Emails from May 2012

I Was Wrong...

Friday 5/11/2012


I think we develop most prejudices in our younger years.

And hopefully, as we grow older and wiser, we see the error of our ways.

It took a while for me to come to grips with my two prejudices. In fact, I didn't overcome one of them until my 30s. And this week, thanks to a book I'm reading and a video I saw, I gained a greater insight into both.

My two teen prejudices: acoustic guitars and The Beach Boys.

This week's book is the autobiography of Judy Collins called, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. The title refers to the song (actually "songs") that Steve Stills wrote for her in late-1968. Stills and Collins began their relationship in mid-1968. But by 1969 they both knew that, as passionate as it was, it could not last. Stills combined several songs that he wrote about Collins into a seven-and-a-half minute opus called "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."

In her book, Collins says that Stills visited her in her hotel room in California in early 1969. Using a 1930 Martin, he sang the song for her, and they both cried. As he was leaving he gave her the guitar, and said, "Now you have the song, and the guitar." At the door, he turned and added, "And my heart."

Stills soon recorded the song with David Crosby and Graham Nash, and it was the opening track on their debut LP, Crosby Still & Nash. Here is the song.

But getting back to my point...

In her book, Collins recaps her life as a folksinger and the growing popularity of the folk music genre in the early 1960s. In one chapter she discusses performing at a successful folk music club in Greenwich Village, NYC, called The Bitter End. The owner, Fred Weintraub, held open-stage nights on Tuesdays, which he referred to as hootenannys. In early 1963, Weintraub was hired by ABC-TV to be the talent coordinator for a new TV show which would capitalize on this growing musical movement. The show, called Hootenanny, debuted in April, 1963, and was an immediate hit. Every week various folk artists were filmed performing at college campuses around the country.

I was happy to read about Hootenanny because I watched the show regularly. Every act contained several acoustic guitars, perhaps a banjo or two, and occasionally an upright bass. Nothing electric. No drums. And everyone was extremely clean-cut.

I'm not sure what attracted me to the show. I know it was the first time I saw live music and guitars on TV. Though I couldn't relate to most of the songs, the show stirred something inside of me.

Looking back on it now, I can see where it (both folk music and the Hootenanny TV show) fell in my life. The show played throughout the summer, and was renewed in September, 1963. I was a fan. But on February 9, 1964, everything changed. When The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan they were a self-contained band, just like the Hootenanny folks. And they played guitars, just like the Hootenanny folks. But The Beatles were electric. Their guitars weren't look-alike dreadnought acoustics. The Beatles' guitars were solid, and shiny, and interesting shapes. And they had an electric bass. And drums! And the songs weren't old folk tunes. And, on top of all of that, The Beatles didn't look like your average folksinger next-door.

The Beatles represented a new, exciting direction of music. Acoustic guitars were the old way. The old style. Acoustic guitars were last year's instruments, played by short-haired folksingers with matching striped shirts. At least that's what I thought in 1964.

My love for rock & roll music and the solid-body electric guitar led me to a life-long study of electric guitars... and eventually to establish Pittsburgh Guitars.

Over the years, though, I gradually opened myself up to a different attitude about acoustic instruments. As I analyzed The Beatles' recordings I could hear that acoustic guitars were a big part of their recorded sound. And then I began to notice acoustic guitars on lots of rock & roll recordings. And then, a few years into Pittsburgh Guitars, I played my first Martin guitar. And the world of acoustics opened up to me.

I can't deny that electric guitars will always be my first choice. But I know now that I spent years harboring prejudice against the acoustic guitar. And I was wrong to do that.

Although now, after reading Judy Collin's book, and putting everything in historical perspective, I can see that the Hootenanny show factored in! It introduced me to guitars, but led me to believe that they all looked and sounded alike. And it set me up for the eye-opening experience of electric guitars!

My other prejudice, The Beach Boys, had its basis in fashion... and (somewhat like the folk-singers) in song subjects. In late 1963 (pre-Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan) The Beach Boys recorded a number of really great songs: "Surfin' Safari," "Surfin' USA," "Surfer Girl," "409" and "Little Deuce Coupe." But, as you probably noticed, they were a bit limited in topics... surfing and cars. Here in Pittsburgh, PA, the surfing is really bad. And for those of us who were way under driving age, there was not a lot of car hot-rodding being done.

