say in the news, something went horribly wrong. We had to turn. We had run out of lake.

“Ready about,” he said. I have no idea where he learned the jargon. “Hard alee!”

I had no clue what he was talking about so I just watched what he did. He threw the tiller hard to his right and slid over to the starboard side of the boat. He fully expected the boat to turn onto a port tack and head away from the shore. The boat turned and the sail filled but instead of heading back across the lake, the boat went sideways toward the shore. In the mild chaos that always seems to accompany coming about, it didn’t immediately occur to me that anything was amiss. Then the boat tipped over, depositing the two of us into the unexpectedly cold water of Collins Lake in May.

“Stay with the boat!” my father screamed with a panic in his voice that was anything but reassuring to a six-year-old. “Stay with the boat!”

He had prepped me for my first sailing experience by telling me how, if the boat capsized, to stay with the boat, holding on to it to stay afloat. My young mind interpreted that as, “if there’s a hurricane on Collins Lake while we’re sailing, the boat might turn over and that staying with the boat until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived would be a smart thing to do.”

I stood up. The water barely covered my knees. “What for?” I asked.

The optional centerboard kit arrived a few days later and with fear and trepidation, my father sliced an eighteen inch gash into the bottom of the boat to accommodate it. It still didn’t sail worth a good goddam but at least it didn’t go sideways. It also leaked worse than ever, the wood refusing to expand in compliance with the laws of nature.

More Great Amps for your 335

Sunday, June 12th, 2016
Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don't think I'll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Never should have sold this 59 bandmaster. This was a great amp for 335s (and for LPs). I just bought another one but i don’t think I’ll be selling it. 26 glorious (and dirty) watts.

Since opening my actual brick and mortar shop, I’ve acquired a ton of amplifiers and I’ve learned a few things along the way. There are some spectacularly good amps out there and I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with a nice range of them. Of course, they are all vintage and all tube (and mostly Fenders). When I opened my shop I had four amps in my shop. Now I have around 25 of them. So what amps really get along well with a 335? The answer? Not all of them.

Humbucker equipped guitars like 335’s (and Les Pauls and SGs) seem to really like certain amps and there is not much rhyme or reason to it but I’ll try to make some order out of chaos. For 335’s, I’ve always been partial to Fender tweeds but as I’ve acquired a number of 60’s black face and silver face amps, I’m expanding my list of great matchups. One thing I’ve noticed is that amps with more than one speaker seem to be more 335 friendly. I love my little tweed Champ but it is a true one trick pony. With virtually no headroom, it is pretty limited. On the other end of the scale, I had a 65 Twin Reverb with JBL’s that sounded magnificent but was so clean that I had to rattle the windows to get any kind of grit out of it. I guess that’s why they invented pedals. Continuing with the Fenders, I was disappointed in the BF Deluxe Reverb I had but I’m finding the early Silver face Vibrolux to be an excellent match. Same goes for the tweed Super, the BF Tremolux and the tweed Bassman.

What’s the common thread here? Ten inch speakers, specifically Jensens (and not the reissues) and more than one of them. My favorite amp of all is the 3-10″ Bandmaster followed by the 2-10″ tweed Super. The 4-10″ Bassman is right behind it but only because it’s so damn loud. BF Tremolux and Vibrolux are right there too. The Gibson GA-79 with P10Q’s is a very 335 friendly amp as well and is the ultimate amp of choice for stereo 345 owners. But, to leave the tens behind for the moment, the BF Pro and the ’63 Vox AC 30 are pretty awesome too. There is another common thread here as well-tube rectifiers. The “sag” associated with this type of circuit seems to play nicely with 335’s as well.

I can’t quantify any of this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not an engineer and can barely read a schematic. Second, tone is so subjective and with my tired old ears, who knows if I hear just what you hear.  I like enough headroom to cut through the mix with clean tones but I also like the breakup to come on pretty early so I don’t need pedals. And it’s not  just the purist in me. It’s also the fact that I couldn’t afford a big amp when i was a kid, so when it was time to solo, I had to crank the old 64 Princeton to 10 just to be heard. Pure tube distortion was a big part of my tone back in the day. When I finally played enough gigs to afford a big amp, I ended up with a 64 single Showman JBL 15″ (about as clean an amp as there is). Then, the old reliable Fuzztone did the job. Of course, I didn’t play a 335 back then. I could only afford a 330.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335's.

