Email Specials from July 2009

Friday 7/2/2009 ~ Reel to Reel Tapes


Last week I mentioned Fender's "Electric-12" guitar...

When they decided to discontinue the model they modified the leftover parts and introduced a new guitar called the Fender "Custom." (Or, as they sometimes labeled it, the "Maverick.")

That's one way to get rid of outdated inventory. But sometimes things become seriously "outdated"...

Last night I turned on the ol' cable TV, and I thought I'd watch some sort of new movie on HBO. And what was playing? A 1978 movie called "Foul Play." (I know! I'm paying extra for HBO, and they're playing a movie from 1978??)

The movie was actually pretty good, though. It stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn when they were both young and cute. Chevy plays a hip police detective and Goldie plays a damsel in distress. In one scene they were making out in Chevy's apartment, and since it's only rated PG the camera panned away from them to show the rest of the room. Chevy's turntable, receiver, and speakers came into view. (OK, it was his character's turntable, receiver, and speakers...) And to show how contemporary Chevy's character was, next to the turntable was a reel-to-reel tape deck.

Of course, reel-to-reel tape recorders are still used in some recording studios. Many people feel that an analog recording (tape) has a warmer sound than a digital one (on a computer). BUT, when was the last time you saw a reel-to-reel tape deck in someone's living room?

It seems so long ago, but once upon a time (before CDs) you could purchase your favorite band's new album not only on vinyl, but also on reel-to-reel tape. True audiophiles appreciated the purity of the tape sound, despite the added work of threading the tape onto the machine, and the difficulty of quickly jumping to the next song.

Needless to say, reel-to-reel albums were sold in far fewer numbers than vinyl LPs. And since you rarely see them, most folks have even forgotten that they existed. So it was fun to see the tape deck as part of Chevy Chase's audio set-up in the film. It reminded me of the reel-to-reel rock & roll album, a product that was commercially viable at one time, and then, once it was out-dated, quickly faded into the sunset.

At least you can't say that about the guitar. Models have come and gone, and manufacturers may have excess inventory now and then....but the basic concept of the guitar is still alive and strong. If Chevy's character had purchased a new Strat the same day he bought that tape deck, it would not only still be useful (as well as hip and contemporary), it would also have increased in value.


As you might guess, if any reel-to-reel tapes were laying around here at Pittsburgh Guitars, they'd be by... The Beatles. Here's John holding four.


See you soon,

PS: Have a safe and enjoyable holiday weekend!

PPS: Customer Of The Week: The Church

Friday 7/17/2009 ~ Time


I'm a little concerned about this "time" thing...

It seems to be going faster and faster.

I know that when you're young, older folks tell you all sorts of crazy stuff, like: "Don't smoke, it's the worst thing you can do for you health." Or, "Someday you might regret getting that tattoo on your face..."

But, when they say that life starts to speed up, they're right.

So, the question is, how do you address this situation?

Should I do more, to get as much done as possible? ("Never a better time to carry those barbells up to the attic!") Or should I do less, hoping that time slows down? ("Never a better time to watch a re-run of 'Judge Judy'!")

Well, I'm hoping to find a happy medium. (Or at least a satisfied fortune teller.) Last week we were extremely busy at the store, and by the time I packed the truck to drive to Philadelphia for a guitar show, I ran out of time to write the Email Special. I know that neither your world nor mine revolves around the weekly email... It just bothers me that time got by me. It's relentless!

Now I'm wondering if I'll ever get around to watching those shows I recorded on video tape, back when the first VHS machines came out...

And will I ever form my Gravel tribute band? (Gravel was a Pittsburgh band in the late 1970s. I mentioned them in an Email Special back in 2007. Here's a link.)

And now THIS week is breezing by, and I haven't even spent any time practicing the chords to "Rocky Top"....

Oh well...


Hey! At least the guitar show was fun!! Remember a couple of weeks ago when I talked about Fender's "Electric XII" 12-string guitar? And I showed this picture, and said I was sorry that it was an old photo, but I sold the guitar several years ago? And I missed it? And, by the way, was that the model Jimmy Page used to record "Stairway To Heaven"? (Several folks wrote to say, "Yes, it was.")


