Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How You Can Transform a 1956 Fender Stratocaster into a Hello Kitty Strat

Today, my fine people I will show you how you can take a vintage 1956 Fender Stratocaster and update it to a more contemporary 21st Century Hello Kitty® Strat.  It's much easier than it sounds.  Just follow along.

First you will need to procure a vintage 1956 Fender Strat complete with original tweed case.  They are available, just check out eBay.

Remove the neck, then sand the body down to the bare wood.  Nice lookin' wood, huh?  Don't forget to sand the headstock and neck to get out those darn aged-in finger marks.

Next, get a couple cans of Shell Pink spray paint. Krylon® glossy ought to do the trick. Hang the body up and spray it until it looks good.

There are a number of companies that supply guitar parts, such as Musician's Pal, and Guitar Parts-R-Us where you can get a pre-wired Hello Kitty pickguard.  Buy one. Ditch those old original parts, but hang on to one potentiometer and knob. You're going to need them.

For the final touch, get a Shocking Pink Sharpie permanent marker and in your best cursive hand, write Hello Kitty on the back of the body.

Put it together and what have you got?  Hello Kitty!  And it looks great!

Next week, we will learn how to take a Pre-war Martin D-28 and turn it into a Hello Kitty acoustic.

By the way, it's April Fools Day!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Ampeg Bass Amplifiers

1965 B-15N

I have heard it said that Ampeg amplifiers were for East Coast players and Fender Amps were for West Coast players.  I think that was due to the union influence on New York studio players.
Back in the day, New York union session players had to hire “cartage” companies to deliver their gear to a studio. To cut down on luggage, some of those recording studios kept amplifiers on hand.   Usually these were Ampegs.

I cannot recall if it was Tommy Tedesco or Vinnie Bell that wrote about a studio that rented out its Ampeg amplifier to players.  The off-on switch was replaced with a key.  It was pay-to-play back then.

Ampeg had its start in 1946 by bass player named Everett Hull and his partner, Stanley Michaels.  Hull had designed a transducer pickup for a bass fiddle that fit inside the instrument by means of the floor peg.  What else would you call this but Amplified peg or Ampeg? 

Everett Hull with
Baby Bass
By 1960, Hull was the sole owner. He added a small version of an upright bass originally made by a company called Zorko to the Ampeg lineup. The instrument was made of fiberglass and named the Baby Bass. The next step would be to design an amplifier for the bass & bass pickup.  

Hull enlisted an electronic designer named Oliver Jessup aka Jess Oliver.  Oliver designed an amp that took its queue from a feature on a sewing machine.  Oliver called this amp the Port-o-flex.  Its enclosed speaker cabinet held either a 12” or 15” speaker.  Oliver designed a special double-baffle porting system for the cabinet to give it a special sound.  The amplifier unit or “head” was stored upside down in the amplifiers top.  The amplifier was attached to a vinyl-covered board that matched the vinyl covering of the amplifier and fit neatly into the cabinet, which was fastened in place.  When it came time the player would lift the amp unit out and turn it right side up.

The first model was the B-15.  This amplifier had a 15” speaker and a whopping 25 watts.  Later models had 30 watts. A smaller version called the SB-12 came with a 12" speaker.

One of the amplifier issues of the day was overheating due to the tubes, especially with enclosed combo amps.  Oliver solved this problem by housing the electronics in a perforated metal housing, that protected the tubes and transformers (and the musician from electrical shock), but it also allowed the tubes to be exposed. 

Inside Cabinet
The B-15 replaced the B-15N in 1961 and then the B-15NB, which had a solid-state rectifier instead of a tube rectifier. Nineteen Sixty-four brought about another change, when the tube rectifier was brought back, but the amp used a printed circuit board, now known as the B-15NC.

In 1965, Ampeg used a single baffle board and changed the tubes to fixed bias.

