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Archive for June, 2011

Prostate Exam Anyone?

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

One of the more amusing and interesting aspects of the guitar collector’s profile is his age. Since becoming a dealer, I’ve been in contact with perhaps 200 people I didn’t know before. I’ve also started going to guitar shows which I rarely did before. I’ve noticed a few things. The average aficionado of electric guitars from the “Golden Era” is between the ages of 52 and 62 and is male. I’ve had exactly one female customer who needed help getting an anniversary gift for her husband (she got him a ’58 ES-350. Nice wife. It isn’t terribly surprising that the age range is so narrow. The first “guitar boom” occurred between 1964 and 1968 and dated from February 9, 1964 when John, Paul George and Ringo came into our homes in glorious black and white through a 6 inch speaker. It set off a love affair with the instrument unlike any the industry had ever seen. It showed a bunch of boys, aged between 6 and 16 that all it took to be cool was a lot of hair and a guitar. For most of us, the hair is gone but the guitars live on in our collective consciousness as a symbol of what might have been and of what we’ve lost over all those years. Yes, including the hair. These guitars allow us to hold onto a piece of our lost youth and perhaps find some past glory that somehow seemed to elude most of us at every turn. It’s interesting that we didn’t gravitate to Rickenbackers and Gretsch’s. But when you look at the other popular bands of the era, it was clear that there were a lot of choices and perhaps it was the aesthetics that attracted us first. Most of us wouldn’t have come near a Telecaster but many, if not most of us, really wanted a Stratocaster. We had two music stores-Hermies, who sold Fender and Martin and George’s who sold Gibson and a terrible Japanese import called St. George. In a blue collar town like Schenectady, a few hundred dollars for a Stratocaster, was a few weeks wages and the $50 and $60 imports saw a lot of popularity-especially the 4 pickup model that sold for around $100. If you couldn’t have a 3 pickup Strat, an extra pickup was some consolation.  Most of my crowd couldn’t afford a Gibson, so Fenders ruled in Schenectady, NY in 1966. A lot of us would make pilgrimages to Manny’s on 48th Street, 3 hours away to buy Strats and Deluxe Reverbs. A Strat at Manny’s in 1966 was $200. A Strat at Hermies was retail and then some, or around $350. I bought my used ’63 ES-330 in 67 but didn’t buy it for its looks, I bought it because nobody else had one and, I have to admit, it looked pretty cool. The Rolling Stones fans went for the teardrop Vox (there was a dealer in Albany) and the Beach Boys fans went for Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters. We didn’t see a Les Paul until John Sebastian showed up on TV (probably on Shindig but maybe it was Hullabaloo) with The Lovin’ Spoonful playing an odd small bodied guitar that most of us thought was kind of odd. When we all went nuts for Cream, the 335 found its way onto the map but they were just so expensive that most of us never made the move. By then it was a $400 guitar and there was almost no secondary market in upstate NY. I switched to an SG in 1968, once again making the trip to Manny’s but I had miscalculated the price and had to leave the store with the guitar in a cardboard box. I carried that guitar in its shipping box for close to a year before I got around to buying a case. There was always a new pedal (Mosrite Fuzz-rite) or a new amp (Fender single Showman) or a PA system (Kustom in gold) for the band to buy. I think every reader, at least every American reader has a similar story, perhaps only differing by the location and maybe what the local music store sold. But we all wanted the same thing. We wanted to be cool. We wanted some glory. We wanted to matter. We wanted people to scream and applaud and dance to our music. And, sometimes to our great surprise, they did. Is it any wonder we gravitate toward the guitars of our youth? Is it any wonder that we all share the same story and the same guitars? It’s what makes us the same. That and the occasional prostate exam.

