Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Fender Performer

There was a time in the history of Fender Guitars and Amplifiers when there was no domestic manufacturing.

In 1985 CBS owned Fender Electric Musical Instrument Company was in negotiations with a group lead by Bill Schultz to purchase Fender.  The deal went through and thus the Fender Musical Instrument Company was started.  However there would not be a manufacturing facility to later that same year.  Fender guitars were all manufactured in Japan during this period, including the Fender Performer.

It is believed this guitar was produced from leftover scap wood from Japanese manufactured Fender Stratocasters. The ever thrifty Leo Fender would have loved this idea.

The Performer was designed by John Page. Page worked for CBS Fender and privately owned FMIC in their R&D department for many years and is responsible for other Fender guitar and bass designs. Page was the force behind Fender’s Custom Shop when FMIC took over the company. Page states this guitar was a predecessor to the Fender Elite Jazz Bass.

At the time Fender was competing with Kramer, Jackson and B.C. Rich and Fenders Teles and Strats were considered pretty conservative. Page came up with this design in 1983 as Fender’s entry into the market. He also states the peghead he designed was more Fender-like, however was changed during the manufacturing process.

The guitar’s double cutaway horns are reminiscent of a Stratocaster, but more pronounced. The quality of this instrument is excellent. The headstock is not typical of Fender as it is triangular, similar to the Fender Swinger, (which also was made of leftover wood). The tuning gears were enclosed. It came with a locking nut that clamps the strings behind the plastic nut. The guitar had a floating tremolo System with Fender style adjustable bridge saddles.

The 24 fret micro-tilt neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard. The knob on the pickguard have inset rubber grips for easy grasping. The jack socket is an improvement over that found on most Fender guitars.

The guitar came with a metallic finished paint job. The variety of colours could be burgundy mist, candy green, white or sun-burst (which was non-metallic).

The guitars two humbucking pickups both were set at a reversed angle than what one would find on a Stratocaster or Telecaster. The coils were offset to keep in line with the strings and potted in epoxy, which meant you better like these pickups, because they could not be replaced. The controls featured a coil-tap switch to provide a sweet humbucking sound or a brighter single coil tone.

The tone knob was unique in that it used a stacked potentiometer with 250k and 1M capacitors with a center detent.

The bass version of the Fender Performer also had a two octave, micro-tilt adjustable neck. Due to this, light gauge strings were suggested. The neck was slim and the action was set low.

The pickups were parallel to the strings. It came with the same accoutrement's as the guitar, although the pick-ups were single coil versions of those on a Mustang Bass. The were wound tighter for more punch. The guitar came with two volume knobs and a single tone knob.

I believe Fender learned a valuable lesson from making these guitars and several others that they should stick to making great guitars, such as the Strats, Teles and P&J Basses that we all know and love.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Rogue Aluminator and Able Axe Guitars

The Rogue Aluminator was featured for a few years in the late 1990's in Musician's Friend catalogues.  It was truly a unique instrument.  The slotted body was made from billets of aircraft grade aluminum. 

The history of this guitar is somewhat fuzzy, however here is what I know.

The body shape of the aluminator is reminiscent of a Fender Stratocaster. As mentioned already the guitar was milled from a billet of aluminum.  The 25.5" scale, 22 fret, bolt-on neck was made of maple with a rosewood fretboard with dot markers.  The six on a side headstock pointed and painted featuring the Rogue logo.

Rogue is the house brand featured by Musician's Friend.

The perimeter of the body is slotted, thus allowing a decrease in the guitar's weight.  The center of the body contains the pickups controls and wiring harness. This guitar had 1 volume control and 1 tone control. The potentiometer knobs were similar to those on a Telecaster.  The Aluminator also had 3 mini-throw switches; one for each pickup.  This allows any combination of pickups to be off or on and gives 11 different sounds.

The end of the body featured a non-trem Strat-style bridge with six adjustable saddles. Although it did not allow for the Kahler style, dive bomb sounds that were popular with the shredders of the day, the fixed bridge did help with sustain. 

It was offered in different MF catalogues from $549 to $699.  The catalogue I recall was asking $599 for the guitar. 

The guitar came in silver, purple, red or black.

The Rogue Aluminator is sometimes confused with guitars manufactured by Able Axe.  The reason is Able Axe Company's patterns were used to manufactured the bodies for Rogue. Some sources say Able Axe made the Rogues bodies.