When The Beatles hit the USA, the visual, lyrical, and sonic differences between them and The Beach Boys were like night and day. You almost had to make a choice. You were either pro-Beach Boys (with short hair and songs about surfing) or pro-Beatles. It seems funny now, but back then it was an either/or situation.

So I was kind of forced into my Beach Boys prejudice.

It wasn't long, though, before every kid in America formed a band. And when we did, we naturally tried to play all of the hits. Some songs were within our musical capabilities. Like "Gloria." And "Louie, Louie." Other songs, though, required instrumental and vocal expertise that was beyond our beginners musical scope. Every band played songs by The Rolling Stones. But to successfully pull off a song by The Beatles... or The Beach Boys... you had to be good. Really good.

It didn't take me long to start to appreciate The Beach Boys. But I'm sorry that I was prejudiced against them in 1964.

Here's a link to The Beach Boys in March, 1964. It was only a month after The Beatles Ed Sullivan appearance, so the Fonzie-style haircuts, dance steps and almost-folksinger shirts were still common with American bands. And compared to The Beatles guitar tone, Carl Wilson's Fender Jaguar is pretty wimpy sounding. But listen to how great these vocals are.


See you soon,


PS: The Hootenanny TV show was canceled in mid-1964. It wasn't only the viewers who were switching from folk to rock, the performers were changing, too! Folk artists like John Phillips, Jim McGuinn, Cass Elliott, John Sebastian and many others, went electric.


PPS: A clip from Hootenanny: "Green Green" by The New Christy Minstrels. The lead singer is Barry McGuire, who would have a solo hit two years later with "Eve Of Destruction." The banjo player (on the lower level, third from the right) is Larry Ramos who would later have many hits with his band, The Association.


PPPS: Before she joined The Mamas & The Papas, Cass Elliott played in a folk group called The Big 3. Here's their recording of "Oh, Suzanna." You might recognize the arrangement, which was stolen a few years later by Shocking Blue.


PPPPS: Here's a picture of folk singers David Crosby, Gene Clark, and Jim McGuinn, before they bought electric guitars and became The Byrds.


PPPPPS: On a different topic, last week I wrote a long-winded email about editing. I tied in the directors-cut of the movie That Thing You Do!, the live TV episode of 30 Rock, and writing computer code. But at the end, I decided to edit myself, and scrap the entire email. So, sorry I missed last week. I was taking my own advice!


PPPPPPS: And here's one last picture from my trip to Hamburg, Germany.

Friday 5/18/2012


History (or at least what people believe to be historical fact) is often not accurate.

Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball.  Thomas Edison did not invent the electric light bulb.  And Les Paul did not invent the electric guitar.

Last August, in the Email Special, I wrote about O.W. Appleton who, in 1941 in Burlington, Iowa, designed the first modern-day solid-body electric guitar.   O.W. built a solid-body electric before Leo Fender, before Paul Bigsby, and ten years before Gibson introduced their first solid-body. 

In 1941, Les Paul was working on a guitar he called "The Log," which, considering that it had a solid center section and hollow sides, could rightfully be called a semi-hollow guitar.  Here's a picture.

Meanwhile, that same year, O. W. Appleton built this... which clearly foretold Gibson's solid-body design ten years later.

Late last year I received an email from Jamie Appleton, O.W.'s 85-year-old son.  (O.W. passed away in 1994 at the age of 92.)  Jamie still has his dad's original 1941 guitar, as well as several other Appleton-designed musical instruments.

After exchanging emails with Jamie for the last six months, I decided I should create a website to document O.W. Appleton's contributions to the world of the solid-body electric guitar.  He deserves a place in the history of the electric guitar.

But first, I had to learn how to build a website...  (Betsy has been making wonderful websites for me for the last fifteen years.  I figured it was now time for me to learn!)

So, I spent the last few months looking at html code, and wondering what it all meant.  Finally, I was able to get something together, and it is debuting today!

Here is the new site:

I'm pretty happy with it. I hope you like it!  I had a blast making my first website.  (Except now I'm having dreams about html and javascript!)

See you soon,

PS:  This is all new to me, so I'm certainly open to suggestions and improvements!  Feel free to comment!


Trini Lopez

Friday 5/25/2012


Did you see Mick Jagger on Saturday Night Live?

