Monday, November 30, 2009

The LaBaye 2X4

The unusual La Baye 2x4 guitars can be attributed to Dan Helland. Helland started out as a guitarist and guitar teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin music store known as Henri's Music. Through his connections at the music retailer, Helland was able to get a job with the Holman-Woodell factory in Neodesha, Kansas that was producing guitars.

One of the owners named Holman was formerly employed by the Wurlitzer Music Company prior to starting his own business. So the company had this connection when Wurlitzer decided to make the jump into guitar production. This was the mid 1960’s.

Wurlitzer Guitar
In November of 1965 Holman-Woodell was producing a line of stereo electric guitars. These two pickup guitars were designed to have on pickup go to a channel and the other went to a separate channel. Shortly after this they signed a deal to produce guitars under the Wurlitzer brand name.

Because of flawed paint jobs, the Holman-Wurlitzer line only lasted about a year before Wurlitzer pulled the plug on the deal. Despite the bad paint, the guitars were well made.

The pickups, called Sensitones, resembled pickups found on Kapa guitars, but were made by Holman. (Kapa imported all of their parts from Germany and their pickups were from Hofner.)

After the Wurlitzer deal went south, Helland built the LaBaye 2x4. Helland was from Green Bay, hence the name. Perhaps he was thinking of Les Paul’s Log when he designed this unique instrument.

Some unusual features are the thumbwheel potentiometers on the upper side of the guitar that control volume and tone. These are similar to the ones found on Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars. The vibrato is based on a Bigsby design, but was made by Holman. The one puzzling feature is the placement of the toggle switch. It is on the bottom bout.

The guitar featured the Sensitone pickups.

There were approximately 45 LaBaye 2x4’s manufactured. The models were identified as Six, Twelve and Four, which was the bass version.

These are unique instruments that appear in most vintage guitar books, but due to the playability factor or lack of, they are not highly sought after.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Musicvox Space Ranger

When I first got on the internet there was a service called Liszt that had a compilation of discussion groups. One of these was Alt.Guitar. I believe Liszt eventually was acquired by Yahoo.

In those days you would be surprised who read the comments and responded.
Around this same time a small guitar manufacturer named Musicvox was advertising in various music publication.

As I recall this was around the year 2000. Musicvox had come up with this bizarre asymmetrical guitar they called The Spaceranger. Pictures are sometimes worth maybe not a thousand words, but at least a descriptive paragraph For that purpose I offer this picture.

On Alt. Guitar discussion group we were talking about the Spaceranger and I commented that it looked sort of like a Gibson Les Paul with an erection. A few days later the head of Musicvox, Matt Eichen, emailed me offline saying that he got quite a laugh at my description.

If you look carefully at this unusual guitar, you can tell it is a well made instrument. I'm sure it fits the bill for some music genre. I just don't see Brad Paisley or Al DiMeola using one of these babies anytime soon.

The Spaceranger comes in a variety of colors. All the guitars are six string and have either PAF single coil or Humbucking pickups. The company also offers a pickup they call blackstripe, but it sort of resembles the toaster style pickups of those guitars made by a closely held California guitar manufacturer.

Musicvox also manufacturers a line of equally odd looking bass guitars including a 12 string bass.

Not only is the body totally bizarre, so is the headstock. It is sort of Gibson meets Vox and gets run over by a steamroller.
Except for the website the Musicvox company no longer advertises. I'm not certain their guitars are still in production. However I salute the Musicvox Spaceranger and it's cousin, the Musicvox Space Cadet as Unique Guitars.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Guitars that Never Were

There are two guitars that were marketed and perhaps prototypes were produced, but they were never put into production.

In 1966 my good friend Stew Williams was able to get a couple of passes to the Chicago NAMM exhibit. He took me with him and we had a great time. It was like two kids in a candy store. As a matter of fact we were 14 year old kids. One of the things I came away with was a copy of the 1966 Fender catalogue. Within it’s pages was the most unusual guitar that I had ever seen. Fender called it The Marauder.

It’s outward appearance was somewhat similar to the body style of Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar, although the lower bout was more pronounced. The vibrato tailpiece was the same as the one commonly found on a Stratocaster. The amazing thing was the lack of any visible pickups.

The description within this 1966 catalogue stated there were four pickups that were hidden beneath the guitars pickguard. At the time it was unbelievable for the knowledge we had of pickups during those years was that the magnetic pole pieces needed to be somewhere near the strings to pickup the vibrations. Also at the time the only four pickup guitars were those coming out of Japan such as the Teisco del Ray guitars.

