Email Specials from June 2010

Friday 6/4/2010 ~ Gone Fishin'


As a kid I used to watch the Andy Griffith Show. And in Mayberry, if it was a nice day and you owned your own business, you could always close up, and put a "Gone Fishin'" sign in the window.

It turns out that in real life, that isn't true. (And now I'm beginning to wonder if Floyd was really a barber... and if his daughter Pink really formed that band...)

During the last thirty years I've found that it's best to keep your store open whenever possible... and it's even a good idea to answer the phone after hours. Here's a true story... A guy came into Pittsburgh Guitars this week and bought an expensive guitar. After he paid for it he said, "I'm sure you don't remember this, but twenty years ago I called and said, 'I just got out of rehab, I have $75, and I need to buy a guitar.' You were already closed, but you said, 'Sure, come on down.' You opened the store and sold me a guitar. And that guitar helped me get my life together."

I didn't really remember that event, but it was nice to hear.

I do remember another late-night call, though. The store had been closed for several hours, and I was busy cleaning, when a guy called with a left-handed 1960 Les Paul Sunburst. Today a 1960 Les Paul Sunburst would be worth ONE MILLION dollars! OK, not really... but more than a hundred thousand dollars. Since this story takes place in 1982, it was worth significantly less. So much less, that I was actually able to strike a deal with the guy.

Since it was a complicated deal, we didn't complete it that night... it took a day or so. But I was sure glad I answered that call. Any 1960 Les Paul Sunburst is rare... and they only made THREE left-handed ones. I couldn't play it... since it was all backwards and everything... but it was fun and exciting to own!

And where is that guitar today? Well, on August 18, 2010 it will be back here in Pittsburgh... on stage with Paul McCartney!

I traded it to Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick for a bunch of guitars. A few years later he sold it to McCartney. And Paul has been using it as his main on-stage electric guitar for the last twenty years.

Here's a really cool backstage interview with Paul McCartney's guitar tech. It's nine minutes long, but it's great to see all of his famous guitars.

And at the 6:20 mark, when the interviewer says "This is one of the rarest guitars ever..." he points to the Les Paul from Pittsburgh.

Here's a very young me... and a young-ish Paul McCartney... with the guitar.

In the video it's interesting to hear the guitar tech say that a few years ago Paul was offered one of the other three left-handed 1960 Les Paul Sunbursts. The tech says that Paul didn't buy it because "we didn't need two." I laughed when I heard that. Since Paul has a million billion dollars, he can easily afford to have more than one of anything... but unlike some of us, he knows when to stop. That's the difference between Paul and me. He's a wealthy, world renowned, will-go-down-in-history-as-one-of-the-world's-greatest-songwriters, super-talented musician, with a handful of guitars... and I have five of these. Oh well...


See ya soon,


PS: In the video above, the Russian interviewer (Is that Russian?) refers to Paul's Sunburst as a 1959. It's really a 1960. The serial number is #0 1482.

PPS: In case you were counting the Baldwin Virginians in the picture of John above, and only noticed three, here are the other two... #4 and #5. It's pretty cool owning them... but I'd still rather be Paul McCartney.

PPPS: From last week's Pittsburgh Guitars Big Beatle Show #7: Shoegusto "I Need You" and "Cry Baby Cry"
Click on the HD 720p, to see them in high definition.
More videos will be up as the week progresses.
You can find them on youtube under the search: Big Beatle Show 7

PPPPS: Customers of the week:
Tonight at the Three Rivers Arts Festival
Alejandro Escovedo

Tomorrow, June 5 at Gooski's in Pittsburgh
Next week: Tokyo, Japan!


Friday 6/11/2010 ~ Delivery vs. Content

Yesterday on ye olde satellite radio I heard an interview with comedian Joan Rivers.

(For our younger readers, Joan got her start in the 1960s, and was a TV regular throughout the 1970s and 80s. Today she is more well known for her almost frightening plastic surgery.)

Joan said she is happy with her chosen profession, but it does have a serious drawback. Despite her age (77) and her years in the biz (50), she said she still has to continually write new jokes. She claims it's necessary for her to be successful. She compared her telling jokes to a singer singing songs, and she said (this is not an exact quote... I was driving at the time...) "Even when Barbra Streisand is ninety years old, folks will still be happy to see her sing 'People.' But no one wants to hear me tell a joke that they've heard me tell before!"

