Sunday, April 25, 2010

Stromberg Guitars

If D’Angelico guitars are the Stradivarius of the guitar world, Stromberg is the Guarneri.

Stromberg’s top model guitars, with huge nineteen-inch-wide bodies, provided the tremendous volume and projection needed for a rhythm guitarist to be heard in the large jazz orchestras of the 1940s.

Charles Stromberg and his son, Elmer worked together in Boston, beginning in the early 1930s. Charles, a Swedish immigrant, started the business in 1906 making banjos and drums. He was also nationally known for harp repair and engraving.

Charle's oldest son, Harry worked in the shop for a few years, but moved on to a different career. Elmer joined the shop and the changes he made provided a 15 year golden era for the business.

The top of the line Stromberg tenor banjos he produced were very fancy instruments and are valuable and sought after by collectors. When son Elmer joined the business the Strombergs concentrated mainly on guitars. After all, the tenor banjo had been replaced by the archtop acoustic guitar as an orchestral instrument.

The Stromberg's top of the line guitar was the Master 400 featuring stylish engraving on the headstock veneer. The body was 19" across the lower bout. In fact their guitars were either 18" or 19" and designed to compete with horns and brass in the big bands of that era.

Freddie Green with Master 400
Guitarist Freddie Green, of the Count Basie Orchestra, used Strombergs exclusively, playing both the Master 400 and the Master 300. Irving Ashby played a Stromberg. He was Nat King Cole's guitarist before Oscar Moore. A banjo wizard of the 40's Jame's Buster Modello endorsed Stromberg banjos and guitars. Jazz player Barry Galbraith played a G-5 model.

Ranger Doug Green with Stromberg
Currently "Ranger" Doug Green from Riders in the Sky and The Time Jumpers plays and collects Strombergs. In fact he is THE authority on Strombergs. Little known fact is Doug worked at Gruhn's Guitars in Nashville many years ago.

The Stromberg Master 400 is very scarce and if you find one, expect it to cost around $40,000.

The Stromberg Master 400 is considered to be the ultimate orchestral rhythm guitar beating out Gibson's top of the archtop line 400 model. It is said these instrument are not as sweet sounding as D'Angelicos, but have better projection. In the days when electronic amplification was not the norm, a loud acoustic was necessary.

The Stromberg's produced only 636 guitars, which accounts for their value due to scarcity.

The models they offered were a limited selection. The G-1, G-2 and G-3 were 17 3/8th" across the lower bout with the G-2 and G-3 being fancier with an upgraded tailpiece. The G-3 had a cutaway

Deluxe with cutaway

The Deluxe model came with or without a cutaway was also 17 3/8th" across the lower bout.

Freddie Green with his 300

The Master 300 had a 19" span acrosss the lower bout and a stair step bound pickguard and block inlaid position markers.

The Master 400 was by far the fanciest model, with stair step bound pickguard and a gold plated tailpiece with 5 cutouts. The headstock veneer was engraved, bound and bedecked with gold plated tuners and the position markers were slashed block style.

Cutaway Master 400's are extremely rare.

The final Stromberg model was the G-5. It was not as fancy as the 300 or 400. It was a 17" guitar and it had a short scale neck of only 23 1/2". The price new for this model in 1952 was a mere $315 or if you wanted a cutaway it was $404. There were likely only a dozen of these instruments built.

The Strombergs did not keep records, so it is difficult to determine the provenance of each instrument. During the era when these were new instruments, word of mouth was the way that jazz players found out about new Stromberg models, or where a used one could be found for sale.

Jazz player Barry Galbraith once told his friend Hank Garland about a new short scale model that he had just acquired. Garland set out to have one of these built for himself. Garland was one of many jazz guitarists that preferred a short scale neck to aid in quick chord changes and cut down on string tension.

Mother Maybelle Carter's 1933 model
The earlier Stromberg's featured laminated pressed tops. And even so, they are still in demand by collectors although the tonal quality is inferior to the latter instruments with carved tops. Most other manufacturers at the time used an X bracing system on their archtops.

The Strombergs came up with a guitar that had just one diagonal brace across the top. This resulted in a more percussive sound just right for comping for rhythm in swing bands.

The latter Strombergs had adjustable truss rods in the neck that could be accessed by removing the bone nut.

Although the tops of Stromberg guitars made from the 1940's and on are carved and solid, the back and sides on some are laminated.

Their are some cosmetic flaws in Strombergs which may have earned them only 3 stars in a Guitar Player review (if it had been around), but these guitars were designed as working instruments.

Although both men worked on guitars, Elmer is credited with most of the guitar work and changes in design and production. As with the D'Angelico New Yorker, the Master 400 takes it's queue from the Gibson Super 400.