Well, at the Philly show I saw another one! So, I did some trading, and now I can form my own Led Zeppelin tribute band! Here's a new picture of John, with my new 1967 Fender Electric XII. Woo Hoo!


Ok, now getting back to this week's Email Special, there are several things that I'd like to discuss, as long as I don't run out of t

Friday 7/24/2009 ~ Modified Guitars, and Gravel


Yesterday a lady brought in a guitar she got from her ex-husband. He told her it was a 1969 Telecaster and worth several thousand dollars. He was slightly less than half-right...

Although this guitar began its life as a 1969 Tele, the past 40 years brought some changes. (Hey, just like us!) The body was sanded down and non-professionally refinished. Twenty years ago active EMG pickups were added, so a battery hole was routed under the pickguard. Modern-day Fender pickups were later installed. The pickguard was replaced. The bridge was changed. The pots were changed. And the knobs were changed. And, oh yeah, a vibrato system was screwed to the top of the guitar. So...

We gently tried to explain that while change is a necessary part of life, and often a very positive thing, it has a negative effect on the value of a vintage instrument. Her all-original `69 Tele neck was valuable, but the rest of the guitar had traveled from collectors-world to everyday world. She grumbled something about her ex-husband and wandered off. (We didn't buy it.)

For a minute or two I felt bad... first, because she couldn't get the money he promised her... and second, because it's a shame to see all of those changes on an old guitar. But after I thought about it for a while, I realized that this was a professional "gigging" guitar. Those changes were made to make it look and perform better on-stage... to make it a more effective tool. In our "vintage" biz, 100%-original guitars (even down to the solder on the wiring) bring the most "collector's" money. But that's not why these instruments were created in the first place. They were made to make music, to make magic, to entertain people. And if the player felt that a few changes were needed, well, then that's OK.

I certainly wouldn't take a fifty-year-old guitar and start making modifications now. But if we come across a guitar that has been used on-stage for fifty-years, and changed along the way, I think we should accept it and value it for the job it's done! After all, there is more to life than "collector's money"... there's the value of making music and spreading joy in the world.

When I started to think about guitars that were used for their original purpose, making music, I thought about an email special from last month. I showed a photo of John with a mint condition Fender "Custom" guitar. Here's the picture again. Well, I own another "Custom" that doesn't have the collector value of that one, but means just as much to me... It's the guitar that was used by Karl Mullen in the early Pittsburgh punk band, Carsickness. Here's a photo of Carsickness from 1980. And here's John with the guitar.

And that reminded me of other guitars in the Pittsburgh Guitars collection that have been heavily modified, but are still dear to me... like the Les Paul Deluxe and Guild D-25 used in the mid-1970s by Dave Hanner in Gravel.

In last week's email, I mentioned that one of my goals is to form a Gravel tribute band. (They later changed their name to "Corbin-Hanner" when Dave Hanner and Bob Corbin became successful Nashville songwriters. But I'm sticking with the original "Gravel" name for my tribute.) And I have a head start, because in addition to Dave's Les Paul and Guild, I also have the Strat used by their other guitarist Benny Benedix. Here's John with Benny's Strat. AND I have the drums used in Gravel by my third favorite drummer in the world, Dave Freeland. (First: Ringo; second: Steve Jordan from 1975-1985; third: Dave.) Here's John with a couple of the drums. (Oddly, before they were in a fire, the finish on Dave's drums was Black Oyster Pearl, just like Ringo's. He later removed the bottom lugs on his drums, and under the lugs was the undamaged original finish. Here's a close-up.)

I'll let you know how that tribute band works out...

Meanwhile, right after I wrote last week's email, I jumped in the car with John (the-new-guy) and drove to Nashville for the summer NAMM show. Naturally, the first thing we did was walk into a bar on Broadway... the long drive made us thirsty... and much to our surprise, the girl behind the bar was wearing a Pittsburgh Guitars T-Shirt! We were so touched we ordered a beer! (or four...) Here's the bartender at Robert's in Nashville. She was very friendly! She said that she wears our shirt constantly and people love the big "Go For The Neck" slogan on the back. (I better trademark that...)

