August 2012

Friday 8/3/2012

All That Jazz(master)

I was in my record collection last night... in the "C"s... looking for an album by Creedence Clearwater Revival, when I stumbled upon another LP.... one that got me a thinkin'....

Early 1978.  Philadelphia.  My friend Skip Fischer's apartment. 

That's when I first saw the LP, My Aim Is True.

I liked it even before I played it.  The cover featured a nerdy looking guy, in an awkward pose, holding a dorky guitar.  And he had the wonderful name of Elvis Costello.  Here's the LP.

Today, 35 years later, it's hard to put his initial look, and the name, in perspective.  But in early 1978, the record charts were dominated by the satin-leasure-suit-wearing-Bee Gees' disco songs from Saturday Night Fever.  (And the #1 song for the entire last quarter of 1977 was Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life."

On top of that, in 1978, the original Elvis had only been dead for six months.

So, "Elvis Costello," with the suit-jacket-and-tie-with-rolled-up-jeans-and-Buddy-Holly-glasses-and-funny-name, caught my eye.  And the guitar completed the picture.

You see, 20 years earlier, in 1958, Leo Fender had introduced his new top-of-the-line guitar, the Jazzmaster. (New vibrato! New pickups! More switches!)   But despite being the newest-latest-and-greatest-and-most-expensivest guitar in the Fender line, the Jazzmaster never took off.  Four years later, in 1962, Leo tried again, with a new-and-improved (More shielding!) version, the Jaguar.  Again: no luck.  The Strat and Tele continued to outsell the new models.  The Jaguar was discontinued in 1975.  The Jazzmaster struggled on until 1980. 

By the late 1970s, in the used market the Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars were "unloved" to say the least.  Despite their original high retail price, their used values fell way below the prices of Strats and Teles. And that's really saying something, considering how cheap Strats and Teles were in the late 1970s!  So, to see Elvis Costello holding a Jazzmaster on the cover of My Aim Is True... Well, as I said above, it completed the picture.

Last night, as I considered E.C.s use of a Jazzmaster, I started pondering the history of other inexpensive guitars, both used and new.  And that reminded me of lots of punk bands.

I started Pittsburgh Guitars in mid-1979.   Then, as is the case now, an "inexpensive" electric guitar was one in the $99 - $125 range. (Hmmmm... that's gotta be a sign of something...  In thirty years, the general price range of a cheap... I mean "inexpensive" guitar hasn't changed!)  In the used department, the $99 guitars were brands like Montaya, Hondo, Memphis (yuck), and Cort.  Our biggest selling new inexpensive guitars were made by Hondo II.  Those made it to the low $200s.

But for a few bucks more, you could buy an under-appreciated (i.e. unpopular) American-made guitar.  I just checked my files from 1981 (yes, I save everything) and that year we sold a used Jaguar for $225, a used Jazzmaster for $275, and a Fender Mustang for $175.

And that's why you would see punk bands in the late 1970s and 1980s with what we now call "vintage" American instruments... Fender Jaguars, Jazzmasters, Mustangs, as well as brands like Danelectro, Mosrite, and Harmony.  For a little more than the price of a new Hondo II Strat copy, you could buy a high quality vintage guitar.   (Although, they weren't called "vintage" in those days, they were just "used."  And their prices reflected their perceived lack of coolness.)

This concept continued throughout the 1980s.   Of course, all guitar prices rose during that period (except those darn $99 - $125 guitars), but Jazzmasters and Jaguars (and Mustangs) were still undervalued (under-priced, that is.) 

Everything changed, though, when Kurt Cobain hit the mainstream.  The massive success of Nirvana, and Kurt's use of vintage, cheap Fenders, caused a nationwide demand for those models.  Other bands, like Sonic Youth, had been using them for years, but Kurt had a big (and no doubt unintended) impact on the used-guitar marketplace.  We certainly felt it at  Pittsburgh Guitars.  Market values on Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Mustangs began to rise.  Here's Kurt with a Jaguar.

Shortly after that, in the mid-1990s, the entire "vintage" market skyrocketed.  This wasn't related to Cobain or punk rock, but rather to the baby boomer generation finally having jobs and excess cash.  As the aging boomers sought out the guitars of their youth, prices on all vintage guitars rose.  (The old supply-and-demand thing.)  Jazzmasters and Jaguars were already heading upward, thanks to the high-profile punk bands.  And when Teles and Strats saw significant price jumps, the Jazzmasters and Jaguars were carried along to even new heights.  Today they're still cheaper than a similar-year vintage Strat or Tele, but they are now out of the price range of a struggling and broke young band.

As I pondered all of that history... I got t'thinkin' about those Hondo IIs and other lower priced guitars from the old days.  They were, and still are, okay instruments.   But they don't compare to the new inexpensive guitars available today.  If you look closely at what's available (Fender Squiers, for example), the quality of new entry-level guitars is shockingly good.  And amazingly, they are the same price as the Hondos were back in yesteryear!

We should take a minute to stop and appreciate how far the quality level of new inexpensive guitars has come in recent years.  It's really quite impressive.  If CBGB ver2.0 opened today, and you were a penniless young rock band, you'd do just fine with Squier or budget Epiphone guitars.

And that's what crossed my mind last night. 

See you soon,

PS:  All bands should have a site like this!!  Sonic Youth Gear Guide   That's a lot of Jazzmasters and Jaguars!

PPS:  Speaking of CBGB, here's our friend Billy O'Connor when he was in Blondie.  In the picture Chris Stein is using another inexpensive guitar (at the time), a Supro Dual-Tone.




Friday 8/17/2012


Fun With Numbers! (and Letters!)



A few weeks ago I rambled on about Martin's model designation numbers.  And I pointed out that we call the Martin guitar model "000-28," a "triple-oh-twenty-eight," when, historically speaking, it is actually a "triple-zero-twenty-eight."

Lots of folks responded (which is always nice!) and three people even mentioned James Bond... Agent "double-zero-seven!"  Wait, that's not how you say it?  Oh, right, it's "double-oh-seven"....

No wonder English is such a difficult language to learn!  We regularly substitute O for 0.  For the last 33 years, I've given out Pittsburgh Guitars phone number as "four-one-two, four-three-one, oh-seven-hundred."  Talk about inconsistent!

This, of course reminds me of yet another example of "oh"-usage in the guitar world. (As well as examples of less-than-consistent product numbering.)

Way way back in 1951, Gibson saw that young upstart, Leo Fender, making a dent in the marketplace with his newfangled solid-body electric guitar, the Telecaster.  Gibson figured that they'd better jump on this solid-body guitar bandwagon, so in 1952 they introduced their solid-body, the Gibson Les Paul.

By 1953, they noticed that Fender's newest instrument, a solid-body electric bass, was also starting to make waves. Bass players were putting down their giant upright basses, and going electric!  Here's John with a 1952 Fender Precision Bass. In an effort to compete with Fender's Precision Bass, Gibson also introduced a solid-body electric bass.

I'm not sure if they were being overly optimistic about its success (i.e. they expected it would become THE bass), or if they thought a solid electric bass would never catch on, so it wasn't worth expending effort on a name. In either case,  Gibson's new instrument was simply called, the "Electric Bass."  Here's Scott with a 1956 Gibson "Electric Bass."

As you might guess, looking at those two pictures, the Gibson bass did not have the hipness factor (nor the sound quality) of the Fender Bass.

Jumping ahead to 1958... Gibson introduced the soon-to-be-world-famous, semi-hollow ES-335 guitar.  And it occurred to them that if they put a bass neck on the ES-335 body, they could market a second electric bass model.  Introduced in 1958, the new semi-hollow electric bass was called an EB-2 (for "Electric Bass 2").  Here's John with a 1958 EB-2.

At this point they had second thoughts about the clever name they picked for their first bass.  So they retroactively named the first bass the EB-1 ("Electric Bass 1").  So far, the numbers made sense.

The Electric Bass/EB-1, though, was never a successful product.  Sales peaked in 1955 when they sold 127 "Electric Basses."  In 1958, they only sold 45 of the newly renamed "EB-1."

In 1959 Gibson discontinued the EB-1, and introduced a new solid electric bass.  Rather than design a new body, they  used a 1959 Les Paul Junior body with a bass pickup and bass neck.  Now... the question would be:  what to name it?  It was Gibson's third electric bass, so the logical option would be the EB-3.   But noooooooooooooo.  Rather than go forward, Gibson decided to go numerically backward.  The new bass was called the EB-0.  I'm not sure why they picked that name.  I suspect that it had something to do with how bare-bones the new bass was.  It was clearly not as fancy as the EB-2... and, in fact, it was even less fancy than the EB-1.  Perhaps Gibson thought they were taking a step backwards, at least design-wise.  

This version was only made for a little over a year, so you may have never seen one. Here's an old picture of John with an old Gibson EB-0.

And that's what came to mind when folks mentioned Agent "double -oh-seven."  Right from the start, this new Gibson bass was called an "eee-bee-oh" despite the fact that it's actual model designation was "eee-bee-zero."

Meanwhile, back in the 1961, Gibson's which-way-are-we-going-with-these-numbers-Billy? continued. In 1961 Gibson redesigned all of their solid body instruments, but kept all of the same names.   The body shapes of the Les Paul Standard, Les Paul Custom, Les Paul Special, Les Paul Junior, and even the new EB-0 were all changed to a new, skinny, tapered-edge, double cutaway body.  

The merit of changing a Les Paul body to what we now call an SG body, but still calling it a "Les Paul," deserves its own email. (In summary, it didn't go well...)  But the EB-0 looked better with the new shape.  Here is Scott with the second version of the EB-0.

So, now you're probably saying, OK, they finally got their numbers straight.  There was the solid-body EB-0 and the hollow-body EB-2.    Well.....

Throughout the lifespan of the original EB-1 and 1959-60 EB-0, players complained that the single neck-position pickup produced too much of a bass-heavy sound.  In 1961 Gibson decided to offer a two-pickup EB-0, with the second pickup mounted near the bridge.  (Yay! More high end!). So they did.   Buuuuuuuuuuuuut, what to call it?  They had already gone backwards, numerically speaking.   Should the new bass be an EB--1 (minus 1)?  Or should they follow Martin's lead and call it an
EB-00?    Nope!   The two pickup EB-0 was called an EB-3!  Here is an EB-3.

Whew.  I guess the only question now is:  what happened in 1966, when they decided to add a second pickup to the hollow-body EB-2?  An EB-4 maybe?  Ah... er....  No again.  In 1966 the two-pickup EB-2 was designated the EB-2D.

Well, that's enough about bass numbers.  I imagine that the 0 vs. O pronunciation issues will always be with us. We can easily see the difference in print:  "Oh, oh, I sent check 309 to the wrong person" is pretty clear.   But I can understand how hearing it would be confusing to a non-English speaking person.

See You soon,

PS:  English... ya gotta love it.  I'm glad I learned this language as a child!

- Since everyone was present, I decided to present the present.
- I wound the bandage around the wound.
- At my farm we produce produce.
- I was too close to the door to close it.
- I certainly had the right to write about my right arm.
- Since I'm an avid fisherman I painted a bass on my bass drum.



Friday 8/24/2012


The week started out great!  And then...

I was so happy when I received a copy of the new book, Squier Electrics, 30 Years of Fender's Budget Brand.  I know, I know, at first glace it seems odd to devote an entire book to Fender Squier guitars.  After all, they've always been Fender's cheapest instruments.  But inexpensive though they may be, there have been a lot of Squier variants over the years... we've sold them all at Pittsburgh Guitars... and some of them were actually quite nice.  I was looking forward to an in depth accounting of the various models.

And I wasn't disappointed. This book tells the entire story of the Squier line, and goes into a year-by-year analysis of the different versions.  Every possible Squire model is discussed, including my favorites, the Pro Tone Series, and the Squier `51 guitars.  In both of these cases, I had long suspected that Fender discontinued the models because they were simply too good for the money.  The Pro Tones, for example, were great looking, easy playing, great sounding guitars... at a bargain price compared to the rest of the Fender line.  And the Squier `51s were cool, fun and just plain cheap.

The book confirms my suspicions that sales of these guitars were eating into the sales of Fender's higher priced instruments. Another reason that both models lasted only two years each (Pro Tones: 1996 - 1998, Squier `51s:  2004 - 2006), was that Fender changed the marketing manager of the Squier line every two years.  Each time a new marketing manager took over Squier, he attempted to "improve" things by undoing the work of his predecessor.

It's a fascinating book.  You'll learn a lot about the inner workings of the Fender company, and their decision to manufacture guitars overseas.   Examples:  Fender set up "Fender Japan" with Yamano Music and Kanda Shokai Corp. to make and sell Fender guitars in Japan because the Japanese company, Tokai, was already manufacturing Strat copies that were far better than anything Fender could make in the USA.  Fender felt that the only way to compete with Tokai in Japan was to make Fender-branded guitars there.  And Fender initially set-up the less-expensive "Squier" line to sell in Europe, where a variety of lower priced Fender copies were being sold by other Asian companies.

So, I had a great time reading about Squier guitars.  Right up until Page 120.

That's where I encountered this line: "Today, 30 years since the start of Squier, the brand is in better shape then ever."

I was stunned.  It nearly ruined the entire book for me.

I put it down, and felt sad.

I thought I'd distract myself, by catching up on other reading.  I grabbed a copy of Musical Merchandise Review Magazine. (It's a trade magazine for guitar store people.) (I know, it's funny how many trade magazines there are... like "The Ball-Bearing Monthly," and "Today's Welding.")

I made it to page 47.   

In an article discussing the environment, Musical Merchandise Review wrote:
"...(Ernie Ball has) the strictest air control laws, and the most far-reaching environmental initiatives. But they take it further then they have to."


I don't mean to be some sort of English language fanatic.  But this is not a case of a slipped finger.  It's not like misspelling "guitar" as "giutar."  This is more like spelling "guitar" as "tomato."  ("Hey, look at that nice 12-string tomato!")  The words "then" and "than" actually have different meanings.  They are not interchangeable.  And yet that substitution is turning up more and more often in print.

I'm not sure what to do.

Last month I read two books that mistakenly used the word "then" in place of "than."  In the first one, Neon Angel: A Memoir Of A Runaway, I could almost forgive author Cherie Currie.  After all, she joined The Runaways band when she was only 15 years old... and she had a troubled life before that.  So she probably didn't get much of an education.   But the other book, Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From A Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, was written by Kevin Smith, an actual writer.  I'm pretty sure he knows how to spell.

A few days ago I wrote to Tony Bacon, the author of Squier Electrics, 30 Years of Fender's Budget Brand.  I told him I was saddened.  I told him that I was suffering as I watched the English language suffer.

He wrote back from England:

Hello Carl.
A pleasure to get your email, although you must know that your pain is our pain.
Glad to hear you enjoyed the Squier book right up to page 120. As we say around these parts, it surely was better then a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Do let us know how the recovery goes.
With very best wishes,
Tony Bacon

Yep, he used "then" in place of "than" in his reply.  I don't know if he was being witty, and that was intentional, or if...

In fact, now that I re-read his entire email, I'm beginning to wonder if he was mocking me!

I understand that the English language is evolving.  I know that spelling has been an issue for hundreds of years.  Folks like Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, and others have suggested spelling English words more phonetically.  And over the years, changes have actually taken place.  "Music" was once spelled "musick," "catalog" was once "catalogue."

But are we now changing "than" to "then"?   "My amp is louder then yours!"

It just doesn't seem right to me.

Should I just accept it?

Or should I start a new web site called, and try to explain the difference? 

See you soon,

PS: I first checked  There is no site there, but the name is owned by GoDaddy. 



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