Friday 6/1/2007 ~ The Fender
I got a lot of responses to last
week's Email Special.
Most of them concerned two small
islands 1250 miles off the coast of Australia. Affectionately
known as North Island and South Island, they comprise the country
of New Zealand. One person wrote to say that they have visited
New Zealand and it is the most beautiful place on earth. Another
person mentioned a hill in New Zealand called Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu
which is reported to be the longest name of a place in an English
And many people pointed out that
I was 1250 miles off the mark when I said that Crowded House
was an Australian band. It turns out that they are New Zealanders.
Sorry. I really know a lot more about guitars than geography.
(And I don't know much about the French I took...)
Fortunately a few folks also
wrote about the picture of John holding the 1952 Precision
bass... A couple of people asked about the
pickup, one guy asked if the body was contoured, and another
couple of folks asked about the odd thumb-rest. Yessssssssssssss.....
THESE are questions I can answer!!
The Precision Bass changed a
lot in the 1950s. Modifications were made every couple of years...
So many, in fact, that if you see a 1950s Precision you can almost
guess the year of manufacture from across the room.
Now that I think about it, I
believe the modifications were a tribute to how important Leo
Fender thought this instrument was. He seemed to want to work
on the Precision, and keep making it better. Compare that to
Leo's first electric guitar, the Telecaster, for example. When
he felt it could be improved with a vibrato and a third pickup,
rather than change the model, he introduced the Stratocaster.
When he felt that the Strat could be improved with a different
vibrato and more elaborate wiring, he introduced the Jazzmaster.
Today's Teles and Strats are remarkably similar to the first
ones made. But he was constantly tinkering with the P-Bass!
The Precision John is holding
in last week's picture is from 1952, the first year that they
were generally available. (A few were shipped in December 1951.)
It's clearly modeled after the Telecaster. Here's a picture of John with a 1952 Telecaster.
As you can see, they are both the same color, both have a black
pickguard, both have simple single coil pickups (two on the Tele,
one on the PBass), they have similar headstock shapes, and they
are both simply cut, slab bodies with no contouring.
Two years later in 1954, the
year that the beveled-edge Stratocaster was introduced, the Precision
Bass body was contoured to match. And like the Strat, the standard
color on the bass was changed to sunburst. Here's a picture of John with a 1954 P-Bass.
In 1957 the pickup was redesigned
and split into two parts. The split pickup design allowed room
for two pole-pieces for each string. Also in 1957 the pickguard
was changed to anodized aluminum. This was an attempt to shield
the electronics from outside electrical interference, and it
mimicked the anodized aluminum pickguard on the new Jazzmaster
guitar. Here's a picture of John with a 1957 P-Bass.
By 1959 Fender realized the impracticality
of the aluminum pickguard and changed the pickguard to plastic.
And finally all was right with the world. Except for fingerboard
changes (first thick rosewood, then thinner rosewood, then optional
maple) and color options, the bass has remained the same since.
And it is still the best selling bass in history.
And to answer the thumb-rest
question: Although the electric Fender Precision Bass changed
the world as we know it, Leo couldn't predict HOW people would
play his bass. Specifically, he didn't know if they would use
a pick, use their thumb, or use their fingers. He decided that
most folks would go with the thumb, so he added what he called
a "finger-rest" mounted on the pickguard. As you may
have noticed, however, a player can get a lot more playin' done
by using two or three fingers. On the 1952 P-Bass that we have
the owner moved the finger-rest from the pickguard to above the
pickup MANY MANY gigs ago. And there have been SO many gigs played
on this bass that a deep groove has been worn onto the wood above
the finger-rest, where the player's thumb pressed against the
bass. It's rather impressive.
You might also notice that in
those pre-molded-plastic days, the finger-rest is carved out
of wood! (The pickguard is a very early form of plastic called
With regard to the finger-rest,
Fender finally came to their senses and (just as our 1952 P-Bass
player did 40 years ago) they moved it to above the strings in
1976... from whence it became known as a thumb-rest.
