Sunday, August 29, 2010

Vox Mando Guitar

In my post about Barney Kessel's guitars, I mentioned he had a luthier build a short scale twelve string neck that was attached to a mandolin body.

This got me thinking about the Vox Mando Guitar.

A mandolin-guitar is an instrument that allows you to play mandolin music while playing the left-hand fingerings like a guitar.


The very first instrument in recorded history that fits the mandolin-guitar definition is the mandolino Genovese, or Genoese mandolin, popular in the 1700's and 1800's in and around Genoa, Italy.

During that era in Italy, mandolins were all the rage. Different regions developed their own variations of mandolin, with a differing array of strings.

The Genoese mandolin was tuned like a guitar and had six courses of strings.  This meant each string was doubled and tuned the same, unlike a twelve string guitar in which the lower four strings are an octave apart.  The Genoese mandolin was tuned an octave higher than the guitar. 

In 1965 Vox Musical Instruments created the Vox Mando Guitar.  Like it's predecessor, the Vox instrument had a short scale neck with 17 frets, however the guitars strings were tuned like a twelve string guitar with the lower four courses doubled an octave apart and the top two strings doubled in unison.  This provided a sound much like you would have if you capo'd a twelve string guitar at the twelfth fret. The body took it's queue from the Teisco May Queen.



The Mando Guitar was manufactured for Vox by Eko Guitars of Italy.  (Makes sense!)

The guitar was not a hit for Vox since no artists of the day used it. Although this advertisment states George Harrison played one.  The only guitarist I have every seen use one is Buddy Miller.  I saw him and Julie at a local club and Buddy used it on one song.


Despite it's lack of popularity, there are currently four companies that manufacturer twelve string mando guitars for sale.

In this video the guitar is tuned to D,G,G,F,A,D.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Barney Kessel Guitars

To study Barney Kessels personal guitar, we first need  to take a look at Charlie Christian and the Gibson Charlie Christian model aka ES 150.

Barney Kessel was born on October 17, 1923.  As a boy he saw a book entitled How to Play Guitar in Five Minutes.  He became fascinated with the guitar shortly after that and like a lot of us, Kessel listened to recordings and learned to play guitar by copying licks. He grew up in Oklahoma during an era when Western Swing music was popular. So much of what he learned came from players like Eldon Shamblin, Junior Barnard, Billy Dozier and Jimmy Wyble.

At 14 years of age Kessel left school to join a big band led by Ellis Ezell.  Kessel got his start as the only white player in Ezells group.  The group played at Black dance clubs throughout Oklahoma.

Kessel was enamoured of Charlie Christian and his style of playing. Christian is best known for his association as the guitarist for Benny Goodman's sextet and big band. Christian is also one of the first guitarists to use an electrified instrument and had a major influence on how jazz music is played which influenced R&B and early Rock guitar styles.


Originally Kessel's style was modeled off of Charlie Christian's playing.


Christian, who was also an Oklahoma resident heard of Barney Kessel on a visit to his home. The pair met and Kessel had the opportunity to play with Christian at a jazz jam session.  It was during this meeting that Kessel discovered here are two guys playing like Charlie Christian.  He felt the need to find his own playing style.

Charlie Christian encouraged Kessel to move to Los Angeles and get involved with the music and recording industry.  Kessel fell into orchestras led by Chico Marx, Les Brown, Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw.  Kessel went on to be one of the most recorded guitarists in history, doing everything from radio and TV shows to film scores and commercials. Recording helped pay the bills.

He was even enlisted as part of the LA Wrecking Crew, which backed up most of the hits of the 1960's. Listen to the opening lines of the Beach Boys song, "Woudn't It Be Nice."  The first four bars sound sort of like a calyopy, but it is actually Kessel and another player both on 12 string guitars.  The instrument Kessel played on that track was unusual. It had a mandolin body and a short 12 string neck.