The Jazzmaster was introduced in 1959. Three years later the short scaled Jaguar was created. Between 1965 and 1966 Fender supposedly was producing prototypes of the Marauder. It is very possible Fender, in anticipation of marketing the Marauder they produced some non-working guitars for the photo shoot.

We know that later on Fender actually produced a variant of the Marauder. This guitar had 3 Jaguar style pickups arranged in Stratocaster fashion. It also had seven switches and four knobs. Two of the knobs were roller type similar to those found on the Jazzmaster and Jaguar for the rhythm pickup preset.

Fender historians say that only eight Marauders were every produced and those were only prototypes that were not for sale. Four of the guitars had slanted frets. a slightly modified body style was used on the Fender VII. And it is said that Fender’s Custom Shop did produce a Fender 12 string Marauder.

A replica of a Fender Marauder

Ironically during the Norlin era, Gibson produced and marketed a guitar called The Marauder.

Gibson has a similar tale concerning it's guitar, The Moderne. In 1957 Ted McCarty of Gibson came up with 3 radically different guitars than Gibson had ever produced. Fender had taken over a large share of the electric guitar market with their uniquely shaped instrument's and Gibson wanted some of that business.

These were the days of satellites, rockets and cars with big fins. So McCarty came up with the Flying Vee, The Explorer and The Moderne. All instruments were very similar in features and electronics. They all had tune-o-matic bridges, 2 humbucking pickups, a single tone control and two volume controls. The headstocks all had Kluson tuners. The bodies were all made of Korina wood with a natural finish. The shapes of the bodies were all different.

By 1958 Gibson was actively producing in limited numbers the Flying Vee and the Explorer. However the Moderne never came into fruition.

Ted McCarty claims there were several Moderne prototypes built, however none have ever been found.

In 1982 Gibson produced a heritage series which included the Moderne. Later it was produced under the Epiphone label. At present it is not in production. Due to there rarity Modernes are perhaps THE most sought after guitar for collectors.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stella 12 String Guitar

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly played a Stella 12 string, possibly because it was the only guitar he could afford.

As I have mentioned before, Brit Rockers from back in the mid 1960’s and the Folkies from the 1950’s loved the songs and style of the old Black blues players and tried their best to emulate them. Often a guitarist would go as far as to seek out a similar instrument, thus the interest in the Stella guitars.

Oscar Schmidt did not start out as a guitar manufacture. He had emigrated to the U.S. from Saxony. He was a skilled bookbinder and he eventually started publishing books, some of which were music books. In 1890 he began manufacturing musical instruments to go along with the music books he was publishing. At this time Schmidt began using the Stella and Sovereign trade names for his guitars.

Around 1910 he opened a musical instrument factory in New Jersey to fullfill the demand. He was already supplying Sears & Roebuck with the better quality guitars they sold through their catalogue.

Most of the Oscar Schmidt guitars sold through Sears featured spruce tops and rosewood or mahogany bodies. One unique and consistant feature was the use of ladder bracing rather than the fan bracing that was favored by Martin and Gibson at the time. The more upscale Schmidt guitars were trademarked as Sovereign. These guitars featured pearl inlay and marquetry trim. The bridge was a pyramid style that was similar to the ones on Martin guitars of that era. Oscar Schmidt guitars also placed a position marker at the tenth fret rather than the ninth fret. This is true also of some older Harmony guitars.

Stella was the trademark name associated with the downscale product that Oscar Schmidt was producing. These instruments were made entirely of birch and had faux wood grain . Instead of marquetry these guitars used decals, which at the time were referred to as decal mania.

Early in the twentieth century, Oscar Schmidt was the largest manufacture of musical instruments in the world and encompassed factories in the US and Europe.

How does the Stella 12 string guitar sound? It has a thin sound with a lot of high range. This is primarily due to the use of birch. A second factor would be the ladder bracing. This is not the sound most of us would be seeking from an acoustic instrument in this day and age. The scale was it was 26.5 inches from bridge saddle to the nut. This is longer than most steel string instrument, but similar to a classical guitar scale.

The asking price for this guitar is $12,000

Due to the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, Oscar Schmidt shut down. It was eventually purchased by the Harmony Company which revived both trademarked names and built very similar instrument.