CITES Gone Mad

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Those of you who know me ( or pay really close attention) know that, in real life, I’m a film editor and graphic artist. I’ve just been finishing a documentary on Franz Liszt (arguably the worlds first rock star). The producer of the film is a concert pianist and she told me a story that gave me pause. It is a story of government intervention gone mad. First of all, let me say that I believe that conservation of species is the right thing. I also believe common sense always trumps the letter of the law, especially when the letter of the law is seriously flawed. CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is seriously flawed. I understand trying to crush the marketplace for endangered animals and plants but when an item was manufactured before CITES with the endangered item as an integral part of that item, it should be exempt. As I understand it, some things are and some things aren’t. I had a problem with a guitar coming from Mexico and finally convinced the Fish and Wildlife service and Customs that it was pre-CITES, so I guess it works for Brazilian Rosewood-although for some reason, they were also citing the mahogany neck as well.  But, if your instrument happens to be a piano with ivory keys, look out. The producer of the film, Ophra Yerushalmi makes her living as a pianist. She was in France and fell in love with a Rosewood (probably Brazilian) Érard grand piano. It was Liszt’s piano of choice as well. She bought it and had it shipped to the US from France aboard  an Air France cargo plane. But it was stopped at JFK and was refused Customs clearance by the Fish and Wildlife Service who cited both CITES and the Elephant Act even though the proper CITES forms were filled out. Ms. Yerushalmi got on the phone to the bureaucrats and was told “the law is the law”.  It didn’t matter that this was her livelihood-as much a part of her work as a hammer is to a carpenter. She was given two choices. The piano could go back or the ivory on the keys could go back. Shipping the entire piano back, at her expense, was cost prohibitive, so she did the only thing she could do. She called her piano techs in and they went out to JFK and removed all the ivory from the keys. At least Fish and Wildlife didn’t do it themselves. The little packet of ivories was shipped back to France to sit in a warehouse and do what? Nothing, is what. It was a stupid act with stupid consequences perpetrated by our government in the name of conservation. What were they going to do? Turn it back into elephant tusks for some poor elephant who was missing one? The elephant whose tusks this ivory came from is dead and has been dead for many years. Removing the ivory is not going to bring it back. Prohibiting the import of the piano is not going to stop elephant poaching either. Can you imagine selling a valuable guitar to someone in France and having the government tear off the fingerboard because it’s made of Brazilian Rosewood? I’m no Republican but I can relate to their desire to keep government from becoming overbearing and intrusive.  I’ve been lucky to have had only two run ins with the CITES law but I fear more is in the offing. This happened more than 15 years ago and I’m happy to report that the Erard has its ivories back due to the outrage of the French people when this was made public. I don’t know how it got done but I’m very happy it did. An elephant died for that beautiful piano. It wasn’t endangered then and there was no law protecting elephants.  We should be spending our money and effort protecting the ones that are still alive and leave the dead ones alone.

Don’t Get Taken for a Sucker

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

You can crap it up all you want but it's still a fake. The font is too wide, the loops are too open and the whole thing is too flat. Also, the yellow around the edges looks like it has always been yellow-it doesn't look old at all. You can see the difference, right? If not, don't buy any PAFs.

I’ve written this up before but I think it’s time to get a lot more specific. Listen up. I’m only going to say this as many times as it takes to get you to listen: Don’t buy PAF pickups over the internet unless you know what to look for. I was on the phone with my friend Renzo in LA and he was looking for some Patent number pickups for one of his guitars. He’s a pro player and treats his guitars they way I treat my editing system. It’s my tool of my trade. He pointed me to two listings on Ebay and one disappeared before our eyes. It was a listing for a pair of PAFs and the price was great-$2699. The listing was from a Nashville music store so you would think these guys would know what they’re selling. I hope they pulled the auction because someone told them the stickers were fake and not because someone got taken for a ride. I can’t always tell when a PAF is real-especially when the cover is still on but I can sure as hell tell you when one is fake. Or, I can at least tell when the sticker is fake. I’ve been a graphic artist for a very long time and I spend way too much time trying to match fonts, so I know a right font from a wrong font and right spacing (kerning) from wrong. So, one more time…The font is a condensed font-kind of narrow but well spaced, not the big wide font of the top photo. Next, the loops of the Ps and the R and the top of the A are partially or totally  filled in. There’s a pretty broad range of just how filled in but they are never perfectly clean. The two at the bottom are pretty different but both show some of what I’m talking about.  Next, the font is slightly raised-it looks embossed and has dimension. Next, the clear surrounding part should be yellow or greenish because they are lacquered over -at least I think that’s why they turn yellow. I can’t guarantee you that somebody didn’t put a fake sticker on a real PAF-I’m sure it has happened. But I’ll go with the odds here. If the sticker is fake, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the pickup is probably fake too. It’s crazy enough to pay $2000 for a real PAF but to pay $2000 for a fake one is heartbreaking-or at least bank breaking. There are other things to look for to help you make a determination but your first line of questioning is the label. If the label is wrong, then walk away.

