Monday, November 30, 2009

The LaBaye 2X4

The unusual La Baye 2x4 guitars can be attributed to Dan Helland. Helland started out as a guitarist and guitar teacher in Green Bay, Wisconsin music store known as Henri's Music. Through his connections at the music retailer, Helland was able to get a job with the Holman-Woodell factory in Neodesha, Kansas that was producing guitars.

One of the owners named Holman was formerly employed by the Wurlitzer Music Company prior to starting his own business. So the company had this connection when Wurlitzer decided to make the jump into guitar production. This was the mid 1960’s.

Wurlitzer Guitar
In November of 1965 Holman-Woodell was producing a line of stereo electric guitars. These two pickup guitars were designed to have on pickup go to a channel and the other went to a separate channel. Shortly after this they signed a deal to produce guitars under the Wurlitzer brand name.

Because of flawed paint jobs, the Holman-Wurlitzer line only lasted about a year before Wurlitzer pulled the plug on the deal. Despite the bad paint, the guitars were well made.

The pickups, called Sensitones, resembled pickups found on Kapa guitars, but were made by Holman. (Kapa imported all of their parts from Germany and their pickups were from Hofner.)

After the Wurlitzer deal went south, Helland built the LaBaye 2x4. Helland was from Green Bay, hence the name. Perhaps he was thinking of Les Paul’s Log when he designed this unique instrument.

Some unusual features are the thumbwheel potentiometers on the upper side of the guitar that control volume and tone. These are similar to the ones found on Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars. The vibrato is based on a Bigsby design, but was made by Holman. The one puzzling feature is the placement of the toggle switch. It is on the bottom bout.

The guitar featured the Sensitone pickups.

There were approximately 45 LaBaye 2x4’s manufactured. The models were identified as Six, Twelve and Four, which was the bass version.

These are unique instruments that appear in most vintage guitar books, but due to the playability factor or lack of, they are not highly sought after.

This is the only video I could find of someone playing a LaBaye 2X4 Guitar.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Musicvox Space Ranger

Franz Liszt
When I first got on the internet there was a service called Liszt that had a compilation of discussion groups. One of these was Alt.Guitar. I believe Liszt eventually was acquired by Yahoo. In those days you would be surprised who read the comments and responded.

Around this same time a small guitar manufacturer named Musicvox was advertising in various music publication. As I recall this was around the year 2000. Musicvox had come up with this bizarre asymmetrical guitar they called The Spaceranger.

An "excited" Les Paul
Pictures are sometimes worth maybe not a thousand words, but at least a descriptive paragraph For that purpose I offer this picture. On Alt.Guitar discussion group we were talking about the Spaceranger and I commented that it looked sort of like a Gibson Les Paul with an erection.

A few days later the head of Musicvox, Matt Eichen, emailed me offline saying that he got quite a laugh at my description.

1997-98 model 
By looking carefully at this unusual guitar, you can tell it is a well made instrument. I'm sure it fits the bill for some music genre.

Not really Al DiMeola

I just don't see Brad Paisley or Al DiMeola using one of these babies anytime soon.

The Spaceranger comes in a variety of colors. All the guitars are six string and have either PAF single coil or Humbucking pickups.

Black Stripe Pickup
The company also offers a pickup they call blackstripe, but it sort of resembles the toaster style pickups of those guitars made by a closely held California guitar manufacturer.

Musicvox 12 string bass

Musicvox also manufacturers a line of equally odd looking bass guitars including a 12 string bass. Not only is the body totally bizarre, so is the headstock. It is sort of Gibson meets Vox and gets run over by a steamroller. Except for the website the Musicvox company no longer advertises. The sell direct to the consumer.

Musicvox 12 string

I'm not certain their guitars are still in production. However I salute the Musicvox Spaceranger and it's cousin, the Musicvox Space Cadet as Unique Guitars.



Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Guitars that Never Were

There are two guitars that were marketed and perhaps prototypes were produced, but they were never put into production.

In 1966 my good friend Stew Williams was able to get a couple of passes to the Chicago NAMM exhibit. He took me with him and we had a great time. It was like two kids in a candy store. As a matter of fact we were 14 year old kids.

One of the things I came away with was a copy of the 1966 Fender catalogue. Within it’s pages was the most unusual guitar that I had ever seen. Fender called it The Marauder.

It’s outward appearance was somewhat similar to the body style of Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar, although the lower bout was more pronounced. The vibrato tailpiece was the same as the one commonly found on a Stratocaster. The amazing thing was the lack of any visible pickups.

The description within this 1966 catalogue stated there were four pickups that were hidden beneath the guitars pickguard. At the time it was unbelievable for the knowledge we had of pickups during those years was that the magnetic pole pieces needed to be somewhere near the strings to pickup the vibrations. Also at the time the only four pickup guitars were those coming out of Japan such as the Teisco del Ray guitars.