Roland Guitar Synthesizers

Roland Corporation has led the field in producing electronic music products.

In the decades of 1970 and 1980 Roland began researching a way to use a guitar as the controller for a synthesizer. They had already produced a successful line of keyboard synthesizers.

The GR500 system in 1978 was Roland's mass produced guitar synthesizer. The GS500 guitar controller was made by Ibanez and fitted with Roland electronics. It used a 24-way cable to connect it to the GR500 synthesizer unit.

In 1980 Roland designed the GR-100 system. The line included three types of guitar controllers in many different finishes: the G505 which was a Tele style with three guitar pickups. Another version was named the G202. It featured dual humbuckers was designed to look like a two pickup Strat.

All of these controllers could operate the GR100 synthesizer. They could also be used on the next synthesizer Roland developed and named the GR300. All of the guitar/controllers utilized a 24 way cable to connect to the synthesizer.

The biggest downside of these early guitar controllers was tracking. If you played too fast the synthesizer could not read the signal in real time. There was definitely an art to playing these early instruments.

The GS808 was an upgraded version of the GS303.

The unseen electronic circuit boards mounted within the guitars enabled signal processing to interface with the synth unit. The most visible part was the hex pickup which was mounted between the bridge and the bridge pickup. Roland designated this unit the GK-1. They also produced a stand alone version of the GK-1 that was sold separately and could be mounted on any guitar to make that guitar into a controller. This has evolved into the modern version called the GK-3.

In 1984 Roland came up with a new design based on keyboard synthesizer technology. The GR-700 utilized a Digital Sound Recognition (DSR) system which allowed the guitar controller to convert the guitar sounds into synthesizer sounds without loosing track of the player’s picking style. This was uniquely different than the style one would find on a keyboard. All of the guitar controllers prior to the GR-700 utilized a hex pickup and hex fuzz to sustain the notes. The DSR system was Roland’s first step to MIDI or musical instrument digital interface.

This unit enabled the player to a world of new options that were never before found on traditional electric guitars. You could use the internal sound bank or create and save your own sounds. A player was able to utilize different strings for different purposes. For example you could play a chord on the bottom three strings and press the hold switch to sustain the chord. You could then play a lead part on the top three strings.

To match this new guitar synthesizr was a new guitar controller that was unlike the other units. It was the G707. Like a keyboard synth, there was a bend feature on this unit that would drop or raise the note. The player had new control over dynamics and color of the sound. Additionally the chromatic function enabled the player to play a complete chromatic scale similar to what could only be done on a keyboard.

The G707 added a stabilizer bar running from the top of the neck to the bottom. This designed to defeat "dead spots" on the guitar where a neck might not send full tracking info to the floor unit.

Whether it was useful or not...who knows? But it sure looks nifty!

For this series Roland also developed a bass synth controller called the G77 which matched the bass synthesizer, the GR77B.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Silver Duke

I used to go to guitar shows whenever they would come to town.

Back in those day there was always a silver-haired older gentleman and his wife manning one both and selling Bigsby Vibrato units, Gretsch guitar parts and pickups.

This fellow was Charles "Duke" Kramer who worked had worked for Gretsch since 1935.

We have already discussed some of the history of Burns guitars. In 1967 the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company was looking for a successor. Baldwin Piano and Organ made an offer and bought the Gretsch name and manufacturing rights and built Gretsch guitars right alongside the Burns instruments. Duke Kramer was part of the package.

The Gretsch company located in Brooklyn New York was relocated to Booneville Arkansas and Mr. Kramer was in charge of production at Baldwin. About five years later Baldwin decided to get out of the guitar business and Duke bought all the remaining inventory.

He hired 2 semi-trailers and hauled it to his home in Cincinnati Ohio.

In 1985 Fred Gretsch Jr. and his wife Dinah acquired the rights again and hired Duke Kramer as an adviser. Some of that inventory that Duke had purchased became the cornerstone of the reintroduction of the new Gretsch. Duke turned to the Terada Company in Japan to build Gretsch guitars. But for a few custom shop models most current Gretsch instruments are now made in China.

After retirement Duke and his wife went around the country selling off their remaining stock until his death at age 88.

In 1966 there was a special run of Gretsch Corvette guitar that were done with silver-flake finishes for the Silver Duke or gold-flake finishes for the Gold Duke models.

