Email Specials from November 2011

Friday 11/4/2011 ~ A Change in the Works


Part One:

Last week I mentioned the late computer programming innovator Dennis Ritchie. Several Email Special readers wrote to say they were familiar with his work, but one of our readers, Gabe, actually worked with him! And Gabe's email to me was inspiring. Gabe wrote: "(Dennis) was an incredible man, with an incredible mind and an incredible passion for the things he was gifted in. Being around him made us all feel like we were better at what we did."

We, of course, can't claim to have the brilliance of Dennis Ritchie. But I think we can all aspire to approach life with passion. And in doing so, inspire those around us. Last week I referred to Dennis Ritchie as an "unsung hero." To the people around us, our family, friends and co-workers, I think we all have the potential to be unsung heroes. Let's give it a try!

Part Two:

Last week I mentioned humbucking pickup inventor Seth Lover. What many folks don't know is that after leaving Gibson in 1967 he took a job at Fender. And he designed a similar pickup for them! Lover was hired by Fender in 1967, and by 1970 he designed the Fender "Wide Range" pickup. It was the same concept as the Gibson Humbucking pickup (two coils), but with a slightly different design (the pole pieces were actually magnets). Visually, the Fender Wide Range pickup differed from Gibson's pickup with the position of the pole pieces... they are in two rows of three. Fender first used the new pickup in March, 1972 with the introduction of the Telecaster Custom. Here's a picture of a Telecaster Custom. You can see the staggered pole pieces, as designed by Seth Lover.

Part Three:

This week I got an email from Japan, asking if I'd be interested in selling my 1947 Gibson L-5. I talked about this guitar, and other Gibson archtops, in an Email Special from 7/30/2010. Here's John with the L-5. Here's a link to the 7/30/2010 email.

Selling an old guitar is always emotionally tough, so I figured that I should pull the guitar out and give it a strum... I opened the case and said hello to the L-5, and played a few chords. It was perfectly in tune, and the action was as low as could be. As I mentioned in last year's email, I'm a bigger fan of the bass-heavy sound of flat top guitars than the brighter sound of archtops. But there is no denying that this `47 L-5 is a work of art. It is a quality instrument made by craftsmen who really cared about their work. And that can be evidenced by the fact that today, 64 years after it was made, it plays and sounds as nice as the day it was made.

And that brings me to Part Four:

This highly-crafted L-5 was created over six decades ago. It has gone through several owners (I believe I am the fourth) and it still shines today. Pittsburgh Guitars was created 33 years ago, and I would like it to continue for another 100. Like the L-5, I feel that Pittsburgh Guitars was crafted to provide good service to its many customers. ("Selling to Bloomfield in 1979, Selling to the World in 2011!") But also, just like the L-5, Pittsburgh Guitars won't last for 133 years under just one owner. Since I am now reaching the six decade mark myself (on 11/11/11 I'll be 60!), I think it's time to hand the running of Pittsburgh Guitars over to my ace employee, John Bechtold. John loves the store, and as you know he has been here for over ten years. He will do a great job with Pittsburgh Guitars, and he'll add youth and enthusiasm to the place. I'm sure he'll have a lot of fun new ideas, while preserving the historically designed vibe of the store.

I'll be around a lot. And I'll still be writing the Email Special, in one form or another. Meanwhile, John, Sam, Betsy & Scott will be here for all of your guitar needs!


See you soon,


PS: Speaking of the Telecaster Custom, you are probably saying to yourself, "What about the Tele with the normal pickup configuration, but a bound body? Wasn't that called a Telecaster Custom??" And you'd be right, sort of. In 1959 Fender introduced a fancy Telecaster with white binding around the body. The official name was the "Custom Telecaster." But unofficially it was, and is, often referred to as a "Tele Custom." That didn't seem to phase Fender when they decided to introduce a model with the Seth Lover designed Wide Range pickup. Since the old model was officially a "Custom Telecaster" Fender didn't think anyone would be confused if the new model was called a "Telecaster Custom." Maybe they picked the name on a Friday afternoon, and didn't feel like coming up with something new... Here's John with a 1960 Fender Custom Telecaster. Not to be confused with: John with a 1974 Telecaster Custom. (The yellow sticker on the pickguard is not original!)

PPS: Customer of the week: Ray Davies
Me and Ray in 1980
Me and Ray today


Friday 11/11/2011 ~ Remembering Duke Kramer


I watched the Country Music Awards Wednesday night. I enjoyed it for two reasons.