Kessel went on to back up other Capitol Record recording artists such as Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and many others.  He won awards from Downbeat magazine and was a columnist for Guitar Player magazine.

Above all things Kessel a consument jazz guitarist and well respected by his peers. He played in a guitar trio that featured Herb Ellis, Charlie Byrd and at times Tal Farlow. In the late 1960's Kessel owned a music store which was one of the first that employed guitar technicians to modified guitars.




Which now brings us to Kessel's guitars.  Kessel gave his name to instruments produced by several guitar manufacturers; Kay, Gibson and Ibanez.


Kay produced a number of Kessel models at their Chicago based manufacturing plant.  The bodies of several of these instruments resembled Kessels Gibson ES-350, with it's large hollow body, f-holes and Venetian cutaway. They also produced an Artist model with 3 pickups and double Florentine cutaway.  All guitars came with what is known as the Kelvinator headstock, named after a refrigerator built during the 1950's.


Kessel's name was emblazoned on the guitar's scratchplate.  It featured two single coil DeArmond pickups.

In later years when Kessel was asked about the Kay guitar he commented, "I'd never play that guitar.  It is awful."


In 1961 Gibson produced two similar Barney Kessel models.  This large hollow body electric instrument featured two chrome plated humbucking pickups each with their own volume and tone controls, double Florentine cutaway.  It was bound all around the body and neck.  A rosewood base held a tune-o-matic bridge in place, so the bridge was not mounted directly to the body.

The strings were anchored by a trapeze tailpiece.  Between the struts of the tailpiece was a unfinished rosewood block with a nameplate that bore Barney Kessels name. 

The bound neck had a rosewood fretboard with either parallel position markers. The bound 3 on a side headstock was Gibsons standard shape and finished in high gloss black with a crown inlay. 

The guitars spruce body was finished in cherry sunburst. The pickup throw switch was on the lower cutaway bout.


The Barney Kessel C (custom) was came with similar accouterments however all the hardware, including pickup covers, was gold plated and the position markers were bow tie shaped and the headstock inlay was a large quarter note.  Both guitars were 25 1/2" scale and the fretboards had 20 frets.  These guitars did sell well, but maintained in production through 1973.

Ibanez produced a Barney Kessel model. I've only seen the prototype in a Youtube video.  The body is narrower than the Gibson and it appears to have a Florentine cutaway.

There were also several Asian companies making knock-offs of the Barney Kessel Gibson model.


Barney Kessel's personal guitar that he was most often scene with in concert is a Gibson 1946/47 modified ES-350.  This guitar has a tobacco brown body and a Venetian cutaway.  It was an electrified version of the Gibson L-7.  The standard version ES-350 came with twin humbucking pickups and a 24 3/4' scale neck with trapezoidal position markers and 19 frets.  It was a fairly fancy guitar.  There were some single pickup models produced.

I cannot say where Kessel's guitar was modified, but he had a Charlie Christian pickup installed at the neck.  In my opinion this modification was a fairly big deal, since the standard spruce top on the ES 350 was routed for one or two humbuckers. The Charlie Christian model pickup was a different shape and required thee holes to be drilled into the guitars top. 

Kessel's guitar also had 2 bakelite chicken head knobs that he took off of an old phonograph. He states these helped him determine their positions when on a dark stage.  The ES 350's neck was also modified. Gone was the fancy 19 fret fingerboard and it was replaced with a 20 fret model fretboard with dot position markers.  I do not know if the neck was a 25 1/2 or a 24 3/4" scale.  The bridge was sculpted from rosewood. He also replaced the original Kluson tuners with open back Grover tuners.


After thinking about the modifications done to Kessels guitar it hit me that Kessel was turning his cutaway ES 350 into a cutaway version of the ES 150 that his mentor Charlie Christian played.  The ES-150 had a 20 fret neck with dot markers, the Charlie Christian pickup with 3 bolts holding it to the body and one tone and one volume control both made of bakelite.