An hour later it was time to leave Roberts and get to work... But it turns out that there are four more bars between there and the corner. Now, on Broadway in Nashville, all of these bars have live music... with guys and gals playing since guitars are our business, it's important that we check out all of these bands... so... in a sense, visiting each bar WAS work. When we finally got to the corner bar, called Legends, I said, "OK, just two songs here, and then off to the convention center."

The first tune was a Johnny Cash song. And the second: a song by Gravel!! Yep, true story. The song is called "Dinosaur," and the local Nashville band was covering it because it was recorded by Hank Williams, Jr. But it was written by Bob Corbin and I saw Gravel play it many times at The Decade in Oakland. It made me feel warm and fuzzy. The fuzzy part might have been the beer, but since I had JUST written to you about Gravel a mere fifteen hours earlier, I'm going to take hearing one of their songs covered in a bar in Nashville as a sign. I don't know what kind of a sign... but a sign!


Hey, maybe you could modify your guitar, and then use it to write a song, and then have the song covered by a famous country star, and then make a lot of money!


See you soon,


PS: The NAMM Show was fun, as always. I'll tell ya more about the show, and some of the wacky new products we saw, next week.

PPS: While we were in Nashville we visited the world famous Gruhn Guitars. I've known George for years, and he let John try out some super expensive guitars in the private super expensive room. Here's John with a 1960 Les Paul Sunburst. I asked him not to drop it, since we'd have to sell the Pittsburgh Guitars building to pay for it!

PPPS: Speaking of George Gruhn, he quoted me in an article in Vintage Guitar Magazine this month. It concerned a limited run of build-it-yourself "kit" basses that Hofner sold in 1983. We sold two of them at Pittsburgh Guitars in `83... and just last year I ran into a guy who had one here in Pittsburgh. But I forget who he was. Was it you? If so, give me a call.

PPPPS: Getting back to Gravel and "Dinosaur," that song is a good example of why I was so impressed with the band. While the rest of us were trying to write simplistic songs and looking for a rhyme for "girlfriend," Dave Hanner and Bob Corbin were crafting songs that told stories. Bob wrote this one during the David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust era, when he couldn't quite relate to the music. Imagine walking into a small bar in Pittsburgh and hearing the band say, "Now we're gonna do one of our songs..." and then hearing this:

"Hey man, them ain't high heel sneakers,
And they sure don't look like dancin' shoes.
And that ain't rock & roll you're playing,
And it sure ain't country, rhythm & blues.

You sing a song about makin' love to your sister,
I think I'd rather hear 'Johnny B. Goode.'
And what's that stuff you've got on your face mister...
Is there something I don't know that I should?

I guess I'm a dinosaur, I should have died out a long time before
Have pity on a dinosaur.
Hand me my hat, excuse me man, where's the door?

It used to be I had fun in the city
I listen to the jukebox, try to stay out of fights
And now and then a sweet young girl in a red dress,
All gussied up, man, what a sight.

And you know that flashing light sure makes me dizzy,
And the music's very strange to my ear.
It looks like they turned Smokey Joe's into a spaceship.
I'll be leaving just a soon as I finish my beer.

I had a dream they put me in a museum,
Right up beside the dinosaur
And at my feet lay the fender from my old Chevy
And it read 'Missing link, 1964.'

I guess I'm a dinosaur, Should have died out a long time ago
Have pity on a dinosaur.
Hand me my hat, excuse me man, where's the door?"

"Dinosaur" - Bob Corbin


PPPPPS: Here's Corbin/Hanner doing the song at a big show after they both had several Gold Records for their songwriting.

PPPPPPS: Here's the same song at a small bar five years earlier.

PPPPPPPS: Here's Hank Williams Jr's version. He changed a lot of the lyrics... not for the better. I guess he felt the original was too subtle, and his audience needed more of a sledgehammer approach. But lyric change or not, I'm sure Bob Corbin made a bunch of money. And I like it when Pittsburghers go on to fame and fortune!!

PPPPPPPPS: Customer Of The Week: The Strawbs

Friday 7/31/2009 ~ Summer NAMM

OK, now, where was I? Oh yeah... NAMM... and Nashville.... Mmmmmm.... Nashville... where every restaurant serves pulled pork sandwiches... with a side of coleslaw and baked beans.... Mmmmmmm... Now I'm hungry!! I wonder if I can find a pulled pork sandwich on the South Side?