Able Axe was a guitar manufacturer started by Jeff Able to promote the instruments he built out of aluminum.  Between 1994 through 1996 and started up again in 2001.  There are less than 200 '94-'96 guitars.  Like I've stated before, scarcity drives the price up.

Able Axe guitars were made in a variety of styles.  Most featured a small strat style body with 2 or 3 Kent Armstrong pickups or Sky pickups, although the earliest models featured Dimarzios.  Some models had a fixed bridge and some offered a Kahler tremolo.  Most of the Able Axe bodies had holes in them rather than slots like the Aluminator. Once again the holes were there to reduce the body weight.  The bodies on these instruments were approximately 9.5 lbs or 4.3 kg.

The 21 fret necks were made of maple with rosewood fret boards and a pointy unpainted 6 on a side headstock. The nut was either made of graphite or bone, unless it came with the Kahler trem, in which case it was fitted with the Kahler locking nut.  The tuners were Sperzel locking tuners.  The 1994-96 necks were manufactured by Musickraft.  Presently the necks come through Warmouth. (Warmouth is owned by Framus Guitars of Germany).

Note the similarities to the Rogue body

The retail cost in 1994-96 for an Able Axe was $1395 to $1495.  A variety of colours were offered, including plain stainless aluminum.

Currently the cost of an Able Axe is $2500 to $2700.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Jagmaster

In 1966 I was 14 years old.  My drumming buddy, Stew Williams, was able to procure 2 passes from his drum teacher, for the Winter NAMM Convention that was held in Chicago.  We spent a couple of days there, with badges that stated we were representatives of Slingerland Drums.  It was better than being in a candy store; an unforgetable experience.  I picked up a suitcase full of catalogues including the 1966 Fender Catalogue. 

This catalogue featured a display of guitars with no visible pickups called the Fender Marauder. The text stated the guitar had 4 pickups under the pickguard.  In later years, I learned the guitars pictured in this brochure were in all probability non-working prototypes.  This guitar had a shape similar to a Jazzmaster/Jaguar with a 25.5" scale and a Fender Stratocaster tremolo bridge with the bridge cover and screw-in bar. I say all this because the Fender Jagmaster, with its Stratocaster bridge is similar to that of the catalogues version of The Marauder.  (see a prior post called Guitars that Never Were)

The 1996-98 Jagmaster was originally built in Japan as part of the Vista series. You can distinguish this guitar by the word Vista on its headstock.

Once again this instrument was only produced for two years. 

The wiring was less complex than that of the Jaguar-Jazzmaster. The Jagstang had a two humbucking pickups with a single volume and tone control and a three-way throw switch mounted on the lower bout.  The pickups were designed by Seymour Duncan.  The bridge was a Strat-style version tremolo bridge with adjustable saddles and a screw-in bar.  The body was basswood and the neck was maple with a rosewood fretboard. The 22 fret neck was similar to the Jaguar's 24" scale.

Due to the economic situation, Fender thought it advantages to close their Japanese factory in 1998. The original list price was $700.

In 2002 Fender resurrected the Jagmaster under, naming it the Squier Jagmaster ll.  They dropped the Vista designation. Manufacturing was outsourced to China.  This version was modified from the original model. It now had a 25.5" scale, 21 fret neck. The guitar's pickups remained twin Seymour Duncan humbuckers.

Further changes were made in 2005.

At that time the Squier Jagmaster's neck was shortened to a 24" scale and an extra fret was added. Following what seems to be a trend, Fender produced this model for two years.  In 2007 the model was updated to a 21 fret guitar. This guitar is still in production.

The silver sparkle version of the Jagmaster no longer is available.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Squier '51

The V.C. Squier Company started in 1930 by the son of a British immigrant, Victor C. Squier.

The Squier Company originally made violins at the shop in Battle Creek Michigan.

At the time all violin strings were manufactured in Europe. Squier saw a need and an oportunity to make economical violin strings domestically rather than import strings for his instruments. He accomplished this by the use of a treddle sewing machine as a string winder.  The strings were offered to retail shops and eventually became their primary product. Squier set about manufacturing strings for all stringed musical instruments, including the piano.

In 1965 Fender Guitars acquired the V.C. Squier Company with the goal of manufacturing Fender guitar strings.  By 1970 the Squier brand was retired and sold only as Fender guitar and bass strings.

The 1980's brought a flood of Fender "copy" guitars that were manufactured in Japan and Korea. Some of these instruments were surprisingly of excellent quality, but the majority were poor imitations.