And that's the story of the 1950s
See you soon,
PS: Nowadays every company and
their brother are making reissues of older instruments, but Fender
did their first reissue 39 years ago. Way back in 1968 Fender
produced a fairly accurate reissue of the 1952 Precision. It
had the slab body, the single coil pickup, and the big pickguard
(white instead of the correct black, but it was close!). Unfortunately,
they were stuck for a name, since the updated current version
of the "Precision Bass" was still in production. In
a moment of inspiration they called it the "Telecaster Bass,"
which is clever, since the original Precision was a companion
to the original Telecaster. In 1972 they changed the single coil
pickup for a big humbucker, but kept the name the same. It was
discontinued in 1979. Now (this week, to be specific) Fender
has introduced a reissue of the 1972-1979 Telecaster Bass. For
some strange reason they have given it the odd name of "Vintage
Modified Precision Bass." It looks great and it's from the
Squier line so it's fairly inexpensive. Here's John with the bass we received yesterday.
PPS: Customer web site:
Slim Forsythe and the Parklane Drifters
PPPS: John, the new guy, and
Scott, ace guitar repairman, have a great band called The Elliots.
They will be appearing, along with several other bands, on Sunday,
June 10th at The Rex at a benefit for Autism Research. It's going
to be a big event with lots contests and auctions and it's for
a good cause. Here's more info.
Friday 6/8/2007 ~ New Zealand,
and Things Made in China
Ok, so... in last week's email
special I explained that Crowded House, a band I mentioned TWO
weeks ago, was actually from New Zealand, not Australia...
On my way home from work last
Friday I turned on my satellite radio, and randomly chose a talk
show... They were discussing a new CD and interviewing the artist:
Lucy Lawless. Her name may sound familiar, because for six years
she starred in a hit TV show called "Xena: Warrior Princess."
(I've never seen it, but I presume she fought for truth and justice...)
During the course of the radio interview I learned that (a) she
liked playing Xena, (b) her real name is Lawless and (c) she's
from New Zealand!
Two days later I tuned in to
my favorite HBO show, Entourage. (It's the HBO series where they
DON'T kill each other...) Right after the show, a commercial
promoted a series premiering next week called "Flight Of
The Conchords." This new comedy concerns two struggling
musicians trying to make it in New York City, after moving from
their homeland: New Zealand! And not only is that the plot of
the show, the two guys who star in it actually ARE from New Zealand...
THEN, two nights ago I was watching
my favorite 11:30 PM Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report,
and in one short bit he talked about an octopus who can unscrew
bottle caps. (Apparently that's something octopi usually don't
do...) And the Aquarium that owns this talented octopus? The
National Aquarium of New Zealand!
Now, I'm happy to learn about
other parts of the world... but it's a bit odd that New Zealand
has come up three times in six days, isn't it? What's up with
Speaking of countries on the
other side of the world, two days ago we finally received our
shipment of Chinese Hofner Icon Basses. Here's a quick recap:
Hofner started making violin shaped basses in Germany in 1956.
Since they've always been handmade by four old German guys (Ludwig,
Rudolf, Klaus and his other brother Klaus) they've always been
expensive. Fortunately, Paul McCartney randomly bought one back
in 1961 and with his high-visibility use of the bass there has
always been enough demand to keep the company going.
In fact, due to the continued
popularity of the Beatles over the past few years, the demand
has actually increased. And since not everyone can afford a German
Hofner (we sell the 1962 Reissue Beatle Bass for $1750) other
companies (Epiphone, Johnson, Rogue, etc) have capitalized on
this demand with cheaper copies of the Beatle Bass.
Last year Hofner (perhaps noticing
the billion Squier Stratocasters sold by Fender) decided that
they should get on this lower-priced bandwagon and offer their
own less-expensive version. Last November the first Chinese-made
Hofner Icon basses arrived in the USA and the entire shipment
sold out in a few weeks. Hofner said, "Wow! Let's order
1000 more!" Unfortunately, the folks at the Chinese factory
didn't understand "Wow!" and it took Hofner seven months
to get another run of basses made. And NOW they are finally here!
