Email Specials from July 2010

Friday 7/9/2010 ~ More Than Meets the Eye


Have you noticed that there is more to life than meets the eye?


Last weekend I had a chance to see a band from my youth, The Corbin-Hanner Band. During my actual youth (and by that I mean my mid-20s) they were called Gravel. Here's a picture. (Here they are today.)

I really enjoyed the show. And as they sang songs from both their past, and mine, it almost brought a tear to my eye. During one song, "Pancho," I flashed back to the many times I saw them do that song at the Decade in Oakland. And at the Grog Shop downtown. And at Mancini's in McKees Rocks. And other fine, now-defunct establishments (e.g. seedy bars). During my flashback, I could see how young, and hungry, and passionate we all were. But as I floated back to real life and glanced up at the stage, I saw and heard that things are different now. Bob (Corbin) and Dave (Hanner) obviously still enjoy playing the song... but it was a little bit less intense... a little bit less passionate... and it had a little bit of the we've-played-this-song-a-thousand-times gloss to it. (And they now tune down a half step...)

Yet, it was still a joy to hear. And it occurred to me that what I was really enjoying was not just last week's performance of the song, but the emotional combination of this new event, merged with the many times I heard it in the past. It's as if my present day appreciation was permanently attached to previous experiences. I wish that there had been a perfect stranger next to me, that I could quiz about the song. Someone that I could have a quick Vulcan mind-meld with, to see how their pure intake of the experience compared to my past-colored intake. (Although that perfect stranger's opinion would ultimately be affected by their previous experiences with other songs...)

It dawned on me that it was impossible for me to separate the past from the present, with regard to re-hearing a song. And as I analyzed it further, I'm not sure that I would want to make that separation. I guess it's because music has always been very important to me. It's kind of like a relationship. You know how your interpersonal relationships are defined by the previous experiences you and your partner have shared? I'm like that with music. (With people, too, of course... but I've had longer relationships with music...) (Hey, I started earlier!)

Speaking of past experiences... maybe that's why I like guitars with lots of play-wear. Because I know they weren't laying under a bed somewhere, doing nothing. They were out, having a life, playing music! And when you play them now, you're adding to their rich history. My favorite acoustic is a 1954 Martin D-18. I bought it twenty-five years ago, and I've put a few pick scratches on it... but before I got it, for the first thirty years of its existence, it was a song-playing machine. I didn't share those first ten-thousand songs with this guitar, but I can feel them in it now. And playing it connects me with the past. Here's me and my D-18. A lot of music has been made on this guitar, and it shows. Here are close-ups.

It all makes sense to me now. Mint condition guitars are like songs I've never heard before. Sure there will be some good ones. But nothing gives you a warmer feeling than a pleasant trip to the past. Corbin and Hanner are still writing songs, and I might like some of the new ones. But they won't take me back to the days of standing in a crowded bar, listening to a band that was so good they'd give you chills. Likewise, holding a new guitar is nice, but it's not quite like playing one that has some history to it. A guitar that has been around. Like me.


See ya soon,


PS: If you still enjoy hearing a song after thirty years, imagine the impact it must have had the first time you heard it! I can still remember the first time I heard certain tunes.PPS: Thanks to the many many folks who responded to the "Mistakes In Songs" Email Special. It's nice to see so many people passionate about so many different types of music. (You have to be passionate about an artist if you study their every recording looking for a mistake!) Our contest winner is "John C" who sent in the longest list... And our runner up is "JBevc" who sent in a list of songs with lyrics featuring factual errors. John wins a Pittsburgh Guitars accessory pack containing a box of Pittsburgh Guitars SuperTone electric guitar strings, a Pittsburgh Guitars Talent Booster cable, a strap, a peg winder, a guitar tuner, a kazoo, and a Pittsburgh Guitars T-Shirt. JBevc wins a fabulous Pittsburgh Guitars T-Shirt (available in a variety of designer colors!).

PPPS: Customer of the week: The Jonee Earthquake Band


Friday 7/16/2010 ~ An Interesting Week


Remember the 1930s?

Me neither...

But we do like old stuff. For example, we like Scott! (John with Scott.)

So occasionally we take something in on trade that isn't exactly a guitar. (Like this Kustom PA.) And that would explain the big' ol' drum set you'll see next time you walk into the store.