Fender made a decision to compete with their imitators by outsourcing some of its guitar production to the same companies making copy Fenders,. but Fender did not want their name associated with non-domestically manufactured instruments.

In 1982 Fender decided to market these instruments under the Squire brand.  The original Squiers were sold with the logo Squier "JV" which stood for Squier Japanese Vintage.  The JV series sold through 1984 when Fender realized the success of the brand, continuing production through the present

Though the majority of Squier's guitars are reproductions or variations on the more expensive line of Fender guitars, every now and then Fender designers come up with a unique instrument under the Squier brand.

I've recently described two of them.  Probably the most unique and desirable Squier is the Squier '51.  This guitar was an immediate hit. The price point was around $150.  Box stores and catalogues were letting them go for $99.  For that price a player could afford to upgrade this instrument with higher quality pickups, an improved tailpiece, nut and perhaps a custom paint job.

There are currently forums on the web that are devoted to modification of Squier '51's.

The '51 combines aspects of different Fender guitars and basses into one unique looking guitar. 

The body is somewhat similar to a Fender Stratocaster.

The pickguard, switch plate and knobs are based on a 1951 Fender Precision bass.  The headstock is reminicent of the one on a Telecaster neck.

The slanted neck pickup is similar to that of a Strat, with it's exposed pole-pieces.  The bridge pickup is a split coil humbucker.

The controls on the switch plater. are much different than those found on other Fender instruments.  One potentiometer for the guitar's volume is also a push-pull switch that allows the bridge pickup to work in the single coil or humbucking mode. 

This guitar does not have a tone control.  The other potentiometer is actually a 3-way rotary switch that controls the on-off function of the pickups.  Center position is the two pickups running in combination.

As I recall, this guitar's six-saddle chromed bridge unit was somewhat flimsy, although different models seemed to be of differing quality. The bridge was mounted on the guitar's topside with 4 screws and was a top loader.

The body was made of basswood. The neck was maple with a maple fretboard. The pickguard was generally white, but was also available in black.

The body colour options were Sunburst (2 tone, which was found on the older 1951 P-bass), Black and Creme.

This model was produced from 2004 through 2006.  (Are we seeing a trend in 2 year producton?)  Leftover models were drastically discounted in 2007.

The Squier '51 was a clear winner.  In my opinion Fender should consider introducing it into their regular Squier line up.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Squier Super-Sonic - The Other Guitar in the Vista Series

In today’s market when we associate Fender with the words SuperSonic, we tend to think of their amplifier that is part Bassman - part Vibrolux. However, in 1997 Fender marketed a guitar under their Squier brand called the Super-Sonic. This was the second guitar in their short-lived Vista series.

We all know Jimi Hendrix was one of the most revolutionary rock guitarists to come down the pike. His style left its mark on the way we play lead guitar. Using  a couple of Marshall stacked amplifiers, a handful of guitar pedals and a Stratocaster played upside down, Hendrix was able to coax sounds out of his instrument that were never before imagined.

Hendrix was the inspiration for the Squier Super-Sonic. Designer Joe Carduci was a Hendrix fan and insisted on the upside down headstock based on watching Jimi play a Fender Jaguar upside down.

During these years, Japan was the main site for manufacturing Squier guitars. The body was reminiscent of a Jaguar/Jazzmaster body, although the lower bout was not offset. With its prominent lower horn and diminished upper horn, the Super-Sonic looked something like Fender's answer to a Gibson Reverse Firebird.

The pickguard was similar to a Jaguar with a chromed switch plate for the twin volume controls.

There was no control for tone. The potentiometer at the top controlled the bridge pickup, while the lower one controlled the neck pickup.  In other words, this guitar controls are wired back-asswards.

The pickups were designed by Seymour Duncan and manufactured in Korea. Despite Mr. Duncan lending his name to the pickups; it is said they could be microphonic. The neck pickup was parallel to the necks base. The bridge pickup was angled with the 6th string lower than the 1st string; like an upside down Stratocaster. A three-way toggle throw switch controlled which pickup was working.

The bridge was Strat-style with a screw-in arm for the tremolo. The saddles were Strat-style as well. The guitar bore Kluson-style tuners on its upside-down headstock.

It was offered in Silver or Blue Sparkle finishes as well as White or Black.