A lot of musical instrument companies
have started using Chinese factories: Vox, Danelectro, Hagstrom,
Fender and Epiphone, to name just a few. The quality is high
and the cost is low. One issue seems to be delivery time. Danelectro
is another company that has been waiting over seven months for
their new models...
The concept of offering less
expensive instruments under a major brand name is not new. The
only difference is that in the old days the cheaper models would
be made in the US factory right along with the more expensive
ones. In 1956 Fender introduced the Musicmaster, a one pickup
solid body for folks who didn't want to spend the big bucks for
a Stratocaster. In 1954 Gibson first offered the one pickup Les
Paul Junior, which featured just the bottom mahogany slab of
the top-of-the-line Les Paul. I just saw a Les Paul Junior being
played by the lead singer in Dashboard Confessional on Jay Leno
last night. Hey, you know who else plays a Les Paul Junior? Keith
Urban. And guess where Keith Urban was born? New Zealand.
See ya soon,
PS: Speaking of Jay Leno, our
old friend Korel will be on tonight, Friday June 8, playing in
The Goo Goo Dolls. Korel used to teach here at Pittsburgh Guitars.
I'm not saying that if you hang out at Pittsburgh Guitars you'll
end up in a famous band on TV... but it HAS happened! The Goo
Goo Dolls have a song in the upcoming Transformers movie.
PPS: You know how when you're
doing your taxes in April and you get to Line 15 on Schedule
A where it says "Gifts To Charity" and you always say
to yourself "I should have given more to charity last year..."?
Well, here's your chance to make a charitable donation AND have
a good time. Come to The Rex Theater this Sunday Night at 5:30.
Three bands are playing and lots of sponsors have provided some
cool stuff for silent auctions, and 100% of the proceeds go to
Autism research. You can even pay the cover at the door with
a check made out to "Autism Speaks." Scott and John's
band, The Elliotts will be one of the bands performing and I'll
be there bidding on the Wine Package at the auction! Here are the details.
PPPS: Customer web site of the week:
Friday 6/15/2007 ~ Father's Day
F is for the fretwork that he
A is for action so high his fingers bleed
T is for the tone he's trying to get
H is for the harmonics he should have set
E is for his electric sound that's so bad
R is for the rewind his pickup should have
S is for a set-up, and you should offer to pay
D is for Do It Right Now, so
he'll have it back by Sunday
A is for the adjustments that will make his guitar easier to
Y is for Yes, he'll have a happy Father's Day!
In our newly expanded workshop
(now with windows!) Scott does set-ups and repairs non-stop.
I believe we're the fastest in town, but it still usually takes
two or three days to finish your guitar. BUT if you bring your
Dad's guitar in for a set-up today (Friday) or first thing tomorrow,
and tell us it's a Father's Day gift, I'll ask Scott to put it
at the front of the line!! If necessary, he'll stay late, until
every Father's Day set-up is completed by the end of the day
Think how happy your Dad will
be when his guitar plays like a dream! I can see it now: Mom
and Dad sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, Mom with a lemonade,
Dad strumming his freshly set-up guitar, both of them watching
you mow the lawn... Ahhhh, down-home peaceful relaxation... the
perfect Father's Day!
See you soon,
PS: Your Dad will really appreciate
the set-up. But it might be best if you ask him before you take
his guitar out of the house. After all, we don't want an ending
like on the Sop
PPS: Customer web site:
Friday 6/22/2007 ~ The Gretsch
It's always fun to be pleasantly
You're just sitting there, on
your couch, in the middle of the night, with a glass of cabernet,
randomly surfing through two hundred cable channels, and suddenly,
you smile to yourself and say, "Well, there's something
I've never seen before."
That happened to me this week...
I was sitting... my couch...
middle of the night... cabernet... channels, etc... and I happened
upon a British music movie from 1965 called "Pop Gear."
It was fifteen British acts lip syncing their latest hits. The
bands included The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Peter & Gordon,
The Honeycombs, and Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas, plus some
groups that enjoyed success in England but never made it in the
USA. Generally I don't enjoy lip synced performances, but the
non-stop cool vintage guitars in this movie made it a joy to
watch. (And, of course, by "vintage" I mean from the
perspective of a 2007 couch. They were all new at the time.)