First of all, even if you’re not a country fan you have to appreciate the fact that they can actually sing... and actually play their instruments…

And secondly, it reminded me of Duke Kramer.

Have you ever liked someone the minute you met them?

Twenty-nine years ago an elderly gentleman walked into my store. (At the time, I was 30, he was probably 60… so he seemed “elderly.” Now, of course, I have a completely different view of that term!)

He said he was driving across the state and had some Gretsch parts for sale. He was funny and friendly and just one of those people who is naturally happy. I like happy people. His name was Duke Kramer. We chatted for hours that day, and became good friends.

Duke started to work for Gretsch in 1935 when he was 19. At the time they were primarily a drum manufacturer, but distributed a full line of instruments. He was with them when they introduced the world’s first 20" bass drum, which they designed so drummers could fit their bass drum into New York City taxi cabs. He was with them when they seriously entered the guitar manufacturing arena, competing with Gibson and Epiphone archtop acoustics. He was there in the early 1950s when they went electric. He enjoyed the success of their two-tone guitars in the late 1950s. And he saw orders for the Country Gentleman increase tenfold when George Harrison played one on Ed Sullivan.

Duke even stayed with the company when Baldwin Piano bought Gretsch in 1967... and he watched as Baldwin drove the company into bankruptcy in the late 1970s.

By the 1980s Gretsch was gone, and Duke ended up with lots of parts. Since he enjoyed his days as a traveling salesman, he decided that rather than retire, he'd visit small stores, sell some parts, and meet people. And that's what brought him to Pittsburgh Guitars.

Over the years we kept in touch. As a fan of Gretsch guitars, I bought lots of parts from him. And we spent time on the phone talking about the details of those parts. He thought Gretsch made the best sounding guitar ever, but he couldn't believe that it was important to me that the little felt pieces under the mute knobs were changed from red to black in early 1964.

In the mid 1990s I visited Duke and his wife, Fritzi, at their home in Cincinnati and interviewed him for hours about the old days of the guitar biz. He had tons of stories. For example, he told me that in the 1950s he always bought Cadillacs, because when he drove Gretsch guitars around to music shops he often had to travel on unpaved dirt roads, and the Caddy was good in the mud.

And he told me that it was nice to see George Harrison use a Gretsch guitar on Ed Sullivan, and it did increase orders. But Fred Gretsch never contacted George, and he didn’t care much for The Beatles. Fred liked Jazz and Country music. And Fred didn’t think Rock & Roll would last.

And that’s what crossed my mind on Wednesday. One of the new country acts on the show was a duo called Thompson Station. The guy half of the duo was playing a Gretsch White Falcon guitar. While the rest of the artists on the Country Music Awards used your typical solid bodies, the Thompson guy stood out with his big ol’ Gretsch! It reminded me of the stories Duke told me about hanging back stage at the Grand Ole Opry, showing Gretsch guitars to country stars in the late 1950s.

I don't know why some people are naturally happy. But Duke Kramer was. He had a smile on his face every time I talked to him. Sadly he passed away in 2005, and I still miss him. And I smiled when I saw that Gretsch White Falcon.


See You Soon,

PS: Customer of the week: Mace Ballard


Friday 11/18/2011 ~ Changing With the Times


I spent last weekend in Valley Forge, PA, for the semi-annual Philadelphia Vintage Guitar Show. Naturally, it was fabulous to be around so many guitars! We had a booth with lots of cool stuff... and spent the weekend buying, selling, and trading with other folks who also had cool stuff.

But there were at least five times that we needed to reference the internet to look something up.

We had our phones, so the internet was there for us... but since none of our eyes are as good as they used to be, it was a bit of a strain to read the small screen on the iPhone. There is no denying it, it's time for an iPad. So yesterday I went shopping for one. And the smallest available is 16GB.

Now, in 2011, 16GB is a starter package... but it really made me flash back to yesteryear.

When I started Pittsburgh Guitars we actually kept track of sales on paper. (Looking back, that seems so impossible!) It was years before desktop computers became financially practical. I bought the first store computer in 1987, and it was so technologically prehistoric that it didn't even have a hard drive! We had to insert a floppy disc (one of those big ones, that actually was floppy) in the morning to load the programs, and then take it out and insert another one to update the inventory as we sold stuff. (You probably think I'm making this up, but it's true!) (And in 1987 even that level of computer cost $995!)

It's hard to believe how far we've come. Even the term "floppy disc" I used in that last paragraph is archaic.

