Email Specials from March 2008

3/7/2008 ~ Switches


We're very happy here at our new Pittsburgh Guitars International Headquarters building.

One thing puzzles us, though. A light switch on the second floor. It just doesn't seem to do anything. I know what you're thinking... somewhere there's a garage door going up and down. Yep, we suspect the same thing. Still, it's a mystery.


For the sake of explaining mysterious switches, I was happy when several folks responded to last week's email special and said they now finally understood the switches on a Fender Jaguar.
Here's a recap... Click here for a picture of John with a 1963 Jaguar. (Last week David, our contest winner, was holding a near mint condition 1967 Jaguar that's for sale here at the store. THIS one is from my personal collection. I've always been fascinated with instruments that have played a million gigs. As you can see, this one has played a song or two... thousand!) Click here for an explanation of the switches.


Other guitar switches that often mystify folks are those on your basic Gretsch hollow-body. Here's John with a new Gretsch Nashville. Chet Atkins designed the wiring system on the Nashville and many other Gretsch hollow bodies, and he had some interesting ideas. First of all, all of the knobs are volume controls. The only "tone" control is one of the two toggles on the upper cutaway. In the center position the switch does nothing, when you move it up it brings in a capacitor to make the guitar bassier. In the down position, it's even more bassier. To hear this switch in action, listen to the guitar solo in "Michele" by The Beatles. It almost sounds like a bass guitar.

The other upper switch is a normal pickup selector switch.
In the lower section of the guitar, the switch near the two rear volume controls is an unusual "on/off" switch. Chet felt that if you had all of the other controls set exactly where you wanted them, you should be able to turn the entire guitar off when you take a break. This switch generally just confuses people. Tonight I'm going to see a Beatle tribute band called 1964. To avoid any on-stage issues they permanently disconnected the the "on/off" switch on their Gretsch Country Gentleman.

Lastly, the odd lever near the bridge adjusts a mute that presses against the strings. It's not something that you would use often, or ever, but it's nice to know that if you want to completely deaden your strings, you can.

Click here for a pictural explanation of Gretsch switches.


I don't know if this kind of thing happens anymore, but remember when you were a kid, and your grandfather had a workshop in the basement, and if something broke in the house he'd just grab some nuts and bolts and wire and fix it? Ten (or twenty) years ago I bought a Gretsch Electromatic that a guy inherited from his grandfather. This guitar started out as a non-cutaway, single pickup, sunburst archtop guitar. After grandpa made a few alterations it looked like this: John with slightly modified guitar. It even came with a schematic: click here. Aww... those were the days...


See you soon,


PS: Next week we should investigate the most mysterious of guitar controls, the Rickenbacker "Knob-Of-Confusion." The small 5th knob on a Rickenbacker.

PPS: Dr. Ken sent us some nice pictures from our recent Big Beatle Show #4. We put a couple at the top of the home page. That was a fun night! People are already asking about the next one...

PPPS: Speaking of, our friend Paul has been putting some cool stuff on his CarlsGuitarCorner blog. He's compiling interesting music stories from all over the internet. Go to "Paul's Blog" from the link on our home page.

PPPPS: If you have anything you'd like to add to our second site, pictures, videos, songs... and of course, gig posters... send `em in!

PPPPPS: Customer of the week: 1964 The Tribute

3/14/2008 ~ Rock & Roll


Monday night VH1 featured a live broadcast of this year's Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductions.
It was an interesting show... some parts more than others. I appreciated, for example, that John Mellancamp could (a) accept his award, (b) give a speech, (c) then walk a few feet to the center of the stage and... (d) rock. If you're a performer being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you should be able to perform, and it should be Rock. Which made Madonna's induction rather odd. (I think it was Madonna. The parts of her face that haven't been pulled back to her ears kinda looked like her...) I agree that she's certainly made a lot of money in the music business. And if they had a "Makes Millions And Millions Of Dollars By Dancing Around In Strange Outfits While Lip Syncing To Pre-Recorded Dance Club Music Tracks" Hall Of Fame, she should be a charter member. But her appearance at this event seemed to be due to her commercial success, rather than what she's been commercially successful at doing. She did mention three times in her speech that she plays guitar... but afterwards she opted to not actually do that. Instead, Iggy Pop appeared... and really did rock... performing his versions of a couple of her songs.

