Email Specials from December 2011

Friday 12/1/11


Have you ever suddenly realized something?

It could happen with people... or activities... or just an object. You look at them (or it) and suddenly grasp a relationship that simply never occurred to you before.

It happened to me yesterday.

I was walking through the room, and glanced down at my 1964 Gretsch Tennessean. (We were jamming the other night, and I left this one out on a guitar stand.) At first glance (or thought), the following facts went through my mind: (1) It's an old guitar; (2) it's a classic piece of American artwork; (3) it's the model used by George Harrison from late-1964 through 1965; (4) it's... well, OK, a lot of facts went through my mind. That happens whenever I see a guitar.

But despite all of the vintage guitar details that were rambling through my head, my over-all thought was: It's a nice old guitar that's part of my collection.

Then, suddenly, I realized that this instrument was not always an old guitar. At some point in 1964, a music store owner somewhere called Gretsch and ordered a new Tennessean... this guitar. And at some point in 1964, someone walked into that music store and bought a brand new Gretsch Tennessean... this actual guitar!

I don't know why that never occurred to me! But every guitar in the Pittsburgh Guitars collection was originally a brand new guitar! And at one time or another, a customer excitedly handed a store owner his hard earned cash, and walked out with that instrument!

As you know, Pittsburgh Guitars has been around for almost 33 years. Over that time, we've sold thousands of guitars. And I know this will seem strange, but I feel a personal connection with every one of those thousands of people, and every one of those thousands of guitars. Those folks didn't have to buy those guitars... (they could have bought golf clubs...). But, like me, they appreciated the wonderfulness of music, and the superwonderfulness of the guitar as a musical instrument. (It's easy to carry, it's very expressive, and you can sing while playing it!) Sure, those purchases were financial transactions. But they were emotional ones, too.

And I don't have the percentages (we were working with paper and pencil in pre-computer-1979) but I'd guess that 50% of those thousands of guitars were brand new instruments. Straight from the factory... to Pittsburgh Guitars... to their first-ever owners. And those owners took the shiny, new, not-a-scratch-on-it guitar home, opened the case, and started to play. It may have been the owner's first guitar, or their tenth, but it was the beginning of a new relationship...

And that's what occurred to me as I contemplated the Tennessean, and the rest of my guitars. At one point in their lives, they were taken home, all perfect and new, by a happy purchaser. Eventually, they were sold or traded away, and made their way to me, but it's heartwarming to know that there was a time when someone bought them, brand new! There was a moment when a store-owner, a customer, and that guitar were part of something special.

Speaking of relationships and Pittsburgh Guitars, we're happy to have you as a customer. We've had some good times over the years. And as John takes over the store, he's going to add even more good times! For example, this Saturday, December 3rd, Pittsburgh Guitars will be hosting its first ever "Holiday Kick-off" Day. From 11AM until 5PM there will be Hourly Giveaways, lots of In-Store Specials, and a drawing for a $100 Gift Certificate!

Stop in on Saturday, have a cookie (I'm pretty sure there will be cookies!), buy a few Christmas presents (one for Bobby, one for you, one for Suzie, one for you, etc), and maybe even win a prize!

See you Saturday! And for the next 33 years!

See you soon,

PS: Getting back to the Gretsch Tennessean, George Harrison got his at Christmastime 1963, but he kept it as a backup guitar for quite a while. He already owned a Gretsch Country Gentleman, and he used the Country Gentleman on The Beatles' February, 1964, Ed Sullivan appearances and on their August,1964, American tour. He switched to the Tennessean as his main on-stage guitar in late-1964. The first time many of us saw George use the Tennessean was on October 7, 1964, on a TV show called "Shindig." Here are the Shindig songs, recorded in England on October 3, 1964, and broadcast in the US four days later: "Shindig." The Tennessean was also used prominently in the movie "Help!" Here is the opening song: "Help!"


Friday 12/9/11 ~ It's Good to Try New Things


Life is too short to be stuck in a rut. So it's good to try new things. (Like sushi!) After all, if you don't experiment, how will you know if your current plan is the best?

Guitar makers know that, so over the years they've experimented, too. And some of their new ideas worked out really well. Like the humbucking pickup, or the contoured body of a Strat, or the Floyd Rose vibrato (if you need to do some serious string-bending).
Other new ideas... ah... er... probably looked good on paper... but...

