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 from a Gibson twelve string guitar that was attached to a mandolin body.

This got me thinking about the Vox Mando Guitar.

This was a combination mandolin-guitar that allows you to play mandolin music while playing the left-hand fingerings like a guitar.

It was tuned like a regular guitar, but an octave up. A mandolin is tuned in fifths.

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, sometimes known as the Octave Twelve.

Like it's mandolin predecessor, the Vox Mando-Guitar 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.

It sounded nothing like a mandolin. Instead it had a big jangly sound especially when amplified through a Vox AC30.



The Mando Guitar was manufactured for Vox by Eko Guitars of Italy. I think some of it's design inspiration came from the Teisco May Queen guitar.

Back in the day, the Mando Guitar was not a hit for Vox since no artists of the day endorsed it. Although this advertisment states George Harrison played one. Brian Jones played one too.



The only guitarist I have seen use one is Buddy Miller.  I saw him and his wife Julie at a local club and Buddy used it on one song.



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








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.

Barney was 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 do not know where Kessel's guitar was modified or who made the changes. Barney 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 so 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.


I thank all the folks that read and especially the ones that respond to the articles. I treasure your knowledge and thank you for updates and even corrections. Apparently Barney Kessel's personal guitar has found its way into the hands of jazz player, Bruce Foreman. Check out this link.

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, and accepted musical instruments for pawn. During the days of the British Invasion they 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.

Dodds 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 never had the funds. It  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. There were only four peg heads since this Mandocaster only came with four strings.



The original Mandocasters had all maple necks until 1959 when they switched to rosewood fret 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 with 2 pickups/switch
These old Fender Mandocasters sounded more like a guitar than a mandolin, but they sure look nice.






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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. Tom Jennings and Dick Denney, the owner and designer of Vox amplifiers were enjoying success with the Vox AC15 and Vox AC30 amplifiers.

To compete with other guitar/amp companies such as Fender, they decided to add guitars to their offerings. These instruments were initially built by a cabinet making firm in Shoeburyness, Essex. The first instruments featured solid bodies and resembled Fender's popular guitars.

Jennings and Denney wanted a guitar that did not resemble any existing instruments; a guitar that would stand out.

They enlisted help from the London Design Center. The shape that was suggested we now know as the Vox Phantom

Although the guitar's shape looked nothing like anything else, the features resembled a Fender Stratocaster with the three single coil pickups and a tremolo.

The tremolo was based on the Bigsby B5. The bridge/saddle was much like a tune-o-matic unit.




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 bass model was known as the Phantom IV.

The bass player for Paul Revere and the Raiders was Phil Volk aka Fang. He became known for exclusively playing a Vox Phantom bass. He uses black electrical tape on the back of his Vox Phantom bass to spell out his nickname.



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



Tony Hicks of the Hollies was a Vox endorser and played a Vox Phantom XII on some of the bands songs.

Besides building the popular Vox AC30 and AC15 amplifiers, Vox's other well known and highly successful item was the Vox Continental Organ. It would make sense that Vox would offer a combo organ. Vox originally started out as The Jennings Organ Company.


The popular keyboard with the bright reddish-orange top and the harpsichord style key pattern (black keys with white keys on the top) was an instant hit.

Dick Denney determined in 1966 that Vox could build a phantom guitar with a built-in Vox organ. The Vox Phantom Organ was a very complex instrument.

The frets became electric contacts that not just changed the string length to create the guitars notes, but acted to change the transistors and create the organ notes. A row of buttons on the guitar's face created chords, much like a chord organ. The guitar was sold with a multi-pronged cable that connected to a generator unit.  Using 1966 technology, the Guitar/Organ was way ahead of its time and possibly the precursor to the Guitar/Synthesizer.







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