The Jazzmaster was introduced in 1959. Three years later the short scaled Jaguar was created. Between 1965 and 1966 Fender supposedly was producing prototypes of the Marauder. It is very possible Fender, in anticipation of marketing the Marauder they produced some non-working guitars for the photo shoot.

We know that later on Fender actually produced a variant of the Marauder. This guitar had 3 Jaguar style pickups arranged in Stratocaster fashion. It also had seven switches and four knobs. Two of the knobs were roller type similar to those found on the Jazzmaster and Jaguar for the rhythm pickup preset.

Fender historians say that only eight Marauders were every produced and those were only prototypes that were not for sale. Four of the guitars had slanted frets. a slightly modified body style was used on the Fender VII. And it is said that Fender’s Custom Shop did produce a Fender 12 string Marauder.

A replica of a Fender Marauder

Ironically during the Norlin era, Gibson produced and marketed a guitar called The Marauder.

Gibson has a similar tale concerning it's guitar, the Moderne. In 1957 Ted McCarty of Gibson came up with 3 radically different guitars than Gibson had ever produced.

These were the days of satellites, rockets and cars with big fins. So McCarty came up with the Flying Vee, The Explorer and The Moderne.

All instruments were very similar in features and electronics. They all had tune-o-matic bridges, 2 humbucking pickups, a single tone control and two volume controls. The headstocks all had Kluson tuners.

The bodies were all made of Korina wood with a natural finish. The shapes of the bodies were all different.

By 1958 Gibson was actively producing in limited numbers the Flying Vee and the Explorer. However the Moderne never came into fruition.

Ted McCarty claimed there were several Moderne prototypes built, however none have ever been found.

In 1982 Gibson produced a heritage series which included the Moderne. 

Later it was produced under the Epiphone label. At present it is not in production. Due to there rarity Modernes are perhaps THE most sought after guitar for collectors.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Stella 12 String Guitar

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly played a Stella 12 string. So did a lot of other Blues men. Most loved the big, big sound it got when they played slide guitar. Most of them tuned their Stella's down to accommodate the tension of the strings.

As I have mentioned before, Brit Rockers from back in the mid 1960’s and the Folkies from the 1950’s loved the songs and style of the old Black blues players and tried their best to emulate them.

Often a guitarist would go as far as to seek out a similar instrument, thus the interest in the Stella guitars.
Oscar Schmidt did not start out as a guitar manufacture. He had emigrated to the U.S. from Saxony. He was a skilled bookbinder and he eventually started publishing books, some of which were music books.

Antique Stella guitars
In 1890 he began manufacturing musical instruments to go along with the music books he was publishing. It was during this era that Schmidt began using the Stella and Sovereign trade names for his guitars. In 1910 he opened a musical instrument factory in New Jersey to fulfill the demand from music stores and wholesalers. He was already supplying Sears and Roebuck with the better quality guitars they sold through their catalog.

Most of the Oscar Schmidt guitars sold through Sears featured spruce tops and rosewood or mahogany bodies.

Ladder bracing and X bracing
One unique and consistent feature was the use of ladder bracing. Many of the older guitar manufacturers such as Harwood and Maccaferri used ladder bracing, while Martin and most Gibson guitars have “X” bracing.

The more upscale Schmidt guitars were trademarked as Sovereign. These guitars featured pearl inlay and marquetry trim. The bridge was a pyramid style that was similar to the ones on Martin guitars of that era.

Oscar Schmidt guitars also placed a position marker at the tenth fret rather than the ninth fret. This is true also of some older Harmony guitars.

Stella was the trademark name associated with the downscale product that Oscar Schmidt was producing. These instruments were made entirely of birch and had faux wood grain . Instead of marquetry these guitars used decals, which at the time were referred to as decal mania.

Early in the twentieth century, Oscar Schmidt was the largest manufacture of musical instruments in the world and encompassed factories in the US and Europe. How does the Stella 12 string guitar sound? It has a thin sound with a lot of high range.

This is primarily due to the use of birch. A second factor would be the ladder bracing. This is not the sound most of us would be seeking from an acoustic instrument in this day and age.

The scale was it was 26.5 inches from bridge saddle to the nut. This is longer than most steel string instrument, but similar to a classical guitar scale.

The asking price for this guitar is $12,000.

Due to the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Depression, Oscar Schmidt shut down. It was eventually purchased by the Harmony Company which revived both trademarked names and built very similar instrument.

Oscar Schmidt guitars is currently a trade name owned by the Washburn Guitar Company
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Roland Guitar Synthesizers

Roland Corporation has led the field in producing electronic music products. In the decades of 1970 and 1980 Roland began researching a way to use a guitar as the controller for a synthesizer. They had already produced a successful line of keyboard synthesizers.