(For our younger readers, Barbra Streisand got her start in the early 1960s as an awkward-looking teenager with a fabulous voice. Today she is a not-quite-as-awkward-looking multi-millionaire. "People" was a #1 hit for her in 1964.)

Joan's comment got me thinkin'. Not only can singers get away with performing 30- or 40-year-old hit songs, it's almost a prerequisite. *If* I can get tickets to Paul McCartney's upcoming Pittsburgh show, I'll be disappointed if he doesn't sing "I Saw Her Standing There."

(Oddly, less than five minutes after Paul's tickets went on "pre-sale" yesterday, they were sold out. And yet at the same time, one of the on-line ticket scalpers had over 500 tickets for sale. Someday someone should investigate how concert tickets are really sold.)

So, Joan is right, there is a difference. Unlike a famous rock act, if a comedian says, "Now I'm gonna do a joke from my new album," it is not a cue for the audience to go out to the lobby to get a beer.

Comedians and old-vs-new jokes reminds me of a show I saw last year. I was at The Rex, enjoying one of my favorite new comedians, Mike Birbiglia, and an interesting thing happened. He was doing mostly new material, from his second CD... and near the end of his show he made an offhand comment, throwing in one line from a joke on his first CD. Since most of us in the audience had the first CD, we knew the reference and we laughed. He was taken aback, and said, "Wow, you're laughing at a joke I didn't even tell!" I'm not sure how this event figures into Joan's premise, but it was a pretty cool moment. Kind of an "insider" thing.

And an "insider" moment reminds me of The Kinks at the Civic Arena on December 10, 1984. (For our younger readers, Civic Arena = Mellon Arena = soon-to-be empty lot)

The Kinks have had a checkered career, to say the least. After their initial success in 1964 with "You Really Got Me," "All Day And All Of The Night" and a few others, they didn't make the charts for many years. I once read that 1968's "The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society," their greatest album ever, sold only 20,000 copies worldwide when it was released. After years of semi-obscurity, the band temporarily bounced back in 1970 with a #9 hit (on the US charts) "Lola," but it was a brief brush with fame. For the next twelve years the closest they had to a hit was 1977s "Rock & Roll Fantasy" which made it to #30. Most of their 1970s singles did not make the charts at all.

BUT they continued to tour. And their infectious stage show, which was often so loose that it was just inches away from complete collapse, won them a small but dedicated fan base. I saw them many times, and every show was wonderful and unpredictable. It was particularly amusing that head Kink, Ray Davies, would, for no particular reason, randomly start singing "The Banana Boat Song." Sometimes a verse or two... sometimes just the "Day O... Daaaaaaaaay O" part. Just like those times when he broke into a song from 1926 called "Baby Face," it was The Kinks having a good time.

But The Kinks fortunes changed for the better in 1983. The video for their single "Come Dancing" became an MTV favorite, (F.o.y.r., MTV used to play rock videos...). And in mid-1983 "Come Dancing" went to #6, their highest US chart position since 1965's "Tired Of Waiting For You." Suddenly The Kinks were back in favor, and a US tour was booked. And instead of smaller halls, the band stepped up to larger venues. The Kinks' previous Pittsburgh appearances, in 1974, 1977, 1978, 1980 and 1982 had all been at the relatively small Stanley Theater (now The Benedum). In 1984, thanks to "Come Dancing," they graduated to the Civic Arena. And thanks to MTV, the arena was packed with many kids who had never seen the band before.

As I sat there before the show, it occurred to me that the number of people in the arena that night almost equaled the number of people who bought "The Village Green Preservation Society" LP when it first came out. And when I saw the big stage and the big PA and the big lights, I thought, "Good for The Kinks. They're big-time now!"

And as the lights went down and the band ran out and music started, and the big-time professional-show biz concert got underway, what were the first words out of Ray Davies mouth? "Daaaaaay O... Daaaaaaaaaaaay O."

I smiled from ear to ear. Most of the people in the arena were confused. But we hard-core fans knew. It was Ray's shout-out to the folks who kept the band going during the lean years. That was a grand "insider" moment!

Since The Kinks played the 20-year-old song "You Really Got Me" and did the "Day O" bit, they were repeating both music and humor.

And, now that I think about it, if I knew that Mike Birbiglia was doing his first CD, "Two Drink Mike," word-for-word, I'd go to that show. And if Mitch Hedberg came back from the dead, and did his entire first CD word-for-word, I'd go to see that too.

