Email Specials from August 2010

Friday 8/6/2010 ~ Modifying Guitars--A Survey


Occasionally we do appraisals. Generally it's for insurance purposes... or if someone's guitar was smashed by an airline... or whenever an official document is needed.

This week we appraised a 1972 Fender Strat, and I've been pondering my reaction to the guitar. Externally it was in very good condition, so that was nice to see. But I was more impressed by what was under the pickguard. It was 100% original. The pickups, all of the wiring, the potentiometers, every solder joint, and every screw were original. Of course, if you buy anything and put it under the bed for thirty-eight years, it will stay "original." But this instrument had clearly been used in bands and onstage.

It made me wonder what percentage of guitars out there in the world are still 100% original.

As I was pondering that, I noticed Mark placing a big Seymour Duncan order. Seymour Duncan makes a wonderful line of pickups, in all shapes and sizes and sounds, and we sell a lot of them. If your guitar isn't quite producing the sound you're looking for, then a pickup change may give you what you need. But every pickup we sell is replacing an "original" one. So we are contributing to non-originality. And even if folks aren't changing pickups, any guitar that is used regularly is going to need some maintenance. In our repair shop, Scott often cleans up bad solder connections... or replaces bad toggle switches... or noisy potentiometers... or even bad ground wires. Yep, now that I think about it, over these thirty-one years, we've done a lot to make guitars not-100% original.

Naturally, we wouldn't change anything on a vintage guitar. But in 1979 when Pittsburgh Guitars opened, even the 1972 Strat above wasn't "vintage." In fact, in 1979 no guitars were considered "vintage"... they were just "used." Here in 2010, we don't make modifications on vintage guitars, but we regularly make changes to modern-day guitars. And since "modern-day" is relative, looking back, we've also made changes on older guitars before they were "older."

So, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that I was surprised when I looked under the pickguard for this week's appraisal. My surprise was justified.

But now I'm curious.

Let's do a non-scientific survey. When you get a chance, think about your guitar collection. Write back with two numbers: the number of guitars you have, and the number that are 100% original. Original pickups, pots, wiring, finish, machine heads, and frets... everything but the strings. (I hope you've changed the strings by now!) All you need to reply with is something like this:


Where the second number represents all-original models. I'll total up the percentages and report back next week. (If you'd prefer to just send a percentage, feel free. In the above example: 33.33%.)

There's no right or wrong here. Guitars are made to be used. And if using them requires some changes, then fine. Thirty-eight years from now, when you're able to replace worn-out body parts, I'll like you just as much. If that right arm of yours is a new one, hey, good for you!


See you soon,


PS: Speaking of modifying guitars, just yesterday I got an email from a company I'm not supposed to mention (Fender), about guitars they are releasing next month that I'm not supposed to mention, that are pre-modified. (They have humbucks.) (It's a secret, but info and pictures about these guitars are already available in multiple places around the good old internet.) The promo literature says: "The primary customer is under age 30 and into punk, indie rock, alternative, etc. who often prefers humbucking equipped guitars." Of course, adding a humbucking pickup or two to a Fender guitar is an age-old modification. Last night I was watching the ol' youtube, and saw an early Eagles video, and the fuzzy-haired guy with the mustache was playing a Tele with a humbuck in the neck position. And of course there's this guy. And this guy. And this gal.

PPS: Here's the Eagles video. They were so young!

PPS: Customer of the week: Dashboard Confessional


Friday 8/13/2010 ~ Survey Says... !


We often get responses to the Email Special, but I was surprised at the number of folks who contributed to last week's survey.

Although I shouldn't be. We're all passionate about guitars. And it's always fun to talk about passion!

The question posed was this: How many guitars do you own? And how many of those are 100% original?

Interestingly, many people not only listed guitar quantities, but also the types of changes that had been done to their guitars.

And there were two modification groups:

*** #1) "I kinda regret it now..."

Guitars in this category were older ones, now considered "vintage." And the modifications generally happened back in the mid-to-late-1970s, when substitute parts first became available.

You see, in the late-1960s, thanks to the British Invasion, every kid in America wanted a guitar. And guitar manufacturers cranked them out as fast as they could. Just supplying the demand was their goal.

Ten years later, many of those kids were in bands and doing gigs. And thanks to acts like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, music was getting louder and more powerful. Small independent companies like DiMarzio, Mighty Mite and Schecter sprang up, offering hotter pickups; brass hardware for "increased sustain"; coil-tapping switches and pots; and a variety of other "improved" parts. In local repair shops, like the one Tom Buckel operated in downtown Pittsburgh, switching stock Gibson pickups for DiMarzios was a daily occurrence.