I'm not the world's biggest Iggy pop fan... that would be Sam, here at the store... but I am the biggest fan of his contract rider. Click here for a one page sample. Click here for the entire contract rider.
Getting back to John Mellencamp, during his acceptance speech he still seemed upset about the whole "Cougar" thing. The history: Back in the late 1970s, at the insistence of his management company, his first six albums were released under the stage-name John Cougar. It wasn't until he had #1 hits with "Hurts So Good" and "Jack & Diane" that he had enough pull to change to his real name... almost. His seventh and eighth albums were released under John Cougar Mellencamp, and by his ninth LP he was finally just John Mellencamp. I can understand having pride in your original name, but he wasn't the first artist to perform under shorter, easier to spell, nom du plume. A brief sampling:
* Bob Dylan - Robert Zimmerman
* Les Paul- Lester Polfuss
* Gene Simmons - Chaim Witz
* Freddie Mercury - Faroukh Bulsara
* Axl Rose - Bill Bailey
(OK, that one's not shorter or easier to spell... but it's not as rockin as "Axl.")
* Jon Bon Jovi - John Bongiovi
* Flea - Michael Balzary
* Pat Benatar - Patricia Andrzejewski
even the guy on stage right before Mellencamp...
* Iggy Pop - James Osterberg
Mellencamp should come to grips with the fact that during the guys-wearing-eyeliner-with-their-shirt-collar-sticking-up-early-days-of-MTV late-1970s, it was probably a lot easier to market a young, good-looking guy with a name like Johnny Cougar. If you look at the Big Picture, it got him where he is today.

It reminded me of a situation with The Beatles. (It doesn't take much...) In late 1963 their manager Brian Epstein made a bad business deal that haunted him for the rest of his life. As The Beatles were preparing to come to America he licensed the U.S. merchandising of their name and likeness to a man named Nicky Byrne (under the company name of Seltaeb). The Beatles merchandising royalty was agreed to be 10%. When Brian met Nicky in early 1964, he was handed his first check for $100,000.00. He said, "So, 10% of this is ours?" And Nicky said, "No, that IS your 10%." Brian was crushed. He felt that he had let the band down and he should have asked for a higher percentage.

In Brian's defense, however, his main concern was The Beatles' record sales and performing income. Merchandising wasn't what it is today and it wasn't considered a major source of income. Furthermore, if you look at the Big Picture, I believe that Nicky Byrne's company, when they saw the huge profit potential, worked harder at creating a mass-Beatle-marketing campaign than they would have otherwise. Sure, The Beatles music was wonderful, and they would have been phenomenally famous anyway.... but thanks in part to people like Nicky, in early 1964 they were EVERYWHERE! Not just songs on the radio, but faces and logos on dinnerware, on school supplies, on wallpaper, on bubblebath containers, even little doll figures... hundreds of merchandising items. 1964 was an event, and Beatle dolls, Beatle wigs and Beatle board games were a part of it. I think that in the long run, historically speaking, Brian's deal worked out. And so did Mellencamp's.


But that's not what I really wanted to talk about...
After Mellencamp rocked, and Iggy rocked, and Madonna didn't, came the final presentation: the induction of the Dave Clark Five. They were introduced by Tom "That Thing You Do!" Hanks. (That's what *I* would call him!) (And they did play the song as he entered the stage). Tom gave a WONDERFUL speech. It was heartwarming and funny and beautiful. He touched upon all that was special and magical about 1964. He talked about the music and the Ed Sullivan Show. He talked about listening to songs on his transistor radio and on the AM radio in his parent's car. And he talked about the feeling of joy that the bands from England brought to the children of America. He described the power and beauty of the early recordings of the Dave Clark Five and their integral position in the 1964 "British Invasion." He perfectly alluded to The Beatles but didn't mention their name. It was all you could ask for in both an introduction and a history lesson.

Three members of the Dave Clark Five then came to the podium. As you may know, the keyboard player/lead singer of The Dave Clark Five, Mike Smith, passed away last week. Their sax player, Denis Payton, died a year ago. The other three, Dave Clark, Lenny Davidson and Rick Huxley, accepted the induction statues and gave humble thanks. It was nice to see them.
With 2/5 of the band gone, including the lead singer, they obviously could not perform (unlike Madonna, who is 100% alive...) So, to do one of their hit songs, "Bits & Pieces," was the fabulous Joan Jett ! (Her original name: Joan Larkin.) And it was great! Paul Schaffer joined in on a Vox organ just like the one Mike Smith used, and Joan's vocals were rockin' and powerful. (And it was cool to see her still using her refinished, pickups changed, white Gibson Melody Maker.)

