Saturday, January 22, 2011

Univox Guitars

The Unicord Corporation manufactured electronic transformers. In the early 1960’s when everyone wanted an electric guitar and amplifier, Unicord acquired a Westbury, New York firm called Amplifier Corporation of America. Unicord began production of the Univox amplifiers shortly thereafter.

About the same time frame that CBS acquired Fender Guitars and Amplifiers, Gulf and Western purchased Unicord and were now in the profitable guitar business. The year was 1967. By 1968 Gulf and Western added guitars to their the product line.

This was accomplished due to a merger with a Westbury New York company called Merson Musical Products. Merson was a guitar importer and distributor. They distributed Hagstrom guitars from Sweden, Giannini guitars from Brazil and a cheap brand of acoustic guitar called Tempo. Unicord and Merson parted ways in 1975 and outsourced manufacturing to Japan at the Matsumoku factory.

I have previously discussed the Matsumoku company's importance in the world of imported guitars. Matsumoku was a furniture company started around 1900. In the 1920's they built sewing cabinets for Singer Sewing machine and later built affordable guitars under different labels for export.

Unicord continued using the Univox name on guitars until sometime in 1978 though guitars were still in production. In 1982 production in Japan ceased when a fire occurred at the main factory.

The manufacturing responsibility shifted to Korea. The Korean instruments were sold under the Westbury name until the Unicord Company was acquired by the Japanese firm the Korg Company in 1985.

Many Univox guitars were copies of American made instruments such as Fender, Gibson, Ampeg (the Lucite Dan Armstrong model), Guild, Rickenbacker and Mosrite.

The most famous of Univox guitars was probably the Mosrite look-a-like known as the Hi-Flier. It is a shame that Mr. Mosley’s instrument was chosen and he received only a nod of recognition.

Semie Mosley was an outstanding luthier and guitar designer, but he was not a good businessman. Subsequently he was taken advantage of and did not have money to hire attorneys to sue for patent infringement.

The Hi-Flier was a copy of the Mosrite Ventures model and appeared around 1968. Like the original it had 22 frets on a rosewood fretboard, a white pick guard with a single volume and a single tone control and a three-way toggle switch. The neck was bolt-on style, which differed from the original. The first models feature a white truss rod cover. The later ones looked more like the real thing.

The initial models of the Hi-Flier came with two P-90 style pickups encased in black and an adjustable bridge with a tremolo and came in various colours.

This guitar went through modifications through the years, such as the addition of humbucking pickups and a change in the headstock logo. Univox also manufactured a short-neck bass model. In 1969 similar Mosrite guitars were selling for $400-450 with the case extra. The Hi-Flier sold for only $82.50 plus the case. This was a big difference, especially to a kid starting out in a band.

Unicord/Univox was also known for their amplifiers which were built with tubes or solid state or even hybrid tube/solidstate. These amplifiers ranged from practice amps to 100 watt stacks.

These were not inferior amps, however due to Unicords lack of research and developement and reliance on copying other company’s amplifier designs, Univox amps developed a bad reputation.

Univox Stage Amp
The company attempted to mend this by adding a new brand called Stage. Whether the product was labeled Stage or Univox the only difference was the logo.

Univox also manufactured guitar effects, drum machines and imported electronic keyboards from accordion manufacturer Crucianelli of Italy.

There are a couple of interesting facts resulted from the sale of Unicord to Korg. Merson founder, Bernie Mersky quit after the Gulf and Western takeover.

His partner, Ernie Briefel went on to form Music Technologies, Inc., and, Music Industries Corporation, which was in business until recently as a music product importer and distributor.

Unicord was the original U.S. importer of Marshall Amplifiers and Korg synthesizers. Marshall amplifiers actually used Unicord manufactured transformers in some of their models. The relationship with Korg was probably what prompted the acquisition. Korg's USA division then became the US distributor for Marshall.

In 1988 the Matsumoku factory in Japan was destroyed by fire which shut down manufacturing for good.

In 1992 Korg acquired the Vox musical instrument company from it’s parent Rose Morris Music of the U.K. and manufacturing shifted to the Far East.

