Emails from March 2012


Friday 3/2/2012


I like decorations. They make life more festive!

Given the chance, I'll put the Christmas tree up on November 1st. (Here's one of my favorite decorations!) I used to wear a necktie constantly. (Here's me in college.) And I've never played in a band that wore makeup, but I bet it would be fun! (Here's our good friend Billy O'Connor in 1974 wearing eye shadow with his band The Stilettos.) (Of course, the band's lead singer, Debbie, wore eye makeup, too...)

So, naturally, I like guitar decorations! And that made it very cool to see the Heartless Bastards on David Letterman last week using a late-1960s SG with one of my favorite guitar decorative parts.

Before we get to that, though, we need to briefly visit the exciting world of guitar vibratos...

"Vibrato" is a slight change in pitch. When you play a note on your guitar and stretch the string, the string gets tighter and the pitch goes up. It's pretty simple. Tighter string: higher pitch. Voila! Vibrato! (It works when you pull your pants up too tight, too!)

But ever since the first string was stretched, folks have been looking for ways to lower the pitch as well as raise it. (After all, that's the way a singing voice works.) To lower the pitch you have to loosen the tension of the string. And that's where mechanical "vibrato" units come into play. Pushing the vibrato unit's lever (or "arm") loosens the strings, lowers the tension, and therefore lowers the pitch.

The first commercially successful vibrato unit was invented by Paul Bigsby. Here's John with a Gretsch Tennessean featuring a Bigsby vibrato. (Note: As you can see in the picture, if you bought enough vibrato units from Paul Bigsby he'd put your name on them.)

During the 1950s Gibson bought a lot of vibratos from Paul Bigsby. But by 1961 they were ready to design their own. (Perhaps they were annoyed that so many of their competitors, especially Gretsch, were using the same vibratos. Gretsch used Bigsbys on almost every one of their models.)

Gibson's first design attempt was a colossal failure. But by 1963 they came up with a basic, yet effective vibrato. It was simply a curved piece of metal that screwed to the face of the guitar, interlocking with a second flat piece to which the strings were mounted. An arm attached to the flat piece. Unlike previous vibratos that utilized springs, this new piece was just man vs. steel. When you pressed down on the arm, you bent the curved steel part. When you let go, the steel returned to its previous curved shape. Gibson called it the "Vibrola."

Here are pictures of Gibson's 1963 "Vibrola."

Here is the Gibson Vibrola on an SG Special.

As you can kinda guess by the pictures, this vibrato won't work for Van Halen-style wanging. And it's nowhere near as versatile as the totally different vibrato system Leo Fender designed for the Stratocaster.. But for subtle bending, the Vibrola works fine.

Now... getting back to the Heartless Bastards... (Gee, I hope their name doesn't send this email to bad-word spam folders.) On the Letterman show, the lead guitarist, Mark Nathan, used a 1960s Gibson SG Standard. And like most 1960s SGs, it had a vibrato unit. But there was something about it that made me smile. Something decorative!

Here's the rest of the Vibrola story...

During the 1960s, Gibson used the aforementioned (and aforepictured) Vibrola on many of their instruments, including the SG Junior and SG Special. But they wanted something fancier for higher-grade guitars, like Nathan's SG Standard. So Gibson's art department designed an add-on decorative extension. This extension featured a large metal plate with an engraved Lyre and the Gibson logo. The plate was supported by two rods that ran along the face of the guitar to the endpin.

Functionally speaking, this vibrato worked exactly the way the shorter version did. The large metal cover serves no purpose, other than decoration. But what a cool decoration it is! The vibrato with the fancy extension plate was called the "Deluxe Vibrola."

Here is the Deluxe Vibrola on an SG.

Here are the parts. If you wanted a different look, you could remove the engraved plate, and expose the support rods.

Here is a page from Gibson's 1966 catalog. You can see the long Deluxe Vibrola on the SG Custom and Standard, and the shorter Vibrola on the other guitars.

I realize that in general, all manufacturers want their product to be attractive. For example, guitar makers always try to put a nice finish on their instruments. And, of course, the body shape, pickguard size, and other functional aspects of the guitars are "designed" for appeal. But I really appreciate it when something that serves no useful purpose is added, just for the look.

Yep, I like decorations!

Maybe I'll put a tie on today!

See you soon,


PS: Here are both vibrato versions in action, at the Southland Shopping Center in 1971. My brother John, on the left is using a 1970 SG Standard with the Deluxe Vibrola and our other guitarist, Howard Whetzel is using a 1967 SG Special with the standard Vibrola. (The bass player is Chuck Durica.) (I'm on drums.) (It looks like I am trying to sing.) (Hopefully my mic is turned down.)


PPS: The Gibson Firebirds used the same vibrato units. The Firebirds I and III have the regular Vibrolas, and Firebirds V and VII have the "Deluxe" versions. Here's a catalog page.


PPPS: The Heartless Bastards on the David Letterman Show. Nathan's SG was made between late-1966 and 1971. You can tell by the over-sized pickguard that surrounds the pickups and continues above them.