All of that crossed my mind this week, as I watched late-night television.

December gets very busy, so it's relaxing to curl up on the couch at midnight, and see what bands are on TV. And this week every time I turned on the TV, I saw The Black Keys! (They should give their booking agent a raise!)

I enjoyed the band. And I really enjoyed their equipment. The keyboard player used an old Hammond organ and a vintage Wurlitzer electric piano. The bass player used what appeared to be an old solidbody Harmony bass and a Fender Mustang bass, along with two Sunn 200S bass amps. And the guitarist/lead singer used a rare Guild Thunderbird guitar.

The Guild Thunderbird led me to think about guitar experimental ideas. Here's more info about the Guild, and two others that came to mind:

1) Guild made the Thunderbird from 1963 through 1968. It has an usual body shape, kind of a flowing rectangle. But not only is the shape unique, it also has a built-in guitar stand! In the middle of the back is a fold-out metal leg. Here's a picture of a Guild Thunderbird, using the built-in stand. Here's a picture of the back, with the stand snapped back in place. As you can see in the first picture, the bottom points of the body have little feet to help stabilize the guitar. But in general, this was an accident waiting to happen. One of my vintage-dealer friends refers to this design as the "crash-o-matic." Guild didn't make very many Thunderbirds, and thanks to the "stand" many of them now have cracked headstocks.


2) Item two in strange-design land is the Gretsch Bikini guitar. In 1961 Gretsch introduced a guitar (and matching bass) with a detachable body. And after removal, the body can be folded in half! I presume the thought was that once disassembled, the parts would be easier to transport. (For those folks who had a car that was so small it couldn't fit a regular guitar case.) The downside is that, when assembled, this guitar is not only unattractive (and that's being kind), it's uncomfortable to play. The other downside is that when you slide the neck into the body, the metal rails snapping together sound exactly like a gun being cocked. Which could be an issue if you were playing at a rowdy bar!

Here's John with the separate pieces of a Gretsch Bikini Bass.

Here's John sliding it together.

Here's John wondering what they were thinking when they designed the Bikini.

Gretsch stopped making the Bikini a year later, in 1962.


3) The third experimental idea that came to mind was Rickenbacker's 12-to-6-string converter. In 1965 Rickenbacker's 12-string sound was everywhere in pop music. But a 12-string guitar isn't right for every song in a band's set. In 1966 Rickenbacker decided to offer a 12-string that could be converted into a 6-string. Available as an option on both solidbody and hollowbody guitars, the "converter" was a sliding metal comb beneath the strings which could be moved and tilted to grab six of the twelve strings, and pull them down out of the way.

Here is the converter in action, transforming a 12-string to 6-string on a Rickenbacker Model 456/12.

The converter definitely worked better on the drawing board than in real life. Pulling six strings down away from the others was not only awkward, it increased the tension on the neck and the entire guitar had to be re-tuned. And it only pulled the strings out of the way in the center of the guitar. If you played back by the bridge you would still be hitting the deadened strings with your pick. Rickenbacker offered this option for ten years, but it was never successful in the marketplace.

As all of that was rattling through my head, I thought, "Hey, maybe those ideas didn't work out... but at least they tried!" And that should be our philosophy. Try new stuff. Those three guitars may have been a bit odd, but being open to new ideas led Guild, Gretsch and Rickenbacker to make lots of other very successful models. And even the not-so-great ideas are still historically fascinating. (And still sought out by folks who appreciate their coolness!)

So try some new ideas! Even if they aren't successful, at least they'll make life interesting!

See you soon,


PS: Watching the Black Keys, I was so captivated by the Guild Thunderbird guitar that I almost didn't notice that the guitarist was playing through an unusual Fender Quad Reverb. The Quad is a Twin Reverb with four 12-inch speakers instead of two! Made just for those folks who think a Twin Reverb isn't loud enough and heavy enough already!

PPS: The Black Keys were on Saturday Night Live on December 3rd, The Colbert Report on December 6th, and David Letterman on December 7th. Pretty impressive!

PPPS: Here they are from Dec 6th on The Colbert Report.

PPPPS: Here they are from Dec 7th on Letterman.

PPPPPS: Another famous Guild Thunderbird player: Zal Yanovshy in The Lovin' Spoonful


Friday 12/9/11 ~ Just Do It!


One day I looked at the Vox amp display, and thought, "If we had a little shelf, we could make two rows of amps!"

