Sunday, October 31, 2010

Melobar Guitars

Back in 1967 Walt Smith of California went to work alongside Ed and Rudy Dopyera learning to make Dobro guitars.

Later he took a job working with Semie Mosley assisting him in building Mosrite guitars.

Interestingly, Walt Smith was encouraged in his effort by his friend Leo Fender.

He then returned to his hometown and started building his own brand of unique steel guitars. He named them Melobar guitars.

The first instruments were wooden student models with positions engraved on the fretboard.

Smith built a metal version of this guitar. However he was unhappy with the completed instrument. 

He kept some of them and had his son take the rest to the county dump. 

Many of these guitars were salvaged by dumpster divers.  This guitar has been unofficially designated as the Melobar Dumpster Guitar.

Dumpster Guitar
Walt's claim to fame were the electric steel guitars he made, which were meant to be played like Dobros; standing up.   These were solid body guitars made so the boday tilted at a 45° angle from the neck.

Because Melobar guitars were all handmade there are subsequently few. Probably around 1,000. Not only are they unique, but rare as well.

Many well-known steel players have a Melobar in their collection. Players such as David Lindley, Rusty Young, and my favorite steel player, Cindy Cashdollar all own a Melobar.

As his family got older, Walt instructed his children and grandchildren in the craft of luthery.

Walt renamed his venture The Smith Family Music Company.

At first Melobar Guitars started with six string lap steels. The product line soon expanded to include not just six string instrument, but eight string guitars as well.

Melobar Rattler
By 1991, after Walt's death, Ted Smith had taken the company reigns 1996 and introduced the Rattler six string guitar and the Tomahawk eight string. The Rattler was built as an entry-level instrument. These were both sit-down lap instruments.

Another instrument developed that same year was the Supersteel, that came with interchangeable double and triple neck stands.

In 1998, Melobar added a Fiberglass resonator guitar to the line-up. These models were produced in six, seven, and eight string versions. That same year Melobar/Smith Family Music add a double neck instrument called the Tele Steel Guitar.

The Tele Steel Guitar is reminiscent of Junior Brown’s Guit-Steel. The top neck is a guitar neck and the bottom-angled neck is a 10-string steel guitar

Cindy Cashdollar
with Skreemer

Possibly the most well known Melobar was the Skreemer. This is the one with a Flying Vee shape and an angled neck, designed to be played standing up. It was offered in a six or seven string version.

The Melobar X-10 is a 10-string Explorer shaped guitar that is made to be played in a standing position.

Smith Family Music made a Mosrite Melobar model that came in sunburst or white. This guitar was based on the Ventures guitar.

Walt Smith died in 1991. His wife, Mildred Smith, and son Ted Smith kept the company going. They built over 1000 instruments, including lap steels and Melobars.

A family business is a tough to run. I know since I ran one for 27 years. Profit is hard to come by. Good employees are hard to come by and great ones even harder.

Mildred Smith passed away, so it was up to Ted and his son Marc to seek some financial backing. Jim Frost of Black Canyon Guitars and an investment group from Sweet, Idaho became backers of Melobar.

However, it may have been too late. The factory they were leasing did not renew their lease. This forced the new owners to close up shop.

I have read that Jim Frost and Ted Smith attempted to resurrect Melobar in 2008 with a company called Hardway Manufacturing.

Ted Smith has entered into the world of sales and is promoting a book he has written about cold calling.

Melobar/Smith Family Music is no longer in business. But for a while they produced a truly unique and unusual guitar.

Update!  ere is a wonderful link that I have come across from Ted Smith.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Ovation Breadwinner and Deacon

The Kaman Factory
 In 1967 I recall seeing THE original Ovation roundback guitar number 006 at the Chicago NAMM show. This guitar was actually built in 1966 by Kaman engineers. As I recall it was very plain instrument. This was in the days when Kaman Company was just starting into the guitar business. 

Charles Kaman had attempted to purchase Martin.  When Fred Martin refused, Kaman started his own guitar manufacturer.

The companies main product was and still is helicopter parts and  equipment that needed precise engineering.

Charles Kaman (pronounced like Command without the D on the end) played guitar and had an old Martin hanging in his office. He saw the Martin as being a great instrument, but very delicate and prone to changes in the temperature and humidity.