Had we known then that our three-year-old 1974 Les Paul Custom would someday be valuable, maybe we wouldn't have drilled holes in it for extra switches...

*** #2) "I like switching parts around..."

This group included newer guitars. And folks who've made modifications to modern-day guitars are mostly happy with the changes. Especially if they're using the guitars regularly on stage. Whether they're playing an inexpensive Chinese-made guitar or a pricey Gibson, switching out a weak link, like a cheap pickup selector switch, makes a big improvement. And besides, if it's a new guitar, why not have fun with it?

So, the question is: What is the downside to making changes in your guitar? And, of course, the big answer is another question (and it's a two-parter): Will the changes have a negative impact on the value of the guitar? And, if so, how significant is the decreased value?

Obviously, those aforementioned "vintage" guitars are worth a LOT more than when they were new. But will a guitar made today ever become a "vintage" guitar? Of course, new guitars will get older... just like us. And forty years from now... well, they'll be forty year-old guitars. But when we currently use the term "vintage" guitar, we're not only implying age. We're also taking into account supply and demand. Before the "British Invasion," guitar companies simply did not make as many guitars. And even when they ramped up production in the late 1960s, they didn't come close to the number of guitars being made today. And when you factor out all of the guitars that have been refinished, or routed for DiMarzios, that leaves a supply of pre-1970 guitars that doesn't match the number of people interested in them.

Will there ever come a day when the millions of guitars that are currently being manufactured will not be enough to satisfy a future demand? That is the question. If you have a 2009 Strat, will there come a day when you'll regret switching the pickups, and maybe adding a stripe or two? Sure, from a re-sale perspective here at Pittsburgh Guitars, we'd rather buy an all-original 2009 Strat than one with stripes... so the modified guitar would have slightly less value. But not significantly less. Not enough that I would discourage you from modifying your guitar to suit you. It's important to remember, the primary purpose of a guitar is to make music, not increase in value. If making some changes helps you make more music, then I say "Go for it!"

And that brings us to the numbers. Our non-scientific survey revealed this: Email Special readers listed 574 guitars. And of those, 235 are 100% original. From a percentage perspective, that means that 39% of the guitars owned by Pittsburgh Guitars Email Special readers are still all-original. And 61% of them have been changed in one way or another.

That's interesting. And it feels right.

Thanks for participating.


See you soon,


PS: You may have noticed that when I compared vintage guitars to modern guitars above, I focused on the number that were manufactured, rather than quality differences. It is true that many things being sold today are not made as well as older items. (Our cash register, for example, was clearly made to last 100 years!) And I'm a big fan of the inherent quality of older instruments. Two weeks ago, I grabbed a 1935 Martin for an Email Special photo, and that guitar plays as well today as it did seventy-five years ago. So, yeah, I love the quality of old guitars. But there are some pretty fine guitars being manufactured today, too. In the future, when we're all driving flying cars and have robot butlers, if guitars from 2010 aren't valuable, it won't be for quality reasons... it'll be excess quantity.

PPS: And that brings to mind the concept of things that are sold as "collectible." If something is marketed as a "Collector's Item" does it ever actually become one? My opinion is that a "collector's item" is something that just happens, rather than something that is forced. And it can't be predicted. There are probably guitars hanging on the wall of the store now that will be collector's items in 2023. But which ones are they??

PPPS: And that brings to mind the 1983 "Bowling Ball" Strats. In 1983 Fender was having serious financial issues. And desperate measures where taken to cut costs, and sell more guitars. The cost-cutting measures included re-designing their vibrato system, so that the entire bridge could be top-mounted. Plus, the second tone knob was eliminated and replaced with the input jack, which saved them the cost of the standard input cup and the rout needed to mount it. And to liven things up in the marketing department, Fender offered a Limited Edition series of Strats and Teles finished in swirly bowling-ball colors. 250 Strats and 75 Teles were made in three different color schemes. And colorful they were!

But something interesting happened. In the early 1980s, old, used guitars started to be called vintage guitars. And vintage guitars started to climb in value. It was the dawn of "collectible" instruments, and guitar dealers noticed. When Fender introduced their unique looking line of "bowling ball" guitars they didn't call them "collectible," but guitar dealers guessed that they someday would be. And all 325 of them were bought up, and stashed away. The problem with this scenario is the old supply-and-demand factor. In the world of guitars, "demand" is usually created when a potential buyer sees their favorite rock star using a particular instrument. (Or when they at least see the kid down the street playing one...) In the case of the bowling ball Strats, none of them made it into the marketplace. No rock stars (or even the band in your local bar) ever ended up using one. By removing these guitars from the market so quickly, the guitar dealers prevented "demand" from ever growing. So now they all sit in collections, waiting for the day that they'll be super-valuable. And it may be a long wait.