Tom Hanks' speech, the appearance of the remaining members of the Dave Clark Five, and Joan Jett's kickin' performance would have been a great way to end the event. BUT... in the age-old tradition of "let's-bring-everyone-back-out-for-one-last-tune-to-close-the-show!"... that's what they did. And it was an audio mess. The song was another Dave Clark Five tune, "Glad All Over." It featured John Cougar Mellencamp and John Fogerty on dueling lead vocals, with Joan's band as backup. Earlier in the day, during rehearsal (the rehearsal video is on youtube), Paul Schaffer played the Vox organ again, and it sounded good. However, for the broadcast version of The Big Finale someone had the idea to bring out earlier presenter Billy Joel, to take Paul's place on keyboards, and another earlier presenter James Cotton, to play harmonica. Unfortunately, for all of us, "Glad All Over" is not just a simple 1-4-5 song. Starts with that standard rock pattern, but in the bridge it goes to a Flatted 6th chord... and after the second bridge it modulates up a half step. You could see one of Joan Jett's guys trying to yell the chords to Billy Joel, which helped a little. But there was no hope for James Cotton. I don't even think he had the right key harmonica for the song in it's original key, let alone after the modulation. But he kept playin'.

But, ya know... that's Show Biz!


See you soon,

PS: During his performance John Mellencamp used an attractive vintage Telecaster Custom. Strangely, Fender used the words "Telecaster" and "Custom" on two different models. From 1959 through 1972 they offered a Telecaster with white binding around the edge of the body. It's decal said "Custom Telecaster" but it was generally known as the "Telecaster Custom." Here's John with one from 1960. Then, in 1970, they introduced a Tele with a humbucking pickup in the neck position and called it a "Telecaster Custom." That's the model that John Mellencamp was using. Here's John with a Telecaster Custom from 1974. (This particular guitar was previously owned by one of our favorite Pittsburgh songwriters, Ed Masley.) Two different guitars... almost the same name...


PPS: On a different topic altogether, we have a bunch of scratch & dent guitar cases that are taking up space in the back room. Many of them have broken latches or broken handles, but still fall into the "better than nothing" category. On Sunday, as soon as I recover from my St. Patrick's Day green-beer headache, I'm going to build a display stand in the store. Starting Monday, for a week or so, we're going to have super-sale prices on these "better than nothing" cases... Like a hardshell dreadnought case (with a broken handle) for $10... That kinda stuff. If you need a case for something that doesn't deserve a new $89 case, stop in to check these out.


PPPS: Next week: Rickenbacker's 5th knob!


PPPPS: Customer of the week: Punchline

3/21/2008 ~ Guitars-From-My-Favorite-Pittsburgh-Musicians Closet


Last week I mentioned John Cougar Montana Mellencamp using a Fender Telecaster Custom, and to demonstrate the model I reached into my Guitars-From-My-Favorite-Pittsburgh-Musicians Closet.

The picture we used was John holding a 1974 Fender Telecaster Custom previously owned and operated by Ed Masley in the fabulous Frampton Brothers, as well as in his earlier band, Johnny Rhythm & The Dimestore 45s. Here is the picture again. (Actually, that's the original photo... the one we really used was John's body with a John Lennon Beatle Doll head... like this.)


I like to visit my Guitars-From-My-Favorite-Pittsburgh-Musicians Closet. As I may have mentioned once or twice, I like guitars. And although it's always nice to see a been-under-the-bed-since-it-was-new, mint-condition instrument, my personal favorites are guitars that have been on stage... a lot. Just like with people, I think experience is a good thing. Many of the guitars in my personal collection have been heavily used, and I think they have a better feel because of it. When I see their nicks and scratches, I visualize the many times they've been thrown in the back seat of a car, and carried into a smokey bar, and leaned against an amp... and had "Proud Mary" played on them. (Seriously, is there a guitar in the world that hasn't at least once played "Proud Mary"?)

Getting back to the closet... over the years I've occasionally had a chance to buy guitars from some of my favorite local musicians. Guitars that I've seen played on-stage, and whose contributions to Pittsburgh's musical history should not be forgotten. Here are a few:

1) Norm Nardini has to be one of the area's hardest working musicians. He puts on an energetic show night after night, year after year. Back in the 1980s his band was called Norm Nardini and the Tigers. Their instruments were all painted with tiger stripes. Here is one of the guitars Norm played.

