Email Specials from February 2009

Friday 2/6/2009 ~ Paul A. Bigsby


By now you know my concerns about the deterioration of the English language. It's only a matter of time before we see someone referring to that hit song by Boston as "More Then A Feeling." (Yeah, it particularly bugs me when writers use "then" when they mean "than.") (At least the words "there," "they're" and "their" are pronounced the same. "Then" and "than" don't even sound the same. Errrgggg....)

However, there is one misuse of the language that amuses me. And it all goes back to 1954... or perhaps 1948... and yesterday.

Yesterday we received our first shipment of Paul Reed Smith guitars. And they are beautiful!! As I was hanging the guitars on the wall, and making the appropriate price tags, I noticed that one of the models was called the "SE Custom with Tremolo." And I had to laugh. Paul Reed Smith makes great guitars... and is a truly smart guy. His use of the word "tremolo" is an inside joke, and a tip of the hat to the first mis-user of that term, Leo Fender.

And that reminded me of one of the true unsung heroes of electric guitar history, Paul A. Bigsby.
Paul, or "P.A." as he was known, was one of those "Sure, I can build that for you!" kind of guys. In 1944 he met one of the finest lap steel guitar players of the era, Joaquin Murphy. Bigsby looked at Murphy's lap steel, and told him he could make a better one. He delivered it in late 1944, and Murphy loved it. As Murphy performed around the country, other players wanted an instrument like his. Before long, Bigsby was in the lap steel business.

In the 1940s making electric lap steels was not a new concept. Rickenbacker, Gibson and Leo Fender were manufacturing them. Rickenbacker even experimented with making a lap steel with a round neck, so you could hold it in a traditional guitar position... though it still had a small, lap steel shaped body. But solid body electric guitars, as we now know them, didn't exist. At least they didn't until 1948, when country music star Merle Travis approached P.A. Bigsby. Merle wanted an instrument that would sustain like a lap steel and not feed back like his electric hollowbody guitar. In May 1948 Bigsby made a full-size solid body electric guitar unlike anything that had been made before. Here's a picture. Bigsby made every piece of the guitar in his garage workshop, even the pickup.

Other folks had been experimenting with a solid guitar. Les Paul, for example, mounted an assortment of pickups (including a Bigsby pickup) to a 4" x 4" piece of pine. But with regard to the actual design of a single-cutaway, solid body electric, Bigsby was first.

Merle Travis was highly visible with this new guitar, and it wasn't long before Leo Fender noticed. In early 1949 Leo approached Merle and asked if he could borrow the guitar for a week. When he returned it, he brought an instrument that he had made, clearly modeled after the Bigsby; a prototype for the guitar that would eventually become the Fender Telecaster. Leo introduced his new guitar, originally called the Broadcaster and later re-named Telecaster, in mid 1950.

But getting back to the point of this story...

Merle Travis had another request for Bigsby. The only vibrato unit on the market at the time was the "Kauffman Vibrola." (Let's take a brief moment for a definition of terms: "Vibrato" is the change in pitch of a musical note.) The problem with the Kauffman was that if you even looked at it too hard your guitar would go out of tune. As was his way, Bigsby told Travis that he could design a better one. In 1951 the "Bigsby True Vibrato" was introduced, and it was light years ahead of the Kauffman. The "Bigsby True Vibrato" was an immediate hit and orders streamed in. Gibson and Gretsch bought lots of them. Here's John with a Gretsch Tennessean featuring a Bigsby Vibrato.

And that brings us to 1954. Leo Fender wanted to update his successful Telecaster guitar. One of his employees, Bill Carson suggested contouring the body to make it more comfortable. The new guitar, called the Stratocaster, would also have three pickups instead of the two on the Tele. AND, in light of the success of Bigsby's vibrato, Leo wanted his new guitar to also have a vibrato. The new model, introduced in 1954, featured a vibrato system designed by Leo.

