Email Specials from September 2010

Friday 9/10/2010 ~ The Pittsburgh Guitars Shopping Experience

Dean and Robert DeLeo stopped by to say hello last week.

They play guitar and bass, respectively, for the Stone Temple Pilots, and they've been shopping here for the last twelve years. They come to visit whenever the band is in town. Dean and Robert are not only both excellent guitar players, they are also super nice guys.

As they were paying for the two amps they bought, I said, "Thanks for shopping at Pittsburgh Guitars. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your satisfaction level of today's visit?" Dean said, "Well, we've had a great time, so I would rate this experience as an 8.5."

I said, "Hmmm. I'd like to bump that up a little. If I showed you a matching guitar and bass set that you've never seen before, would that bring the number to 9.5?"

He said, "Perhaps..."

Dean and Robert both have a passion for vintage instruments, and coincidentally just that morning I bought an unusual mint condition matching guitar and bass pair from 1980. And since only around 200 of each of these instruments had been manufactured, I figured they might hold some entertainment value.

But, first let's step back to 1963.

Although guitars had been around for hundreds of years, the early 1960s were truly a banner era for the acoustic guitar in popular music. The first members of the Baby Boomer generation had just reached the music-appreciation age, and acts like the Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels were at the top of the charts. Here's The Kingston Trio. And my favorite New Christy Minstrels song. Needless to say, demand for acoustic guitars reached an all-time high.

Unfortunately, despite this increased demand for guitars, the world's finest guitar manufacturer, the C. F. Martin Company, was still working in the small factory they built in 1859. From 1960 through 1963 they ramped up production as much as possible and were able to make almost 6,000 guitars a year... but by the end of 1963 they were two years behind with backorders. So, in 1964 they bought a plot of land a few miles from their original factory in Nazareth, PA, and constructed a huge new facility.

Sales figures immediately improved. By 1968 they doubled their production totals to over 12,000 guitars. And as Martin entered the 1970s, the acoustic future looked bright. In 1971 they made 22,637 guitars, more than four times as many as a decade earlier in 1961. (1961 figure: 5,068)

But something scary loomed on the horizon. Disco. As everyone danced to "chinka-chinka-chinka" electric guitars and technologically developing electronic keyboards, interest in acoustic guitars waned. In 1976 sales fell to 17,000. And by 1979 they reached their lowest point in ten years... back down to 12,000... more than 10,000 fewer guitars than in 1971. That's quite a drop. And something had to be done.

That's when Martin decided to enter the solid-body electric guitar field. After all, they had quality wood, they had expert woodworkers, and they already made comfortable feeling guitar necks. Additionally, guitars with natural wood finishes, inspired by companies like Alembic in California, were becoming increasing popular. And that was something that they could make.

In mid-1979 Martin introduced two (well, kinda "two") electric solid-body six-strings and one bass. Since electrics weren't really their field, Martin didn't know what features the public would want... and consequently the two six-strings were confusingly similar. The six-string models were the E-18 and the EM-18. And they were identical... except for one additional switch, a pickup coil-tap switch on the EM-18. Here's John with a 1979 EM-18.

The bass was dubbed the EB-18. Here's John with a 1979 Martin EB-18.

Martin received a reasonable number of orders for the first batch. So in 1980 they introduced an upgraded model, with a carved top, neck-thru-body construction, and a shaded sunburst finish. The new model was the E-28, and its matching bass was called the EB-28. Here's John with a 1981 E-28.

But what Martin (and many other guitar manufacturers throughout history) didn't understand is that selling the first issue of a new item to their dealers is not the same as the dealers selling the new item to the public. Since the original E-18s, EM-18s and EB-18s didn't move quickly, dealer re-orders slowed dramatically. And orders for the new E-28 model didn't come close to the E-18 series.

Only 194 E-28s and 217 EB-28 basses were made. By 1982 Martin eventually sold though their inventory of solid-body electrics, and in 1983 they were all officially discontinued.

And that brings us to last week. I got a call from a guy who bought both an E-28 and an EB-28 brand new in 1980. He kept hoping that someday they'd be valuable collectors' items. That didn't quite work out. Yes, they are rare; and they are high-quality USA-made instruments. But they never caught on with the guitar playing public. And no high-profile rock star ever used one. And most people have never seen one.

So that makes them perfect for the Pittsburgh Guitars collection! I bought them both, and they will now be together forever! (Well... at least as long as I'm around.) Here's John with our new 1980 E-28 and EB-28.

And then, a few hours after I made the deal on the two guitars, the DeLeo brothers stopped by. And since they had never seen these models before, they were quite entertained! I was able to bump their customer-satisfaction experience up to 9.5! Yeah, that's the kind of service you get at Pittsburgh Guitars!