Interestingly, some of the wood the Strombergs used was scavenged from old Boston buildings that were being demolished.

One of the drawbacks of Stromberg guitars that had headstock veneer is the veneer was made of nitrocellulous and is subject to deterioration.

Charles and Elmer both died in 1955 within months of each other. Elmer was in an automobile crash. This ended Stromberg Guitars.

There is a Florida based company that has acquired the trademark to the Stromberg brand name. The new guitars, I understand have received excellent reviews, are Asian manufactured and other than the name are not related to any instruments The Stromberg Family produced.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bootsy Collins' Space Bass

Syd Nathan holding a King record
William "Bootsy" Collins was raised in Cincinnati Ohio. As a kid he and his brother, Phelps, "Catfish" Collins used to hang out at Syd Nathan’s King Records.

Sydney Nathan started out in 1940 when he opened Syd's Record Shop, which mostly sold used juke box records. Most of his clientele were poor people that grew up in the South, but immigrated to Cincinnati to work in factories.

The King Record Pressing Plant
By 1943 Nathan had established King Records with the intent of recording Hillbilly music to stock his juke boxes. Nathan hit gold. Country singers were driving to Cincinnati to record at King Records.

It wasn't long before he became aware of the demands of Black teenagers for rhythm and blues music. So King Records became an odd, diverse mix of stars from the Grand Ol' Opry and ground breaking singers like Hank Ballard, Wynonie Harris and James Brown.

Originally Nathan sent off the masters to be pressed in Louisville, Kentucky. Being unhappy with the quality, he decided to open his own pressing plant.

Syd Nathan and Hank Ballard

King Records featured not just a recording studio, but a complete record plant that could cut masters, print vinyl records,photograph artists, print covers and package the product. The all-in-one record plant was a plus for artists that hawked their own records at their concerts.

Nathan used the pseudonym of Lois Mann in order to maintain royalties of records. This way if a song became a hit, he would own a piece of the revenue. This was all back in the days of vinyl and most recording studios had to farm out printing and packaging. Not Syd Nathan. He did it all.

In 1968, along with his elder brother, Phelps aka Catfish, Bootsy formed a funk band called The Pacemakers.

Most people are not aware that most of James Browns hits were recorded in Cincinnati at King Records.

James Brown with Bootsy and Phelps
In 1970 James Brown’s entire backing band quit over a pay dispute. Brown needed a backing band right away. By then some members of Bootsy’s band were doing back up work at King. Bootsy was the go-to rhythm player.

Right on the spot, Brown hired Bootsy, Phelps and other members, including Kenny Poole (who went on to become an excellent jazz guitarist). The band played on four of James Brown’s hit tracks and were known as The J.B.'s

From the Cincinnati Enquirer
My understanding is that James Brown was a difficult guy to work for. Bootsy clashed with him over a pay dispute and quit working for Brown after only 11 months.

Bootsy moved to Detroit for a while. He came back to make his home in Cincinnati.

During 1972 a friend introduced both of the Collins brothers to George Clinton and they agreed to join up with George as players for the Funkadelic and Parliment Albums.

Over the years, Bootsy went through a series of bands and cranked out some great funk recordings over the next two decades.

During the P-Funk years, Bootsy adopted his trademark Space Bass which he used on many recordings.

Nineteen year old Larry Pless and a friend drove to Warren Michigan to a music store named Guz Zoppi’s. The store was known mostly for it’s accordians. It was run by Mr. Zoppi, his wife and son. Larry Pless had built a V shaped guitar. Half of it was made of maple and the other half was made of mahogany.

The guitar had a maple neck. Pless was hoping that Zoppi would be willing to sell his guitar on consignment. He got more than he bargained for since the store's owner was looking for a guitar tech. Pless was hired on the spot.

A few years later, Larry Pless was repairing guitars for Guz Zoppi Music and had made a few more of his own instruments which were displayed for sale.

As Larry Pless tells it, one day a customer named Bootsy came in the store and wanted to speak with the repairman that made those guitars.

He states this Bootsy was an interesting person, dressed in rhinestone embossed leather and having a gold tooth. Bootsy then produced a hand drawn picture of a star shaped bass guitar with a star shaped headstock and a mirrored pickguard. The two men discussed other details such as pickups, wiring, hardware and color. They agreed upon a price of around $900.

Pless had done his best work in shaping the instrument, but says he had to make some modifications to the headstock for practical purposes.

The guitar was only half finished when Bootsy called and said he needed it for a photo shoot in Los Angeles. By then the guitar had a coat of white paint and the pickguard, but it was not finished. This was for Bootsy’s Rubber Band album, Stretching Out.