This one's the real deal. It looks like it may have been opened but maybe not. The sticker shows completely closed loops but pretty clear dimension and a lot of grungy yellow surround..

Here's a real good example of a relatively clean PAF label. Even though there isn't much fill in the loops and not much yellow surround, the font is correct and the letters are raised.

Here's a really good closeup sent to me by Thierry, a reader in France. It shows pretty clearly everything I talked about in the post. Compare this to the photo at the top of the post. You can be half blind and font illiterate and still see the difference. Take a mental photo right now. It will save you lots of aggravation later.Thanks T.

Fathers Day 2011

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Mack and me and a few friends. Father's Day 2011.

This is my first Fathers Day without a father. My Dad passed away in February at the age of 95 and I wrote about him and his role in my guitar playing life at that time. So, instead, I’m going to talk about how being a father has influenced this very important part of my day to day existence. I played and performed regularly from the time I was 14 until I was in my early twenties-1974 was the last time I played regularly with a band. It was also, coincidentally, the first year I started to work in the TV/film industry. I was 22 and I knew that I just wasn’t a good enough player to go much farther as a musician than playing the local bars and the college frat parties. At 22, that was all good but I couldn’t see myself at the age of 45 playing to a bunch of frat boys doing “the worm” in a pool of beer. It gets old. So I put the guitars down. I sold all but one of them (I had a 64 335, a 68 SG, a Mosrite Ventures and a Martin D-28). I kept the D-28. I didn’t pick up a guitar again until 1981 when I was working as an associate director in New York at ABC Sports. I had seen some of the “modern” guitars of the day and thought I would take a walk along 48th Street just a few blocks from my office at 1440 Ave of the Americas. I went into “We Buy Guitars” and looked at a ’60 ‘burst, a ’54 Strat and a 58 dot neck. But, stupidly, I bought a Hamer Special across the street at Manny’s. I wanted something new-not the guitars I had already played years ago. That foray into playing lasted about a year and I put it away in ’82. I got married a couple of years later but I didn’t pick up a guitar again until my son, Mack, was born in 1987. Babies need a good bit of entertaining if they are prone to baby stuff like screaming, crying, bawling, colic and the occasional projectile vomiting. So, to calm him down I learned most of the Raffi and Tom Chapin catalogue and, of course, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (drug references optional). I played them on the Martin of course. The Hamer didn’t come out again until 2001 when (after 8 years of piano) my son, then 13, asked if he could try my guitar and maybe take lessons. It was at that time that I started playing again in earnest. I sold the Hamer (and the D-28) and bought my first vintage guitar which, by the way was not a 335. It was an Epiphone Crestwood (I still love those old Epis) that cost me $550. My son started taking lessons and started getting to be a pretty decent player which, of course gave me the incentive to become a better player. We didn’t play together all that much but I was playing every day and accumulating an awful lot of guitars. I rediscovered the 335 by buying, first, a ’60 345 and then a dot neck 61 and a Trini Lopez and then I was buying so many I can’t remember them all. Mack is still a better player than I am but our styles are totally different and when he comes to visit- like today, I take him through the current inventory to show what cool guitars I’ve acquired recently. I think he indulges me a bit (that’s what sons are for, right?)-feigning a bit more interest than he actually has and I feel a little like Christopher Guest in Spinal Tap (“This one goes to 11″). But I do have to thank him for putting a guitar back in my hands back in ’87 and, indirectly leading me into my “second” career as a guitar dealer. It was that or the projectile vomiting.