SB-12 with One Channel
The amps all used twin 6L6 power tubes.  They came with two channels, with volume, treble, and bass controls for each.   The Ampeg Portoflex was the go-to bass amp of its day, but it sounded great with guitar.

Though the power rating seems small, especially for a bass amp by today’s standards, the amp was not designed for rock players.  Musicians in the 1960’s were discouraged from turning the volume up to the point of distortion.  

Clean was the by-word of the day.  The aforementioned Vinnie Bell and Tommy Tedesco used the Portoflex for recording in those days as did Joe Pass.

Within a few years such well-known designers such as Dan Armstrong, and Dennis Kager joined Ampeg.  

But, it was Roger Cox, Bill Hughes and Armstrong that designed the biggest amplifier of the day called the SVT, for super vacuum tubes.  

This beast came with twin speaker cabinets and a 300-watt amplifier that was 100 watts louder than a Marshall

The SVT amp unit alone weighed in at 95 pounds.  Each cabinet contained eight 10” bass speakers. Although some cabs came with four 12's.

As the years went on, Ampeg changed hands several times through its history and finally St. Louis Music acquired ownership in 1986.  This is the company that brought us Electra guitars and Yairi-Alvarez acoustic guitars and many, many other products.  

St. Louis Music updated some of the amplifier line, such as the Reverb rocket, the Jet and even the Portoflex.  They also created the V series of bass amplifiers, based on the SVT. These amps sold throughout the 1980's up through the early part of this century.   At some point St. Louis Music quietly closed Ampeg production.

Barry Gordy's Hitsville USA studio in Detroit must of had an Ampeg B-15 as a studio amp.  The clip below has the bass sound of every Motown hit.

Ampeg has just introduced a 2011 version of the B-15N with two unique channels.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dean Guitars

In 1976 Dean B Zelinsky was just a 17-year-old kid living in Chicago when he decided he was going to build guitars based on famous existing models. However, he was going to build them better and in more of a style that rock and heavy metal players would like.

He started his company in 1977 with his first model was based on the Gibson Flying Vee.

Though the body was in the Vee style, the headstock looked like a V turned the opposite way.  The neck had a slight V shape, the instrument was well balanced, and the tone was exquisite.

Zelinsky had wandered into the realm of giant manufacturers, such as Fender and Gibson, especially Gibson.

The next Dean guitar was based on the Gibson Explorer, but it bore the V shaped headstock that are now Dean trademarks. This headstock was similar to some artist conceptions of the illusive Gibson Modernes.  Zelinsky named this model the Z after its shape.  

He then built a hybrid guitar, based on an original design and called it the ML.  The bottom of the guitar had the Vee shape and the top had the Explorer or Zee shape.  Of course, it came with the obligatory V headstock with the winged Dean logo.

Not content to make just guitars, Zelinsky built basses using the same body designs. 

In the early 1980’s, Dean built a model that he called The Cadillac.  This was somewhere between a Les Paul and an Explorer.

The pickups, potentiometers, and hardware on Dean Guitars were the finest.  By advertising and good public relations, Zelinsky soon had a following. 

Leslie West of Mountain played a Dean. Rusty Cooley had Dean create a model based on his specifications. Dusty Hill from ZZ Top played a Dean Bass, along with the Reverend Billy Gibbs playing a Dean guitar.  Vinnie Moore and Tommy Bolin played Dean Guitars, as did Dave Mustaine and Michael Schenker.  

However, the name most associated with Dean Guitars was Dimebag Darrell Abbott.  Dimebag had Dean design a couple of special guitars both dubbed the Razorback,  based on the ML, but with more points.

The Razorback V was much like the Dean Vee, but also with more points.

After ten years of building guitars, Zelinsky sold his company to Oscar Medeiros who ran it through the 1980’s and 90’s.  Medeiros made some improvements to the instrument such as a neck through the body.

Medeiros sold the business in 1997 to a Tampa Florida based company called Armadillo Enterprises run by Elliot Rubinson (who is quite a player in his own right.)  Armadillo/Rubinson sought out Zelinsky’s help and brought him on board.  