Naturally, in 1965 the stylistic
impact of The Beatles was obvious. A couple of the bands used
Gretsch Country Gentleman guitars (the model George Harrison
used in 1964), three used Gretsch Tennesseans (the model George
moved to in 1965) and several drummers used Ludwig Black Oyster
Pearl drums like Ringo's. Non-Beatle instruments in the movie
included a handful of Gibson guitars (an ES-330, an ES-345, and
an ES-355), two Strats (both custom colors) and, since this was
filmed in England, three or four London-made Burns guitars. It
was also fun to see the Spencer Davis Group with both Spencer
Davis and Stevie Winwood playing inexpensive Harmony guitars.
But the highlight, and surprise,
of the movie was a Liverpool band called The Fourmost. The lead
singer played a Country Gentleman and the lead guitarist used
an ES-330. The drummer had an almost Ringo-like Sky Blue Pearl
Ludwig set. But the stand-out was the bass player! He was using
an instrument that I'm familiar with, but one that I have never
seen used in public before: a Gretsch Bikini Bass!
The Fourmost, courtesy of "Pop Gear".
A quick history: In 1946, after
the end of World War II, the US Army chose a small island called
Bikini in the Pacific Ocean to test an atomic bomb. A few days
later, in Paris, a French designer, Louis Reard, held a fashion
show to debut his new women's two piece bathing suit. He needed
a name, and since the atomic test was in the news, he called
his new design "the bikini." The small bathing suit
was scandalous in the late 1940s and early 1950s... one magazine
wrote "it is inconceivable that any girl with decency would
ever wear such a thing." But by the late 1950s, thanks in
some part to Brigitte Bardot, the bikini was becoming more and
more acceptable. In 1960, Brian Hyland capitalized on it's growing
popularity with a song called "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie
Yellow Polka Dot Bikini." (I believe that song is currently
being used in a TV commercial for something...)
Also in 1960, the folks at the
Gretsch Guitar Company were sitting around the research and development
department trying to come up with a new guitar design. Perhaps
it was late in the evening, or perhaps there was a lot of alcohol
involved... but their idea: a small electric guitar that you
could take apart into two pieces! And to make it even smaller,
the detachable body was hinged, so it could be folded in half!
And after more alcohol, and maybe a Brigitte Bardot movie, they
decided to call the small two piece guitar the Bikini!
The small body/neck section of
the Gretsch Bikini has one pickup, miniature tone and volume
controls and the input jack, and there are metal guide rails
on either side. The larger, foldable body section has two metal
tracks that the rails slide into and snap in place. It was available
in both guitar and bass versions.
Gretsch introduced this new instrument
in 1961 and it was an immediate market failure. And it's easy
to see why. In addition to being just a tad ugly, the larger
body section is a simple plank of wood which is uncomfortable
to hold. And since they used the same neck for both the guitar
and bass versions of the Bikini, the bass is a very short scale.
And perhaps the oddest thing, which could be an issue if you
were playing in a rowdy bar, when the two parts slide together
it sounds exactly like a gun being cocked! Gretsch only made
a handful before discontinuing the instrument in 1962.
So you can imagine my surprise
when one turned up on stage in the "Pop Gear" movie!
It was fun to see one of these actually being used in the real
As you might guess, we have one
here in the Pittsburgh Guitars collection...
Here's John with
the separate pieces.
Here's John sliding
Here's John wondering
what they were thinking when they designed this.
See you soon,
PS: The Fourmost in action.
PPS: The Fourmost were managed
by The Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Brian was one of the behind
the scenes producers of the "Pop Gear" film and live
clips of The Beatles from 1963 were used at the beginning and
end of the movie.
PPPS: There is currently a band
touring England under the name The Fourmost... with NO original
members... although they still say "We're gonna do a song
that was a big hit for us back in 1964..." Something about
that just doesn't seem right...
PPPPS: Speaking of Liverpool
bands, there's a great band that *IS* still performing with the
original members, our friends The Undertakers.