Vintage ten inch Jensens (P10R and P10Q) , 6L6 or 5881 tubes and a tube rectifier seem to be a great combination for hum bucker guitars and especially 335’s.

 

Stereo Wars

Monday, March 14th, 2016
60-345-1

Good old ES-345 stereo. Relatively simple and straight forward. One output, two pickups going to two channels or two amps. Occasionally useful and always fun to play with. And hugely unpopular today.

I like stereo guitars. They are like driving a car with tail fins. They are decidedly out of fashion but still plenty cool. Most of you are aware of the Gibson stereo models and how they work. In case you aren’t, here’s a short tutorial:

The Gibson ES-345, released in mid 59 is always made with stereo electronics. The ES-355 could be had with the stereo circuit or with the 335 (mono) circuit. Other models occasionally were made into stereo guitars as special orders. There are stereo 335’s, Byrdlands, ES-350’s and probably a few others that I haven’t seen.  But Gibson wasn’t the first to release a stereo guitar. I believe that distinction goes to Gretsch and their Project-o-Sonic circuit, I believe.  The concept was similar but the execution was very different.

The Gibson stereo circuit splits the neck pickup and bridge pickups to a stereo output, allowing each pickup to be amplified separately. Simply put, the bridge pickup goes to channel one (or amp one) and the neck pickup to channel (or amp) two. But the Gretsch “Project-o-Sonic” was completely different and, frankly, somewhat baffling. I recently purchased a Gretsch White Falcon stereo guitar. It’s an early 62 and is the first of the double cuts and the last of the “second” stereo version which is way too complicated to explain but mostly has to do with the switches and where they are located. In all versions, the Grestch stereo system splits each pickup into two separate units sending the high (G-B-E) strings and the low (E-A-D) strings to different outputs. There are five separate three way switches that allow 54 different combinations (according to the Gretsch hype).  So, to be clear, you can have the top three strings picked up by the bridge, the lower three picked up by the neck and each sent to a different amp. Or, how about the high strings coming from both pickups and the lower strings turned off completely? It’s all a little silly but there are some pretty interesting combinations that sound pretty good.

A good thing about the Gretsch system is that you can simply override the stereo effect by using a mix down cable (stereo on one end and mono on the other). You can still get the odd combinations but they aren’t split between channels. On a Gibson stereo, if you simply use a mix down cable, you get great tone out of the individual pickups but when you want to use both pickups, they are out of phase, so they tend to cancel each other out. You can get around this by flipping over one of the magnets, which requires you to unsolder the cover or you can back off one of the volume controls and limit the “phase cancellation” that occurs at full output from both pickups. Of course, Gibson also put their “Varitone” switch into the circuit which has caused more debate (and consternation) than just about any other guitar feature. The Varitone is, essentially, a fairly primitive notch filter that removes certain frequencies from the signal. Useful? Maybe. Necessary? Not hardly. It can give you some honky, quacky tones not usually associated with a Gibson but how often do you use honky, quacky tones? If I wanted honky and quacky, I’d play a Stratocaster.

Ultimately, nobody won the stereo wars because nobody really wants stereo guitars. I’m not sure anybody ever really wanted stereo guitars but sales hype sometimes sways buyers looking for the next big thing. Gibson sold a lot of them. Gretsch, not so many. And while the Project-o-Sonic White Falcon I now own is a pretty cool guitar in its pimpmobile kind of way, the functionality of the circuit is more than a little arcane. It sounds pretty great but what am I going to do with 54 different tonal possibilities? I don’t even know 54 songs.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50's and beyond. It's a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

So you like a lot of switches on your guitar and plenty of tonal possibilities? According to Gretsch, there were 54 varieties available on the stereo White Falcon-the top of the Gretsch line from the mid 50’s and beyond. It’s a cool retro guitar but definitely not for everybody.

Bein’ with Bacon

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016
Tony Bacon has written more guitar books than I can count. There must be at least 50.