PPPPS: Note that like 93.7% of the bands on Letterman (and Leno), the Heartless Bastards are using a Vox AC-30. For all of your Vox shopping needs visit Pittsburgh Guitars on the historic South Side, or on the web at Pittsburgh Guitars! Don't forget to try the equally fabulous sounding AC15 or the new AC15C2, with two 12" speakers. The AC15C2 has the same wonderful tone as the AC30, in a lighter weight package.


Artists Who Customize Their Guitars

Friday 3/9/2012


I saw a guy on TV this week with a cool looking guitar.

And it reminded me of a few other guitars. And last week's email!

The guy's name is Joseph Arthur, and he and his band were on the David Letterman Show. His guitar has wild, multi-color paint lines all over it, and at first glance I figured that Arthur painted it himself. But as the camera passed the headstock, I could see a Godin decal. Godin is a Canadian company and they make nice instruments. I checked the Godin web site and Arthur is listed, but not that color option. His must be a custom shop model.

My first thought seeing the unique paint job was: If I was a rock star, I'd paint my guitar! (Presuming, of course, that I wasn't using a super-cool vintage instrument!) Maybe it all goes back to the country players I saw when I was young... the guys with their name inlaid on the fingerboard or pickguard, or even painted right on their guitar. Personalization is fun! And looks good onstage!

And that made me think of rock stars who have customized their guitars.

The first one that comes to mind is naturally Eddie Van Halen. He painted several of his instruments, and they all have the distinctive flair of his original Frankenstein guitar. Here are pictures of Van Halen with his painted guitars.

The next one I thought of was "The Fool" SG played by Eric Clapton in Cream. I first saw that guitar in Life Magazine. Here's the photo of Cream from Life. In the mid-1960s, a Dutch art group known as "The Fool" designed clothing and other art works for a variety of British bands, including The Beatles. The Fool painted Eric Clapton's circa-1964 SG, and it became so famous that the guitar also became known as "The Fool." Here are more pictures of him using the guitar.

And that reminded me of last week's email... when I talked about a vibrato unit called the Gibson Deluxe Vibrola. One of the visually interesting aspects of the Deluxe Vibrola is that you can either use the decorative cover plate, or remove it to expose the support arms. And if you look at the above photos of Clapton with his SG, you can see that the cover plate was removed, and the support arms are visible.

When Cream broke up, "The Fool" SG made its way to British musician Jackie Lomax. To this day it's uncertain if it was sold to Lomax or merely lent. Regardless of that transaction, years later Lomax sold it to Todd Rundgren. Rundgren refurbished the guitar, touching up the paint, replacing the headstock and installing a stop tailpiece instead of the Deluxe Vibrola. Here's a picture of it when Todd owned it. It has changed hands a couple of times since then.

The third example of a rock-star-customized instrument that flashed in my brain was Robby Takac from the Goo Goo Dolls. He's a big fan of the Yamaha BB414 Bass. (I think that's the model...) The last time I saw the band, Robby must have had at least six of these basses, and each one was differently decorated with stickers. I've never seen that done before... a musician who plays a consistent model, yet many "versions" of it. That's an artistically clever idea. Here's Robby Takac with three of his many "different" Yamaha basses.

I'm sure there areother famous musicians out there who've customized their guitars...

If you can think of any, send `em in, and I'll post them on here!


See you soon,


PS: Here is Joseph Arthur on Letterman.


PPS: The Fool also painted a bass for Cream's bassist, Jack Bruce. Unfortunately, it was a six-string Fender Bass VI. Those basses have skinny, guitar-like necks, and that model wasn't compatible with Bruce's playing style. Here's a video of Bruce using the bass with Cream. (Sorry the video is black & white.)


PPPS: Although it was mostly a studio guitar, George Harrison decorated his sonic blue Strat with day-glo colors. It's now lovingly known as "Rocky" since he painted that on the headstock. Here's George with Rocky.


PPPPS: When George painted his Strat, Paul McCartney painted his Rick bass. Here's Paul.


More Artists Who Customize Their Guitars

Friday 3/15/2012

Thanks to all of the folks who responded to last week's email!

Last week I mentioned Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, and Goo Goo Dolls bassist, Robby Takac, as musicians who have artistically modified their guitars.

Here is a sampling of other players mentioned by Email Special readers:

Pete Townshend and his numbered Les Pauls.

Joe Strummer and his Telecasters.

John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service and his modified SG.

Joan Jett and her work-in-progress Gibson Melody Maker.

Alvin Lee with his famous Gibson ES-335.

And, of course, Woody Guthrie!

Several people also mentioned players who use interesting custom-made instruments, like:

Joe Perry and his Gibson ES-355 with his wife's picture.

Ian Hunter and his Mott The Hoople "H" guitar.

Rick Neilson and his many wacky Hamer guitars...

Meanwhile, Korel from the Goo Goo Dolls wrote to explain Robbie Takac's many different basses. He says that the stickers are random, but the color of the bass is important. The band plays songs in a variety of different tunings, and so Robby has different colored basses in different tunings. A black bass for standard tuning, an orange bass for a whole step down, etc. What a great idea!