Kaman’s goal was to create a guitar with the Martin’s tonal qualities that was durable.

By utilizing the same material that was used to build helicopter bodies, he fashioned a parabolic bowl to be used as the guitars back. He believed this would help to project the guitar’s sound. As a plus the back needed no bracing.
2 of Ovations original models

Skipping forward to 1972. Ovation guitars were by now part of the mainstream guitar market thanks to an array of artists that were using Ovations guitars.  Ovation’s designers were looking to the future and designed a line of solid body electric guitars and basses that utilized some of the features that were developed for the the flat top instruments.

Ovation Toronado with Hofner body

The company had imported some bodies from Hofner and added Ovation necks in the past to the Ovation electric guitars.

But the first two solid electric guitars Ovation created in house were called The Breadwinner and The Deacon.

The fellow that designed these instrument came up with a shape reminiscent of a battle axe.

He states that he worked at Ovation/Kaman in 1971 and was a commercial artist in the advertising and public relations department. Because of his artistic background Ovation’s chief engineer suggested he come up with a couple of sketches of solid body guitars. The concept he came up with was the Breadwinner/Deacon body design.

Shortly afterward Kaman had a plant wide layoff, so he left not knowing what had happened with his design. A few years later he was watching TV and saw David Cassidy playing a Breadwinner on a Partridge Family rerun. The totally blew him away. He was never at the plant long enough to see his design come to fruition.

He states his concept for the guitar was a medieval battle axe, based on the fact most guitar players refer to their instrument as “their axe.”

The deep cutaway on the lower bout was put there purposely to reach the high notes. The cutaway on the guitars end was an early ergonomic idea so the guitarist could rest the instrument on their thigh while playing, much like classical players.

He suggested making the body hollow with a honeycomb structure for added strength, maintaining the traditional Ovation neck and headstock shape and using Lyrachord for the back.

Ovation liked his design, but the honeycomb hollowed body was not feasible or cost effective. However they used the standard (for the time) Ovation neck and headstock and the Breadwinners solid mahogany body was coated in Lyrachord. This accounts for the fact that most 1972 Breadwinners still look like new.

click to enlarge
The Breadwinner neck was a two piece bolt-on affair made of Honduras bound mahogany topped with an ebony fretboard that had diamond-shaped dot inlays and 24 frets. Initially the twin pickups were single coil models, although they were large and appear to be humbuckers. In 1975 this was modified to include 12 pole double coil pickups that resembled mini-humbuckers were introduced. These were advertised to be 20db quieter than humbuckers.

The guitars bridge was made of brass. The bridge unit was adjustable in a way similar to a Stratocaster, however the individual saddles were made of nylon.

The bridge unit was surrounded by a black textured nylon cover/hand rest. The embossed back plate for the electronics was very classy looking, as was the neckplate.

click to see the texture
As I have mentioned, the Breadwinners textured body was covered in Lyrachord and was available in black or white. From 1972 to 1976 grey, tan, red and blue were also an option.

The instruments pickguards came in black, white, tortoise shell and paint swirl.

The guitars electronics featured a the usual volume and tone controls, a 3-way selector throw switch and a band elimination switch that cut the midrange.

The Breadwinner was THE first electric guitar equipped with active electronics. This was accomplished were provided by a FET (field effect transistor) preamp board in a pocket that was routed out of the guitars backside. This allowed the player to achieve a wide array of sounds. The preamp was powered by two 9 volt batteries. Behind the batteries on the preamp were 2 trim pots that adjusted the level of the preamp and phase switch.

The pickup switching was very unusual.  The first position, toward the neck, turned on the neck pickup.  The second position turned on the bridge pickup.
The third position, toward the bridge engaged the preamp.

Click to enlarge
The Breadwinner was offered in 3 different models. The Breadwinner has already been described.

The Deacon could best be described as a deluxe version of the Breadwinner. The pickguard on some, but not all Deacons was smaller. The Deacons body was available in natural sunburst, clear mahogany or clear red glossy finishes. The ivoroid bound neck had mother-of-pearl deluxe diamond shaped inlays.