Like the Jaguar, the guitar had a 24" scale, which was not preferred by most rockers with the exception of Ted Nugent who prefers the 23 1/2" Byrdlands.

Players were unhappy about the placement of the toggle switch. It was right in the area most of us use to pick or strum. The Strat tremolo was not meant for dive-bomb solos and overuse put this guitar instantly out of tune. The biggest issue was the pickups, which were said to be microphonic and tinny.

It was not a popular instrument and was gone by 1998.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Squier Venus Guitar (The Fender Vista Venus)

In 1997 my local music store had these unusual Fender guitars hanging up for display. On closer examination, they bore the Squier brand name. Under the Squier name in small type was "by Fender." Both instruments had a surf-green paint job and bound maple necks with rosewood fretboards.

One was a six-string model with 1956 Fender style headstock. The headstock was painted the same color on the front. The other was a 12-string version that bore a headstock similar to the 12 string Stratocasters that were marketed in the 1990's. The guitars bridge was Fender's version of a tune-o-matic bridge. The strings went through the body and held in place with rivets on the guitars backside.

I learned these were Squier Venus models aka Fender Vista Venus models. This was a guitar designed in conjunction with Courtney Love.

The six string version had a single coil strat-type neck alnico pickup with staggered pole pieces and an open humbucking pickup near the bridge.

The wiring scheme was simple; one volume control, a three-way throw switch for the pickups and a top mounted input jack, all of which were on the pearloid pickguard.

The twelve string version was a much different instrument. The headstock had one string guide. The twin pickups were staggered similar to those on the original Fender XII guitar.

This guitar also had a single volume control, but it also had a single tone control, plus the three-way throw switch (unlike the complex Fender XII's switching system) and a top mounted jack. All were mounted on the guitar's pearloid pickguard. The bridge and saddle was one unit with a chromed base plate, Fender style bridge saddles adjusted by turning a screw at the distal side of the bridge. The strings appear to go through the body.

Surf green was not the only color for these instruments. They were also produced in Black and Sunburst.

The shape of the guitar is different from anything Fender has produced. The guitar was made of basswood that had two offset cutaway horns and an asymetrical carved lower bout as on a Jaguar. The body was more compact than other Fender instruments.

It was also unusual in its price point, which was suggested as $999.99 with a gig bag. Squier was Fender's import line at the time, so the asking price was rather high. Perhaps that is why it was only produced for two years. It was discontinued in 1998.

Ms. Love's personal instruments may have been built by Fender's Custom Shop, since they were different from off-the-rack models. Of the two she played, one had a sky blue body with a tortoise shell pickguard and the other was pink with a white pearloid pickguard. Her guitars had only a single Seymour Duncan '59 neck pickup.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Howard Roberts Guitars

When I think of twentieth century jazz guitarists, one of the most notable is Howard Roberts. Not only was he an excellent guitarist, he was a teacher and guitar designer.

He left his mark in the recording industry as well as television. When you hear the Twilight Zone theme, you are hearing Roberts playing guitar. He also played the guitar part on The Munsters TV theme song. He played rhythm parts for many other shows including I Dream of Jeanie.

As a teacher, he wrote jazz guitar instruction and guitar theory books.  His music education philosophy was the the basis for G.I.T., the Guitar Institute of Technology (now the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles. Howard was also an instructor at the school.

As a session musician, Howard Roberts, like other session players brought an entire trunkload of instruments to work and often used a Fender Broadcaster for recording and television work.

When it comes to guitars Howard Roberts name is on several fine instruments. Some were custom made and some were mass produced. All were made to his specifications.

Throughout his life, Howard favored Gibson and Epiphone archtop guitars. Early on Howard played an Epiphone Deluxe with a DeArmond pickup. He acquired a Gibson L-5 with a DeArmond pickup attached and later a Gibson L-10.

In the 1950's Roberts acquired a Gibson ES-175 with a single neck pickup. This was his main guitar throughout the '50's. He had a second ES-175 with a square hole cut into the guitars back. No one knows why he did this to the instrument.

Roberts was approached by CMI to design a signature guitar. His goal was to produce a guitar that he could hear over the amplification when he was playing. CMI assigned this to their newly acquired Epiphone division.

Instead of traditional f-holes, he decided on an oval soundhole under the strings. The body style was similar to an ES-175. Epiphone made these guitars with a carved solid spruce top, three-piece maple neck, and a Florentine cutaway on the lower bout and a single floating mini-humbucking pickup just below the neck. Binding on the body was 7 piece binding on the front and 3 piece on the back. The guitar was offered in custom and artist versions. The artist version had gold plated hardware and a finer finish.