This turned out to be not a bad thing, since Korgs research and development department has redesigned the AC30 to be as close to Tom Jennings original sound only using modern construction.

As of last year, 2010, Marshall ended its relationship with Korg USA and now distributes its own amplifiers.

Eastwood Guitars currently makes a copy of the Univox Hi-Flier, which I find quite ironic since it is a copy of a copy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Goya Rangemaster

I started playing guitar in 1964.  This was during Beatle- mania and the British Invasion.  By 1968, I wanted a brand new guitar.  What I really wanted was a 12-string guitar, but my Dad talked me out of that.  I spent hours shopping for guitars and one of the more unusual instruments I recall during those days was a Goya Rangemaster.

During the early 1900's as a way of distinguishing six string guitars apart from lap steels that may also have six or more strings; six string guitars that utilized wire strings and had rounded necks were referred to as Spanish guitars.  

Never mind that most guitars manufactured in Spain had nylon or guitar strings.  In fact, Gibson’s prefix of ES stands for Electric Spanish. 

In the 1940’s and 1950’s guitar manufacturers that were producing instruments in Europe and Asia wanted to latch on to a Spanish connection.  Therefore, they came up with Spanish sounding names, such as EspaƱa, Goya, and Greco.

Levin Guitars of Sweden were one of the companies contracted to produce Goya guitars. 

Levin started importing the guitar under the Goya name in 1954. 

Herco Picks aka Hershman

The Hershman Musical Instrument Company of New York City contracted to import guitars bearing the Goya name to the United States. 

Jerry (Jerome) Hershman
Jerome Hershman had seen Levin guitars at a trade show in 1952 and thought this would be a great product.  The H.C. Levin Company was known for its excellent classical guitars.  The company also manufactured quality flattop and archtop guitars as well as mandolins.

The Levin Company and the Hagstrom Musical Instrument Company, both of Sweden produced the original Goya guitars.  Although in the mid 1960’s Goya electric instruments were manufactured in Italy, Japan, and Taiwan.  

Julie Andrews with a Goya Guitar
Hershman sold their interest in Goya to a company called Avenet. Avnet, in turn, sold the Goya brand name to Kustom Electronics of Chanute Kansas.  

By this time most Goya guitars were being manufactured in Japan.  Kustom filed bankruptcy. (see this blog about Kustom) A Chanute Kansas company called Dude Incorporated, bought out Kustoms remaining stock at a bargain. At the same time, Dude Inc. purchased the Levin guitar company's assets.  

Dude Incorporated sold Levin and Goya to Martin guitars in 1974. Martin then utilized the Goya/Levin connection to produce its Sigma line, although Sigma guitars were manufactured in Asia and assembled in the United States.  By this time the Goya brand name had an almost 50 year run.

During 1965 through 1969, Goya had come up with an interesting conception they referred to this guitar as The Rangemaster.  These instruments were mostly of Italian origin.

The Italian made Rangemaster had one or two Florentine style cutaways, twin pickups, an array of push buttons and most came with some sort of vibrato unit. The vibrato, made by the A. Hagstrom Company could be either a simple spring style unit or a modified Bigsby style.  

Some Rangemasters came with a stylish non-vibrato steel tailpiece that bore the Goya logo.  

The hollow body Rangemaster had two F-holes placed very far down in the lower bout.  The scale length was 25.2”.  The nut was 1.6”.  The neck and body were both made of maple. The rosewood fretboard had 22 frets.  The maple three on a side headstock had a black veneer plate with the Goya logo.  The more fancy versions came with an inlay of an Italian musician.  

The bolted-on neck was bound and the body was bound in 5-ply laminated plastic.  The position markers were mother-of-pearl. The neck plates came in a variety of styles, but generally were rectangular.  The finish was either cherry or cherry-burst. 

The pickup configuration was most interesting.  There were actually four pickups on the Rangemaster.  The split-style arrangement was similar to that of a Fender Precision Bass.  Pickup one was for the lowest three strings at the neck.  Pickup two covered the upper three strings.  The bridge pickups were set the same way. 