Deacon with single coils
It was a classy looking instrument The third model was an oddity known as the LTD. The LTD had all the features of the Deacon, but the body had an additional cutaway on the upper bout.

Glenn Campbell was Ovations biggest endorser. From the early years of his TV variety show to the present, he still plays Ovations and he still uses a Breadwinner 12 string.

LTD with Double Coils
Roy Clarke also used a Breadwinner 12 string from time to time.  Paul Stanley of KISS and Jeff Lynn of ELO were also Breadwinner players. There are still a lot of owners that recognized the Breadwinner/Deacon as a great guitar. You will find no negative comments about this instrument.

Possibly due to the odd body shape, Ovation had little success with electric guitars. 

When the Klein guitar came out, Ovation proposed to file a lawsuit for patent violation, but their lack of success with the Breadwinner line caused them to back off. 

Klein electric
(Recently Ovation added and discontinued a wonderful solid body electric called the VXT Hybrid due to poor sales.)

The 1972 price guide for a Breadwinner listed it as $349 with hardshell case. These days they are selling for between $1500 and $2500,

Just recently Eastwood Guitars, which has become known for fine replica guitars, introduced The Breadwinner to its lineup.

Although the new version looks very similar to the original, there are some discrepancies. The headstock is different than the Ovation headstock which make sense. The neck is made of one piece of maple instead of two-piece Honduras mahogany. The pickups are mini-humbuckers, which were different than Ovations double coil pickups. The guitars bridge is not enclosed by the Ovation covering and the saddles are not nylon. Instead of a FET preamp and phaser, this model comes with active pickups wired to a much simpler preamp circuit.

click to enlarge

The Eastwood model has a single volume and tone potentiometer as did the original and comes with a 3-way switch to control the pickups. A second switch turns the preamp on or off. The guitar can be played in the active or non-active mode. It is offered in White or Black and with a hard tail bridge or with a tremolo. The suggested price is $899.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Adrian Legg's Ergonomic Guitar

For those unaware of British finger style guitarist Adrian Legg, he is a remarkable solo player able to coax incredibly fantastic music from his guitars six strings, with the aid of a bevy of effects, however mostly due to this man's talent.

I will start by stating Adrian developed problems with his back that cause him pain while playing guitar in concert. To alleviate this problem he has gone to great lengths to have an ergonomic guitar created. He elicited this task to U.K. luthier Bill Puplett, The instruments unique design keeps him from having to bend over the guitars body while seated and keeps his back straight.

Klein & Ovation
Legg’s ergonomic instrument looks somewhat like the Klein guitar or Ovation Breadwinner; however it is more of an acoustic-electric style guitar, while the aforementioned are strictly electric instruments.

The guitars body is made of two-piece swamp ash, with a cavity hollowed out before joining and then vented on the treble side cutaway.

Legg states this flared soundhole helps with the out of phase coupling of the guitars sound chamber and opens out the high-end harmonics the instrument produces.

The neck is made of two-piece black walnut with an ebony fingerboard. The acoustic bridge is made of walnut. The pick-ups are Graph Techs with a specially made Waffair Theene Dimarzio.

The sweeping upper bout provides plenty of right hand support. The lower boat indentation helps support the guitar neck at the proper angle, since Legg always plays in a seated position. The chambered body provides some acoustic properties, but mainly reduces the instruments weight.

The headstock is non-unique, except for the Scruggs style banjo. Bill Keith at the Beacon Banjo Company in Woodstock, NY, USA makes these. They allow Legg to change tunings quickly between or during songs.

Ibanez prototype made for Legg
On the rear side of each tuner are two tiny thumb wheels that allow the tuner to be tuned and de-tuned to a fixed position. On the headstocks front side are six levers that pull the strings to a tighter or looser position.

Ibanez prototype headstock
Since Legg is essentially a one-man show, he travels light with one guitar and a few pieces of electronic gear. His Puplett guitar, which he calls, Bill, is small enough to travel in the overhead bin of a Boeing 777.

As his guitar is not an acoustic guitar, Legg states this eliminates sound problems that amplification can cause with acoustic instruments.

Legg playing is a mix an alternating-bass style with harmonics, banjo-peg retuning and single or double-string bending. Often he will play a piece entirely in arpeggios similar to a classical guitar style. He makes extensive use of altered tunings and capos. The Keith tuners make this style easier for him.