But it's exciting to keep up with technology. I was thrilled when we finally got a store computer with a real hard drive. And I loved it when the internet came along. Thanks to our very early internet presence, Pittsburgh Guitars still comes up very high on many Google searches. (That wasn't the plan... I just wanted to see pictures of the store on the internet. But it turns out that being online in the super-early days worked out well!)

And that brings us to the Email Special.

I started writing these things in mid-1999. By late 2002 they evolved into the current long ramblings. (And, by the way, thank you for all of the kind messages you've sent over the years. I get carried away when I start to talk about guitars, so these often get a bit long. I appreciate the fact that you continue to read them!)

In the early days, the Email Special mailing list was small. At first I could copy the list into the "Bcc" heading. Then, it got so big that it overloaded the Bcc capability, and I had to start sending multiple versions, each with a section of the mailing list. Eventually we started using a "mail program." I don't know exactly what that means (Betsy handles it!)... but I know it involves a lot of hands-on maintenance.

As I look back on technological advances... from the non-hard drive computer; to bigger, smarter, faster computers; to the internet; and eventually the internet on our phone... it seems that the Email Special has been technologically stagnant. And technology has been fun! We shouldn't stop now!

John recently told me about a service called Constant Contact. He uses it with his band, The Elliotts, and he loves it. I'm still looking into it, but it appears to have some clear advantages. Unlike our current approach, Constant Contact makes it easier to subscribe and unsubscribe; I believe it will lend itself to more artwork and photos; and it offers a way for readers to leave comments. For example, last week I mentioned an old friend Duke Kramer. One of the Email Special readers quickly wrote to ask about the guitar called the "Kramer Duke!" Ha!!

(As an informational aside: There is no relation. Duke Kramer had nothing to do with the Kramer guitar company. Kramer guitars introduced the "Duke" in 1981 as an inexpensive version of the then-popular Steinberger head-less guitars. Here's a picture of a Kramer Duke. Here's a picture of Duke Kramer. As you can see, no relation.)

So, to keep up with life, we're looking into incorporating the Email Special to the Constant Contact format. Any thoughts?


See you soon,


PS: We'd like to thank Ray Davies for not only buying a guitar from us, but for also mentioning Pittsburgh Guitars so many times during his show at the Carnegie Music Hall in Homestead! John, Sam, Scott and I had a chance to hang with Ray backstage after the show, and it was great!

PPS: To understand the significance of Ray mentioning both me and the store in the middle of his show, you have to go back to the Pittsburgh Guitars history. I was a Kinks fan from the very beginning. When Ray's brother Dave appeared on the Shindig TV show playing a Gibson Flying V (with his arm through the V-part!) it inspired me to further study different types of guitars. Here's Dave Davies with his Flying V. When I started to go to see The Kinks in concert, Ray's use of a white Fender Telecaster inspired me to make my first ever guitar purchase, a white Fender Telecaster! Here's a really fuzzy picture I took at the Syria Mosque on September 1, 1972. In June 1973, even though I didn't play guitar, I bought a white Tele just like it for $175. That purchase eventually led to me buying and selling thousands of guitars!! And it all started with Ray! It's amazing how life works out!

PPPS: Hey, I hope life is working out well for you! I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving. Don't eat too much! We'll be back in early December, maybe with a new look.

PPPPS: You're probably wondering if Pittsburgh Guitars will open at Midnight on Thanksgiving.... Well, no. But we will be here bright and early at 11AM on Friday! That way you can get all of that middle-of-the-night stuff out of the way before you start shopping for the important presents, the guitars!

PPPPPPPPS: Customer of the week: Paul Luc

Missing Link!

Hey! Sorry, I forgot a link in the PPS!!!

Here's a picture of Dave Davies with his Flying V.

On June 26, 1965, Dave's main stage guitar, a single cutaway Guild Starfire, was lost on a flight to Los Angeles.

In a hurry to find a replacement, Dave found this 1958 Gibson Flying V still unsold in a music store in L.A. Gibson had introduced the Flying V in 1958, and it was such a market failure that only 98 were manufactured between 1958 and 1959. (Rumor has it that some store owners used the guitar to point to other models!) Dave's guitar had been hanging in the L.A. store for seven years.

The significance of Dave using this guitar on the Shindig TV Show is that it was the first time many Americans ever saw a Flying V. And Dave's unusual way of playing it through the "V" certainly added to its mystique!I'd like to think that Dave's use of the guitar prompted Gibson to reissue the model in the late 1960s!




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