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Not My Market

Friday, October 18th, 2019
The David Gilmour black Strat was bought at auction for $3.975 Million by a very wealthy fan and NFL team owner named Jim Irsay. Why would anyone pay nearly $4M for a modified 69 Stratocaster? Because he can.

My shop (OK Guitars) is located in Kent, Connecticut; a little tourist centric town 85 miles from New York City. So, I get a lot of tourists who come in with no knowledge or interest in guitars. The most often asked question from this crowd? “Were any of these owned by somebody famous?” The answer is usually “no.” There has been a whole lot of interest in celebrity guitars lately. It must be the one percenters because the prices have been, frankly, insane. The Gilmour auction was a real good example. I get the allure of an instrument played by somebody famous, especially somebody you admire. Would I love to have one of George’s guitars (I’ll take the 345 if anybody knows where it is)? You bet I would but I’m pretty sure I won’t be paying a million (or $4 million) for it. It’s out of my league for sure and I think it’s a little excessive.

When Clapton’s ’64 335 sold for $800K and change, we were all a bit surprised that provenance alone could thrust a $14,000 guitar (at the time) to that lofty figure. I thought, “oh, it’s the Guitar Center guys-they’re going to replicate it and sell copies…” which they did (and they were great by the way). Then, I attended the next Clapton auction and saw crappy little $200 Fender practice amps-that he may or may not have actually used-sell for thousands of dollars. It became clear to me that this was a market that had some real potential. But it’s not my market.

My market is players and player/collectors. Most are amateur players, many are well heeled professional people-doctors and lawyers and Wall Street types and a few rock stars and more than a few lesser known pro players. One thing it isn’t is billionaire fans. My wealthier clients are not buying million dollar guitars. I don’t think a lot of rock stars are buying them either. That $3.975 million black Strat is probably not going to get played much (if at all). It’s simply a different crowd of buyers.

I would wager that someone who can easily afford to spend a million or four million bucks on a guitar probably doesn’t much care about the potential investment value. He simply wants to own it and its attached bragging rights. (I’d love to put Lennon’s J160-E in a big ol’ glass case in my shop but I didn’t have $1.2M on hand that day). I would also wager that it isn’t an investment at all. I’m going to take some heat for this but in 20 years, who, in the next generation of billionaires, is going to care that much about Pink Floyd (and I like Pink Floyd). Most kids don’t know who David Gilmour is. They know who the Beatles are and kids a dozen generations from now will know who the Beatles were but Pink Floyd? Maybe not so much.

So, what’s my point here? Go back and look at the title of the post. I deal in instruments, not memorabilia. I deal in nostalgia for sure but not in hero worship (unless you’re a Beatle). If you can afford the price of admission, knock yourself out. Buy cool stuff that was owned by famous people. I recently bid on Don Everly’s black ’63 Gibson J-180 “Everly Brothers” guitar. I bailed out at $25K because, much as I like Phil and Don, I don’t like them that much. I think it sold for around $26K, so it was me and one other bidder. I wish I had gotten it but it didn’t break my heart either. I’m bidding on a couple of Walter Becker’s guitars this week. I like Steely Dan a lot but I won’t be spending $4 million. I don’t have $4 million and I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to clone a rock star from the DNA left on the frets. But if I could, I’d trade you two David Gilmours for a Walter Becker.

Phil and Don with their signature guitars. I’m not sure why this one (or one like it) is worth $26K while the Gilmour black Strat is worth $4M. I’d rather have Don’s guitar.

In•to•na•tion (and the Little Holes You Can’t See)

Tuesday, September 24th, 2019

Looks like a near mint 62 that will fetch top dollar from the most discriminating collector, right? Nope. It seems there was a problem with the intonation and a small but unfortunate mod was done. Can’t see it, can you.

Intonation is one of those technical things that a lot of guitar players are aware of but don’t entirely understand. To be truthful, I don’t entirely understand the physics behind it but I do understand how to deal with it. Rather than explain the physics (after all, this isn’t a blog for guitar techs), I’ll try to explain how to deal with it on your ES guitar and warn you about some of the idiosyncrasies regarding intonation of early 335’s.