One of Legg’s favorite tunings is D-A-D-G-A-D. This is a tuning that is used extensively in Celtic music. Legg tells a story about playing at a Canadian folk festival.

John Renbourn, a British folk guitarist that was also at the festival said that Davey Graham, another British folk musician had traveled to Morocco and hung out with some of the local Oud players. The only way he could play music with them was to tune his guitar to DADGAD. Graham brought this tuning back to the U.K. and influenced a number of British and American folk musicians, including Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch and Jimmy Page. This tuning has been popular ever since.

Legg’s current effects include a Roland VG-88 guitar synthesizer-controller coupled with a Roland GR-33 hex pickup and 2 Roland JV-1010 guitar synthesizer units. He prefers the JV-1010 sounds better than those within the VG-88. The VG-88 uses hex modeling instead of MIDI. This is important to Legg since MIDI converts the guitars sound to MIDI information to play the synth, while Hex models the guitars sound to create new sounds.

VG-88 with Hex Pickup

For travel Legg had a velcro-topped board built that could break down in 3 sections to enable a setup that could be easily carried in a small package.

Early on in Adrian Legg’s career he was known for his relationship with Ovation Guitars.

He extensively played a modified Ovation Adamas with a super-shallow body and extra light strings to assist in the steel guitar-like bends that are common in his songs.

This guitar was also equipped with a set of Keith banjo tuners to accomodate Legg’s unusual tunings and string bends. The guitars saddle was equipped with the Ovation transducer that ran through the on-board Ovation Optima preamp and then to a Fishman parametric direct input equalizer. The Fishman allowed the guitar to change to low impedance, thus filtering out feedback. During that time frame Legg employed a Zoom 9000 unit for reverb and chorus and to split his signal from mono to stereo.

The signals ran to a Trace Elliot TA-50 acoustic guitar amp (Ovation owned Trace Elliot at the time) for a stage monitor and then went to the house system.

Although Legg has stated in the past how much he appreciated the Ovation connection, his chronic back problems have since worsened with age. Therefore it is difficult for him to play the Adamas in concert. Hence he relies on the Puplett guitar.

Adrian Legg is not only an incredible guitarist, but an author of numerous guitar books and manuals. He has written columns for several guitar-based magazines. In the past he was a guitar/amp technician and designed passive circuits for Vox guitars and was involved in the design and prototype Trace Elliot Acoustic amplifiers.

He was also an instructor at the Guitar Institute of Technology and has shared his playing with students on DVD’s and videos.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Supro Thunderbolt

Imagine a Fender Pro Jr. with a 15" Jensen speaker.  But for the power tubes, that would describe the Supro Thunderbolt.

The Valco Cmpany in Chicago made Supro amplifiers. The Supro Thunderbolt model was introduced in late 1964 as a bass guitar amp. This amplifier was a very simple design having only a volume and tone control and a single 15-inch Jensen speaker.

The tube compliment included 2 RCA 6L6CG power tubes, 2 - 12AX7 preamp tubes with one possibly being used as a phase inverter and 1 5U4 rectifier tube.

The amplifier chasis was housed in the bottom of an open backed cabinet with the two control knobs mounted on the amplifiers faceplate.

For those not familiar with the Valco Company, a merger of the National Guitar Company and the Dobro Guitar Company formed it in 1942 by three company principals, Victor Smith, Al Frost and Louis Dopyera.

The company started manufacturing Hawaiian guitars and amplifiers under its own name and as a subcontractor for Oahu, Harmony, Airline, Kay, National, and Gretsch. Supro was their house brand name.

By the late 1960’s The Valco Company had become roughly the third-largest amplifier manufacturer in the United States. In 1964 Valco introduced the Thunderbolt Bass Amplifier (model S6420.

The Thunderbolt came covered in Supros traditional blue ‘rhino hide’ tolex with horizontally striped grey grill cloth. In 1967, black tolex replaced the blue rhino hide to keep more in line with Fender.

The amp was marketed as a bass amplifier, but guitarists noticed its great sound. My good friend Doug Abbott played his bass through a borrowed Thunderbolt one at a gig we did around 1967. As a bass amp, the Thunderbolt was not at all impressive. It distorted like crazy when turned up.