Oh well... getting back to NAMM... Twice a year musical supply manufacturers (like D'Addario Strings) and instrument makers (like Martin Guitars) get together to show store owners (like me) new products. And through assorted strong arm tactics (like free beer) they try to get us to buy stuff. I usually take John (the new guy) with me, to talk me out of buying weird new things (like a miniature guitar tuner that fits under your pickguard, with a light-up display ring under your volume knob).

(I liked that, by the way...) (With this tuner your volume pot is replaced with a push-pull pot, and when you pull it out, it cuts off the signal to your amp and activates the light-up tuner ring. The ring has the usual six-note lights, and red and green lights to tune by.) (It would cost $85 installed...) (You'd buy that, wouldn't you?) (John said you wouldn't...) (He said that with a regular tuner you can tune all of your guitars, even as you switch between them on stage... but with this, you'd have to install one in EVERY ONE of your guitars...) (So, I guess that wouldn't be practical.) (It WAS cool, though...)

We did order some fun stuff at the show. John has been after me to order some high-end guitar cables, and he's a fan of the George L cables, so we ordered some of those. We compared them with a few regular guitar cables, and they do have a little more high end and are a little more "transparent" for lack of a better word. (Although considering the cost, after you buy it your wallet will be a bit more transparent, too.) We have them in the store now, if you'd like to come in and A/B them yourself.

Speaking of "in the store," we also have the newest offering from Danelectro, the "Dead On `67 Hornet" reissue. The Hornet, with its sleek, thin body and psychedelic pickguard, was one of the last models made by the original Danelectro Company. They were manufactured from 1967 through 1968, right before the parent company, MCA, shut down Danelectro production in 1969. The new ones are really cool and sound great. (Although they do have four knobs, instead of the three on the originals...) (And they also have a regular toggle, instead of the little on/off slider switches on the originals...) (So I guess they're not EXACTLY "Dead On." They're kind of "Almost Dead On.") (Or "I'm-Not-Dead-Yet On"...) Like all of the recent Dano reissues, they're fun! And economically priced! Here's John with a couple.

In addition to the Hornet, Danelectro has reissued a new version of the Longhorn Bass, called the "Dead On `58 Bass." And this one is very accurate. They've even replicated the textured wallpaper on the sides and gave it a vintage-looking paint job. The only change is a more stable tailpiece, which isn't a bad plan, considering the original was kinda dangerous. So, I'd call this one "98% Dead On." Here's John with the new one and an original 1958 Longhorn Bass. (Note: on the very earliest `58s the pickups were spaced close together, as they are on my `58. By later 1958 they had the spacing of the reissue.) Here's a close-up of the "tailpieces." (The strings just hooked under the original tailpiece. It seemed as if they'd pop out at anytime!)

Martin, meanwhile, has made some distribution changes. But first, a story...

Years and years ago Martin realized that although they made the finest hand-made guitars on the market, they didn't really have anything to offer to the beginning player (i.e. someone with a lower budget). They tried importing guitars (under the Sigma brand) and they tried importing just the bodies and assembling them in the USA (the Shenandoah guitars), but nothing quite worked out. Then in 1998 they went with a new approach, high pressure laminate (HPL). HPL is basically wood pulp and resin. You've no doubt heard of one of the big HPL manufacturers, Formica. The beauty of this product is that it's very durable, you can make it look like what ever you want (even wood-grain), and it doesn't sound bad when made in the shape of a guitar. (It works as a kitchen table, too.) Martin offers both 100% HPL guitars (designated by an "X" in their model number), and instruments with HPL sides and backs with a solid spruce (actual wood) top (designated by both an "X" and a "1" in their model number). Martin calls this line the "X-Series."

Examples: the Martin model DXM is all HPL; and the model DX1R is HPL sides and back, with a solid spruce top. Here's a breakdown of the model letters:
D = dreadnought size
1 = solid spruce top
M = the HPL looks like mahogany
R= the HPL looks like rosewood


Anyhow....The HPL guitars sound nice. Not as nice as a hand-made $1500 guitar, but as nice as anything in their price range. (AND they say "Martin" on them!) We've been carrying the HPL models for years and we've sold a bunch, and everybody's happy.