2) The first Pittsburgh band I ever heard on the radio was called The Fenways. In the mid-1960s radio DJs actually had the freedom to choose what they played. (Unlike now, when everything is pre-determined by corporate headquarters.) The Fenways were a rockin' Pittsburgh group who had a local hit in 1965 with a song called "Walk." In 1967 they changed their name to The Racket Squad. Here is a 1966 Rickenbacker used by band leader Sonny DeNunzio in The Fenways and The Racket Squad. (This is a rare 6/12 converter model. I'll tell you more about it next week!)

3) Another mid-1960s Pittsburgh band, The Contrails, had a hit record with a slow dance tune called "Someone." Here is a 1966 Fender PBass used in The Contrails.

4) Speaking of the radio, you've probably heard this bass a hundred times: The Jerry Jones Longhorn used by Greg Joseph in The Clarks.

5) There is an rare Fender model called a Maverick/Custom that is so unusual that it deserves an email all on its own... And here is one that was heavily modified by Karl Mullen and used in the band Carsickness. (He told me that at one point he covered the front with tiny pieces of broken mirror... and it looked great... until the first song, when he noticed that his hand and arm were bleeding. He peeled them off but left some pieces on the headstock.)

6) You may have seen this guitar on TV. It was played by Marty Lee in Donnie Iris and The Cruisers, and used on record and in a couple of their MTV videos.

7) One of our favorite guitar players is Warren King. Here is the Hamer Sunburst he used in The SIlencers.

8) In the mid-1980s my band, The Flashcats, played every night. Since it's my belief that playing music should be fun, we often added humorous bits to our act. One involved Pete, our trumpet player, pretending to play guitar. We'd have a taped solo going through the PA and he'd pretend to play. Halfway through he'd stop to comb his hair while the solo kept going. (Hey, I guess these days entire bands could do that, and the music would keep going!) This is the guitar we used.


To me, all of these instruments are permanently linked to the musicians who used them. And it's nice to see a guitarist who uses one guitar often enough that it becomes part of their look. It's as if they have a relationship with that instrument. A relationship that they are sharing with us, through their performance. If someone uses a different guitar on every single song, it's like going home with a different person every night. And what fun would that be?


See you soon,


PS: On this same topic, last week I mentioned that it was heartwarming to see Joan Jett still using her white Melody Maker. Let's have a contest. Send in the name of a musician who plays the same guitar often enough that you associate the performer with that specific guitar. We'll pick a winner at random. The prize will be $50 Pittsburgh Guitars Gift Certificate, good toward any guitar in the store.

PPS: Next week: Rickenbacker, The Fifth Knob, and the 6/12 Converter!

PPPS: While I was in the closet, looking for the above pictured guitars, I found an old box full of early Pittsburgh punk gig fliers. We scanned a bunch and put them up on Go here, and click on the "Vintage Pittsburgh Gig Posters" button.

PPPPS: Customer of the week: Ascend The Fallen

3/28/2008 ~ Rickenbacker's 5th Knob


A few weeks ago I mentioned the mysterious switches on 1960s Gretsches (and their current reissues). To recap quickly: Unlike 99% of the other electric guitars in the world, these Gretsches do not have a rotary tone control. Instead their only tone control is a "tone toggle switch." In the middle position it is "normal" and in the up or down positions the guitar sounds mellow. Also, whereas 99% of the other electric guitars in the world tend to stay "on," Gretsch guitars from that period have an "on/off" toggle switch. (It was Chet Atkins' idea...) (And it's the same type of three-way switch they use elsewhere on the guitar, so it's really an "on/off/on" switch.) (Although I believe I've had a couple over the years that have been "off/on/off.") (They were probably made on a Friday.) The primary effect of this switch is to confuse people who have never played a Gretsch guitar before. (And now that I think about it, most likely 99% of the people in the world have never played a Gretsch guitar.) (Actually, to be realistic about it, it's more likely that 99% of the people in the world have never even HEARD of Gretsch guitars...) But getting back to YOU, the important 1%, next time you're at a birthday party at a friend's house and everyone goes down to the basement to jam and someone hands you a Gretsch Country Gentleman and you turn the amp on and the knobs up and still don't hear anything, check the toggle on the lower front of the guitar back by the input jack... it might be in the "off" (or as Gretsch calls it the "standby") position. Or just print out this chart.