The amp just did not have enough power for those low frequency bass notes. Bass players of the day complained. Not only did the speaker and tubes distort, the baffle board that held the massive speaker fluttered.

Note the brace on baffle
Valco/Supro attempted a quick fix by adding a wooden brace across the speaker hole and another brace on the baffle board’s backside. Next Valco also eliminated the rectifier tube in favor of a solid-state rectifier. These improved the amp’s performance as a bass amplifier somewhat.

But bass players were not at all satisfied with this Supro amp.

However, as a guitar amp, the Thunderbolt was a something else. That raw tube distortion combined with the heavy bottom of the Jensen 15 sounded huge.

Guitarists had earlier noticed the Thunderbolt. Jimi Hendrix used one early on, when he was just a guitarist in various bands. Jimmy Page used one on early Led Zeppelin recordings.

Airline was Montgomery Wards brand name for musical instruments. Valco created a similar amplifier for them known as model 62-9020A, which is the same circuit as the famed Supro Thunderbolt.

Airline "Thunderbolt" 60-9020A
Outside the amplifier was different in appearance, sporting dark brown grill cloth with a fancy logo. On the inside was the same Thunderbolt amplifier.

By 1967, Valco merged with Kay. However, this was end of the line for Valco.

The merged company went out of business in 1968.

Now the Supro brand name has been revived.

In the mid 2000’s former Fender amp designer, Bruce Zinky left that organization and started his own company. His first hit was a small practice amp called The Smokey, which still is available with a plastic housing or housed in and empty cardboard cigarette pack with a tiny speaker poking out of the center.

Zinky went on to produce high quality boutique amplifiers under his name. Recently Zinky acquired the rights to the Supro name and is now producing high quality updated replicas of former Supro amplifiers and guitars.

Zinky Electronics

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Gibson J-160E - The Beatles Guitar

The Gibson J-160E is one of the first ever acoustic-electric guitar models. The first Gibson electric acoustic is attributed to Lloyd Loar although Gibson thought it was a bad idea at the time.

Loar had experimented with acoustic electric guitars back in the 1920’s when he worked at Gibson and later with his own company, Vivi-tone.

Most of us have probably played acoustic guitar into a microphone. This works great in a studio setting as it picks up the guitars natural sounds. However in live performance, it can be a problem.

The microphone may pick up other instrument sounds leaking into the mic. Your guitar may bump the mic stand resulting in a non-pleasing sound and the soundman being knocked off his stool.

Plus your movement is restricted. You have to stand directly in front of the microphone.

In 1951 Gibson was aware of these issues and to solve the problem created a guitar called the CF-100E. This guitar was a small bodied instrument with an ingenious single pickup at the base of the fretboard.

This instrument bore a resemblence to the J-160e, except for it’s smaller size and Florentine cutaway. The neck joined the body at the 14th fret on the bass side. It was also offered without a pickup as the CF-100.

In 1954 Gibson came up with a second acoustic-electric model which was deemed the J-160E. This was a slope-shouldered Jumbo bodied instrument.
The constuction of this guitar was a departure from Gibsons typical process. First of all, plywood was used for most of the guitars body. Instead of using X-bracing which allows the sound board (guitars top) to vibrate more freely, Gibson utilized ladder-bracing.

Ladder bracing was used on some classical guitars and on budget guitars, such as Stella.

Perhaps this may have been to emphasise the pickup or to deaden the acoustic sound to prevent body vibration being picked up. Who knows? Even with the poor quality tone the vintage j-160e's are still quite collectible.

The guitar had an adjustable bridge allowing the saddle to be raised or lowered by screws on opposing sides of the rosewood bridge. The pickup was a single coil P-90 without a cover. The volume and tone controls were placed on the lower bout of the guitars top. Despite the cool looking outer appearance, there were many better sounding Gibson acoustics available.

It  chosen by mid 1960's artists for it ability to be amplified. Not only was this the guitar of choice for The Beatles, but also for Peter and Gordon and Chad and Jeremy.

The 1954 model had a 16-inch wide body. The rosewood fretboard came with trapezoid inlays. Only the top was solid and made of spruce. The back and sides were made of laminated mahogany.