But, at the time, Leo was hesitant to admit that his first guitar, the Telecaster, was inspired by P.A. Bigsby's guitar. So, perhaps to distance himself from Bigsby and his successful "Bigsby Vibrato," he decided to call the vibrato system on his new Strat a "tremolo" unit. (Definition moment #2: "Tremolo" means a change in volume.) But like Bigsby's version, the vibrato arm (or as it is sometimes called, the "wang bar") on Leo's Strat changed the pitch of the note, not the volume. So "tremolo" was wrong. But Leo went with it anyway.

Unfortunately, Leo backed himself into a corner, so when he later added tremolo (a change in volume) to his amplifiers, he called it "Vibrato" ! (Again, completely wrong.)


So, since 1954 Fender's guitar vibrato systems have been erroneously labeled "Tremolo." And since 1955 Fender's amplifier tremolo units have been wrongly labeled "Vibrato." And all of this rattled through my brain yesterday when I saw Paul Reed Smith's humorous "Tremolo" usage.


See you soon,


PS: As guitar aficionados we should tell more people about Paul Bigsby. His designs influenced electric guitars as we know them. Here are comparative pictures of a 1948 Bigsby, a 1952 Gibson Les Paul and a 1954 Gretsch Duo Jet.

PPS: It was years before Leo Fender admitted that Bigsby's designs influenced him. It was kind of obvious from the beginning, though. For example, Bigsby wanted his six machine heads to be in a straight line, but the Kluson Machine Heads available at that time wouldn't fit. So Bigsby cut the top and bottom points off of the middle machine heads, and pushed them close together so one mounting screw could hold two machine heads in place. Notice in this picture that Fender copied his plan.

PPPS: At this point you may be wondering if we should feel bad that Leo Fender sold a million more guitars than Paul Bigsby. But, no, we shouldn't. They had different business plans. Paul wanted to make every one of his guitars personally. He made one a month, and by the mid-1950s had a four year waiting list. Leo wanted to mass-produce guitars for every player in America. His guitars were plainer and simpler than Bigsby's because they had to be made quickly and affordably. Both of these men were creative geniuses. They just had different goals.

PPPPS: John Lennon's original Rickenbacker 325 was shipped from the factory with a Kauffman Vibrola. Within a few months he switched the Kauffman for Bigsby. Here are pictures.

PPPPPS: Customer of the Week: Kathleen Edwards

Friday 2/13/2009 ~ Ukuleles & Our 30th Anniversary


As I was walking to the store this morning, holding on to my hat against the chilly wind, I remembered a conversation from last year's NAMM show.

At the trade show I had dinner with two guys who own a guitar store in Hawaii. Their store windows look out onto the ocean, and they said they try to take a break every afternoon to play beach volleyball. Meanwhile, here in frigid Pittsburgh we have to fill the humidifiers every morning and every evening, just to keep the moisture level up in the store... `cause the air is so dry... `cause it's so cold...

(By the by, this winter folks have brought in for repair more dangerously dry guitars than we have seen in years. It's been that kind of winter. If your action is getting lower... or if your fret-ends are getting sharp... please humidify. Like people, wood cracks when it gets too dry. And that's not good, for people or guitars!)

Thinking about warm, sunny Hawaii, reminded me of the signature Hawaiian instrument, the Ukulele.

And that reminded me of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. (Of course, what doesn't?)

For most of 1915 (February through December) a massive world's fair was held in San Francisco, featuring exhibits and displays from all over the globe. The Hawaiian Pavilion starred a ukulele band, George Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartette. They were a smash hit with their cute little Hawaiian instruments, and their popularity at the exposition led to a nationwide interest in the uke.

The sudden, massive demand for ukuleles caught most American instrument manufacturers off-guard. But one struggling little guitar company was poised to capitalize on this new fad. The C.F. Martin Company only sold only 162 guitars during 1915, but they had a talented work-force and the right equipment to start cranking out ukes. Their first uke hit the market in January 1916... and by 1920 they were making more than 3,000 ukuleles a year. Plus the interest in Hawaiian koa-wood guitars boosted their six-string guitar numbers. In 1920 guitar sales were up to 1,336 instruments, 30% of which were Hawaiian models.