Vocabulary 101

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

I recently took delivery on a 62 ES-335 that the owner said had the top “resprayed”. It turned out that the top of the guitar had been completely refinished and I was plenty angry because I went over with the seller what “resprayed” meant to me. But what it means to me doesn’t matter if it doesn’t mean the same to everybody. If we take resprayed literally-meaning that the guitar was spray painted over the old finish it means something other than what most vintage guitar people take it to mean. So, that would mean that if a red guitar was painted black but the original red is still under it that it is “resprayed” and not “refinished”. To most of us, that’s a refinish and it cuts the value in half. Correct me if I’m wrong, readers, but my definition of “oversprayed” means that a coat of clear lacquer was sprayed over the old lacquer. When I looked inside the guitar I saw the inside of the body was covered with red paint. The fact that it was there told me that the red finish had been redone because Gibson never gets red paint inside their 335s because they mask the f holes off. They do get red paint in the pickup cavities, however. This also told me that the “overspray” wasn’t clear lacquer at all. It was semi-transparent red spray paint and, perhaps clear over that. I truly believe that he didn’t have the same definition of overspray that I did because the amount of paint inside the guitar was prodigious. I’ll reserve judgment until I hear back from him. Finally, overspray doesn’t diminish the value of a guitar to the same extent as a refinish which is generally  felt to cut the value in half. A well executed overspray might lower the value by 25%. It can also sometimes be effectively removed without damage to the original finish. I would leave that to the experts. But we’re talking about words here, so let me get back on track. It’s not just overspray that gets thrown around in guitar sales and auction listings with reckless abandon. I’ve talked amount “mint” ’til I’m blue in the face. I’ve mentioned unique (it means literally one of a kind. it does not mean unusual). A guitar cannot be very unique. It can, however, be almost unique. How about “original”? I have a 64 ES-335 on which every part is from 1964 but none of them are original because they weren’t on the guitar when it left the factory. they are “correct” . With certain parts it’s impossible to tell if it’s original-knobs are particularly difficult because you can’t really compare wear patterns with the rest of the guitar. And rare? This is a tough one because rare is a relative term. There are 50 blonde ES-345s. In my book, that’s rare. I can’t tell you how many “rare” 1967 ES 335-12’s I see. There are over 400 of them. If you’re talking about coins, that’s a very rare coin. If you’re talking about guitars, uh, no. Not rare. Les Paul Standards for 58-60 aren’t rare either. Valuable? For certain. hard to come by? Yep, that too but rare? No. Could you say they are rare on Ebay? I guess you could unless you count all the “unique” ones that aren’t really from 58-60 but are totally mint for their age and are 100% original except for the pickups, tuners, knobs, bridge and tailpiece. Oh, and the case.

London Bridge is Falling Down, Falling Down, Falling Down

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Put your bridge on a flat surface upside down. If there is any space between the top of the bridge and the straightedge, you've got trouble. Look at the difference in the flatness of each of the bridges. Neither are perfect but one will really screw up your setup.