This is where I usually put the Email Special item. But for reasons I'll explain later, that will be in the PPPPS.


See you soon,


PS: The Stone Temple Pilots invited us to their show out at Star Lake. (It's called the First Niagra Pavilion this year.) And the band was rockin'! It was a great show, and it was nice to see that Dean's main guitar is still the wine-colored Les Paul he bought from us many years ago. Here they are on David Letterman. Here's Dean talking about the guitar while on tour with Army Of Anyone.

PPS: Getting back to the new Christy Minstrels clip above, the lead singer on that song was Barry McGuire. A few years later he went solo and had a #1 hit with a song called "Eve Of Destruction." Here's the song.

PPPS: Speaking of guys in the New Christy Minstrels, the banjo player in the clip above is Larry Ramos. A few years later he joined a band called The Association, and sang lead on their big hits "Windy" and "Never My Love." Here's The Association with "Windy."

PPPPS: Did you watch that last video? Those guys had great vocals! But apparently not a tuner. If you don't want to sound like the guitar at the 9-second mark on that video, you need a guitar tuner. We just used these as the email special a few week's ago, but after watching that video of "Windy" I have to use the tuners again! This week's Email Special: the Sabine STX-1100 Tuner!

PPPPPS: If you're keeping score, here are the sales totals for Martin's solid-body electrics:

*E-18 series manufactured between 1979 and 1982

E-18: 341
EM-18: 1375
EB-18 bass: 874

*E-28 series between 1980 and 1982

E-28: 194
EB-28 bass: 217

PPPPPPS: Since the electric guitar thing didn't work out, you're probably wondering how the Martin Company financially survived the early 1980s... The answer: imports! During 1981 and 1982 Martin imported 2500 unfinished necks and bodies from Japan; finished and assembled them in Nazareth; and marketed them under the "Sigma" brand. The Sigma guitars enabled Martin to get a less-expensive instrument into the marketplace, and brought in much needed cash. In 1983 Martin dropped the Sigma line and replaced it with another group of imported guitars under the name Shenandoah. Like the Sigmas, they were finished and assembled in Nazareth. The Shenandoah guitars stayed in the Martin catalog until 1993, when new technologies enabled Martin to make a less-expensive guitar, the D-1, here in the USA.

PPPPPPPS: Just announced! This year's gala Halloween Spectacular, Night Of The Singing Dead, Part 18!
Two nights!! Friday October 29 and Saturday, October 30th at the Rex Theater.
Ticket info coming soon.

PPPPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Stone Temple Pilots


Friday 9/17/2010 ~ Valco, and Other Old Trade Names

I've had names on my mind all morning...

Not people. Guitar companies...

It started last night.

We regularly get emails from new guitar companies, asking if we'd like to carry their instruments here at the store. Of course, we have limited space on our walls, and we already have hundreds of guitars, so it's hard to add a new line. (I tried hanging guitars from the ceiling... but we seemed to hit our heads on them.) Anyway, I like to keep an eye on what's happenin' out there in the marketplace, so I always check out the new stuff.

Last evening's email wasn't particularly exciting. The "new" products were Tele, Strat and Les Paul copies. What struck me was the name of the product line: Valco.

Here's the ad section of the email.

And as I looked at those guitars, merely one more grouping of Fender and Gibson copies, I wondered if the new company's owners even know the origin of the classic Valco name.

And oddly, we just bought an actual vintage Valco guitar this week...

Valco goes back to World War II, but let's first start in 1927. (Sometimes when you step into the WayBack Machine you over-shoot your target...)

In 1927 John Dopyera and George Beauchamp formed the National String Instrument Company to manufacture John's invention, the resonator guitar. (A resonator guitar has a large metal cone...similar to a pie-pan... under the bridge. It acts as a non-electric speaker, to project the instrument's sound.)

A year later, they had a falling-out, and John left. He quickly formed another company, this time with his brothers, to manufacture a different resonator guitar. The new company's name was a contraction of the words Dopyera Brothers: Dobro.

In the subsequent years, both companies not only manufactured resonator instruments, they also pursued the new concept of electric guitars. Dobro introduced their first electric in 1933. That direction made perfect sense, of course. After all, the entire purpose of the resonator is to make a louder guitar. And electric guitars are louder!

In the early 1930s George Beauchamp left National and joined the Rickenbacker Company to manufacture his new electric lap steel. (Adolph Rickenbacker was a machinist who had been making the resonator cones for both National and Dobro.)

With Beauchamp gone from National, the Dopyera brothers were able to buy controlling interest in National, and they merged the companies. In 1934 The National-Dobro Company was formed.

At this point things progressed smoothly. Guitars were made. Electricity was introduced. And exciting times lay ahead.