By now Dean was outsourcing the majority of its instruments to Korea.  Zelinsky was in charge of guitars built in the United States

He stayed with the company until 2008 when he departed from Armadillo due to creative differences.

Today Dean Guitars builds too many models and styles to mention them all.  Angelo Batio, who is said to be the fastest guitarist in the world has his own double-neck model, with the necks at opposite ends of the guitar.  Bret Michaels was recently signed as a Dean endorser.

By 2007 Dean was manufacturing and winding its own pickups in the USA.  They are also offering Korean manufactured instruments of good quality and a great price.

In 2008, Dean B Zelinsky has started his own new company called DBZ guitars.  This is a joint ownership with his partners, Jeff Diamant, who owns Diamond Amplification and Terry Martin

DBZ is a Houston, Texas based company. They maintain a custom shop in Chicago where Zelinsky still resides.  Dean Zelinsky is in charge of the Custom Shop.

Armadillo Enterprises originally known as Armadillo Case Company, started out building heavy-duty guitar and musical instrument flight cases.  The company has branched out to become a large manufacturing-warehouse center in Tampa from which it distributes Dean electric guitars and Dean acoustic guitars as well as other product lines.

Armadillo's acoustic line consists of low and high-end affordable instruments.  Armadillo has recently taken distributorship of  Luna Guitars, Nord and Oberheim keyboards, and DDrums.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Paul McCartney's Epiphone Texan

The Epiphone Texan started out as the Epiphone model FT-79 flat top guitar, which the company offered as early as 1942.  This model was more of a square-shouldered instrument in the dreadnaught guitar tradition.  
Through the years when the Stathopoulo family owned Epiphone, there was a continuous ongoing rivalry with Gibson.  This culminated after the war years. The family business fell on hard times and the brothers, Epaminondas (known as Epi) and Orpheus (called Orphie) were not getting along with each other.  

By 1957 Epi had passed away and the company was falling on hard times. Orphie offered the Epiphone business for sale to Gibson.
These were the golden years when Gibson was operating out of Kalamazoo.  

Gibson set about creating three product lines.  Gibson, of course, was the star of the line.  

Epiphone was now for the budget conscious customer and Kalamazoo was the companies’ basic, no-frills line.  Things have changed since the original Gibson made Epiphones were produced.  Now Epiphone is Gibsons offshore brand name and Kalamazoo is only a memory mentioned in a John Fogarty song.
For a while, Epiphone products were offered to music dealers that wanted to get their foot in the door for a Gibson franchise.  

Although it was intended as a cost alternative to Gibson, the Epiphone guitars were very well made and comparable to Gibson instruments.

The Beatles favored Epiphones.  Paul McCartney purchased his 1964 FT-79 Texan in 1965.  It was a right-handed model, which he flipped over. He learned to play with the strings upside down or right side up.  In photos, it appears the nut and bridge were reversed to accommodate a left-handed player.

When Gibson took the reigns, the Texan  remained in their catalogue until 1970.

Since its inception, the FT-79 has gone through a number of changes.  The body of the original model was smaller, more square shouldered and comparable to a Guild F-47. The headstock was similar, but the Epiphone headstock logo was the metallic version with box type. 
When Gibson started making the FT-79, in 1958, they changed this guitar to a shape that was very similar to the Gibson J-45/J-50, with its larger body and sloped-shoulders. The guitar now named the Texan instead of the FT-79 and was essentially the budget model of the Gibson J-45.  

1964 Texan
However, there were some key differences. The Texan had a 25.5” neck and the J-45 had a 24.75” neck. The Epiphone retained the Epi-style headstock shape, although the letters were now in cursive script. The fingerboard on the Texan had parallelogram inlays. The pick guard retained the original Epiphone shape, with a “slashed C” or epsilon added to the guard and truss rod cover.