So, you tune your guitar perfectly with open strings using your handy little clip on tuner or your phone app. It’s dead on. But when you play a chord at the the 8th fret, something doesn’t sound right. Probably your intonation isn’t properly set up. Unlike a violin where you put your finger anywhere on the string to get the note you want to play, the guitar was frets which dictate where the note you’re trying play is located on the fingerboard. The trouble is that not all strings act the same way due to differences in thickness and other factors. The actual length of the vibrating string dictates what note (and whether its in tune or flat or sharp) will play at any given fret. So, if your string length isn’t exactly right, your guitar will be out of tune in some places but not in others. Yikes.

You’ll note that most electric guitars have bridges that have some degree of adjustment forward and back-some for each string, like an ABR-1 and some more generally like a wrap tail. Setting the intonation is really easy on an ABR-1, so I’ll give you the two sentence “how to” and then talk about the weird stuff that goes on with 335’s which is why you’re reading this in the first place. Play the open string. Tune it. Play the string at the 12th fret. If it’s flat turn the little screw that moves the saddles so that the saddle moves toward the nut, shortening the string. Move it until it’s in tune at the twelfth fret (and still in tune when played open). If it’s sharp, turn the screw so the saddle moves away from the nut, lengthening the string. Once its in tune at both the 12th fret and open, you’re done with that string. Do that for all six strings and you’re done.

But there’s sometimes a problem. What if you run out of room to move the saddle and the string is still sharp (or flat) at the 12th fret? This is a really common problem on 335’s and it’s almost always the G string. Why is that? Well, if you’re as old as I am and you were playing guitar back in the early to mid 60’s, you might remember that, back then, the G string was always wound. Now, on electrics, it’s nearly always plain. So, when these wonderful “Golden Era” guitars were made, they were designed to use a wound G string. Remember, I mentioned that the differences in string thickness affect intonation? A plain G is way thinner than a wound G and the bridge placement and saddle travel of a 50’s or 60’s 335 didn’t anticipate the plain G and often, that string simply won’t intonate. There are solutions. Look at the saddle itself. Usually the flat side of the saddle faces the fingerboard but that limits the rearward travel of the saddle (the issue is always that the G is sharp at the 12th fret). Take the saddle out and flip it around so the flat side faces away from the fingerboard. That will allow you to jam the saddle flat up against the back side of the bridge getting you that last bit of string length you need to intonate that G string. Probably 90% of the 335’s in my shop have the G saddle all the way back and turned around. It works. But this brings up an issue that comes up pretty frequently.

A reasonable solution to the intonation problem was to simply move the bridge posts back. By drilling a couple of new holes for the posts maybe an eighth of an inch back from where they are, you could fix the problem forever. In the era of multi thousand dollar vintage guitars, that’s a terrible idea even if the extra holes are hidden by the thumbwheels. Extra holes are worth as much $1000 each off the value of your vintage 335. But back when a 59 335 was just an old guitar, it made perfect sense and there are quite a few vintage 335’s with this mod. The thing is, you can’t see the holes unless you take the thumbwheel off or at least unscrew it part way. It’s the issue that almost never gets disclosed because nobody notices it until long after the approval period has ended. Like years after. After all, who takes off the thumbwheels? There’s no reason to for regular maintenance and adjustment. Well, I’ll tell you who takes off thumbwheels…I do and now you do. You don’t want to discover two holes in the top of your $40,000 vintage ’59 years after you bought it. Worse, you don’t want the guy who you just sold it to for $40,000 to discover it and send it back to you. This just happened to a client of mine who bought a 62 335 from a very reputable dealer. The client checked but the dealer didn’t. He, of course, returned the guitar and the dealer was embarrassed by the error of omission. If he had discovered it a year later, would the dealer have taken it back? If I missed it, I would but I can’t speak for other dealers. Bottom line. Look under the thumbwheels when you get the guitar. It takes a few minutes. You’ll be glad you did.

They don’t show when the bridge is in place and they don’t show when the bridge is off. You have to take off the thumbwheels to see them. No big deal? If you’re paying top dollar for a mint or near mint guitar, just knowing the holes are there will drive you batty. Still was a great guitar but a couple of grand came off the price. Intonated real well too.

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.

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.