You can see Howard's Epiphone cherry red prototype in the classic book American Guitars, by Tom Wheeler. (If you do not own this book - get it!) Roberts thought the Epiphone guitars were too fragile and too expensive. There is a possibility the pickguard vibrated against the top of his instrument. The color pictures in American Guitar show that Roberts stuffed a matchbook between the scratchplate and the body.

CMI assigned Gibson to build the next run of Howard Roberts guitars. The entire body was made of maple on these instruments. The maple tops on the Gibson guitars were laminated. This guitar had a 25.5" scale, which was longer than the Epiphone. There was an option for a second pickup was added at the bridge. The Epi version had a volume and tone control, while the Gibson HR guitars had a volume and tone control, plus a mid-range roll-off control. Gibson maintained the elaborate headstock pearl inlay, which was on the original Epiphone model. The Gibson version sported a regular sized humbucking pickup or twin humbuckers.

There is also a Gibson Howard Roberts Custom model that was available with a Frequensator tailpiece, which was designed to make the length of the bass strings longer for a tighter feel, and the treble strings shorter for easier lead work.

This in now marketed as the Howard Roberts Fusion III.

The final Gibson Howard Roberts guitar is the Howard Roberts Fusion. This guitar was made to handle both rock and jazz. It features twin humbucking pickups and a stop tailpiece, which cuts down on amplifier feedback.

Possibly the most interesting guitar Howard Roberts owned was The Black Guitar. I believe this may be currently owned by collector/player Wolf Marshall. This guitar started out as a Gibson ES-150, which we know as the Charlie Christian model. This guitar originally belonged to Herb Ellis.  This guitar was featured in the August 2000 Vintage Guitar magazine in an article by Wolf Marshall.

Roberts had this guitar modified to his specifications, which meant making the depth of the guitar thinner by cutting the sides and replacing the guitars back and adding a single Florentine cutaway. He also had a very small cutaway added to the upper bout.

The bar pickup was replaced with a P-90, later a humbucker was added to the bridge area. (see picture by the first paragraph) The guitar was painted black with white binding. The control knobs, headstock, pickguard, and tuning keys were all changed.

Howard Roberts designed the H.R. Chroma guitar as a teaching instrument. Only a handful were of these produced. The strings are multi-colored to correspond with the notes in the Howard Roberts Chroma instruction book.


Thursday, July 8, 2010


ZZ Top has a collection of some of the world’s most unique guitars.  In fact Billy Gibbons has a book featuring information and pictures of some of his favorite instruments that came out a few years ago.

Their Fuzzy guitars were based on a Gibson Explorer and built by 6 different companies.

Most of them were built by Dean Guitars founded by Dean Zelinnsky. Others were built by Gibson and John Bolin.

These guitars are capable of spinning 360 degrees through the use of an off-the-shelf Wittman Spinstrap instrument support.

‘Truly unique instruments.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Fourth Of July - Buck Owens Red White & Blue Guitars

It's the Fourth of July here in the USA.  When I think of patriotic American guitars, Buck Owens comes to mind.

In the late 1960's through 1970, The Hee-Haw TV Country variety show was produced. It featured Buck Owens and Roy Clark as the Emcees.  Buck played a guitar similar to one pictured here. 

Bucks original Red, White & Blue guitar was made by the Mosrite Guitar Company.  Apparently Buck was wise enough to license the model and arranged for an inexpensive replica to be produced by Harmony Guitar aka Chicago Musical Instruments and sold through mail-order by companies such as Sears.

These guitar were not at all great players.  They were probably made of birch featuring ladder style bracing. However folks were buying them for the paint-job.

The guitar that Buck Owens is most remember for playing is of course the Telecaster.  He started out playing off-the-rack Telecasters, as did his friend and fellow guitarist, Don Rich.

Owens had a Telecaster painted to resemble his Mosrite acoustic.

Through the assistance help of Fender, Owens and the Buckaroos were outfitted with sparkle finished Teles and basses.

Fender had put together an original Buck Owens Telecaster that was in silver sparkle on the body and headstock.

This was later updated the guitar to a sparkle-finished version of Buck's Red, White & Blue model.  It was finally upgraded to include an anodized gold pickguard, switch plate and hardware.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone, everywhere!