The impact of the Hawaiian music fad, which saved the C.F. Martin Company, led me to contemplate another musical fad, its instrument of choice, and the resulting impact on us. Of course, I mean rock & roll and the electric guitar.

The electric guitar was not invented for rock & roll, but when they finally met, it was a match made in heaven. And it was a combination that truly struck a chord with me. My fascination with guitar-based rock & roll started in 1964 (February 9th, to be specific), and in 1979, when I eventually grew up (OK, the jury is still out on that one), I opened a store in honor of the guitar: Pittsburgh Guitars. And now, after 30 years... rock & roll and Pittsburgh Guitars are both still going strong.


As I sit here now, and think about it, I'm grateful to have been around during this musical era. Let's face it, music styles, as well as popular musical instruments, have come and gone through the ages. (Did you hear what happened to Johann Sebastian Bach? His harpsichord Baroque!) Guitar-driven rock & roll has been a prime musical force for decades... but will it last forever? Probably not. (My guess is that some future musical trend will involve the word "implanted.") But it's here for us now. And it's as popular as ever. And I'm happy about it!

So, I reserved The Rex Theater on May 30th, for the Pittsburgh Guitars 30th Anniversary Party. I don't know what we'll be doing there yet (I suspect lots of music!), but mark your calendar now. I'd like to celebrate 30 years of dealing with guitars... and being alive during the wonderful era of rock & roll!


See you soon,


PS: As I was typing this I received two interesting emails... First, Kathleen D., wrote from Birmingham, England, sending an article from the Birmingham Post. (Here's the article.) The newspaper article says that despite the tough economic times, guitar sales in Great Britain are going strong. That's true here, too. After all, music always makes you feel better.
The second email came from a US reader, but coincidentally also concerned a British guitar store. The shop is called The Guitar Store, in Southhampton, England, and when they close their gate at night, the store looks like this! That's fabulous!!

PPS: Even though the every-house-must-have-a-ukulele era has passed, we still sell a lot of ukes! Here's Sam holding a sample from the wall. And although C.F. Martin & Co. celebrated their 175th Anniversary last year and are now on their way to making their gazillionth guitar, they STILL make ukes. Here's Sam with a Martin Model 3K Uke! (The "K" is for Hawaiian Koa Wood.)

PPPS: Sam is in today's pictures because John is in Nevada, searching out his ancestors. But he took his uke with him! Here's a picture!

PPPPS: Speaking of England (in the "PS" above), and The Beatles (they inspired a generation of folks to take up the guitar, and me to open a guitar store), and the ukulele-- The Beatles, especially George Harrison, were big fans of a 1930s-1940s British singer/comedian/ukulele player, George Formby. Here's a youtube video.

PPPPPS: Customer of the week: Euphonic Brew

Friday 2/20/2009 ~ Cover Songs


For Valentines Day I got one of those "sound" greeting cards... When I opened it, it played "Good Lovin'" by The Rascals.

My third thought was, "How romantic...And descriptively accurate!" And that's what I said out loud at dinner.

But what I was REALLY thinking was: (1) "I wonder if the bass part on this song is played on the Hammond Organ bass pedals?" and (2) "I've always been intrigued by hit records that were cover tunes of not-so-hit records." Being the wise man that I am, I kept these thoughts to myself... at least until after dessert.

The Rascals... who were called the Young Rascals when they recorded "Good Lovin'"... were a four-man band: Dino Danelli on drums, Gene Cornish on guitar, Eddie Brigati on tambourine, and Felix Cavaliere on Hammond Organ. Felix not only sang lead on most songs, he also covered the bass parts with his feet on the organ's bass pedals. At least he did when the band played live. The greeting card made me wonder if he also played the bass pedals on the record. So, this morning I grabbed a stereo mix of "Good Lovin'" and panned it to one side, where you can hear the bass better. The tone sure sounds like organ bass pedals... but parts of it seem too fast for two feet. What do you think? (Oh, and yes, there is some wacky panning of the lead vocals from one side to the other... but it was the 1960s, after all...) Here's the left half of "Good Lovin'."