How ironic it is that the Gibson Barney Kessel and the Kay Barney Kessel were so fancy and Kessel's own favorite guitar was very plain.  But as Kessel says in a video, the guitar is only an outlet for my music.  It is the music that is important.





Thanks to Raybob Bowman for reminding me about Barney Kessel.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Fender Mandocaster

I was 12 years old and taking guitar lessons at Dodd’s Music Store in Covington Kentucky. The business was formerly a jewelry store, until the owner, Jules Jacobs, found out there was more of a demand for guitars than Bulova watches.

While waiting for my Thursday lesson I would see all these guys come in to check out guitars that were the best known players in the Cincinnati area.

Mr. Jacobs would stock all the latest instruments from all guitar, keyboard and drum manufacturers. At the time I owned a ’57 Stratocaster that looked just like Clapton’s Blackie. Mine was known as the one that got away. But that is another story.

On the wall was this tiny Fender instrument that always caught my eye. It would have been a nice match for my strat, but I could never talk Dad into buying it. This was a 1958 model Fender Mandocaster, Fender’s version of an electric mandolin.

The Mandocaster bore some resemblance to a Stratocaster, however it was short, squat and only had four strings. The solid,ash body was slab style. The one at Dodd’s Music was sunburst.

This instrument had one slanted pickup with a black or reddish cover. It appeared to be similar to the pickup found on the Musicmaster or Duo-Sonic, but much smaller, with no exposed pole pieces.

The tiny maple neck had a maple fretboard and a tiny strat-style headstock that had four tuning keys with white plastic knobs. The headstock simply said Fender.

The Fender at Dodds was either a 1956 or ’57. The original Mandocasters had all maple necks until 1959 when they came with rosewood boards.

In 1958 the body design was changed to the Fender contour style.

The other change that occurred in 1959 was the use of celluloid pickguards. Prior to that the Mandocaster had an anodized gold pickguard. The earliest sunburst models were two color and around ’58 they switched to three color sunburst.

The Mandocaster was also available in a natural blond finish. It wasn't until the late 1960’s when they were offered in custom colours.

The bridge was mounted on a chrome plate and the two saddles were much like those found on a Telecaster. Each saddle supported two strings. The instrument came with a chrome bridge cover that was similar to the one that used to come with a Stratocaster.

In 1965 Fender made a few changes. They updated the pickguard to a 3 layer tortoise shell style and adapted the Fender spaghetti style logo decal.

The Fender Mandocaster were manufactured through 1976, which surprises me. The instrument was never popular. It sounded more like a guitar than a mandolin. Pro-mandolin players wanted that tinkly sound produced from eight strings tuned in unison. You couldn’t get that from this electric mando. Other companies were producing eight string electric mandolins, but what the public wanted was acoustic mandolins. And Gibson had cornered the market there.

Modified Fender Mandocaster with 2 pickups and a switch

If any vintage guitar buffs are feeling sorry they can’t afford a $12,000 vintage ’56 strat, check out what they are asking for vintage mandolins!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Vox Phantom Guitar and Bass

In 1962 the Vox Musical Instrument Company introduced a pentagonal guitar they called the Vox Phantom. I do not recall seeing it in the United States until 1965 or 1966.

It was initially manufactured in the U.K. by a cabinet maker in Shoeburyness, Essex. This guitar was sort of modeled after the Fender Stratocaster, featuring three single coil pickups and a tremolo bar.

The natural finished headstock was initially a six on a side unit that was a different shape than a Strat. The neck was maple. The fretboard was made of rosewood. The pickup covers were rectangular and were all parallel to each other. The tremolo was more like a Bigbsy unit than a Strat unit.

The pentagonal body was assymetrical with the lower portion having wider angles than the upper portion and the bottom was cut at an angle which was deeper on the lower side.

The control knobs were lined up along the lower bout.  The guitar had one volume knob and two tone controls, very similar to a Stratocaster. In the middle on the lower bout was a 3 position potentiometer with sort of a gear shift style lever to control which pickup was engaged.