Gibson originally used white buttons on the tuner knobs, but changed them to metal in 1967. In 1962, an adjustable bridge was added to the guitar.  

1967 also brought a change in the body shape, making it square-shouldered once again.
In 1970, the Texan ended its run. That is until 1972, when production shifted to Japan for some of Gibson’s budget models. There a 12-string version was put into production.
It was not until 2006 when a Paul McCartney signature version was offered for sale.  This was a limited run of 250 guitars made in Bozeman Montana, all signed by Paul.  

A similar offshore version called the Epiphone Elitist was manufactured for Gibson at the Matsomuka factory.  This was a run of 1964 guitars under the McCartney signature.  1964 represented the year his instrument was created. These instruments were not signed.
A McCartney inspired Texan was developed and sold in 2009.  This time manufacturing took place in China and the guitar came with a built-in piezo pick-up and preamp.
In May of 1976, Paul McCartney and Wings played a concert in Detroit at the Red Wings Stadium.  The story goes that he either was given a Detroit Red Wings decal or found one in the dressing room. McCartney stuck in on the Texans top where it remains to this day.
Among other songs, Yesterday was played on McCartney’s Texan.  Other artists that utilized a Texan include Elvis, Kurt Cobain, Graham Nash, and others.

Jimi Hendrix' F-79

One owned by Jimi Hendrix was auctioned in 2010.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Squier '51 Guitar

In 2004, the Fender Musical Instrument Company came out with a guitar that was reasonably priced (150 U.S dollars), superbly designed, and was an instant hit.  

This guitar sold under the Squier brand name and was named the Squier ’51. Although the '51 was a guitar, the one piece pickguard and chrome control plate appeared to be taken right off of a 1951 Precision Bass design, hence the name.

This guitar was a true mutant.  

The neck and headstock resembled a Fender Telecaster and the body resembled a Stratocaster.  It was equipped with a slanted single coil Strat-style pickup in the neck position, much like the lay out of a Duo-Sonic. A hot humbucker graced the bridge position.  The bridge was similar to what you would find on a hard-tail Stratocaster, except the strings loaded in the rear of the unit instead of through the body.  

The C-shaped neck was made of one-piece maple topped with medium-jumbo frets. Although some of these instruments were made using a two-piece neck with a maple cap for the fretboard. And a few came with a rosewood fretboard. The neck radius was 9.5” had a 25.5” scale typical of what one finds on most Fender guitars.

The guitars body was made of basswood.

The controls were unique. The first knob controlled not just the volume, but its push-pull function acted as a coil-splitter for the humbucking pickup.  The bottom knob was a three way rotary switch that controlled the pickup combinations.

Squier offered the ’51 in three colours: Black, Two-tone Sunburst, both with white pickguards and Blonde with a black pickguard.  However, the early versions of the Blonde model came with a white pickguard.

The Squier ’51 was available for a short time. Production started late in 2004 and ended in January of 2007.  

The guitar was a bargain at $150.  At the end of the run, Fender deeply discounted these to $99 at most chains and some were selling them for even  less money.

Like all guitars, the short production period caused the value to increase when the supply was exhausted.  Although still inexpensive by most standards, these are commanding $200 and up.

One of the aspects that has made this guitar so popular is the fact players can easily modify the guitar to meet their own specifications.  Most folks that would not hack up a Strat or a Tele do not mind making changes to this bargain instrument.  There are pages on the internet devoted to modifications players have made on their ’51. 

This is a guitar that has an almost cult following and one that deserves to be reissued, perhaps under the Fender label.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

James Taylor's Gibson J-50 - J-45 with Natural Finish

"Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end..."

Taylors J-50 with
no pickguard
James Taylor was probably around 18 or 19 years old when he penned the lyrics for his 1970 hit, Fire and Rain. The  Massachusetts born Taylor was living in London when he brought some demo tapes to Peter Asher. At the time Asher was the record producer for the Beatles' Apple label and formerly a recording star in his own right with Peter and Gordon.