Since I'm a drummer myself, I like drums. But we generally don't sell them here at Pittsburgh Guitars. We made an exception this week, though, because we were offered a very entertaining set... Ludwig drums from the 1930s.

They are entertaining because drumming styles were significantly different in the pre-Rock & Roll era. Rock & Roll drummers lay down the big beat by hitting the bass drum on "1" and "3," and the snare on "2" and "4." (Note to non-musicians and country music fans: You clap on "2" and "4.") But early drummers used the bass drum as an accent effect. They would hit it occasionally, rather than continuously. In fact, drummers were responsible for a variety of sound effects. This set has a "Chinese tom tom," a wood block, a cowbell, and even a wooga-wooga gizmo. Here's a picture.

(Notice the big 28" size of the bass drum. Today's bass drums are generally 20" or 22". The Gretsch Company claims that in the late 1940s they made the first modern-day small bass drum so that drummers in New York City could fit their bass drum into a taxi cab on their way to a gig.)

If you look closely at the set, you'll notice that the snare drum is labeled "WFL." It's an interesting family story. The Ludwig Drum Company was founded in 1909 by two brothers, William F. and Theo Ludwig. And they even have a local connection. In 1910 William F. Ludwig played timpani drums for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Although the brothers' company did well, the 1929 depression brought hard times. And in 1930 they sold their business to the C. G. Conn musical instrument company. But by the mid-1930s, William missed making drums. And in 1937 he started a new company. Since Conn was already marketing drums under the "Ludwig" brand, he called his company WFL. (For William F. Ludwig) So throughout the 1940s and early 1950s you could buy Ludwig drums made by Conn, or WFL drums made by William F. Ludwig. Finally in 1955 the Conn company got tired of the drum biz, and the Ludwig family was able to buy back their name.

The big funny drums aren't the most interesting story from this week, though. And this I'm just going to chalk up to "life is odd sometimes..." As you know, we buy guitars every day. And we never know what's going to come through the door next...

The other day a guy walked in with a vintage Harmony case. Since we've bought and sold a hundred Harmony Rockets over the years, I presumed it was going to be one of those... Much to our surprise, it was an excellent condition example of Harmony's top-of-the-line model, the H-75. Harmony's 1966 catalog called it their "Finest Semi-Acoustic Hollow Body." With three DeArmond pickups, six control knobs, and three toggle switches, the catalog said, "A truly precision instrument. Will be played with pride by the most experienced performer!" Since we like cool old guitars with lots of knobs and switches (and since we haven't seen an H-75 for years and years and years) we were happy to buy it.

Here's John with the 1966 Harmony H-75.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. We sold a bunch of stuff, and looked at guitars on the internet, and talked about guitars in the store. The usual. The next morning, as we were opening up, another gentleman walked in with a guitar for sale. He had it in a generic gig bag, so we didn't know what to expect. As we opened the gig bag, I was amazed. The very next guitar to make its way to Pittsburgh Guitars was.... yep, another H-75!

We asked him if he knew the other guy... and no, he didn't. This one was a few years older... from 1961... but otherwise, it was the exact same model. Of course we bought it! Now, the only question is: What does this mean?? Was it just a strange coincidence? Or some cosmic message??

I'll let you know if we figure it out...

Here's John with the 1961 Harmony H-75.

Here's John with two... Both purchased by us within a day of each other.


See ya soon,


PS: We get lots of responses to the Email Special. (And let me apologize again, if I didn't write back to you. I really wanted to... but Mark asked me about a guitar and I got distracted...) A few weeks ago in the Email Special I discussed the value of a good recording even if it contains a mistake. This week Jim M. replied:

"Despite what the various dictionaries may say, or worse yet, what music "educators" opine, the core essence of music, or any art form, is an expression of emotion between the artist and the audience. If it "says" something to you emotionally, then it is a successful piece of art, regardless of the level of expertise in rendering the art. In fact, too much technique can often mask over the true emotion, leaving one to think that, yes, this was a wonderfully executed piece of art, but "I don't get it". Celine Dion comes immediately to mind, but that's just me."