Interestingly, the earlier model guitars was not designated with a Vox logo. The word, “Phantom” was applied to the headstock. Later models had the word “Vox” on the headstock, with “Vox Phantom” silk-screened on the body.


Production did not stay in the U.K. for very long and was moved to Italy where it was subcontracted to EKO. The EKO produced guitars had a higher retail price than the U.K. versions.  It appears the English made Vox guitars had a metal truss rod cover and no back pad.  The Italian versions featured a back pad, similar to those on Gretsch guitars and the truss rod adjustment was at the necks bottom.  So there was no need for a headstock plate.


The models were available either as a guitar or bass and offered with a white or black body. The body color did not make much difference since most of it was not visible due to the white pickguard that almost covered the guitars top.

A bass model was also produced. This came with two single coil pickups. One pickup was placed right at the heel of the neck and the other pickup close to the bridge.

The neck was similar to the guitar, maple with a rosewood fretboard. The tuners were four on a side. The headstock was painted to match the body.

The Phantom XII (twelve string) came in two versions.  One was a normal guitar and the other was a stereo guitar.


The Rolling Stones endorsed some of the other Vox guitars.

Tom Petty can be seen ocasionally with his Phantom XII


The only Phantom player I can recall is a fellow named Phil Volk, the bass player for Paul Revere and the Raiders. Phil aka Fang, played a white Phantom IV bass. He spelled his nickname “Fang” out in black electrical tape on the backside of the body.

The Vox Phantom was offered as a six (Phantom VI) or twelve string guitar, the Phantom XII.

Additionally Vox offered a bass model dubbed The Phantom Bass IV.


The updated version of the Phantom VI

Recently the Phantom name was acquired by a guitar manufacturer in Oregon where they have been building upscale versions of Phantom and Teardrop style guitars for the past several years.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Gibson Firebird and The Gibson Thunderbird

A couple of nights ago I watched a television show that recounted the history of The Packard Automobile Company. Packard’s were still around when I was a kid. Many models, especially the early ones, were big, luxury sedans with V-12 engines, competing with Cadillac and Lincoln.

One of the designers from Packard was a fellow named Ray Dietrich. In the early 1960’s Gibson Musical Instruments hired him to design a guitar. The 1960’s was a decade of innovation.


This was an era when several countries around the world were competing to be the first to put a man into outer space. The news of the day was about rockets, satellites, and jet airplane development.

Many products reflected this cultural focus of modern flight. Manufactured decked out automobiles with tail fins, as if they could fly. Marketing of all products ensued with space-age names. Guitars were no exception.

In 1963, Mr. Dietrich designed the Gibson Firebird models with their reversed, zigzag body and upside-down headstock to resemble the automobile tail fins of the day.

It was a toned-down version of the Gibson Explorer, but the Firebird and subsequent Thunderbird were unique instruments. Gibson’s aim in designing the Firebird was to come up with a radical looking instrument that would have consumer appeal. The company’s first attempt with the Explorer and Flying V looked great, but did not sell. Ironically, it was Ted McCarty, who designed the V and Explorer.  McCarty was the one who hired Ray Dietrich.

The original models are known as reverse Firebirds, since the body’s treble horn is longer than the bass horn. Dietrich used the Explorer as a basis, but rounded the guitars edges into a more appealing shape.

Perhaps the most radical part of the design was the neck, which ran the length of the body. In looking at the instrument, the neck appears to be built like a boat paddle with wings added on to each side. The neck was manufactured with nine plies of wood. Mahogany and walnut were interspersed to give the neck the strength it needed since the neck was longer than other solid body guitars.



To accommodate tuning the guitar, Gibson decided to use banjo tuners instead of guitar keys.


The headstock loosely resembled an elongated Fender, 6 on a side, headstock, except the Firebird headstock was upside-down. The headstock and body design caused friction between Fender and Gibson.