Unfortunately, some of the upcoming excitement was not good. In 1941, the U.S. entered World War II. And by 1942 most guitar manufacturers were commissioned to make war materials. The National-Dobro company was assigned to make airplane parts.

Since the future of guitar making was in doubt, three men with the most National-Dobro stock, Louis Dopyera, Vic Smith, and Al Frost, bought out the remaining shareholders. And a new war-time company was formed, using the first initials of Vic, Al, and Louis' first names: VALCO.

When the war ended in 1945, guitar production resumed. The public's interest in resonator instruments had faded, so the Valco Company jumped headfirst into electric guitars. The guitars were sold under brand names that they owned, including "National" and a name they trademarked back in 1935, "Supro."

During the 1950s they sometimes mimicked Gibson's models. For example, when Gibson introduced the three-pickup, gold-hardware, black-finish, Les Paul Custom, Valco answered with a Supro model that included all of those features. Here's John with a 1959 Supro Val-Trol.

In 1962, Valco introduced three model lines that have since taken on the nickname "map guitars" since the outline of their bodies look like the shape of the United States. The Newport and Glenwood models were made from molded plastic that Valco called "Res-O-Glass," and the Westwood series was made of hollowed-out wood. These were manufactured through 1965.

The Valco guitar that we just bought is a 1963 National Westwood 77. Here's Sam with the guitar.

Valco enjoyed the guitar boom years of 1964-1966, but in 1968 guitar sales dropped like a 13-pound Les Paul and numerous companies went bankrupt. Sadly Valco was one of them. And all of their brand names floated off into space, to be later purchased by complete strangers.

And that's what crossed my mind last night when I read the email. In recent decades the names "National," "Dobro," and "Supro" have all been used in guitar manufacturing. But since the Valco company never used their company name on their instruments, no one had bothered appropriating it... Until now.

And it makes me wonder how many other vintage company names are out there... waiting to be re-used.


See you soon,


PS: I really do wonder about old trade names that are out there unused. I wonder how you'd find out about those? Do you know where you'd look to check the status of a trade name? Maybe we should try to buy one!!

PPS: Hey! Don't get any ideas about "Pittsburgh Guitars"!! We have that one locked up!!!

PPPS: Customer of the week: The Businessmen

Friday 9/24/2010 ~ Wine, Acoustic Guitars, and Rush


Have you never 'not liked' something... and then, after you found out more about it, you liked it?

That's happened to me several times.

For example, when I started Pittsburgh Guitars 31 years ago, I didn't care for acoustic guitars. To me they were the annoying second-cousin to electric guitars. You know, the relative that you had to deal with, but you weren't thrilled about it. Looking back, though, I felt that way because up to that point my only 'acoustic' experience was with cheap, bad playing, bad sounding acoustics. When I finally played my first Martin, I saw the light... and it opened my eyes (and ears) to the world of acoustic guitars. And once I played a lot of them, I found that even "cheap" acoustics can sometimes be magical instruments.

Another example: wine. When I was young I couldn't see the merit. You can't drink it fast, it doesn't hit you right away, and I didn't really care for the taste. Ten years ago, though, I gave it a try. (Betsy had a few bottles on her, so I figured what the heck...) And it turns out that I like wine! A lot!! And, after all, it is good for you. So I think it's best to have at least a bottle a day... for health purposes, of course.

The third example happened two weeks ago. As I was scanning the 350 channels on the ol' cable television, I happened upon "Beyond The Lighted Stage." Released earlier this year, it's a two hour documentary about the band Rush. Now, I don't own any Rush records, but I do live in Pittsburgh and in pre-satellite radio days I listened to WDVE. So that means I've heard Rush's "Tom Sawyer" 1,237,852 times. (Surpassed only by that Doors song, where he has his "Mojo risin'.") Based on "Tom Sawyer," "Spirit Of The Radio," and the one or two other Rush songs that `DVE plays, all of which feature long-winded solos and overly artsy lyrics, my impression of the band was that they were pretentious full-of-themselves progressive-art rockers. After watching "Beyond The Lighted Stage," it turns out that my opinions were all wrong. Although at first glance their songs appear to be pretentious, the actual band members are anything but. They are nice, friendly guys who are simply so good at their instruments, that their songs (long-winded and artsy as they are) are the only way the members of Rush know how to musically express themselves. And even Geddy Lee's voice, an acquired taste, seems to fit in the mix once you see the behind-the-scenes interviews with the band.