These were ordered for California dealer Sherman Clay. As an honor Duke Kramer, since he was one of the most important men in Gretsch's history, the guitars were named The Silver Duke and The Gold Duke.

If you asked Mr. Kramer about the model he would deny that the guitars were produced as a tribute to his service to the company. But most guitar afficianados know better.

Not only are these well made instruments, that are much different from the usual Gretsch produced guitar, but they are also a very rare find.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Guitar Organs

Vox V-251 Guitarorgan
The guitar craze of the 1960’s not only made everyone want to play electric guitar, but brought guitar technology to the forefront. Musicians wanted to play guitar, but they wanted the guitar to sound like a different instrument and they wanted more sustain.

For years blues guitarists used crappy guitars and amplifiers and got a distorted, gritty sound that some American and UK performers thought was cool.

The modern Rockers of the day wanted that down and dirty sound but would not be caught dead with a Silvertone guitar and a cheap old Danelectro amplifier.

Electric guitar technology came to the rescue and it's first invention was called a fuzztone. Next came the LBP-1(Linear Power Booster) transistorized preamps, wah-wahs and a host of other bells and whistles.

The granddaddy of fuzztones - The Maestro by Norlin Gibson

Taking the technology a step further there were some folks that wanted the guitar to sound like an organ. The first to develop this concept was a company located in Waco Texas known as Musiconics International (MCI) came up with the Guitorgan, which was invented by a fellow named Bob Murrell.

Musiconics International did not actually make the guitar. They used a semi-hollow body guitar made by the Japanese firm Univox. What MCI did was to route the back side of the guitar and put organ circuitry inside the instrument. The guitar was named the Guitorgan.

The challenge of making the instrument work was to divide each fret into six segments and attach wires through the neck which connected to each segment of the fret. So the average 22 fret instrument must have housed 132 wires and connections. Each fret was now a contact switch.

The guitar sound would be produced through the single coil pickups as usual; however depressing the string on the fret also initiated contact to the organ section since pressing the fret was like pressing an on/off button switches which caused the ground connection to produce output similar to pressing the keyboard on a conventional organ to produce the sound.

The organ sounds used transistorized oscillators. As the years progressed Murrell was constantly upgrading his invention. The last version from the 1980’s included an analog synthesizer and a MIDI connector. One could have just the organ sound, just the guitar sound or a mixture of both sounds. Musiconics built about 3,000 units.

There were two issues with the guitorgan and subsequent products. With a regular guitar there is a note on each string between the nut and first fret. However there was no wires going to the nut. So instead of the first organ note on the first string being F, it was F# since the first actual fret was wired. Guitarists compensated for this by tuning down a half-step.

The other issue was only the highest fret segment played on a particular string would sound. And though the organ section in a Guitorgan is a 6-note polyphonic circuit, which allows full guitar chords to be played the organ notes can only be played alone or simultaneously with the guitar. The idea was to use the expression pedal in such a fashion to bring the organ in or out but have the guitar be the primary sound giving the illusion of a duo, but actually just being one musician.

In 1976 and Italian company known as Sisme which produced Godwin Organs came up with a product they called The Organ.

As we may discussed with the Wandre guitar, Italian made guitars seem to possess an accordion-like quality, with sparkly designs, use of celluloid coverings and lots of buttons. The Godwin (guitar) Organ was no exception. It certainly looked impressive since the controls covered the entire bottom side of the instrument.

Users claim it produces a sound similar to a Hammond organ, especially if fed into a Leslie rotary speaker. Like the Hammonds drawbars, which emphasize different overtones produced by the tonewheels that produce the percussive like sound, the (guitar) Organ utilizes rotary knobs for this purpose. The instrument also has had slow/fast vibrato with an on/off switch so that even without the Leslie, you can get a pretty good impression. The Godwin Guitar-Organ has 19 switches and 13 knobs. They also produced a lower cost model with 16 switches and 4 knobs.

The Vox Company, which was made popular due to the Beatles association with Vox amplifiers produced their own version, known as the Guitar Organ (without the hyphen). The electronic circuit was based on their Vox Continential organ Voice Boards. The body of the Vox was based on their Phantom style guitar. Most Vox guitars were manufactured in Italy.

Like the other instruments the Vox Guitar Organ could be played as a guitar or as an organ or blended between the two instruments. It was also possible to get organ rhythm behind the guitar melody. This was due to the feature that played automatic chords in rhythm with your song.