I know this story well because in 1983 I was a young guitar dealer. I, too, got caught up in the potential collectibility of the bowling ball guitars. Here's John with the blue version bowling ball Strat (one of 105 in this color.) And here's John with the red version. (108 made in this color.) These are rare. And a quarter-of-a-century old. But are they valuable collector's items? Not as much as we'd like!

PPPPS: Hey, speaking of valuable collector's items... sometimes technology affects long-term value. Like this!

PPPPPS: Customer of the week: The Elliotts


Friday 8/20/2010 ~ Paul McCartney Still Rocks!


Last night at 11:19 PM someone asked me when I start writing the email special...

I said, "Well, I try to start Thursday evening... so I should be writing right now!"

Of course, I wasn't writing. I was walking out of the new Consol Energy Center. So now, it's 11:19 AM Friday, and I haven't typed a word... (well, maybe fifty-seven...)

I didn't start last night because I went to the Paul McCartney show. And I was there last night, because I went the night before, on Wednesday... and I couldn't quite fathom it all, so I had to go back.

If you weren't there, you might mistakenly categorize the show as merely: Elder Rock Star Sings Classic Songs For His Fans. But the reality of the show is so mind-boggling that even the folks in attendance had a hard time putting it in perspective.

Here is a guy who was on stage for three hours, without a break. He sang every song. He played bass, piano, guitar, mandolin and ukulele. And he didn't just play classic songs, he played hit songs. Famous songs, that changed the history of rock music. And they sounded great! And except for two by John and one by George, he himself wrote all of those songs. He was charming, personable, and funny. And he's sixty-eight years old.

Every generation has its pop idols. And some of them have still drawn crowds in their late sixties. But I can't think of another artist... in the past... or the foreseeable future... with such a combination of musical talent, vocal strength, and songwriting ability.

When the show ended on Wednesday, I thought, "Well, that was pretty cool. He sang for three hours, without even taking a drink of water." But then I thought, "Hey, he not only sang, he played on every song." And then I thought, "Wait a minute, he wrote them all, too!"

The over-all show was so pleasant and entertaining, that it was easy to take those other aspects for granted. But in reality... it was really amazing!

And on top of all of that, I loved it for the old-school rock & roll approach. They used real, old-fashioned monitors, rather than the in-the-ear monitors that everyone, even local bands, use now. I realize that in-the-ear monitors help you sing better... but to me they are a small, but significant barrier between the act and the audience. The guy on the stage is lookin' at you and smiling... but he's listening to something else. And unlike almost every other touring act, they were 100% live. There were no pre-recorded parts. No pre-recorded background singing or percussion tracks. (Or in the case of some famous acts: pre-recorded everything!) It was just a five-piece band, playing live rock & roll music. It was great!

And then there were the guitars! Paul is still using the Hofner bass he bought in 1963. For "Paperback Writer" he pulled out the 1962 Epiphone Casino he used on the original recording. Likewise, for "Yesterday" he used the very same 1964 Epiphone Texan that he recorded the song with. And from a personal standpoint, it was nice to see him still using the 1960 Gibson Les Paul Sunburst that I once owned. (In case you're curious, the serial number is #0 1482. I still have the receipt!)

Yep, it was a fun experience. And if you stop to analyze it, a remarkable one. I'm glad I was alive to see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. And I'm really glad I got to see Paul sing some of those same songs forty-six years later.


See you soon,


PS: Paul on the big screen, with the 1960 Les Paul. (photo by Emily B.)

PPS: More! (photo by Emily B.)

PPPS: A side view of the stage. (photo by John)

PPPPS: Our John with Paul's drummer, Abe. (photo by Billy)

PPPPPS: Some photos from Dr. Ken:
The 1963 Hofner Bass,
The 1962 Casino,
The 1964 Epiphone Texan

PPPPPPS: OK, now I'm going home to go to sleep! That show was exhausting just to watch!

PPPPPPPS: Re: me saying "...he himself wrote all of those songs..." above.
Yes, I realize that John Lennon collaborated on some of them. But you know what I mean.

PPPPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Kali Simmons


Friday 8/27/2010 ~ Thinking About the Past....


Last week someone sent me a link to some fascinating photos taken between 1939 and 1943.

The interesting thing about the pictures is that they are in color. Although folks had been experimenting with color photography for years, it wasn't until the late 1930s that color film became commercially available. And then it was difficult to use and very expensive to buy, to process, and to print. So you rarely see color photos from those years. In fact, it wasn't until the 1960s that color photography became financially practical for everyday pictures.

As I looked at the pictures from the 1940s, they looked so odd. After all, the past was supposed to be in black & white. That helped define it as a distant period, removed from reality. "Real life" (i.e. Now) is colorful. The past was dull and in shades of gray. As I was growing up, that helped me define time.