Fender saw the Firebird as an upside-down Jaguar/Jazzmaster. Fender filed a patent infringement lawsuit.

The Firebird models were distinguished by Roman numerals:
Firebird I – one bridge pickup – stud/bridge tailpiece = chrome hardware – dot neck without binding.
Firebird III – two pickups – stud/bridge tailpiece and Gibson Vibrola tremolo bar – chrome hardware dot neck with neck binding.
Firebird V – two pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – chrome hardware – trapezoidal position markers with neck binding.
Firebird VII – three pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – gold plated hardware – block position markers with neck binding.


The original Firebirds utilized mini-humbucking pickups with non-exposed pole pieces.

In 1965, Gibson not only did not see the sales they wanted from the Firebird, plus their competitor was suing them. This resulted in Gibson implementing a design change.



Essentially, they turned the body upside-down, and made a few modification, creating the Non-Reverse Firebird. Gone was the neck-through construction. It was replaced with a glued in neck. The body’s horns were not as pronounced.


The upper horn was now longer than the treble horn. The headstock was now right side up with traditional Gibson tuners. Pickup configurations experienced a slight change. Models V and VII remained the same, however models I and III now had two or three P-90 pickups instead of mini-humbuckers and both were equiped with standard vibratos.

Gibson discontinued manufacturing the non-reverse Firebird in 1969. In 1972, the Reverse model was revived and manufactured until 1979.

Since 2002, the Firebird has been manufactured by Gibson’s Custom Shop and under their Epiphone brand. The pickups on both models have since been modified.





During the same era the Firebird models came into being, Gibson produced a similarly shaped bass guitar called the Thunderbird. There were two different models produced.

Unlike prior Gibson bass guitars, both Thunderbirds sported a 34” long scale neck similar to Fender basses. The Reverse model existed until 1966. At that time Gibson created the Non-reverse models for the same reason, they switched their design of the Firebird.

The Thunderbird production ended in 1969. In 1976, it was revived as the Bicentennial model and was produced through 1979. Production was started up again in 1987 and has been available under the Gibson or Epiphone logos ever since.


Thunderbird II – one bridge pickup – chrome bridge – chrome string stop – unbound dot neck – volume and tone control.
Thunderbird IV – two pickups with one at the body’s center and one close to the bridge. Both pickups were covered by chrome hand rests – unbound dot neck –two control knobs – later version had two volume knobs and a single tone knob.

Although the bass’s headstock was reversed, however the four tuning keys were mounted on the top of the headstock.

Here is an interesting note about the Reverse Thunderbird. John Entwistle, of the Who, loved the Thunderbird design but hated the neck.


Due to the length of both the guitar and especially the bass, considering both had an extended headstock, if the instrument fell off a stand, the headstock broke off.


Entwistle solved this problem by creating what he called Fenderbirds. He had luthiers design a body similar to the Gibson Non Reverse Thunderbird, but it contained a pocket in the section where the neck joins the body that was fitted with a Fender Precision bass neck.

Entwistle was known to play both Reverse and Non-Reverse model Gibsons.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fender Cyclone

The Fender Cyclone could be considered Variations on a Theme by Leo.

This guitar design was based on a Mustang-like alder body that was slightly deeper and offset. The neck was longer than the short scale Mustang neck. It made of maple with a 24 3/4" scale and came with 22 frets on its rosewood fretboard. The pickups and pickup configurations and vibrato/bridge were much different that what was found on a Fender Mustang.



In 2000, the Fender Cyclone debuted for sale as a USA-made guitar, although it was originally featured two years earlier at the Summer NAMM convention.




The Cyclone featured two single coil noiseless pickups with white covers and exposed pole-pieces, a two-point stainless steel vibrato with steel bridge saddles.

The vibrato unit was similar to a Stratocaster unit and the springs were in a cavity in the guitars back. There was a three-way switch, similar to those Gibson used that was place on the lower horn.