The neck had 19 frets and joined the body at the 15th fret. This is interesting since most often dreadnaught style guitars join the body at the 14th fret. My thought is this was due to the pickup placement.

On the headstock overlay, there was a crown inlay. The guitars pickguard was fashioned in Gibson’s teardrop pre war style. Gibson only offered this model with a sunburst finish.

The following year another fret was added, but the guitars top was now made of laminated spruce.

In 1969, Gibson revamped the model to a square-shouldered dreadnaught style and the bridge saddle was fixed. Another change occurred in 1972 when the pickguard was altered to three-point style. The trapezoidal inlays were changed to small block inlays that same year.

In 1979, the J-160E was discontinued.

Sometime in 1962, George Harrison and John Lennon each purchased a J-160E’s at the same time at Rushworth’s Music Store in Whitechapel, Liverpool. Since John did not have enough money to afford his guitar, he asked Brian Epstein,the Beatles manager, to co-sign for the purchase.

In the end Epstein paid for both John and George's guitars. These guitars were often used early in The Beatles career both on stage, in the studio and in the Beatles movies.

In 1967, Lennon decided to have an artist paint his J-160E with a psychedelic scene. Then in 1969 for whatever reason, he decided to strip the paint on the guitar and give it a natural finish.

Prior to being in the Beatles, Lennon attended art school in Liverpool. If you did not know it, he was a compulsive doodler. (Pick up a copy of his books, In His Own Right and Spaniard in the Works to see some of his doodles.)

Lennon decided he would doodle caricatures of him and Yoko on the guitar during the time he and his wife were protesting the Viet Nam War by holding a Bed-In. So Lennon was recognized for the sunburst J-160E and the natural finished model.

In 1991, Gibson reintroduced the 160E. Major changes were made to the instruments design. It now had a solid spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides. The single coil P-100 pickup was replaced with a P-100 stacked coil humbucking pickup. The bridge saddle was fixed. Once again, Gibson only offered a sunburst finish. These instruments were produced through 1997.

Gibson reintroduced the J-160E offering it in a standard model and a John Lennon Peace model, based on the stripped finish he used during the Bed-In days of 1969. These were made in Gibson's Montana facility.

Gibson also design a non-domestically manufactured Epiphone model which is known as the EJ-160E John Lennon Signature model. This guitar is currently manufactured in Indonesia.

There are some minor changes in this model. The scale is 25.5 inches opposed to the original 24.75 inch original and the knob placement is slightly different. Prior to this Epiphone replica, the Epiphone EJ-160E was manufactured in Korea.

I don't know about the bracing on this instrument. The top, back and sides are made of laminate wood and the P-100 pickup is a single coil model.

I have already stated, Gibson currently manufactures the J-160E standard model. The standard sunburst sells for $2700. These instruments are similar to the 1990's run, being entirely made of solid wood having X-bracing and a stacked P-100 humbuckers. The Lennon Peace standard model is supposedly offered in a natural finish and sells for $3250. However I have not run across any stores stocking this model.

This year a special run of the Peace models are offered to celebrate the 70th anniversary of John’s birth date. In addition to the Sunburst model, there is an all white model, which was commissioned by Yoko Ono and The Peace model with one of John’s famous doodle on the lower bout.

These reproductions are limited to 70 guitars of each model with the exception of the sunburst model J-160E VS (vintage sunburst) of which 500 units will be produced.

The Lennon 70th birthday J-160E are based on the 1960's design and feature laminated Sitka Spruce Top, historically correct Gibson ladder bracing patterns and a Gibson Authentic single coil P-90 Pickup.

John Lennon signature is transcribed in Mother of Pearl on headstock. Lennons date of birth is engraved on the 12th fret trapezoidal inlay. The 70th guitar of the Imagine series will come with Lennon’s signature in Abalone.

The 70 Imagine guitars and the 70 Museum guitars (named because the Bed-In guitar is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) both come with 70th anniversary certificates personally signed by Yoko Ono.

Anyone interested in this special run of guitars might want to dig deep into their wallet. The 70th Anniversay J-160E VS retails for $4728.00 US dollars. However the Imagine will set you back $10,748 and the Museum retails for $15,048