Jim continued his letter by addressing last week's topic of my favorite guitar, my Martin D-18. He has a favorite guitar, too, a 1957 ES-225... I smiled when I read his letter:

"I have almost given up playing my long-time favorite guitar, my 1957 ES-225, because I am "forced" to play one of the thousands of songs that I played hundreds of times over the years. It doesn't want me to play anything new, or to play the old music in a new way. My newer guitars, the 2002 Firebird and 2006 ES335, seem to push me in the opposite direction, like "can't you play that differently? why don't you try something new like this?" The nice thing is, though, that I can still go to my old blond buddy (the ES-225) when I need a good friend to help me get through a tough time. I saw the look on your face as you held the Martin - you know what I mean."

PPS: Customer of the week: Rookie Of The Year


Friday 7/23/2010 ~ A Sweet Time to be Alive


We are very excited here at the store.

Lemme tell ya why...

Remember when the entire world came to a standstill at 12:01AM on January 1, 2000? Me neither, since it didn't happen. It turned out that after a year of gloom and doom predictions, most technology seamlessly passed into the year 2000. It was such a non-event that many people have since forgotten the term "Y2K-compliant."

Here at Pittsburgh Guitars, though, we have always had a soft-spot for the past. So it was fitting that our store computer, with its home-written Point-Of-Sale program, didn't care for the new millennium. (That's a weirdly spelled word, isn't it?)

It all started in 1987. I had been managing the store inventory on an abacus, a series of small rocks and broken sticks, and a giant slide rule. I thought perhaps I'd look into this new-fangled thing people were talking about, called a "computer." A good friend, Al Stidle, said he knew a guy who knew a guy... And a few weeks later, in a dark alley, I met a computer whiz named Rick Schroeder. (No relation to Ricky.) Rick said he knew how to write "code," and he could create a sales and inventory program for me.

In early 1988 Rick delivered his program, and I bought my first computer. To put this in historical perspective, this was SO long ago that the computer didn't even have a hard drive! Each morning we'd put a floppy disc in the computer to load the store program... and then take it out, and insert another floppy disc containing the inventory. We'd leave the inventory disc in, and throughout the day it would be updated whenever a sale occurred. Meanwhile, the computer generated a list of the day's sales, which it stored in its temporary memory, (that's RAM, right?). At the end of the day, we'd remove the inventory floppy disc, and put the other one back in, to save the day's sales file.

Looking back, it's hard to believe...

And what's even harder to believe: we're still using that original program today!

Over the years, of course, we've gone through a lot of computers. And the sales program and inventory program are now permanently loaded in the computer. (Which is a good thing, since there would be no way to read those giant old floppy discs!) But the basic program, which we lovingly refer to as "Schroederville," is the same one that was written for us twenty-two years ago.

Getting back to Part One of this story... we started having problems with Schroederville at midnight on 1/1/2000. So we re-set the internal date in the computer to 1990, and things worked fine.

Unfortunately, that means that for the last ten years our receipts have been slightly off. (But only by a decade, or so...)

I secretly kept hoping that when the year turned to 2010, and the last two digits of the year no longer started with a zero, that everything would work again. But it didn't. So a few months ago I broke down and hired our ex-guitar teacher Ethan to write a new program. Which he did! And this week we fired everything up!! It works great and we love it!! Yea!!!

On Monday, as we entered sales into the new system, it made me ponder the past. I wondered how we could have lived with a computer that had the wrong date on it for ten years? And how could we still be running such an old program on such a new computer? And HOW did we ever conduct business BEFORE computers? How did we even conduct life?

So on Tuesday I took a video camera to my parents' house and interviewed my Dad. He was born in 1927. Life was definitely different then, and I thought it would be interesting to hear about it. And I was right... it was way different. For example, he recalled that during the warm months every few days a guy would show up at the door carrying tongs holding a fifty-pound block of ice on his back. He'd bring it in, and load it onto the top shelf of the "Ice Box." It went on the top because cold air falls (hot air rises), and the cold air would keep their food cool in this non-electrified contraption. Link: Ice Box. In the winter my dad recalled his dad getting up at 5AM every morning to shovel coal into the furnace in the basement. Like the ice box, the furnace was not electric. It relied on the "heat rises" concept to warm the rooms upstairs.