I didn't go to see Rush when they played in Pittsburgh last week. I had just seen the movie, and the concert kinda snuck up on me. But John went and he said it was wonderful... especially since the band was so clearly having a good time. (There's nothing better than a band enjoying the show as much as the audience!) I'm still not sure how deeply I'll be able to get into their material, but now that I've seen this documentary, I have a new respect for the band. They seem to be honest, sincere people, and they are obviously superior musicians. So I like `em. I may even switch our store audio system over to FM radio right now, to listen to one of their songs. After all, WDVE is probably playing "Tom Sawyer"...

Speaking of nice guys, I can't say enough about the Yamaha company. Looking back into the history of Pittsburgh Guitars, we've carried a lot of different acoustic guitar brands. And for decades I carried a major "American" brand, even though all of their acoustic guitars were manufactured overseas. A few years ago they became difficult to deal with, and coincidentally Yamaha gave us a call, asking if we'd like to carry their guitars. Since we'll try anything once, we ordered a dozen and we were very pleasantly surprised. Their instruments, even at very affordable prices, arrived perfectly set-up and sounded better than the American-named brand. And on top of that, the company was incredibly easy to work with. It has turned out to be a wonderful relationship. If you know anything about us, you know that we only sell things that we're proud of. (The beauty of a small store like this is that no big corporation is making product decisions for us. If we like something, we'll carry it. If we don't, we won't.) And we're happy to have Yamaha guitars here.

In fact, I started the last paragraph because I wanted to make the point that the folks at Yamaha are nice guys, just like the guys in Rush. But now that I think about it, my decision twenty years ago to carry the American-sounding brand of acoustics, instead of an imported-sounding name (Yamaha), was because I didn't know enough about the quality of the Yamahas. So, this story also fits in with 'found-out-more-about-it, then-liked-it' stories above! Hey, it all ties together... and I wasn't even planning it!


See you soon,


PS: Here are some photos from the Rush show at the Consol Center last week.

PPS: After my 'find-out-more-about-it, then-like-it' experience with Rush, I decided to spend a week listening to satellite radio Channel 001, "Sirius XM Hits 1, Top 40 Hits" to see if I could relate to the newest contemporary music. And I tried. And tried. But apparently at least 50% of the songs on "Sirius XM Hits 1" heavily feature "auto-tune" on the vocals... and it started to drive me crazy. If you're not familiar with auto-tune, it's a computer program that adjusts the pitch of a bad note, bringing it in tune. These days it is often used, even by good singers, to fine-tune a bad note in a recording. But when someone who really can't sing uses it on every line of a song, it gets very annoying. And it's annoying on a moral level too, when you have someone (like Kanye West) masquerading as a "singer" when they aren't.

PPPS: A few days ago I heard a radio interview with the band Maroon 5, and they brought up this same topic. On their latest record they did a song with Rihanna. And during the interview the lead singer, Adam Levine, said that they were nervous right before their first recording session with Rihanna, because they didn't know if she could really sing. He said that so many famous 'singers' these days are faking people out with auto-tuned vocals, that you never know what to expect until you finally hear them actually sing live in the studio. He was happy to report that Rihanna actually can sing! (That's probably why Eminem used her to do the choruses in his new 'song', "Love The Way You Lie.") (See! I know that, because I spent the last week listening to 'Hits 1.')

PPPPS: Speaking of Eminem and new music, I still don't care for Rap. I just don't like people yelling bad poetry at me. I've never been that much of a fan of poetry in the first place. I realize that poetry is an art form.... I just don't understand why you have to yell it at me. Although, I did have a big revelation last night at 2AM! I was laying in bed, thinking about rap (thanks to "Sirius XM Hits 1, Top 40 Hits")... and I said to myself, "Instead of 'music' why don't they just call it 'rapid-fire angry poetry'?" And then I realized that they did!! Rapid Angry Poetry = RAP!

PPPPPS: That last part is a true story. And I need to get more sleep.

PPPPPPS: Moving on to different topics: On October 3rd (a week from Sunday) the legendary guitarist Pat Metheny will be appearing at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Homestead. Here's the press release. Tickets start at $39.95, but we have two to give away! Along with a copy of his new CD! We'll have a contest entry box in the store until next Wednesday (no purchase necessary), but if you'd like to enter via email, send a note. We'll put your name in the box and draw a winner on Wednesday.
Pat Metheny & The Orchestrion Tour
Sunday, October 3, 2010
7:30 PM
Carnegie Library Music Hall, Homestead

PPPPPPPS: Speaking of shows:
Night Of The Singing Dead, #18
Friday, October 29 & Saturday October 30, 2010
8 PM
The Rex Theater, South Side
Tickets on Sale now!

PPPPPPPPS: And, if that's not enough! New! New! New! One more new show announcement!!!
Pittsburgh Guitars Big Beatle Show #8
Saturday, December 11, 2010
7:30 PM
The Rex Theater, South Side
Call or email John to sign up now!

PPPPPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Ronda Z



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