During these early years Taylor relied on a Gibson J-50 guitar. Many of his most famous hits featured this instrument.

The Gibson J-50 is the natural top version of Gibson's J-45 model. The  Gibson J-45 was introduced in 1942 and as many Gibson guitars, its model number reflected its original price, which was $45.

This guitar was designed to compete with Martin's dreadnought - D series flat top guitars. Where Martin's model featured squared shoulders, this Gibson model was more sloped and rounded.

Gibson J-45

The J-45 was an updated version of Gibson's J-35 1930's guitar. Gibson had changed the bracing in the J-45 by using 1" struts to strengthen it and updated the neck to a more rounded shape, though some early models have a slight V shape. All of the J-35 neck were V shaped. This was common in older instruments to prevent the neck from warping.

The logo on the J-45 and J-50 was a Gibson decal, where the J-35 logo was silk-screen on the headstock. Both featured the Gibson motto, "Only A Gibson Is Good Enough" until 1946, when the motto was removed. The logo was script style through 1948 when it became the more familiar block style lettering.

The J-45 featured mother of pearl position markers on its rosewood fretboard.

The guitars top was made of solid red spruce, which was updated to Adirondack spruce in 1943. Some early examples had mahogany tops, as spruce was restricted to building airplanes during WWII.

The back and sides were solid mahogany, although some earlier models featured laminated backs and sides. Later models featured a black strip in the center of the back between the two book-matched sides. Earlier models did not have this embellishment.

The necks on the original J-45's were made of mahogany, but within a year changed to maple with strips of walnut.

The necks were huge due to the fact this was a war year guitar and did not have a truss rod, as metal was scarce and used only for the war effort. The guitars laminated maple and walnut neck gave it added strength. By 1945 the neck was once again being made of mahogany.

The strip style tuners were made by Kluson.

The neck block on the first models was made of poplar and beveled. Gibson soon made them of mahogany which was not beveled.

The rosette was simple multi layered binding. The binding around the top consisted of seven layers, while the back was only one layer. The unbound neck featured 19 frets.

The bridge appears to be rosewood and originally was rectangular with black pins. In 1950 this was changed to a belly style bridge and the pins were now white.

In 1947 Gibson introduced the J-50, at a higher price. The J-45 sunburst model could hide blemishes in the spruce top, but a natural top needed to be perfect. Because of the scarcity of spruce during the war years, it was all but impossible to find perfect spruce.

By 1950 the neck featured 20 frets.

In 1956 Gibson added an adjustable bridge feature as an option. In 1961 it became standard. This was featured on other Gibson models as well. Many players believe this bridge literally killed the tone from the guitars.

The original pick guards were made of celluloid tortoise shell material and the shape has changed slightly during the years. In 1955 they were slightly larger.

In 1963 the pick guards were made using an injected molding technique and were much thinner. For reasons unknown, in 1968 the pick guards were screwed into the top instead of being glued.

1969 J-45
In 1969 the J-45 and J-50 changed to a square shouldered shape. The J-45 and J-50 models were discontinued in 1982. Gibson made another run in 1984 for a year. 1984 was the year that Gibson left Kalamazoo and opened up shop in Nashville Tennessee and Bozeman Montana. The J-45/J-50 was again in production in 1990 through 1995. Then Gibson re-introduced the guitars again in 1999 and they are currently in production, although the street price is no longer $45. A new sunburst Gibson J-45 will set you back 2,400 US dollars. It is available by special order in a natural finish for the same price, but is no longer called the J-50, but the J-45 natural finish.  The current models come with a L.R. Baggs acoustic pickup.

I'd like to think that much of James Taylor's sound came from his J-50, but like most players, his sound comes from his personal style of playing. His finger style playing method approached the guitar like it was a piano by using his thumb for the bass keys and his fingers for the treble.

Taylor has retired the J-50 and now favors guitars made by luthier James Olson.

One other notable J-50 player was Bob Dylan.