As I listened to my dad talk about life in the 1930s and 1940s, life that involved technology based on whether hot air goes up and cold air goes down, it really made me appreciate how good we have it now. My new computer may be a million times more powerful than the 1988 unit. But I didn't have to get up at 5AM to shovel coal into either one! I'm not sure how I was able to run a business in the pre-computer era... but I do know this is a sweet time to be alive! And I'm grateful.

Meanwhile... as cool as computer technology is ( that an iPhone in your pocket, or are you...) some things are hard to improve. Here's John with a 1927 Martin 0-28K, from the year my dad was born. Here's John with a 1988 Ovation 1127, from the year that Pittsburgh Guitars got its first computer. And here's John with a brand new 2010 Martin 000-28EC Eric Clapton. What do they have in common? Almost everything. They play the same, they tune the same, the construction is very similar (except for the Ovation...) and they sound the same. (Well... except for the Ovation...) OK, OK, the Ovation is throwing off my analogy a bit... (I only used it because I don't own any other guitars from 1988)... but the point is: although computers have gone from (a) nonexistent; to (b) primitive floppy-disc powered; to (c) something so powerful that they nearly dominate our lives... acoustic guitars have barely changed. And even when electricity found its way into guitar-land, the changes since 1950 have been incidental.

What does this mean? I don't know! I don't have all the answers! What do you expect of me?? I'm just trying to run a guitar shop!! But I'm sure glad I have a third floor full of old guitars, rather than old computers! (Or old Ice Boxes!) At least that worked out!!!


See you soon,


PS: Our new computer system even has a UPC bar code reader, so if you see a red line moving around the store, don't be alarmed. Although I am slightly concerned that Sam will blind himself looking into the scanner. I wonder if that's possible?

PPS: Dave R. just sent me a link to the new improved Abbey Road camera. Sometimes it may seem that I over-emphasize the importance of The Beatles. But it says something about the impact they had... that you can go to this camera any time of the day, every day of the year... and you'll most likely see folks from around the world, risking their lives, trying to duplicate the cover photo of just one of the many records The Beatles recorded. The Abbey Road camera.

PPPS: Customer of the week: The Boogie Hustlers


Friday 7/30/2010 ~ Bucky Pizzarelli


Sometimes the email special stories are so odd that even I can't believe them. And I was there!

But here's what happened yesterday...

The saga starts at 2PM, but first we have to go back to Monday morning... and 1922.

In the early 1920s the guitar industry was floundering. Martin, for example, was surviving on its ukulele sales. Gibson needed to spice up their line, and they turned to a brilliant musician/acoustic engineer/instrument-designer, Lloyd Loar. In 1922 he designed what would be Gibson's top-of-the-line guitar model, the L-5. It was the world's first commercially offered f-hole archtop guitar.

Up to this point in guitar history, all of Gibson's guitars (and mandolins) had arched tops, but they featured either a round or oval sound hole. (The arched top was a feature that separated Gibson from their rival, C.F. Martin, who only produced flat-top guitars.)

Lloyd Loar was a big fan of the old European violin makers, and his new Gibson L-5 incorporated many violin features, including different internal bracing, different carving techniques for the top of the guitar, and the "f" shaped sound holes.

Although the L-5 was not an immediate success, the f-hole archtop found its place as Big Band music grew in popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There's no denying that an archtop guitar sounds different than a flat-top. At first hearing, it obviously lacks the bass response of a flat-top. But its brightness and strong attack proved to be quite an advantage when played in a horn-dominated band. In the days before electric instruments, bands were melodically driven by the brass instruments. The guitarist was actually part of the rhythm section, along with the piano player, drummer, and upright bass player. In this environment, the sound produced by a flat-top guitar gets totally lost. An archtop guitar, though, cuts through.

(At this point in our tale I will use the term "archtop guitar" to refer to an archtop with f-holes. Gibson continued to make a few models with arched tops and round holes for years, but they eventually were phased out or adopted the new f-hole design.)

With the 1930s success of the L-5, Gibson naturally added more archtop models. And since not everyone is a professional musician, the new additions were less fancy and more affordable. By 1935 Gibson had nine archtops in their catalog... and that brings us to last Monday.

On Monday a gentleman sold us his late-father's guitar, a 1935 Gibson L-30. The guitar hadn't been played in 20 years, but "they-don't-made-`em-like-they-used-to" is not just an expression. In 1935 the L-30 was Gibson's least expensive model, but this 75-year-old guitar is as structurally sound as the day it was made.