On the second topic, I enjoy hearing semi-obscure original versions of famous cover tunes. Here's the original version of Good Lovin'" by The Olympics. It made it to #81 on the charts in 1965, a year before the Rascals covered it.

A favorite of mine is the original "Piece Of My Heart" by Aretha Franklin's sister, Erma Franklin. Here's the original and Janis Joplin's cover: "Piece Of My Heart"

Coincidentally, that song was co-written by Jerry Ragovoy, who also co-wrote one of the first Rolling Stones records I bought as a child: "Time Is On My Side." Irma Thomas recorded it in 1964, and the Stones covered it later that same year. "Time Is On My Side"


I had been playing Bobby Fuller's "I Fought The Law" in bands for years before I learned that it, too, was a cover tune. It was written by Sonny Curtis, who replaced Buddy Holly in The Crickets, when Holly moved to New York as a solo artist in 1958. The Crickets recorded "I Fought The Law" in 1959. "I Fought The Law"


See you soon,


PS: After the success of their first two British singles, "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me," The Beatles went to EMI Studios to record an entire album. In one day, February 11, 1963, they recorded ten songs, including "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Twist & Shout." The resulting LP featured both sides of the two singles (all originals), and the ten songs from February 11th (four more originals and six cover tunes). Here are three of the cover tunes The Beatles recorded on February 11, 1963, plus the original versions.

"Anna (Go To Him)"


"A Taste Of Honey"

PPS: Speaking of The Beatles and cover tunes, in October 1964 they recorded "Kansas City," a number one hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959. The record company, always in a hurry to market Beatle recordings, labeled the song as "Kansas City" with the authors as Leiber & Stoller, and sent it to press. What both EMI and Capitol Records didn't realize is that The Beatles were actually covering Little Richard's version of the song. And Little Richard not only took liberties with the original lyrics, he also merged the song with one of his called "Hey Hey Hey Hey." ("Hey Hey Hey Hey" was originally released as the flip side of Little Richard's single "Good Golly Miss Molly.") So, The Beatles were really covering a medley. Needless to say (given the vast amount of songwriting royalties involved!) the mistake was eventually discovered. Future pressings indicated that the song was a medley, and truckloads of money were sent to Little Richard's house. Here's my original copy of the "Beatles VI" LP, with the incorrect listing. Here's The Beatles and Little Richard.

PPPS: Hey, speaking of the "Beatles VI" LP, here in America Capitol Records would regularly remove songs from The Beatles British albums. In those days British LPs typically had fourteen songs, but Capitol felt they could get away with only using twelve. That way they could build up a stash of unused recordings and eventually release them as a "new" Beatles album. By May 1965 Capitol had nine songs stashed. If they only had a couple more they could put out a new LP. So Capitol called EMI in England and said they needed two songs in a hurry.
On May 10, 1965 The Beatles recorded two Larry Williams cover tunes that they used to do back in the old Liverpool days, "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy." (These were actually both sides of a 1958 Larry Williams 45.) The songs were recorded, mixed, mastered, and sent to America all in the same evening. Since these were recorded specifically for the US release, it's only natural that one of them was on the set list for The Beatles August 1965 USA tour. However, just to spice things up on the tour, John Lennon made a slight lyric change... I suspect just to amuse himself and the band. The original last verse said:
"Run and tell your mamma, I want you to be my bride.
Run and tell your brother, baby don't run and hide.
You make me Dizzy Miss Lizzy,
I want to marry you."
Lennon rearranged the verses (which he often accidentally did, even in his own songs) and changed it to:
"Run and tell your mamma, I want you to be my bride.
Run and tell your brother, baby don't run and hide.
Come on, come on, come on, Lizzy,
Love me till I'm satisfied."
(Hey, who could hear him through those screams anyway?)
Here's "Dizzy Miss Lizzy"... The Beatles, Larry Williams original, and at Shea Stadium on the first night of the US Tour.

PPPPS: Customer of the week: Big Elf

Friday 2/27/2009 ~ We Get Letters


We get letters...

1) Last week I mentioned "Good Lovin'" by The Rascals. I wondered if the bass parts were played by Felix Cavalire on the bass pedals of his Hammond organ. (Here's a link to the song.)

Dan C. and Ben R. wrote to say that they thought it was too fast to have been played by feet. Stan S. (a super fine bass player himself) suggested that it could have been a Fender Rhodes "Piano Bass." The "Piano Bass" was a small, 32-note keyboard with notes in the bass guitar range. In The Doors, Ray Manzarek put one on top of his Vox organ and played the band's bass parts with his left hand. (Here's a video.) Meanwhile, Bill B., the guitarist from The Outsiders (of "Time Won't Let Me" fame), wrote to say that he saw The Rascals live in the 1960s, and Felix had very fast feet! He thinks it may be the bass pedals on the recording. Maybe we should write to Felix himself, and ask him personally!


2) Dave R., Bill F. and Sandy F., wrote to say how much they enjoyed the "original" versions of the songs the Beatles covered. I mentioned February 11, 1963, the day the Beatles recorded ten songs for their first album, and I gave links to three of the cover tunes. Here are links to the other three they recorded that day:


"Baby It's You"

"Twist And Shout"

The Beatles were covering The Isley Brothers version of "Twist And Shout"... But The Isley's recording wasn't the first. Here's a link to the original original version of "Twist And Shout."


3) Two weeks ago I mentioned early solid-body-electric-guitar maker, Paul Bigsby. Paul made a solid electric for Merle Travis two years before Leo Fender introduced his first Telecaster. (Here's a picture of Merle and the guitar.) Paul continued to make guitars throughout the 1950s, at a rate of one per month. Needless to say, after writing the email I thought to myself, "Hey! I should get one of those someday! Think of the historical significance!" Pete S., however, wrote to explain that even though Bigbsy spent ten years in his workshop, at a rate of one-per-month that's only 120 instruments. (10 x 12!) And it's known that he made approximately 75 pedal steels, and re-necked 15 or so acoustic guitars... which leaves his solid-body electric output at roughly 25 guitars. (The amount that Leo Fender cranked out before lunch... on a bad day... when he had a cold... and his screwdriver broke.) SO, with only 25-ish Bigsby six-string guitars in the world, it's unlikely I'll ever own one. But if you ever see one for sale, let me know!!


4) I do, however, have several guitars with the Paul-Bigsby-designed Bigsby Vibrato unit! Bisgby designed the vibrato for Merle Travis, who complained that his Kauffman vibrato would not stay in tune. Our good friend Geoff, from the band The Undertakers, wrote from Liverpool to say that he is both a Merle Travis fan and a Bigsby vibrato fan. And he sent a picture from 1960, where he's holding his brand new 1960 Gibson Les Paul TV Special. And yes, the first thing he did when he bought the guitar: add a Bigsby! Here's Geoff.


5) A few weeks back I mentioned our favorite ex-guitar teacher Korel. He was in Liverpool and met Paul McCartney at the MTV Europe Music Awards Show. Well, oddly last month they were in the same place at the same time again! They both played at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles! Korel has seen many exotic locales playing for The Goo Goo Dolls, but while they're on a break, he's adding more countries to his passport playing in Katy Perry's band. Here's Korel somewhere!


See you soon,



PS: Speaking of previous emails, at the end of the Paul Bigsby email I mentioned that John Lennon's first Rickenbacker 325 came from the factory with a Kauffman vibrato, and that he switched it for a Bigsby. It just occurred to me that John removed his Kauffman and installed the Bigsby right on the counter of Hessy's Music Store in Liverpool. And the guy who helped him install the Bigsby was Chris Huston, the other guitarist from Geoff's band The Undertakers. Years later, Chris quit The Undertakers and moved to the United States, where he became a successful recording engineer. And one of the bands he recorded: The Rascals! Here's Chris Huston receiving a Gold Record for "Groovin'" with Rascals guitarist Gene Cornish. Maybe I could ask Geoff to ask Chris to ask Felix if he used the bass pedals!


PPS: May 30th at The Rex Theater
Pittsburgh Guitars 30th Anniversary Party!
More news soon!

PPPS: Customer of the week: Between Liberties

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