But Martin has decided to follow Fender's lead, and sell their less expensive guitars in Best Buy. Yes, you can now get a Martin X-Series HPL guitar at the same place that you can buy a new TV and refrigerator. Now, of course, I don't have anything against Best Buy. In fact I like them. I just bought a new vacuum cleaner there this week. And naturally I don't have anything against Martin. They make the finest acoustic guitar in the world. I'm just not sure that I want Pittsburgh Guitars to be selling the same things as Best Buy. (That's why we stopped carrying Microwaves!) (And yes, I realize that our guitars are different... for example, ours generally have all of the strings on them! But, it's more of a principle thing.) So, I've decided to have a close-out sale on the handful of X-Series guitars that we still have in stock. As soon as I can build another little display stand (me and 2x4s... we get along!), I'm going to set up a sale section. And just so you know you'll be getting the best deal (in addition to getting all six strings), I'm going to price our HPL X-Series guitars at $100 cheaper than Best Buy. Yep, you'll save enough here to go to Best Buy and buy two DVD players and Rihanna's new CD. We'll be starting the sale as soon as I get the signs made... probably Monday.

One more Nashville story: The guys from Harmony Guitars thought it would be more fun to drink their way through the NAMM show, so they rented a Tour Bus and parked it outside the show. Folks stopped by, opened a beer, and jammed on Harmony guitars. And unlike the rest of the show, they were open until 3AM. Those guys have the spirit of Rock & Roll!


See you soon,


PS: None of the Best Buy stores in this area have a musical instrument department yet.

PPS: It just now occurred to me that the wonderful Nat Daniel, founder of the Danelectro Company, was making guitars from man-made materials right from the start! Back in 1955 Nat was constructing his guitars from Masonite, and he later used Formica tops attached to a Masonite base. So he beat Martin's X-Series guitars by 43 years!

PPPS: The 1958 Longhorn Basses, as well as the new "Dead On `58 Longhorn Basses," are made of Masonite. The Hornets, which were designed after Nat Daniel sold the company the MCA, have a wood body. So do the new ones.

PPPPS: It has long been rumored that John Entwistle started the recording of The Who's "My Generation" with a Danelectro Longhorn Bass... and mid-way through the recording he broke a string. Since he didn't have any replacement strings, and since the Danelectros were so inexpensive, he opted to go out and buy a new Longhorn Bass to finish the song.

PPPPPS: After typing that last sentence I started to wonder HOW inexpensive they were, relative to today. In 1965, when "My Generation" was recorded, Danelectro Longhorn Basses sold for $150. (Note: "My Generation" was recorded in England, but I'll be doing this comparison in US Dollars.) Using adjusting a 1965 purchase of $150 for inflation... the cost in today's Dollars would be $1,027.11. And we're selling the new Danelectro Longhorn reissue for only $350!! It's an even a better bargain today!!

PPPPPPS: Since that last search was so successful, and since I want the Email Special to be as accurate as possible, I just Googled up: "John Entwistle My Generation Danelectro Longhorn Bass broke a string" and found a John Entwistle quote from Bass Player Magazine... and since it's on the internet, it MUST be true! Here's the quote:
"I started doing the solo on a Danelectro because I liked the strings and the Danelectro solos were a lot faster than the final solo. We were doing concerts at the same time we were doing the recording, so I was breaking strings, but you couldn't get the strings for them so I had to buy a new bass each time. I had just broken a string on my third Danelectro when they said we are recording at ten! I didn't have another bass so I went out and bought a Fender Jazz bass and put on some tapewound La Bella's. That was all the shop had. So I ended up using a Marshall 50 watt, a 4x12 and a Jazz Bass with Flatwound strings."

PPPPPPPS: Customer Of The Week: Last week I mentioned Karl Mullen and his early Pittsburgh punk band, Carsickness. Then, the day after the email, he walked into the store! He is generally doing art now, but he was in town from Philadelphia for a musical performance. And he bought a used Echoplex from us! Karl's art site. Karl's music.

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