Which brings us to 2PM yesterday.

All morning I wandered around the store, wondering what to write about in the Email Special. At 2 o'clock I noticed the L-30. (Scott had just finished re-stringing it and shining it up.) I considered writing about it, so I took it to my office to give it a strum.

And, you know, I didn't really care for it. The sound was too brittle. So, I went into the storage room, and pulled out another archtop guitar from the same year, my Martin R-17. (You know how everyone likes to jump on everyone else's bandwagon? By the early 1930s Martin had entered the archtop field and Gibson started making flat-top guitars.) The Martin archtop didn't do anything for me either.

Here's John with the 1935 Gibson L-30. (The L-30 was made from 1935 until 1942. They only had this distinctive black finish in 1935.)

Here's John with the 1935 Martin R-17. (The R-17 was made from 1934 until 1942.)

After being disappointed with those two guitars, I figured, "What the heck, I'll just try an L-5, and see what that does for me." So I dug a little deeper in the guitar pile and pulled out my 1947 L-5.

I played it for ten minutes... and said to myself, "Well, naturally it sounds better than the bottom-of-the-line L-30. But I don't know if I can say enough good things about this to talk about it in the Email Special."

Here's John with the 1947 L-5.

I grabbed my favorite guitar, the D18 flat-top that was featured in the Email Special a couple of weeks ago... strummed a few chords... and thought, "Now THAT'S what an acoustic guitar should sound like!"

So, I was depressed. It was now 4PM, and I had nothing to write about for the Email Special.

Fifteen minutes later a well-dressed elderly gentleman walked into the store. He looked around for a bit, and then asked if we had any archtop guitars. I was a little surprised, but I said, "I was just playing my `47 L-5. Would you like to try that?"

He said, "Sure."

I handed him the guitar... he started playing... and he (and the guitar!) sounded wonderful!

After a few songs I said, "Would you like to try this `35 L-30?"

And he said, "Sure."

And THAT sounded great!! I couldn't believe it! Even on the less-expensive model, this gentleman made the guitar sing.

It was quickly obvious to me that these archtop guitars sounded bad to me because of the way I was playing them. As a mediocre guitar player, at best, I was laying into them too much. I was pounding out the opening chords to "Lola" (C C CCCC DD E) when I should have been playing with a little more finesse. Of course, I don't have the guitar-playing skills to play with finesse... But a tasteful player, like this guy, brought out the beauty of these instruments. It was quite impressive.

As I was putting the L-30 away, he glanced at the wall and saw a used Danelectro six-string bass. He said, "Oh, I used to play one of those in the studio a lot in the old days."

As I handed him the bass, I said, "Any recordings I'd know?"

He said, "Hmmm... let me see... I played the Danelectro on 'Stand By Me'... and something with 'Runaround..'"

I said, "'Runaround Sue'??"

He said, " I played guitar on that. Maybe it was 'Runaway.'"

I said, "'Runaway' by Del Shannon???"

He said, "Yeah, that's the one."

It turns out his name is Bucky Pizzarelli, and he played on a lot of New York recording sessions in the 1960s. We talked for a half hour and it was fabulous. When going to sessions he generally carried a six-string Danelectro bass and a guitar. As was the style on recordings in those days, when he used the Danelectro bass he played in unison with an upright bass player. I presume the combination was to get a traditional bass feel from the upright, and a little bit of rock & roll attack playing with a pick on the Danelectro.

Oh, and the six string guitar he played on the Dion & The Belmonts songs, along with countless other hit records? An archtop. He used a D`Angelico archtop with a floating DeArmond pickup.

True story.

Here's Bucky Pizzarelli with my L-5.


See you soon,


PS: Here's one of our guitar teachers, John Purse, with Mr. Pizzarelli

PPS: It's interesting that when the Gibson company was founded in the early 1900s, they countered Martin's flat top guitars (which had already been in production for sixty years) with an arched top guitar. Fifty years later, when Leo Fender introduced his flat top electric (all-solid wood, of course), Gibson countered with an arched top solidbody, the Les Paul.

PPPS: Customer of the week: Bucky Pizzarelli


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