So, maybe Joan wasn't right. Maybe some comedians CAN repeat material in the same way rockers repeat rock. Perhaps it's related to the percentage of humor contained in the "delivery" versus the "content" of the joke. And that's why Henny Youngman got laughs with "Take my wife. Please." until his final show. His delivery contained a higher percentage of comedy than the actual content of the joke.

On the other hand, maybe Joan's delivery is not as funny as what she's saying... so she constantly needs new things to say. (I don't think I ever saw Joan tell a joke, so this part is hypothesis...) (Actually, this entire email is hypothesis...) (But in my defense, I'm still recovering from showing our Liverpool friends around earlier in the week...) (They're safely back home in England now. And they had a great time here in the U.S. Of America.)

Continuing our quest for the answer to this paradox, we can apply the "delivery" vs. "content" concept to the musical parallel. We all know what "I Saw Her Standing There" or "You Really Got Me" sound like. The beauty of hearing them live comes from the personal delivery of the artists. Ha!!

So, the only remaining question is: Does there exist a rock star who you would rather hear do new material? A Joan Rivers-like rock star who's performance of a previous hit record would pale in comparison to their performance of a brand new, never-heard song? Mmmmmmm........


See ya soon,


PS: Last week I linked to this video of Paul McCartney's guitar tech being interviewed. I asked about the language of the interviewer and the subtitles. It only took moments for Email Special readers to reply that the interviewer was Israeli and the subtitles were in Hebrew. Thanks!

PPS: The Kinks "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues"

PPPS: The Kinks "Victoria"

PPPPS: "The Village Green Preservation Society" album eventually sold a reasonable number of copies. But Ray Davies made his big money from it last year, when Hewlett-Packard used one of the songs from the LP, "Picture Book," in an ad campaign for their digital products. Here's one of the ads.

PPPPS: Customer of the week: The Undertakers


Friday 6/18/2010 ~ That Warm and Fuzzy Feeling


I've been tired this week... Maybe it's the working too hard, getting up too early, or staying up too late. Or maybe it's the wine...

Sometimes I get tired of running the store. After all, it has been 31 years. And that's a lot of paperwork.

But then, just as I feel like I want to retire, someone will walk through the door with a vintage guitar. And I get all tingly inside, and feel just like I did the day I opened this place. Yeah... I may be here forever.

And it doesn't have to be a super valuable guitar. Or something that we're going to make a lot of money on. (In fact, most "vintage" guitars are very reasonably priced relative to new guitars.) There is just something special, and magical, about a fifty-year-old guitar. (Hey... maybe that's true of people, too!)

We bought two guitars this week that made me feel young again. They aren't "we-can-retire-on-this" guitars... they won't even be the most expensive guitars on the wall... but they are good, solid, 100%-made-in-America, classic instruments. And they make me happy.

The first is a 1969 Gibson B-25. You may not be familiar with that model designation, but it's an upper-grade model in the small-bodied LG-0, LG-1, LG-2 series.

Here's a picture of John with it. Oh, I forgot to mention, Betsy is out sick today... And she's the one who takes the pictures... So, I'm going to give it a try... This may not be as good as usual... Here's John with a 1969 Gibson B-25.

The second guitar we purchased is a 1963 ES-125TC. This is from a family of guitars, the ES-125s, that we've discussed before.

Gibson had been putting a variety of pickups on archtop guitars since 1936. But with the outbreak of World War II, Gibson, like many other manufacturers, redirected their factory efforts to make war supplies. When the guitar-building business resumed at the end of the war, Gibson was ready with a newly designed pickup. One that they'd then use on every one of their electric guitars, the P-90.

And the least expensive electric guitar in Gibson's post-war 1946 product line was the new ES-125. It was a simple, relatively plain, deep-body, non-cutaway, archtop... with a P-90 in the neck position. From 1946 until its retirement in 1970, Gibson made 32,940 ES-125s, and it's the most common vintage Gibson we've seen in these many years at Pittsburgh Guitars.

But over the decades, Gibson also made variations on the 125 theme. In 1956 Gibson decided to "go thin" and offered a thinner version called the ES-125T. ("T" = thin.) In 1957 they introduced a two-pickup thin version, the ES-125TD. ("T" = thin; "D" = double-pickup.)

And in 1960, they finally offered cutaway versions, the ES-125TC (thin body, "C" = cutaway) and the ES-125TDC (thin body, two P-90 pickups, and "C" = cutaway.)