6/29/2007 ~ Traveling
This week at Pittsburgh Guitars-
1) We like to help out travelling
bands. One reason might be that we wish we had piled into a van
when we were 20 and hit the road with our friends. Or maybe it's
because of the on-the-road stories we heard from our buddies
The Frampton Brothers as they piled into a van and played from
here to Seattle. Or maybe it's because of that time we sold a
guitar to Kurt Cobain after he broke his the night before at
Graffiti. That seemed to really cheer him up.
So, when some guys came in on
Wednesday a few hours before their gig with an amp problem, we
diagnosed things, sold them the part they needed and they were
happy. So happy in fact, that Thursday they came back to thank
us again. We said, "No problem! Where are you headed now?"
and they said "We have a gig tonight in Worcester, Massachusetts.
That's about two hours from here, isn't it?"
We explained that they might
want to get in the van as fast as possible, since Worcester is
a ten hour drive! They said, "No, look, we have the mapquest
printout right here..." Our careful analysis of the printout
solved the mystery. It turns out that they were not very, very
bad with geography... they simply thought it was Friday and they
were in Johnsonville, NY.... which IS only two hours from Worcester.
We said, "Nope. Today's Thursday. This is Pittsburgh. You're
playing in Johnsonville tonight and Worcester tomorrow!"
They said, "Gosh, darnit! Thanks guys!" and piled into
the van, heading for New York.
But hey, who hasn't woken up
in a strange place and wondered where they were?
2) Speaking of travelling, a
70 year old guy came in the store this week with one of those
First Act guitars that comes free with a new Volkswagon. You've
probably seen the ads. You can plug the guitar right into the
dashboard of the car and play through the car's speakers. He
said, "I'm too old, I don't want this!" I explained
that it's never too late to learn to play, but he said, "I
just wanna drive!" So we bought the guitar.
And we're having fun with it.
First Act is a relatively new company and the first few First
Act guitars that came through our shop weresuper-low budget instruments.
We were not impressed. They were almost as bad as the ones that
that Zorro guy sells on TV. But this Volkswagon guitar has changed
our opinion. It's still an inexpensive guitar, but it looks good
and plays good and sounds good. It definitely falls into the
"decent" category. Henceforth we are going to be more
open-minded about First Act guitars.
3) And speaking of playing your
electric guitar in you car, or anywhere outside, a couple of
days ago I sold a guy a Vox DA-5 battery powered amp. We've been
carrying these for almost a year now and we've sold lots of them,
but until I started demonstrating it I had forgotten how cool
they are. The DA-5 has eleven amp-modelling settings, eleven
built-in effects, it runs on electricity or batteries, it sounds
great, and it's only $139. I don't know how Vox got so much stuff
in such a small package for so cheap, but I'm impressed. And
you don't have to buy a car to get one!
Here's a picture of John on the roof
with our travel items.
See you soon,
PS: With regard to travelling
bands, generally we're doing last minute repairs for not-quite-famous-yet
groups. The big stars usually just send their guitar tech for
the parts they need. But we did fix Bruce Springsteen's Tele
when he was in town. And we worked on Chrissie Hynde's Tele right
before her last Pittsburgh show. Here's John and Scott re-creating those historic
PPS: Vox tells us that they're
coming out with bigger, higher-wattage battery-powered amps.
We'll have those in stock soon and I'll report back.
PPPS: Speaking of travelling,
someone wrote about last week's story on the Gretsch Bikini bass,
and asked if it was the first electric "travel guitar."
It may have been. I'll look into that. Another person wrote to
ask that, considering the extreme rarity of the
Bikini Bass, is it possible that the one that I have is the EXACT
one used by the guy in The Fourmost. Well, I bought mine 20 years
ago from George Gruhn in Nashville, and he does deal internationally.
I wonder if the bass player, Billy Hatton, still lives in Liverpool
and I wonder if he remembers what happened to the bass? Hmmmmmmm....
PPPPS: One of my favorite travelling
band songs: "Travelling Band" by Creedence Clearwater.
PPPPPS: Customer web site: