Friday, February 12, 2016

Lloyd Loar - Master Luthier - Creator of The Gibson L-5 and Vivitone Instruments and Electric Instruments..In 1923!!!

Lloyd Loar

When we talk about luthiers that changed the guitar, as we know it today, while improving upon it only a handful of names come up. One of the most prominent men is Lloyd Loar. He was a master luthier that is probably best known for his modern mandolin designs, but he applied that skill to the guitar and made one of the Gibson Guitar Companies most famous guitars and paved the way that they manufactured guitars for years to come.

This was all done despite the fact that he only worked for Gibson for five years.

Not only was Loar a luthier, he was also one of the first sound engineers and he was a performer. He paved the way for the archtop guitar and mandolin to be built in a similar fashion to the violin.

Loar had studied music while in high school and went on to attend the Oberlin Conservatory where he became proficient in mandolin, mandola, mandolin cello, violin, viola and piano performance.

In 1918 he worked as an entertainer for the troops during the war. While in Europe he studied at the Conservatory of Paris. Later he attended the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Due to illness while in the service, he was honorably discharged within a year.

If you see vintage Gibson mandolin advertisements many of these will show a mandolin orchestra know as the Fisher-Shipp Concert Company. The players used Gibson instruments in their performances.

Loar was a member of this consortium and he was married to Sally Fisher-Shipp.

Perhaps the biggest take-away that Loar received for his participation was it allowed him to show Gibson that he could improve the products they were making. He showed them his ideas for mandolin and banjo construction, which led to him being hired by one of Gibson’s original and largest investor, Lewis Williams, who saw the potential in this young man. At first Loar was hired only on a six month contractual basis.

Loar had invented the Virzi Tone Producer prior to working for Gibson. This device was a spruce disc suspended from the instruments top that acted as a second soundboard. Mario Maccaferri had a similar idea with his internal resonator on the guitar he designed for Selmer.

After the six months were up, Lloyd Loar continued to work for Gibson from 1919, a year after Orville Gibson left the company, to 1924.

Loar working at Gibson
Under Loar’s direction the tops and back of all instrument were carved to allow the perimeter to be thick and carefully graduated to a thinner surface, he called “the minimum area.

During his tenure at Gibson he was referred to as "Master Loar" by those that worked with him.

Modern tap tuning 
Loar spent a great deal of time and research to create this improvement for his stringed creations. He learned and spoke of Stradivari’s tuning process. Some hail this as his greatest achievement. 

He would tune the wooden tops and back so the front of the instrument was a quarter tone higher than the backboard. Gibson still utilizes this principal as do many other luthiers of the day.

Due to his perfectionism regarding attuning the wood for each instrument the final result would be different for each mandolin, mandola or guitar that he made. This created a diverse and unique array of instruments.

Tap-tuning was (and is) a tedious process and under his supervision no instrument would be sold unless it was hand tuned. Only then Loar would allow his signature to be attached to the interior label.

After working at Gibson for almost five years Lloyd Loar envisioned electrified instruments and this led him to start his own company that allowed him to build electric guitars, electric violins and electric mandolins. He improved the arched the tops and backs to give them added strength as the bracing was very minimal on arched instruments.

From the Siminof mandolin site
As mentioned before the technique he employed is referred to as Stradivarius Arching. This allowed the sound waves emitted from the instrument greater movement and amplitude.

Lloyd Loars mandolins contained tone bars. Unlike violins, the mandolins utilized two movable bars, that could be placed differently to alter the tone and provide stability. He also understood that placement of the F-holes would affect the instruments sound.

Master F5
Most stringed instrument players are aware of his designs for the famous Master F5 mandolin, the Master A5 mandolin, the Master H5 mandola, and the Master K5 mandocello (which resembles an eight string archtop guitar), but Loar’s work also was applied to banjo design. His version featured a tubal tone chamber and spring loaded ball bearings. This design became the basis of Gibson’s most popular banjos, the Mastertone.

Loar signed L-5
It was Lloyd Loar who designed and built the original Gibson L-5 guitar. This was the first guitar to feature F-holes.

1924 Loar Gibson L-5
Loar designed it in the manner of a cello. He designed the body to be 16” wide at the lower bout and this size remained until 1934, long after Loar ended his relationship with Gibson.

Two 1924 L-5 guitars
The L-5 remained Gibson’s top-of-the-line guitar for years, until the larger Super 400 was introduced. Prior to this Gibson’s best guitar was the Style O which had been designed by Orville Gibson and bore a resemblance to the style F mandolin as it has a scroll-like upper bout.

Skip Maggoria with Gibson electric harp guitar
As early as 1923 Lloyd Loar began experimenting on electrifying stringed instruments. Harp guitars were popular during these day. It was this year that Loar built a prototype electric Gibson harp guitar.

This instrument is one of a kind. It had ten bass string and the usual six guitar strings. The body is carved with a scroll pattern between the two necks.

Drawer on upper bout that housed the pickup (with closeup of the pickup)
The electric pickup is housed in a drawer that comes out of the upper side of the body and pickups up the sound from the guitars interior. This drawer also housed the cord that would attach to the amplifier. This harp guitar is the possession of Skip Maggoria, the owner of Skip's Music in Sacramento California. Skip states that when plugged into an amplifier the guitar is not loud, like today's instruments, but it gives a very mellow and beautiful sound.

Loar's personal viola - Siminof page
In 1924 Loar attached a crude electrostatic pickup to a viola. This prompted him to begin work on other electrified instruments. Unfortunately the heads at Gibson do not feel this is the direction they want the company to go, so Loar resigned.

ViVi-Tone guitars
Loar formed a partnership with Lewis William, the Gibson investor and Walter Moon to start up the ViVi-Tone Guitar Company. The company produced acoustic archtop guitars and allowed Loar the freedom to pursue building electrified instruments, which in time were produced.

ViVi-Tone acoustic mandolin

The Vivitone guitar and his other Vivitone instruments were unique because Loar took his idea for the Virzi-Tone a step father.

Note the pickup "drawer"

The backs were recessed with a rigid laminated rim. The solid wood that stood away from the rim was actually a secondary soundboard that had an additional set of F-holes.

The object was for the player to hold the Vivitone guitar or mandolin away from his body in the manner of a classical guitarist to permit the back soundboard to vibrate. These guitars featured tone bars and backs and tops that were hand tuned. The F-holes were strategically placed for maximum sound projection and a secondary set of F-holes were carved into the guitars back.

ViVi-Tone Electric Violin

Loar produced a Vivtone pear-shaped electric mandolin and an electric violin that had no back or sides. The electronic pick was house it a rectangular piece of wood that was parallel to the instruments body.

ViviTone solid electric Tenor guitar 
One of Loar’s most radical creations was perhaps the first solidbody electric guitar. This instrument was essentially a guitar top that resembled an archtop guitar, only it did not have a back or sides. It had a solid wooded block across the back that housed the pickup and electronics

A strip of metal ran the length of the body and neck. All the sound came from the pickup beneath its bridge. The cord was different than modern ones. It featured two prongs and was covered in cloth wrapping.

Loar Amplifer with parts
Loar also improved amplifiers for his electric instruments. He added a motorized system of moving baffles in front of the speakers.

Loar speaker with paddles
He also created another system of moving paddles in front of the speaker that could be turned off and on.

Around the same time period, radio engineer Donald Leslie took this a step further than the version Loar was utilizing. Leslie made his first speaker cabinet in 1941 as an add-on to the Hammond Organ as well as other organs.

Loar's personal electric piano
Finally Loar created the first ever electric piano that utilized small sound bars that would chime when tapped by the piano keys. The bars had coil pickups. He called his electric piano the Vivitone Clavier.

This is the same principal that both Rhodes/Fender and Wurlitzer used when they designed their electric pianos decades later.

The Depression hit the United States in 1929. Investors were hard to find. Loar’s partner Lewis Williams continued to sell Vivitone Guitars through 1940. Loar concentrated on his electrified piano but was not able to keep the dream alive. He took a job teaching music theory at Northwestern University until his death in 1943.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Big Jim Sullivan - His Career - His Guitars

LA had The Wrecking Crew.

Motown and Stax Records had The Funk Brothers.

Alabama had The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section.

But who played on all those recordings from Britain? You know, all those wonderful songs from the 1950’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s.

During these days the music industry kept a tight lid on it but. more often than not the groups you loved; those groups that made the records which you played over and over, did not actually play their instruments on their recordings.

Olympic Recording Studio, London
Recording time was expensive in the U.S. and in the U.K., so studios hired professional musicians to play the instruments. The voices of the singers in the band would be heard on the records, but it usually was someone else playing the instrumental part.

Someone that could get the job done quickly and efficiently was needed. By working this manner, studios and record companies could crank out mistake free recordings in a just few hours.

Big Jim Sullivan
Big Jim Sullivan, born James George Tomkins, was probably the most in demand session guitarist in Britain.

Sullivan or Tomkins as he was known at the time, began playing guitar at age 14 when Skiffle Music was popular. Within a few years he was giving lessons to the neighbor kid, Ritchie Blackmore.

By the time Sullivan was 19 he became the guitarist for a group known as The Wildcats. At the time they were a warm up act on a television series called Oh Boy.

The Wildcats

This group went on to tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent in 1960. The group’s leader, Marty Wilde, had purchased a gold top Gibson Les Paul guitar from Sister Rosetta Tharp. Marty gave this guitar to Sullivan. You can view it in the above picture.

1960 Gibson ES-345

Shortly after this, Sullivan sold the Les Paul and purchased another Gibson guitar. This was a brand new cherry red Gibson ES-345.

Marshall Music West London
In the early 1960’s, guitars and amplifiers imported from the United States were still very expensive. Sullivan, Ritchie Blackmore, Pete Townsend and other players would hang out at Jim Marshall’s Music Store in the West London town of Hanwell. It was Sullivan, Blackmore and Townsend that convinced Marshall the UK needed a more affordable and louder amp. 

The rest is history.

The Wildcats had a few hits in England with covers of Donna, A Teenager in Love, and Sea of Love, which were all produced by Jack Good. Good was a music and television producer and a pioneer in British television.  Mr. Good took note of Sullivan expertise on the guitar and introduced him to studio work.

The Krew Kuts
After working with  The Wildcats, Sullivan went on to join a band called The Krew Kuts and recorded a few songs with them, including the Chet Atkins song, Trambone. By this time he had a whole other career as a session guitarist.

It may be hard to believe, but we hear his guitar on more #1 recordings than either those recorded by Elvis or by The Beatles. His name may not have been mentioned on the label, but Big Jim Sullivan’s guitar is heard on fifty-five #1 records.

Big Jim with Led Zepplin/Jimmy Page
Sullivan got the nickname of Big Jim, because of his size and stature and also because, the other well known session guitarist at the time was Jimmy Page. Page was known as Little Jim and Sullivan was known as Big Jim.

Big Jim Sullivan has the distinction of being the first guitarist in England to use a wah-wah pedal and a fuzztone. His use of a DeArmond wah-wah dates as far back as 1959. He put the Maestro fuzztone to use in 1964 on an Everly Brothers recording.

In the early 1960’s he played on hits by Dave Berry, P.J. Proby, Billy Fury, Frank Ifield, Adam Faith, Frankie Vaughn, Helen Shapiro, Johnny Hallyday, and Freddie and the Dreamers.

He can also be heard on recordings by Herman’s Hermits, Cilia Black, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, The Tremoloes, Peter and Gordon, Joe Meek, Brian Poole,Lulu, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Los Bravos and Dusty Springfield to name but a few.