Our new acquisition is the single pickup, thin, cutaway ES-125TC. Here's John with the guitar.

You might be more familiar with the two pickup version, the ES-125TDC, since that model has been very prominently used by George "Bad To The Bone" Thorogood. Here's George.

OK, I'm gonna stop now. Taking all of these pictures is wearin' me out! I don't know how Betsy does it!


See ya soon,


PS: By the end of the 1960s, sales of the assorted ES-125 models had slowed to a crawl. (Blame Jimi Hendrix, Fred Zeppelin, and all of those really loud solid-body guys!) In 1970 Gibson discontinued the ES-125, ES-125T, ES-125TD, ES-125TC, and ES-125TDC. (As well as their little brother, the ES-125T 3/4.)

PPS: You know how it takes Rickenbacker two years to make a guitar? Well, since we pay our bills so fast they're slipping a few extra ones our way. This week we got THREE Rick 12-strings! We're thrilled! It is the most Rickenbacker guitars we've had at one time in the last five years. If you need the best sounding 12-string in the world, we have `em. (I'd take some pictures for you, but...) (We'll get those done next week!)

PPPS: Hey, on a different note, maybe you can help me out with something...
Have you seen a show called "Pawn Stars"? It's a half-hour "reality" show on The History
Channel. It's set in a real pawn shop in Las Vegas. The structure of the show is this: In the first half of the show, a variety of people walk in with items they want to sell... like a deep sea diving helmet... or an old Coke machine. The pawn guys invariably say, "Let me call in an expert to see what this is worth." Later in the show, an expert arrives, and says, "This is worth $2000." Then the pawn guy turns to the seller and asks, "Well, what do you want for it?" And the seller says, "$2000!" And the pawn guy says, "Well, I'll give you $500." And then the seller generally says, "Awww... well, OK." (Sometimes the seller refuses the offer and takes the item home.)
The entertainment comes from the tension and resolution. In the first half of the show no one, even the pawn guys, seem to know what something is worth, or if it's even legitimate. In the second half of the show, the "expert" arrives and answers those questions. Then, at the end, we get to see if the seller goes for the pawn shop's offer.
It's pretty entertaining; and it's been renewed for a third season.

Now, here's where I need your help.

Suppose we were thinking about doing a similar thing here... (I can say no more.) Suppose we had the opportunity to do a show about Pittsburgh Guitars... (I can say no more.) Suppose... well... (I've already said too much.) I'd like to do a show, but to me the problem would be that "tension and resolution" thing. That's what keeps viewers in their seats until the end of the episode. We don't have that. We have plenty of entertaining customers (and you know who you are!). And we buy and sell guitars constantly. But we never "call in an expert." We know immediately if something is legitimate and we know what it's worth. And we tell the customer. And naturally we have to buy it for a little less to keep the store going.
So, my question is: what "hook" can we use to keep mainstream America tuned in to a half hour reality show about a guitar store?
As you know by these weekly emails, I LOVE guitars. And I would watch ANY show about them. But what would keep a non-musician watching such a show?
Any ideas?

PPPPS: Customer of the week: The Clarks
At Station Square Saturday Night!
And on your iPhone 24 anytime!


Friday 6/25/2010 ~ Mistakes on Records


Last week I visited the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

It's a cool place, and worth a visit.

I was impressed by the guitar collection... everything from Johnny Ramone's heavily modified Mosrite, to Duane Allman's Les Paul Sunburst, to Muddy Water's Telecaster. There are also a lot of great videos... and fun stuff to read. It was funny to see an early hand-typed letter from Elvis's accountant, explaining that due to the steep income tax rates it would be nearly impossible for Elvis to become a millionaire. (I wonder how that worked out?) There was also a collection of letters written by Pete Townsend while on tour with The Who. In one letter, written on Holiday Inn stationary, he talks about how much he enjoyed seeing The Kinks. He said, "They are the one band who haven't changed at all since the old days back in England."

It was great to see the paperwork... letters, telegrams, song lyrics, etc... but on the drive home I realized that that era has passed. Correspondence, legal documents, even song lyrics are all done on computers these days. At home in the basement I have a giant box full of letters from my past. (I think those are the kinds of things you're supposed to throw away when you get married...) (But you know me and savin' stuff...) (Besides, what if I wanted to read a letter Kathleen Donnelly sent me 40 years ago?) BUT, the letters written to me since 1993? I don't know where those are. I kinda know where they went... they were in old formats, on old email programs, on old computers that have long since been scrapped. I don't collect boxes of paper anymore. And old electronic files are hard to keep track of. Since we update our computers and formats every few years, it's hard to remember where old files are... and even if you do know where they are, they may not open with a newer program.