Meanwhile, it's also possible that at that same party someone might hand you a Rickenbacker guitar. And as you glance down at the normal-everyday two volume knobs and two tone knobs, you might notice an odd, smaller, fifth knob. Here's a picture of Rickenbacker controls. This fifth knob has been a regular feature on Rickenbacker guitars since 1961, and very few people understand it. Here, for the first time, is the truth about the Rickenbacker fifth knob!
(*Before we begin this Message-of-Truth, we should briefly mention the optional functions of a potentiometer... (I would use the shortened version of this word, but I'm afraid that this email might get automatically sent to the trash by some folk's "At-Work-Bad-Word" filters.) The potentiometer is the thing under your pickguard that actually does something when you turn a knob. And unless you have an "active" wiring system with a battery built into your guitar, all the potentiometer can do is subtract. (Like an odd math student who only mastered one function.) The tone controls subtract high end by directing the signal through a capacitor. The volume controls subtract volume by directing the signal to the ground wire and shorting it out.)


Now, getting back to the fifth... In one sentence: The Rickenbacker fifth knob is a second volume control for the neck pickup. Your question is probably: why?
Well, like most non-Fender guitars, a Rickenbacker has a pickup selector toggle switch that allows you to choose (1) the bridge pickup, (2) the neck pickup, or (3) both. But with most other guitars, in the middle toggle position (both pickups on) there is not a lot of pickup blending potential. You may have noticed that with your guitar. When you put the selector switch in the middle, both pickups are on, full volume.... but if you try to turn one pickup down, even slightly, to adjust the blend between the two pickups, the sound of the one that you turned goes out of the mix completely. I'm not sure why. I asked Scott about it, and he said, "The potentiometers are wired to Ground. That's how they lower the volume and turn the pickups off. If both are on, and you turn one down even a little bit, you can't hear it anymore." I didn't understand, but I nodded `cause he seemed very sincere. But it is a factor of the way guitars are wired. You cannot actually change the blend of the two pickups when they are on together.

Except on a Rickenbacker.
The fifth knob on a Rickenbacker allows you to put the toggle in the middle position (which puts both pickups on at full volume) and then gradually fade out the volume of the neck pickup. This fifth knob is not "wired to Ground" and therefore can never turn the neck pickup completely off. Instead it's wired directly to the regular neck pickup potentiometer... kind of piggy-backed off of that potentiometer, wiring-wise. It can lower the volume of the neck pickup smoothly, even when both pickups are on.

The reason that this fifth knob is particularly useful on a Rickenbacker is that Ricks are mainly used for their bright "jangly" sound. Obviously the bridge-pickup-only position will give you the brightest sound. But as an option, you might want to mellow it out just a little bit. With a regular four-knob system, as soon as you moved the toggle switch to the center position the mellowness of the neck pickup would tramp on your jangle. (And we all know how painful that would be!) But with the fifth knob you can set the middle position to have just a little of the neck pickup.... giving you a hair more bass, without losing the jangle.
It's actually a clever, if misunderstood, concept.


See you soon,


PS: Speaking of "concepts," one of Rickenbacker's wackiest was the 6/12 Converter. (In their defense, it was the 1960s...) The plan was that you could play the guitar as a 12-string, and then, when you needed just a six-string sound you could adjust a metal "comb" which would pull the six-skinny strings down, out of the way. Here are pictures of the "comb" in action. The impractical aspects of this concept are: your left hand still has to fret both sets of strings, making soloing quite awkward; and your right hand has to deal with six strings that are spaced strangely. Plus, in addition to the tuning issues, it's just plain scary to stretch those already tight six strings down towards the body.

PPS: We spent so much time here at the store today talking about the Rickenbacker fifth knob, that I'm running late with this email... So I'm going to save our "Name-A-Musician-Who-Plays -The-Same-Guitar-Often-Enough-That-You-Associate-The-Performer-With-That-Specific-Guitar" contest results until next week. Thanks for all the entries!

PPPS: Hey, thanks to everyone who shopped at our Scratch & Dent Guitar Case Sale! We were able to clean out the back room, and hopefully you're enjoying your $5 case!

PPPPS: Customer of the week: Roger McGuinn

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