The upgraded model was named the Custom Cyclone had the same accoutrements, but had Gold Lace sensor pickups with black covers. The Cyclones had one tone and one volume control. Both potentiometers were housed on a stainless steel plate, much like that of a Jaguar. Both guitars were produced for only one year.

In 2002 Fender introduced the Cyclone II. The Mustang shape remained, but the pickup configuration was entirely different. This guitar came with three Jaguar style single coil pickups all of which were slanted on an angle similar to the bridge pickup of a Stratocaster.

The vibrato/bridge unit remained the same, as did the neck length. The bridge saddles were also vintage nickel models instead of stainless steel. The headstock was modified to resemble the larger style that is found on 1970's Strats.

The deluxe tuners were replaced with vintage style Fender tuners made by Ping.


The pickups were controlled by three slider switches that were covered by a stainless steel cover, which was much like the switches on a Jaguar. This was an advantage as you could have the choice of any of the three pickups on or off. Fender offered only two colour schemes, Daphne Blue or Candy Apple Red. Both colours came with racing stripes on the bottom bout.

In 2003, Fender introduced the Cyclone HH. This guitar was similar to the previous Cyclone instruments; however, it came with twin humbucking pickups. The neck pickup was a Fender Santa Ana model for a sweet tone and the bridge pickup was a Fender Atomic model offering a more dirty gristly tone. The pickups were controlled by a three-way toggle switch.


The Cyclone HH was available in Black, Pewter, Orange, and Daphne Blue. The racing stripe was not offered on this model.

Both the Cyclone II and Cyclone HH were manufacture at Fender's facility in Mexico.

Despite being offered in Fender's line-up for nearly eight years, the Cyclone never caught on and the entire line was discontinued in 2007.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Fender Katana

Possibly the oddest guitar to come from Fender is the Katana.

It was manufactured in 1985, which was one of the years that Fender had no domestic production.

This guitar was designed by the marketing director of that era, Dan Smith, and built at the Fender Japan factory.

The 1980’s were the era of “hair-bands” and shredders. Jackson, Dean and Kramer guitars were selling modified super-strats and super-vees, such as the Jackson Randy Rhodes model. Fender dealers were looking for Fender to come up with something comparable to these popular sellers. It would just figure that a marketing director would come up with the Katana design.

Fender’s Katana had a triangular shaped body with a 24.75” glued maple neck. The fretboard was bound and made of rosewood, featuring 22 frets. The position markers were unique triangle placed on the lower side of the fretboard.

The painted headstock was similar to the arrow-head shape of the Fender Performer. The headstock’s colour matched the body.



The tuners were deluxe. The headstock also featured a truss rod cover, which is quite unusual on any Fender guitar.

The body featured twin coverless humbucking pickups and came with one volume control and one tone control, both of which were speed-knobs.


A 3-way switch to control the pickups was placed below the volume and tone controls. The tone control was similar to the the one on the Performer and featured twin capacitors, 250k and 50k with a center dentent. There was no scratch plate. The vibrato/bridge sat on twin pivots. The string clamp behind the nut helped to maintain tonality. The input jack was placed on the guitars side.

The Katana lasted only one year. Production started in 1985 and stopped in 1986.

A cheaper version was produced under the Squier brand. This time production was in Korea. The Squier Katana featured a 21 fret bolt-on unbound maple neck with a rosewood fretboard. The volume and tone controls were standard. Most Squier Katana guitars featured only one pickup, near the bridge and a volume control.


Fender Squier also produced a Katana bass. Much like the guitar, the 21 fret maple neck was bolt-on with a rosewood fretboard and pointy headstock with four on a side tuners. The was one P-bass style pickup and a volume and tone control on the body. The input jack was side mounted.


Despite being a “head-banger” guitar, the Fender Katana was a high quality professional instrument.

The Squier Katana guitars and bass were standard Fender style player quality instruments.