Tony Bacon has written more guitar books than I can count. There must be at least 50.

telebook

Tony Bacon has written so many guitar books that I’ve lost count. Dozens for sure. The very first guitar book I ever bought was his “Ultimate Guitar Book” back in the early 90’s. He has written about just about every guitar there is. Gibsons, Fenders, Gretsches, Rickenbackers, Ibanez and plenty of general books about guitar history. He has written about specific guitars like the Telecaster, Stratocaster and Les Paul. No other writer has published anywhere near the number of guitar books and they are generally very well conceived and executed. I received an email from Tony a few weeks ago asking me to share some of my knowledge of the semi hollow ES models (335, 345, 355) for his next book.

Why another ES-335 book? I’d like to take a little credit for being the head cheerleader for the model over the past decade or so. They have never been more popular than they are today. The only 335 book on the shelves today is Adrian Ingram’s “The Gibson ES-335: It’s History and It’s Players”. I don’t know Mr. Ingram and I don’t know the circumstances behind the writing and publishing of the book. My opinion about it is somewhat mixed. I thought it looked cheap and rushed. The photography was horrendous and amateurish in many cases. But, on the positive side, he covered a lot of ground and I give him credit for getting into some very arcane details. While Tony Bacon’s books are usually extremely well photographed and well written, he usually doesn’t dig deeply into the really small stuff. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Ingram did. Perhaps not to the extent that I have in my blog but I’ve never tried to cover the entire history of the model. I don’t think I’ve ever written about 335’s from the late 80’s and 90’s at all. I don’t write much about the Norlin era either (other than the 81-85’s). So, to answer my own question, another 335 book-with great photos and a comprehensive history would be a welcome addition to the guitar enthusiasts library. Is that what Tony Bacon is doing? I hope so and,  based on his bibliography and the fact that he is reaching out to me,  I’m optimistic that it will be excellent.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Why aren’t you writing the book?”  Pretty simple, really. The only book I could write is a book about the “Golden Era” of 335’s. My expertise is based almost entirely on my hands on experience with the guitars. I’ve owned somewhere around 500 ES 335’s, 345’s and 355’s built between 1958 and 1965. Add in a few dozen from 66-68 and from 81-85 and I probably approach 600 or so. I’ve taken every single one apart. So, I know what parts showed up when and I know what changes were made and when they made them. But ask me what changed between 1974 and 1975 and I’ll have to change the subject. I just don’t know because I haven’t seen that many.

I have had two long phone conversations with Tony and a few emails to clarify some of the more arcane stuff. You know I love the small stuff. In fact, the very first thing Tony and I discussed was why I became “obsessed” with the 335 (his word, not mine). I explained that it was the guitar I really coveted as a teenager that I could never afford (I played a 62 ES-330 as a kid). When I finally decided to buy one (in the early 90’s), I started reading about 335’s online. The internet was pretty new and search engines weren’t too highly developed but I found Clay Harrel’s very comprehensive and informative Vintage Guitar Info site. I probably learned as much from him as I did from taking 600 guitars apart. But there was a hitch and that hitch set me on the path to learning everything I could about 335’s. I wanted a 335 with a wide nut and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money either. I had a young son and a mortgage and a brand new business and money was pretty tight. I learned from that site that the nut width went to 1 9/16″ in 65 and widened back out to 1 11/16″ in 1968. 64’s were pretty expensive, so I figured I would acquire a 68. After looking at about a dozen of them, I concluded that the information was erroneous. 68’s don’t have a wide nut. So, I knew that there was more information to be learned and I set out to do so. I still write posts about new stuff I’ve learned and I continue to learn.

I don’t expect to be writing a book any time soon, so talking to Tony was a good thing. I appreciate when someone of his stature in the guitar community acknowledges that he doesn’t know everything (nor do I) and his reaching out to me shows that he is serious about writing an accurate and comprehensive book about 335’s. I hope it turns out great and sells a zillion copies (and no, I don’t get a percentage-just a mention and a link).

‘Twas The Night Before Christmas at OK Guitars

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

 

cabcrop

‘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

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

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