Most of us go to great lengths to keep our vintage guitars original. That means that every part of the guitar is just the same as it was when it left the factory. Original and correct are not the same thing, although there is absolutely no way to tell with many of the parts. There’s no magic to all original. After all, the assemblers at Gibson grabbed a tailpiece a bridge and two handfuls of tuners and a bunch of screws and set to work. From the point of view of the guitar, it  makes no difference whether you use a tailpiece from 63 on a 64, or the one that came from the factory.  There is little or no variation in these mass produced parts. “Original” is the way we protect ourselves (as buyers and sellers) from aftermarket stuff or even from “correct” (but not original) parts. This falls apart at a certain point and this point arises when the original part ceases to be fully functional. I recently had a 59 ES-345 that was near mint and beautiful sounding. This was nearly a museum piece but it just wouldn’t set up to my liking. It buzzed but the frets were fine as was the truss. I looked at the nut and it seemed perfect-no wear at all. The guitar had barely been played, so I couldn’t imagine that wear had anything to do with the fact that it just wouldn’t set up. So, I sent it to my favorite repair guy to see what was going on. He said the guitar was in great shape but that he felt we should level the frets and polish them. That made sense-the frets were a bit of a mess from lack of play. When the repair shop was about to do all this work, I got a phone call. “You know the bridge has collapsed on your guitar”. I hadn’t even thought of it. The guitar had been in its case for years and years unplayed and the strings were never loosened, so, the bridge had been doing its job for 50 years while the guitar sat in its case. I really wanted to keep the guitar original but once the bridge loses its shape, you can usually say goodbye to it. In this case, it’s usually “has a Tone Pros but the original bridge is in the case.” When this is the situation, the seller usually doesn’t mention the fact that the reason it has a Tone Pros is because the ABR-1 has lost its shape. What does that mean? There is an arch in the bottom of the bridge but the bridge is straight across the top. What most people never notice-and why would you-is that the string height are actually different even though the bridge is perfectly level across the top. The notches that the saddles fit in are different depths-very shallow for the D and G strings, less shallow for the A and B and deepest for the high E and low E. That way the string can follow the radius of the fingerboard. The shallower the notch, the higher the saddle. After 50 years or so of continuous stress, the cheap “pot” metal of the ABR-1 can fatigue, usually making it all but impossible to achieve a proper setup. The D and G strings will be too low and will buzz. Unlike some Fenders, you can’t raise the individual saddles on these bridges. So, to get those strings to behave, you wind up raising the entire bridge so that the D and G are fine but the others are too high. There are two ways to fix this and one of them doesn’t always work. The easy solution is to put on a different bridge and stick the original in the case pocket. Or, you can try to reshape it. If you fail at reshaping, the likelihood is that you broke the bridge. If it succeeds it will eventually sag again but at least it will be usable. Fortunately for the 345 in question, the luthier was able to get it back to level and, from what I hear from the current owner-it’s still holding after nearly a year. I told him to put on a repro or a vintage correct replacement but he won’t have it. He wants his guitar to be exactly as it was when it left the factory .

Contrary to popular belief, there is no curve to an ABR-1. The curve of the bottom will fool you into thinking there is but the top edge is supposed to be dead level. It's those notches that the saddles go into that give you the arc so that your strings will follow the radius of your fingerboard. It doesn't take much of a collapse to wreck your setup.

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My Mistress

Friday, June 10th, 2011

"The Player" One of the two SGs I bought this week. I don't have this one yet but if the neck is anything like the one I took in trade today, I might just keep one of them.

I’ve been married to the same wonderful person for 26 years or so. She is also my first and only wife. One of the keys to a long and successful marriage is staying faithful and not doing sleazy stuff like sending out lewd photos of your various parts over the internet. Well, I suppose I could make a similar analogy about guitars-specifically, the 335s, 345s and 355s I write about and buy and sell. They have always been my favorite but I have a terrible confession to make. I’ve been unfaithful. I have a mistress. I’ve even sent pictures of her various parts around the internet. There’s even one here. I can’t tell you her name but her initials are SG. She’s not as sweet as my wife and she’s not as pretty. She weighs a lot less but that’s not what’s so attractive about her. It’s a little like having your wife’s cousin as your mistress. SGs and ES-335s are more the same that they are different. They certainly don’t look anything alike and they don’t exactly feel an awful lot alike. The SG sound is a little less versatile to my ear and lacks some of the complexity of my beloved 335. But they have wonderful fret access and the small body fits me very well. I’m not a big guy and a 335 is a big guitar and I get a bit lost back there sometimes (or maybe I’m hiding behind it). But the circuit identical as are the pickups and (more or less) the layout and the feel is still Gibson like (as opposed to Fender-like). But the thing about the SG that I took in trade today-a ’63 Les Paul/SG with a sideways trem is the neck. There isn’t an equivalent neck on a 335 that I’ve ever owned. It’s wide a 1.71 (almost 1 3/4″) but not that deep -in fact it’s as thin as most 60-62 335’s at around .80 at the first fret but it’s got some serious shoulder. I don’t like a big fat neck with big shoulders like some of the R8’s and on the 59 ES-335 Historic. But a shallower neck with a shoulder feels just great. There’s plenty of neck to grab in order to get the leverage required to do big bends without too much mass which makes my hands tired. I guess these necks feel closest to a 64 335 at the lower frets but these SGs are different. They feel big without really being that big. By the time you hit the twelfth fret, the SG is plenty big-bigger than the 64 and bigger than some 59s at over 2″ wide and over 1″ deep. That’s some big neck. It doesn’t seem to have the same sustain as a stoptail 335 but I’m guessing that has more to  do with the sideways trem, the shallow break angle and the lack of a big stud sunk an inch into the wood. So, the SG will never be my main player but I love to play them.  Maybe my taste is too narrow and I should broaden out my writing to include these as well. The problem with SG’s however is that there are just too damn many of them. ES-335/345 and 355 are just variations on the same theme. Two humbuckers in stereo with a Varitone or not. If I start writing about SGs, I have to write about jrs, specials, standards, customs not to mention the fact that they changed the neck join every five minutes because they kept breaking off. What are there six different ways to stick a neck on an SG? And none of them any good. I traded a 345 for the 63 below and I bought a player grade 62. Neither have any neck problems and these early ones (61-early 65) have just the most fabulous necks. I am really, really going to enjoy these guitars. Just don’t tell my wife.