Vox V-251 Guitarorgan
The instrument also featured two inputs to amplifiers. There were also features to provide sustain and percussion. The Vox Guitar Organ had a power supply interface to provide power to the organ section.

Alas the age of synthesizer came into the picture along with the hex-pickup and the need for the guitar organ ended.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Earthwood Acoustic Bass Guitar

It is hard to imagine the acoustic bass guitar is only around 50 years old. But it is true. This instrument has its roots in Mexico. Mariachi bands still use the guitarron. This is a large bodied version of the guitar. The back of a guitarron or chitarrone is slightly angled, the neck is very short and the sides are quite deep compared to a guitar.

In the early 1960 an inventive fellow by the name of Ernie Ball owned a music store in Tarzana, California. He had already distinguished himself as an excellent steel guitar player. Mr. Ball lived and breathed guitars. When approached by sales representatives of companies that manufactured drums, he would tell them he was not interested in their merchandise. His store only sold guitars and guitar related products.

What made Ernie’s store unique were the sets of strings he sold. I’m old enough to recall the usual set of guitar strings you could by were made by Gibson, Fender or Black Diamond. By today’s standards these strings would be considered Extra-Heavy and always contained a 29 gauge third/ G string.

In those days many professional players would discard the bottom/sixth/E string and buy a single banjo string to use for the first string. The result was a much lighter set of strings. The third string was now an unwound plain string which could be easily bent. The guitar was much easier to play. Ball asked Fender to produce a set of guitar strings that were lighter and featured a plain G string. They refused. Gibson also rebuffed Mr. Ball’s request.

So Ernie went to a string manufacturer and asked them to package strings with a 24 gauge third string, which they did. He sold them using his own name on the package.

He was always listening to the players that came into his store. They wanted an unwound third string. Again he asked Fender if they were interested. Fender declined and said they were not interested. So Ernie Ball packaged his “Slinky Brand” strings. They were a hit. Soon famous musicians from all around California were coming into his store to buy his strings. He also bought single strings so that musicians could experiment with their individual preferences.

Ball got the idea to make some new stringed instruments. One was a mandolin and the other was an acoustic bass guitar. He had bought a guitarron in Tijuana to see how it was made.

He then collaborated with former Fender employee and designer, George Fullerton, to develop an acoustic bass guitar. The Earthwood, as it was dubbed, was introduced in 1972.

Unfortunately sales of the Earthwood acoustic bass were slim and production was halted in 1974. Dan Norton, who worked for Ernie Ball Inc. thought the guitar to be a worthwhile instrument and a few years later he convinced Ball to resume manufacture of the bass. Norton was put in charge of production.

It was ended in 1985 and the company concentrated it’s efforts on manufacturing, producing, packaging and selling guitar and bass guitar strings for a few years when they resumed production of electric guitars and related products and developed Music Man guitars.

The Earthwood’s body was much larger and deeper than an acoustic guitar (24 1/2" long, 18 1/4" wide, and 6 5/8" deep). Of course the neck was longer as well to accomidate the usual 34” normal bass guitar length. I have not been able to track down the wood used for the guitar. It appears to have a spruce top with a satin finish. The back and sides on all Earthwoods that I have seen are of a light colored wood.

The Earthwood acoustic bass was an idea before it’s time. Sales were never that great in the 1970’s and 80’s. It wasn’t until the mid 1990’s due in part to MTV’s Unplugged series of programs there was a renewed interest in acoustic music.

Most bass players found it easier to adapt to a guitar-like instrument that had frets or at least fret markers than to learn how to play the rather bulky string bass. At this time many manufacturers, especially Asian companies, saw the need and began to produce acoustic bass guitars. Even Martin still produces and acoustic bass. However by then Ernie Ball no longer manufactured any guitars.

Earthwood Acoustic Bass with modifications to bridge, body and new neck

The Earthwood acoustic bass guitar was quite large (and deep) in contrast to most instruments in current production, which gave it more volume, especially in the low register.

The acoustic bass guitar was little-used in acoustic musical performances until the late 1980s, when the acoustic basses were used in performances on MTV's Unplugged series of programs.

And though there are currently many alternatives, the Earthwood acoustic bass is highly prized by collectors and bass players alike. It is an excellent sounding and very playable instrument. The same cannot be said for many of the cheaper modern acoustic bass guitars. Most modern instruments need a piezo electric pickup to be heard.