Mick's musical performances on last Saturday's show were quite impressive.  (He did well in the comedy bits, too. Although he was at the mercy of the hit-or-miss SNL writers.)

As a change of pace, Mick opted to perform with younger bands. (Although... I guess at this point most of the bands in the world are younger than the Stones...)   The resulting performances were high energy and exciting.

Arcade Fire had a bit of a problem with the lead guitar part.  The guy playing the main riff... (I'm gonna guess his name was Tim, since he had that written on his guitar in big white letters...) was plenty loud enough during the bulk of the song.  But when it came time for the solo he stepped on a pedal that inadvertently lowered his volume (and added a ton of reverb).  So the solo got lost.  But hey, at least they were playing live!  Mix-ups happen when you're live.   The song was still great.

On Mick's second musical number he was backed by the always-rockin' Foo Fighters. During this medley of "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown" and "It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)" it was hard to tell who was having a better time, Mick or the band.  They were both loving it.

And I was happy to see Dave Grohl using his old Gibson Trini Lopez guitar!

Back in the days before he got his own Dave Grohl Signature model, you'd often see Dave using cool vintage guitars.  And one of the coolest was his red Trini Lopez Standard.

The Trini Lopez endorser deal with Gibson was an interesting one.  And it ties in to stories covered in previous Email Specials.

In the early 1960s, Gibson was having problems with their primary endorser, Les Paul.  Sales of the original Les Paul model were dropping like a rock in the late 1950s, so in 1961 Gibson introduced a new, thinner, lighter, and much cheaper to manufacture model.  The new guitar was what we now know as the SG, but for a while Gibson tried to continue using the "Les Paul" designation on it.  Les protested, and his name was dropped from the new design.

Around this time Gibson thought it might be a good idea to line up other endorsers. In 1961 and 1962 Gibson signed endorsement deals with Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, and Tal Farlow... all famous (in their field) jazz guitarists.  All three of these players helped design interesting, unique Gibson models.

Someone at Gibson, though, thought that perhaps they should also look for someone a bit more mainstream.

If you recall from the Email Special a few weeks ago, folk music was hitting its peak in 1962-63.  And those musicians were all using acoustic guitars.   Well, all but one.  In 1963, a folksinging nightclub artist named Trini Lopez had a big hit with the song, "If I Had A Hammer."  And he used an electric guitar!

Unlike Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, and Tal Farlow, Trini Lopez wasn't a guitar virtuoso. He just strummed and sang.  But also unlike Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, and Tal Farlow, he was a hit with the kids.  Gibson jumped on the folk music bandwagon and signed Trini Lopez.  In 1964 Gibson introduced two different Trini Lopez guitars.

I don't know if it reflected a lack of respect on Gibson's part for folk vs jazz music, or maybe they were just in a hurry to get something on the market, but the new Trini Lopez guitars weren't 100% new models.   Gibson took three visual features... diamond-shaped f-holes, double-triangle inlays, and Fender-style headstock (all six tuners on one side)... and applied them to both the ES-335 and the already in production Barney Kessel guitar.

So, model #1, the Trini Lopez Standard, was basically the thin, semi-hollow ES-335, with different features.  And #2, the Trini Lopez Deluxe, was a deep-body, completely hollow, Barney Kessel guitar, with the same different features.

It was kinda odd, actually.  The two Trini Lopez models were vastly different guitars.  But the six-on-a-side headstock did look cool on a Gibson instrument.

And Gibson's gamble to go with a non-solo-playing endorser worked out well!  Lopez was popular and so was the guitar.  In 1967, for example, Gibson sold more Trini Lopez Standards than all of the other endorser-named guitars combined.

The Trini Lopez models were manufactured from 1964 until 1971.  In total Gibson made close to 2000 Standards and a little over 300 Deluxes.  Lopez himself played the Deluxe model.  Here are some pictures.

Jumping ahead to this century, Dave Grohl often played a Trini Lopez Standard with the Foo Fighters.  So, when Gibson approached Dave about a signature model, they decided to use the old Trini Lopez Standard design.  The Gibson Dave Grohl Signature guitar is a Trini Lopez in Pelham Blue, with a stop tailpiece instead of a trapeze tailpiece.  Dave uses it almost exclusively these days.

But it was nice to see Dave pull out the old Trini last Saturday!

See you soon,

PS:  Trini and the guitar in action: "If I Had A Hammer"




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