This is "The Mistress", a 63 I took in trade today for a '63 ES-345. Why can't I find a 335 with a neck like this. Not deep like a 59-more shallow like a 62 but with these big ass shoulders that make it feel huge without being huge. The ultra wide nut probably adds to that. And while I can't say i like the tone as much as my 64 ES 335, I do love playing this guitar. I'm going to have a tough time letting this one go. And a brown SG case? Who ever sees one of these?

I Need a Five Letter Word for Tone

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

It’s like describing the color red to a blind person. How do you describe something with words that is purely visual.  Well. it’s kind of the same thing when you use words to describe the tone of a guitar. Here’s a list I’ve compiled of words used to describe certain guitar tones: Woody, airy, dark, bright, complex, strident, chewy, quacky, juicy, funky, dirty, bell like, creamy, weedy, reedy, fat, glassy, thick, thin, chunky, transparent, spanky  and a few others. I get some of them. Others are completely meaningless to me. I understand the scientific stuff. If you tell me it is strong in the high frequencies or has scooped mids or dominant bass tones below 89 hz or something, I get it. I sort of get fat-lots of tonal range with a preponderance of low mids and lows. I get quack-sounds like position 2 and 4 of a Strat or positions 5 and 6 of a 345 with a Varitone. I guess I get dirty-distorted. Kind of the opposite of transparent or bell-like. But what do I do when some asks me if the guitar I have for sale is “woody”. Does it give me a woody? Not likely.  Is it red? Like Woody Woodpecker? Well, maybe. Airy? That seems like it should mean having good acoustic qualities-like you get when a guitar moves a lot of air-those J-200s move a lot of air but does that make them airy? I just don’t know. Chewy? Juicy? No idea. Dark has always meant having dominant lows and mids and the opposite of bright. Twangy is sort of like bright. Strident is like bad twangy and spanky is good twangy (and Alfalfa’s pal). I think. Complex is good because it refers directly to things like harmonics which is one of the best aspects of any humbucker equipped guitars. When you get what they call “note bloom” and “double tones”, the tone is necessarily complex and that makes a lot of sense. I can always tell when a guitar has “complex” tones because I play with amps that have no reverb. Every once in a while, I’ll get a guitar that has such complex tonality that it sounds for all the world that there is reverb in the amp. I’ve actually had to dampen the strings because I’m sure I’m hearing reverb. Now that’s complex (and rare). I like the term creamy because it sounds like what it is-thick and smooth. It’s like a Les Paul through a 57 Bassman cranked to tube saturation on the neck pickup. The point here is that, for all the colorful adjectives, it is still extremely difficult to describe tone. I feel like I should be able to say “it sounds like a 335″ or it sounds “more like a Les Paul than a 335″ or maybe “has Strat like tones in the bridge position but sings like an SG in the neck…” Anyone who has played vintage versions of these guitars knows exactly what I mean. It seems a lot more precise than “chewy”, doesn’t it?  By the way, feel free to describe the terms that I can’t. The world really wants to know what a weedy guitar sounds like. Dandelions? Crabgrass? Joe Pyeweed?