His guitar was heard on such songs as It’s Not Unusual (Tom Jones), Downtown (Petula Clark), Space Oddity (David Bowie), Goldfinger (Shirley Bassey), You Really Got Me (The Kinks), Itchycoo Park (The Small Faces) and that is his distinctive guitar you hear on the solo in Alone Again (Naturally) (Gilbert O’Sullivan).

From the mid 1960’s and ‘70’s he had played on recordings by The Walker Brothers, Donovan, David Bowie, Benny Hill, The New Seekers, Thunderclap Newman, Long John Baldry, Marmalade, Small Faces and even played on George Harrison’s Wonderwall soundtrack.

Big Jim also backed up the Everly Brothers on their live album recorded in Paris called Live in Paris.

He backed Little Richard on a 1966 LP called The OKeh Sessions. That same year he was featured on Bobby Darin’s live album. The following year he backed up Del Shannon on his album.

Sullivan was also the resident guitarist for a couple of British television series; Top of the Pops, Ready, Steady, Go and The Saturday Club.

During the 1970’s his playing was featured on the soundtrack for Frank Zappa’s movie, 200 Motels.

Big Jim Sullivan wrote the orchestral arrangements for The Who’s rock opera Tommy.

Sullivan even learned to play the sitar with his friend George Harrison when Harrison was taking lessons.

Big Jim & Nancy Sinatra/Getty Images
During his prime working period, most studio sessions called for two guitars. Jim would work three sessions a day, seven days a week. He was in demand because he was so versatile. Sullivan could play rock, pop, country and was even called in for symphonic orchestra recordings that needed a guitar part.

Tom Jones & Big Jim

From 1970 to 1974 Sullivan was the touring guitarist for Tom Jones. At this time he got to meet Elvis while Jones was performing in Las Vegas.

When the tour ended he started his own company, Retreat Records, and put together his own group. This group recorded three LP’s under Big Jim Sullivan's name and toured large venues to packed houses.

As the 1980’s approached he linked up with some other musicians and played small venues and clubs.

Big Jim & Patrick Eggle guitar
By the 1990’s he was approached by luthier Patrick Eggle. Eggle built the Big Jim Sullivan Legend Model for Sullivan with Jim's input. This is the guitar Big Jim used for the rest of his life. This guitar was designed to be compatible with the Axon AS100 SB guitar to MIDI controller, which was state of the art at the time..

A few of the guitars Sullivan used to earn his living included a Gibson SJ-200, which he loaned to Jimmy Page for the first two Led Zepplin albums.

Sullivan seemed to favor Gibson guitars. We’ve already mentioned his original Gibson ES-345.Later in life he owned a Gibson ES-335.

He also played a Gibson gold top Les Paul (not his first). 

Big Jim was also fond of the Gibson Howard Roberts model guitar.

On The Crying Game he used a Gibson EDS-1275 through a Maestro Fuzztone.

On early studio sessions he is seen playing a Gibson B-45 string guitar

While touring with Tom Jones, Sullivan played an Ovation Balladeer acoustic/electric guitar.

He played a Fender Telecaster while he was with Jones..

And Big Jim used his Rickenbacker 360 on that tour. At one time Big Jim Sullivan was a Rickenbacker endorser.

Sullivan also favored a couple of  unique and unidentifiable guitars.
This one looks similar to a Gibson ES 335, but appears to be solid.

He is also seen in several photos with a Jazz archtop guitar that says SFX Legend on the pickguard. (I do not believe it is made by Cort, although Cort does offer a SFX series of guitars).

He is pictured at the top of the page playing this beautiful James D'Aquisto guitar.

Note the MIDI connection

And of course Sullivan's favorite electric guitar which is the aforementioned Patrick Eggle model.

Aside from the 55 hit songs he played on, Big Jim Sullivan played guitar on over 750 charting singles throughout his career.

Big Jim Sullivan passed away at age 71 on October second of 2012.

This is a long video, but interesting. Toward the middle of the video, Big Jim discusses working with Gilbert O'Sullivan and his  well known guitar solo on this song.