A black console contained an array of push buttons on the upper bout (right in the way of the palm of your hand) controlled which pickups were on or off. 

Position 1 had all four pickups on. The next position was 1 and 2 (the neck pickups) the next button turned on 1 and 4. The next controlled two and three. After that, the button controlled three and four (the bridge pickup) and the final button turned the pickups off.  A single potentiometer controlled the volume.

A similar console with switches for low/medium/high sounds was housed where one would expect the tone control. A single potentiometer controlled the guitars volume.

The other unique feature of the Rangemaster is the placement of the "F" holes.

The Polverini Brothers in Italy manufactured the hollow body Rangemaster guitars.  The Polverini Brothers were and still are a manufacturer of fine Italian accordions and accordion parts.  

During the days of the British Invasion, the accordion had fallen out of fashion and the electric guitar was king.  Many accordion manufacturers in Italy, German, and Sweden geared up to manufacture guitars, especially electric guitars.  

Sales firms subcontracted most of these instruments and the finished products were given different brand names.  This included the Goya brand.

Accordion manufacturing firms focused on accordion design and this was evident in their guitar design.  Instead of toggle switches, they utilized single or double throw slider switches.  Many times no potentiometer was utilized for tonal changes.  This job was accomplished through a switch that activated a capacitor, which gave either a bright or a deep tone, but nothing in between.  On/off push buttons and rocker, switches were standard on accordions, so they were used on guitars.

There was a demand at the time for 12 string instruments, so Goya also sold a 12-string version of the Rangemaster. 

Goya also produced a solid body version of the Rangemaster with a six on a side-elongated headstock.  It came with similar push button controls and only one potentiometer, which controlled the guitars volume.  Another Italian company called Galanti manufactured this guitar.

Probably the one claim to fame for the Rangemaster was an off stage photograph of Jimi Hendrix playing one.

Somewhere during their run, Goya came out with an updated model.  The push buttons were gone and replaced by two tone pots and two volume pots.  This came with three toggle switches. The one on the lower horn was used to control the neck and bridge pickups. The pickups were still the split style version, so there were actually four single coil pickups.  The two toggles on the upper horn to control which pickups were on or off.

The most interesting thing about this guitar was the finish.  The entire body was covered in a psychedelic style fabric that was glued on and covered with a rich clear-coat finish.  The guitar appeared to be painted in a flower design.  Goya came out with three different versions of the finish in paisley or flower designs, which used the same guitar body.  

It is unclear whether the Polverini Brothers or another firm manufactured these versions.

As you can hear in the clip below, the Rangemaster does not sound as solid as a Gibson ES-335 or 330, but the Psychedelic version would make for a very visual stage presence.

©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

McCartney's Rickenbacker 4001S LH Bass

In 1964, Paul McCartney could have bought any bass guitar he wanted.  The Beatles had come to America.  They were pulling in almost $50,000 for a show, which was not bad money in the days when minimum wage was only around $1.00 an hour in the United States.  

McCartney seemed content to play his lightweight Hofner bass, which had become a trademark by now. But the owner of Rickenbacker Guitars had other ideas.

F.C. Hall
Francis Hall or F.C. Hall had already presented George Harrison with the Rickenbacker 360/12-C63.  During February of 1964  Hall had shown McCartney the model 4001S Rickenbacker bass guitar, however it was a right-hand model and it was much heavier than the Hofner.
The other turn off was that Hall asked for a small fee for the bass. 

Also keep in mind the scale of the Hofner was mere 30.25”, while the Rickenbacker scale was just under 34”.  This would have taken some getting used to after all those years of playing a short scale instrument.

John Hall
Rickenbacker’s home base is Santa Ana California.  It was not until they built a left-handed model and gave it to Paul at the Beatles Hollywood Bowl concert that August, did McCartney accept the gift.  Like all of us, who can turn down a freebie?

A young John Hall, Francis' son, presented McCartney with the bass.