So I went to Home Depot, bought some wood, cut it, painted it black and nailed it together. (Scott helped with the joints. As a child he built furniture. He and wood are very close.) The most time-consuming part of the job was waiting for the paint to dry. (Maybe we shouldn't have sat there watching...) Later that day, we had a fabulous, multi-tiered Vox display!

I mentioned this to a friend who works for a big corporation, and he pointed out how different our worlds were. He said in corporate world they would first commission a study; then draw up plans; then apply for funding; then... well, there were a lot of steps! The shelf would have taken months to complete.

And that is one advantage of a small business: creative flexibility. If something pops into your head, you just do it!

And the guitar manufacturing company who wins the "Just Do It" Award is Rickenbacker.

Last week I mentioned their Twelve-String-To-Six-String Converter. (Here's a picture.) As wacky as that was, it's just the tip of the creative iceberg with Rickenbacker.

For example, one day at the factory someone was strumming a guitar and he noticed that when playing chords his hand was slightly angled. The Powers-That-Be at Rickenbacker said, "Well, then... let's make a guitar with slanted frets!" And they did! Their promo material said: "This slight slant of the frets matches precisely the natural angle of the fretting fingers."

Here's a picture of a Model 481 with slanted frets. Most of the slanted-fret Rickenbacker guitars that we have seen have been 481s, but it was available as an option on other models, as well.

Another "creative flexibility" item occurred when Rickenbacker decided to offer an item to Country and Bluegrass players. The factory was not in any way set up to manufacture a banjo, but that didn't stop them! They simply made a solid instrument with a round body! They attached a 5-string banjo neck, and ta-da! The Bantar! Here's a picture.

And not wanting to leave out the four-string banjo players, Rickenbacker also offered one of those... but they really thought outside the box, and took it a step further. Since Rickenbacker is well versed in 12-string, paired-string technology, their other Country model featured two paired strings (in octaves, like the 12-string) and two single strings. (The body was either a 330 or a carved-top 381 and the headstock has six machine heads, so from a distance it looks like a regular guitar, but it is played as a four-string instrument.) This innovative item was called the Banjoline. Here's a picture.

Here is the Rickenbacker catalog page featuring the Bantar and the Banjoline.

But to me, the ultimate Rickenbacker let-the-creative-juices-flow guitar has to be the Model 331 Lightshow Guitar. In general, technology in the 1960s was caveman-like compared to today. But one thing we did have was a gizmo that could blink lights relative to sound waves. White lights for high notes, red for mid-range, blue for low frequency notes. These were built into stereo speakers, and you could turn off the room lights, fire up some incense, put on "In A Gadda Da Vida" and the speaker cabinets would blink along with the music. Wow, man.

Well, Rickenbacker decided to construct a guitar with built-in blinking lights. And the lights would react to the notes that you played! It was modeled on a Rickenbacker 330 body with the front carved out, Christmas lights mounted inside, and then covered with a plastic top. You used two cables; one regular guitar cable, and another one that went to a power transformer and into a wall outlet. It was the only electric guitar that (just like the cartoon drawings from the 1960s) you actually plugged into the wall!

Here's a picture of a Rickenbacker 331. And here's what it looks like when you strum the strings.

It would be a great guitar to play next to your Christmas tree!


Speaking of Christmas, I hope you have a wonderful Holiday! 2011 was a fun year, 2012 will be even better! See you next year!




PS: Rickenbacker offered the slanted-fret option for 10 years, but it was never very successful. The concept works well if you're playing regular chords with your thumb up over the back of the neck. But if you're playing barre chords, with your thumb in the middle of the back of the neck, your fingers aren't on as much of an angle.

PPS: The Bantar was manufactured from 1966 thru the mid-1970s. It did not catch on with banjo players.

PPPS: The Banjoline was made from 1968 thru the mid-1970s. It may have been just TOO unique! It's one of the only Rickenbacker models that we've never had at Pittsburgh Guitars. Some day I'm gonna get one of those!

PPPPS: Here's a video of the 331 Lightshow in action. He doesn't start playing until the :12 mark. And if you watch the entire video you'll see that Rickenbacker also made a bass version!

PPPPPS: Hey, thanks for all of the letters about the Email Special this year... and for the last 12 years! It's been fun! Now... on to Two-Thousand-And-Twelve!!! (Who'd a thought we'd make it this far!!!)


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