I picture this: Years from now, a display at the Rock Hall Of Fame will feature a pile of 5 1/4" floppy discs, with a sign that says:
"On these discs are fascinating poems written by Scott Weiland in 2001 while he was stoned. Unfortunately, no one has a computer that can read them... But here are the floppy discs!"

On the drive home, while I was lamenting the future lack of interesting historical paperwork in the future Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, I turned on the ol' satellite radio. I scanned the channels, and stopped on the 1950s station. There I heard a song that I wasn't overly familiar with, but mid-way through, it caught my attention. The song was "You've Got What It Takes," by Brook Benton and Dinah Washington. It was a #1 hit on Billboard's R&B charts for ten weeks in early 1960. The interesting thing about "You've Got What It Takes" is that there's an obvious vocal mistake in it. The format of the song is:

Verse 1: Two lines sung by Brook, then two lines sung by Dinah
Verse 2: Two lines by Dinah, then two lines by Brook
Bridge: Both sing
Verse 3: Two lines by Brook, two lines by Dinah
Bridge: Both sing
Verse 4: Two lines by Dinah, two lines by Brook

So, as you can see, the plan was to alternate who sings the first two lines of each verse. Verses 1 & 3 start with Brook, verses 2 & 4 start with Dinah. But coming out of the second bridge, Brook starts to sing on top of Dinah's line. They both stumble, realize the error, and she keeps going. When she finishes her lines, she says to him, "Now it's you!" It's an odd arrangement, so it's an understandable mistake. But what's particularly entertaining is that they left the error in, and used that take for the final release of the song. And why? Well, most likely the producer liked the "feel" of that take, and the only alternative would be to use a totally different recording of the song. Here's "You've Got What It Takes" by Brook Benton and Dinah Washington.

THAT wouldn't happen today. With modern computer recording, if even one syllable is off, it can be corrected... either electronically, with cutting and pasting from a different take, or just having the artist re-sing the one note or line.

Like paperwork from pre-computer days, errors in recordings have disappeared. And I miss them. Vocal and instrumental mistakes give songs personality. I don't think rock & roll should be perfect. It should be passionate. And fun. And, well, rock & roll!

I bet there are lots of rock & roll songs with mistakes. The first one that comes to mind is an all-time classic, "Louie, Louie" by The Kingsmen. Recorded in one take, with both the music and the vocals recorded simultaneously, "Louie, Louie" is passion, fun and rock & roll, perfectly merged together. And it has a mistake. At the end of the guitar solo, vocalist Joe Ely starts the last verse too early. After one word he sees that he's wrong, and he waits for the riff to play through one more time before starting the verse again. And now, this mistake is such a part of rock & roll history that when many people perform a cover version of "Louie, Louie" they often cover the mistake, too. Here's "Louie Louie."

Another example of the same type of mistake (at least I think it's a mistake...) is "I Saw Her Again Last Night" by the Mamas & Papas. Coming out of the bridge, they start the last verse too early. In this instance, it's such a cute mistake I believe they were happy to have it in there. "I Saw Her Again Last Night."

I'm sure there are more songs out there. Can you think of any? Send some, and we'll pick a winner for some prizes.

Meanwhile, even if paperwork from this decade doesn't exist, at least bands are still using guitars. Perhaps years from now visitors to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame will be able to see John Mayer's Strat proudly displayed... right next to the orange jumpsuit Lil Wayne wore while in prison, and a jar of fake blood used by Lady Gaga.


See ya soon,


PS: Hey Betsy is back!! So we should at least have one picture. Here's John making a vocal error on a recording.

PPS: We also got a stash of new Hamer guitars this week. They're nice guitars, and really inexpensive. Here's John with one or two.

PPPS: Thanks to every one who responded to last week's request for Pittsburgh Guitars TV show suggestions. I appreciate it. And I really appreciate all of the kind comments about the store! We're still up in the air about pursuing a show, but we're having some meetings next week to discuss it further. Meanwhile, if you have a guitar with a particularly interesting story, drop me an email. Thanks!

PPPPS: Customer of the week: Brad Wagner and the Bar Flys



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