And that made me wonder when the past started to be in color. On a personal level, I mean. The 1920s will always be in black & white, to everyone. But when did folks' childhoods start being 100% color? I remember taking black & white photographs in the late 1970s, so I'm gonna guess anyone born after 1980 has a 100% colorful past. That would mean people who are 30 or younger. To them, the only thing distinguishing the past from the present would be the clothing styles.

And kids who are 20 or younger probably have a heavily documented past. Digital video tape, and memory cards, and hard-drive memory is now so cheap that you can film almost everything that happens. I read that you can buy a hard-drive with enough memory to record everything you'll say in your entire life. Of course, you'd need another entire lifetime to edit it down to the important stuff.

I wonder if in the future documentation-overload will be an issue. If you record and film everything, how will there ever be enough time to watch it? For example, if you have a couple (or a hundred) photos of your trip to the beach, you could look at them later and say, "Aw, what a nice time that was!" But if you film every second of your trip to the beach, you'll need another vacation just to sift through it all and pull out the significant parts. And if we end up filming everything in our lives, then what?

That reminds me of one of the things I like so much about music. A song can conjure up a moment in your life. Rather than documenting every second, it brings back a feeling... an impression... an intangible wave of emotion that summarizes a moment, or an era. When I hear "Sugar Shack" by Jimmie Gilmer, I remember the Jefferson Swim Club and a sunny, carefree childhood summer. In the summer of 1965 my parents needed something to do with their nine kids, so they joined a local swim club. Back behind the pool was a picnic shelter, with an old juke box. It may have been a 78RPM converted to 45RPM juke box, because it only had ten records in it. And of the ten, only two could be considered rock music: "Help me Rhonda" by The Beach Boys and "Sugar Shack" by Jimmie Gilmer and The Fireballs. When we kids took a break from swimming, we went to the shelter and played those two songs over and over. I remember being fascinated by the bass sound on "Sugar Shack." Listening to it now, I can hear a Danelectro six-string bass on there, but I'm still not sure what the primary clicking bass sound is. Here's the recording. (You might be thinking, "You're calling that rock?" Well, compared to one of the other songs on that juke box, "Danke Schoen" by Wayne Newton, yeah.)

"Sugar Shack" reminds me of a sunny summer. "A Beautiful Morning" by The Rascals reminds me of a bus trip my high school class took to Seven Springs and the cute blonde-haired girl sitting across from me. The first Crosby, Stills & Nash album reminds me of Tom Reutzel's house, when ten of us stayed up all night and listened to the record repeatedly all night. And I think I'd rather have these memories than hours and hours of film from those events. The film, whether it was a video tape, a DVD or a hard-drive, would be sitting on a shelf somewhere, and never watched. But I don't even need a recording of "Sugar Shack"... I can just hear it in my head, and smile over the memories. Yep, music is good like that. A song, and an old photo or two (color, if possible), and you've got almost as much documentation as you'll need.


I guess I'm in a reflective mood today. It's a beautiful Friday here in Pittsburgh. The sun is shining. And the temperature is perfect. It's a good day to think about life. And seeing those pictures from 1940 reminded me of life, and how we save our memories. I'm all for documenting the past. I've saved as much or more than the next guy. But when I stop to think about all of the stuff I've saved, I bet that 80% of the photos and 99% of the videos are rarely, if ever, looked at. That's why I'm happy that music exists. It's like a weird, random card catalog system. No matter what you're doing, if you hear a certain song, it reaches into the back of your brain and pulls out a memory. That's nice.


See you soon,


PS: Speaking of documenting the past, a friend of mine told me that he wanted his kids to understand how unusual The Beatles were in 1964, in both their appearance and presentation. So, to put things in perspective, rather than just showing them just The Beatles' segments, he had the kids watch the entire Ed Sullivan shows from February `64. That way they'd also see Mitzi Gaynor, Myron Cohen, Gordon & Sheila MacRae, and The Nervous Knocks Sway Pole Routine. After seeing the other acts, and the audience, his son said, "Dad, The Beatles look normal. It's everyone else that looks weird."

PPS: Here's a link to those old color photographs.

PPPS: To celebrate the extended Labor Day holiday weekend, The Pittsburgh Guitars Email Special will be taking a break next Friday. But we'll still be at the store on Friday & Saturday, of course, so stop by and buy a $1000 guitar... or at least take a picture of one!

PPPPS: Speaking of pictures, we took one of our official youngest customer ever! Here's Nicholas G. with the new American Standard Strat he bought last week. (His Dad helped him a bit with the financing...)

PPPPPS: Customer of the week: My Morning Jacket



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