The GR500 system in 1978 was Roland's mass produced guitar synthesizer. The GS500 guitar controller was made by Ibanez and fitted with Roland electronics. It used a 24-way cable to connect it to the GR500 synthesizer unit.
In 1980 Roland designed the GR-100 system. The line included three types of guitar controllers in many different finishes: the G505 which was a Strat style with three guitar pickups.
Another version was named the G202. It featured dual humbuckers was designed to look like a two pickup Strat. All of these controllers could operate the GR100 synthesizer.

They could also be used on the next synthesizer Roland developed and named the GR300. All of the guitar/controllers utilized a 24 way cable to connect to the synthesizer.

The biggest downside of these early guitar controllers was tracking. If you played too fast the synthesizer could not read the signal in real time. There was definitely an art to playing these early instruments.

The GS808 was an upgraded version of the GS303. The unseen electronic circuit boards mounted within the guitars enabled signal processing to interface with the synth unit. The most visible part was the hex pickup which was mounted between the bridge and the bridge pickup. Roland designated this unit the GK-1.

They also produced a stand alone version of the GK-1 that was sold separately and could be mounted on any guitar to make that guitar into a controller. This has evolved into the modern version called the GK-3.
In 1984 Roland came up with a new design based on keyboard synthesizer technology. The GR-700 utilized a Digital Sound Recognition (DSR) system which allowed the guitar controller to convert the guitar sounds into synthesizer sounds without loosing track of the player’s picking style.

This was uniquely different than the style one would find on a keyboard. All of the guitar controllers prior to the GR-700 utilized a hex pickup and hex fuzz to sustain the notes. The DSR system was Roland’s first step to MIDI or musical instrument digital interface.

This unit enabled the player to a world of new options that were never before found on traditional electric guitars. You could use the internal sound bank or create and save your own sounds. A player was able to utilize different strings for different purposes.

For example you could play a chord on the bottom three strings and press the hold switch to sustain the chord. You could then play a lead part on the top three strings.

To match this new guitar synthesizr was a new guitar controller that was unlike the other units. It was the G707. Like a keyboard synth, there was a bend feature on this unit that would drop or raise the note. The player had new control over dynamics and color of the sound.
Additionally the chromatic function enabled the player to play a complete chromatic scale similar to what could only be done on a keyboard. The G707 added a stabilizer bar running from the top of the neck to the bottom.
This was designed to defeat "dead spots" on the guitar where a neck might not send full tracking info to the floor unit.

Whether it was useful or not...who knows? But it sure looks cool!

For this series Roland also developed a bass synth controller called the G77 which matched the bass synthesizer, the GR77B.

Here is The Guess Who with Randy Bachman playing a Roland GR505   

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Silver Duke

I used to go to guitar shows whenever they would come to town. Back in those day there was always a silver-haired older gentleman and his wife manning one both and selling Bigsby Vibrato units, Gretsch guitar parts and pickups.

This fellow was Charles "Duke" Kramer who worked had worked for Gretsch since 1935. We have already discussed some of the history of Burns guitars. So you may recall that in 1967 the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company was looking for a successor.

'79 Gretsch model 7264
Baldwin Piano and Organ made an offer and bought the Gretsch name and manufacturing rights and built Gretsch guitars right alongside the Burns instruments. 

Duke Kramer and his expertise was part of the package.

Baldwin Gretsch Committee
The Gretsch company, located in Brooklyn New York, was relocated to Booneville Arkansas and Mr. Kramer was in charge of production at Baldwin.

Baldwin Gretsch Guitars '78-'79
Baldwin only stayed in the guitar business for around five years. By then the company decided to get out of the guitar business. Duke bought all of the remaining inventory. He hired 2 semi-trailers and hauled it to his home in Cincinnati Ohio.

Moving forward to 1985 when Fred Gretsch Jr. and his wife Dinah acquired the rights to the Gretsch brand name and rebuild the company. Fred Gretsch immediately hired Duke Kramer as an adviser.

Much of the inventory that Duke had purchased became the cornerstone of the reintroduction of the new Gretsch. Duke turned to the Terada Company in Japan to build Gretsch guitars. But for a few custom shop models, most of the current Gretsch instruments are now made in China. After retirement Duke and his wife went around the country selling off their remaining stock until his death at age 88.

In looking back at the original Gretsch Company, it was in 1966 there was a special run of Gretsch Corvette guitars that were done with silver-flake finishes for the Silver Duke or gold-flake finishes for the Gold Duke models. These were ordered for California dealer Sherman Clay. As an honor to  Duke Kramer.
Gold Duke
He was one of the most important men in Gretsch's history, the guitars were named The Silver Duke and The Gold Duke.

If you asked Mr. Kramer about the model he would deny that the guitars were produced as a tribute to his service to the company. But most guitar aficionados know better.

Not only are these well made instruments, that are much different from the usual Gretsch produced guitar, and they are also a very rare find.

Apparently there are no videos of the Gretsch Silver Duke being played. Since it was actually a Gretsch Corvette, below is an example of how that guitar sounds.

©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)