OK!! Thanks everyone!!

Now let's try a contest! Unfortunately, I don't have any prizes, so this will be a just-for-the-fun-of-it contest!

Last Saturday I turned on Saturday Night Live to catch the musical guest, The Shins. A few seconds into their appearance I said, "Nice instruments!"

Here's the test:

Click on this youtube video of The Shins on Saturday Night Live. There will be an ad first, so during the ad, position your mouse-pointer over the "play-pause" button. This will keep the timer on-screen. (Otherwise it will disappear when the band starts.)

It takes Jonah Hill seven seconds to introduce the band.

Then, without stopping the video to examine the instruments, how long does it take you to identify the guitars and bass?

And then, how much longer to make further decisions about the details of the guitars?

OK? Ready?
Here is the video!

Let me know!

Now... let's see... It's March 15th.... Is it time to start working on the taxes?

Talk to ya soon!


PS: The Shins



Mott The Hoople... as we know `em, from the big shoes era:

All The Way From Memphis

Mott The Hoople... pre-big shoes! No vocals, but worth watching just to see the fabulous 1954 Les Paul Goldtop!

You Really Got Me (instrumental)


Golden Age


Friday 3/23/2012


I read a book this week.

That's going to be my new goal. A book every week.

This one is called, Laurel Canyon, The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood, by Michael Walker. And, it's true to its title.

Laurel Canyon is a hill-side community of winding roads just off of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The area has a long history as a gathering place for writers, movie stars, and musicians. In the late 1960s, as a new era of musical, social, and recreational-drug-use experimentation was taking place, an amazing group of musicians bought or rented homes in this small neighborhood.

At one time, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Mark Volman (The Turtles), Canned Heat, Jim Morrison, Denny Doherty (The Mamas & Papas), John Densmore (The Doors), Chris Hillman (The Byrds), Frank Zappa, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz, Robby Krieger (The Doors), Arthur Lee and his band Love, photographer Henry Diltz (he shot over 100 LP covers, including the first Crosby, Stills and Nash LP), "Mama" Cass Elliott, and many other musicians, managers, artists and agents, all lived in Laurel Canyon.

Author Walker tells of the many musical collaborations that took place in the neighborhood, especially at Cass Elliott's house. Cass was brilliant, witty, and an extremely talented singer. Her home was often a focal point for musical gatherings.

Walker refers to the late 1960s as Laurel Canyon's "golden age." (Much like the "golden age" of literature and art in Paris in the 1920s, entertainingly depicted in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris").

For example, Walker describes how Cass observed David Crosby and Stephen Stills working on demo songs. (Crosby had recently been fired from The Byrds, and Stills had just disbanded his group, Buffalo Springfield.) Cass loved Crosby and Stills' harmonies, but she felt that they needed a third voice. She knew that Graham Nash was unhappy with his band, The Hollies, and she surprised Crosby and Stills by bringing Nash to her house to meet them. Crosby and Stills sang one of their songs, "You Don't Have To Cry," for Nash. He asked them to sing it again, and on a third time through he added a beautiful high harmony. The three of them immediately recognized the magic of their blended voices, and Crosby, Stills and Nash was born.

Graham Nash then relocated to Laurel Canyon, moving in with singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. He described the peaceful joy of their Laurel Canyon home in his song, "Our House."

Late in his book, Walker makes a comment that struck me. He says that based on his interviews, the aforementioned musicians were so busy writing and performing, and in general, living their lives, they didn't appreciate the significance of the era... and the area. He says the "golden age" of Laurel Canyon "...would become evident only in hindsight."

That made me wonder about our own personal "golden ages." True, you and I aren't recording albums that will sell millions and millions of copies. (Well, most of us aren't...) But we can get too sidetracked by everyday life to recognize a golden age, even if we're living in one.

For example, I remember the days of The Decade in Oakland. In that small club you could be up close and personal with both national acts and an amazing variety of local bands. That can rightfully be called a golden age in Pittsburgh music. Likewise, maybe ten years later, an astonishing assortment of groups appeared at Graffiti on Baum Boulevard.

From my own perspective, in 1991 my record label Bogus Records released CDs by The Frampton Brothers, The Spuds, Phil Harris, The Flashcats, and a Sonny Bono tribute, Bonograph... Sonny Gets His Share. Those are great CDs and that was an exciting time. But I was too busy promoting the CDs, handling the paperwork, fielding phone calls, and simultaneously running Pittsburgh Guitars, to even stop for a breath... let alone take the time to appreciate the moment.

And I think that happens a lot.

You can't see it now, because you're too busy living your life. And for that same reason, you probably missed them in the past. But I think "golden ages" happen in all of our lives. We just don't see them. Michael Walker is right. You can only see a golden age in hindsight. So, let's take a moment to look back, and smile over prior good times.

And maybe keep an eye on the present, too.


See you soon,



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