The bass was soon finished after that and Larry was sent an airline ticket to fly to Cincinnati with the bass. Bootsy was playing at the Colleseum and wanted to use his new bass guitar. There were problems with the cord that hooked to his bass amp. But Bootsy was so happy with his new bass guitar that he had another one made.

Bootsy Space Bass was stolen and Pless was asked to make another one. The first bass had a mahogany body and a maple neck. Pless make the 2nd with a basswood body and a maple neck.

Bootsy preferred the first bass. This instrument was later found in a Cincinnati pawn shop and returned to Bootsy.

Bootsy kept bringing the basses back to Larry Pless for adjustments and to add additional rhinestones. Pless also made a double neck 6/12 string Space Bass for Collins.

Pless says that Bootsy plays all over the neck and his bass is bright enough to cut through the mix.

In 1998 Bootsy commissioned New York luthier Manny Salvatore to build a new Space Bass. Pless states this new bass looked more like a star than the ones he had designed and built.

Sometime later Bootsy has also signed an agreement with the Washburn Guitar Company to produce a line of Bootsy Collins signature Space Basses.

In 2012 Warwick guitars built the Bootsy Collins Space Bass.  This was a limited edition of 100 basses. These were top quality instruments that had built in LED's. (click on the above link for more information)

At the 2014 NAMM Warrwick unveiled it's updated Bootsy Collins Space Bass.

Perhaps as a tribute to his past at King Records, Bootsy collaborated with bluegrass legends Del McCoury, Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman in a group called The GrooveGrass Boyz.

You can see some of the pickup variations this instrument has gone through, starting with two pickups and now having five J-style pickups.  The one on the left has two P-bass and two J-bass pickups.

These days Bootsy spends his time at his home music studio in southern Indiana. For a while he had a restaurant in downtown Cincinnati. Since I first wrote this article it has closed.

From checking out his calendar, these days Bootsy Collins stays very busy touring around the country and playing his unique brand of Funk.


Friday, April 2, 2010


In 1997 Eric Clapton was in New York City and scheduled to appear at that year's Grammy Awards Show. He was also scouting a location for a video to accompany his album Retail Therapy by T.D.F. Clapton was interested in "Street Art" and already owned Stratocasters painted by well known NYC street artist.

He contacted New York City street artist John Crash Matos to inquire of suggested locations for the video.

During their meeting Clapton inquired of Crash the possibility of painting a Strat for him. This didn't happen until three years later.

Through Eric's connection with Fender, an unfinished Stratocaster body was sent Crash in 2000.

This resulting guitar came to be known as the Crashocaster. The guitar was known by several other titles; Crash #1, the Over-the-Rainbow Strat or the Rainbow Strat. He went on to make two more Crashocasters for Clapton.

In 2004 Crashocaster #3 was auctioned off at Christies and it sold for $321,000. This caused Fender to take notice.

2004 was also the year Fender opened the companies Custom Shop. Fender decided to commission Crash to paint 50 Stratocaster Custom Shop bodies featuring the artists graffiti inspired designs. The project took Crash two years to complete. The 50th body was finished in January of 2007.

The collaboration between Fender and Crash was set in motion in 2003 due to a meeting between Crash and Fender Custom Shop Senior Master Builder Mark Kendrick at a San Francisco art gallery. Kendrick was aware of the 3 original Crash painted Clapton Strats and he suggested that Crash paint a prototype body and send it to Fender. This guitar was displayed during the 2003 Winter NAMM show. The guitar featured a gold pickguard.

Though Crashocaster is the name most Fender enthusiasts refer to these guitars, it was never recognized by Fender.  Instead it was dubbed Custom Crash Stratocasters.

John Mayer's Crashocaster
John Crash Matos was never actually a part of the Fender Custom Shop, but worked as an independent contractor with only a limited edition of 50 guitars acknowledging his artwork.

These guitars include Crash's signature on the neck plate, along with the Custom Shop logo. They were sold with a certificate of authenticity.

Crash may have produced some painted bodies that were not commissioned by or approved by the Fender Musical Instrument Company.

Fender Custom Master Builder Todd Krause's name appears on all the headstocks of the Crashocasters. Krause is the luthier that actually made these guitars.

Clapton's instruments, the Crash-1, known as Rainbow Strat was painted in 2000 and the Crash-2 was done in 2002 with the Crash-3 being painted in 2004. These guitars were above those commissioned requested by Fender. So there are actually 53 Crashocasters.

The Custom Shop run of these models featured body painting by Crash; however they are not Eric Clapton signature Stratocasters. The feature similar specifications there are slight differences between the two models.