The Rickenbacker 4001S LH was created in January of 1964. It was finished in Fireglo (Rickenbacker's answer to red-burst). McCartney claims he put it to use on Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper. He used it in concert in 1966 and on a tour of Japan. However, the Rickenbacker bass was generally confined to the recording studio.

"It sounded a little clearer, too," McCartney states, "and it seemed a little heavier - not just literally heavier but it played a little more solid than the Hofner." Paul says the long-scale Rickenbacker felt different, but stayed in tune much better than the Hofner.

To any guitarist or bass player, this would make sense.  The longer scale causes the strings to be more taught, thus tonality is a little bit better. Plus the Rickenbacker pickups were superior to the Hofner pickups.

McCartney used the Rickenbacker bass on such songs as Paperback Writer, Rain, Penny Lane, and Strawberry Fields.

Let's skip ahead a few years later when the Psychedelic era came along. Without their knowledge, the Beatles songs and lifestyle had affected the fashion of the day.

Carnaby Street was the fasion center.  Men were wearing paisley shirts with large collars and puffy sleeves along with bell bottomed hip-hugger trousers. Women chose mini-skirts with go-go boots and granny dresses.  

These were the days of tune in, turn on and drop out and freak out.  Young people speaking their mind, getting so much resistance...fall behind.

It was during this time the Beatles became acquainted with some other local bands that had painted their guitars with psychedelic colours and designs.

John, Paul, and George decided to each have one of their guitars painted in this manner.  George chose a Stratocaster, John had his Gibson EJ-160 painted and Paul chose his Rickenbacker bass.  The guys painted the instruments themselves using aerosol spray paint.

Fast forward to after the Beatles breakup.  George was the only Beatle that did not remove the psychedelic paint job.  Lennon had the finish sanded off his Gibson hollowbody, but sketched a caricature of himself and his wife on the guitars lower bout.  Paul sanded the finish off the Rickenbacker 4001S LH and did not repaint it.

Paul used the Rickenbacker bass up through 1968.  At that point, Fender gave the Beatles some free equipment. It was not until Paul’s Wings tours did the bass reappear.  Perhaps Paul was trying to change his image.

Rickenbacker currently offers the model 4001 V63 PMC as a reissue of Paul’s bass.  The neck-through bass is made of solid maple with a 33.25” scale.  The width at the nut is 1 5/8”.  The unbound neck is capped with a rosewood fretboard with 20 frets and dot position markers. 

The tailpiece and bridge are RIC special design models.  The bass comes with two Toaster Top™ pickups, which are wired in monaural.  The bass is 45 1/16” in length and weighs 10 pounds.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guitar News Flash - Gibson Guitar Company is Sued and Files Suit

In November of 2009 U.S., agents from the Fish and Wildlife service raided the Gibson Guitar Company in Nashville Tennessee.

Now you may be asking yourself, “Why would the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife services be raiding a major guitar manufacturer?”

Madagascar wood

The answer is because Gibson is accused of using woods that were illegally harvested in Madagascar, sending it to Germany and then importing it to the United States in an effort to get around The Lacey Act.

So what is The Lacey Act? This was a law created over a century ago by the United States Congress and signed into law by President William McKinley.

This was a law was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Iowa Representative John Lacey on May 25th, 1900.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, commercial hunting of game was threatening to wipe out many species. The law made it illegal to hunt, capture, or fish for animals, birds and fish that were in danger of becoming extinct.

The law also prohibited the transportation of non-native species of animals, fish, and birds into the United States. This was the first federal conservation law.

In addition to protecting wildlife, it also protects plants that are facing possible extinction, which would include trees and prohibits introduction of foreign commerce that would introduce plants that would threaten the United States environment.

 The law was amended in 2008 to include a broader range of plants with the intent of limiting logging and prohibiting import of endangered species of wood.

This past December newly filed court documents are expecting to result in criminal indictments against Gibson Guitar and its key staff. Gibson has been accused by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Middle Tennessee of illegally harvesting Madagascar rosewood and ebony.

Madagascar rosewood is a very fine product that is less porous than Brazilian rosewood, therefore less prone to cracks due to age. And while Madagascar rosewood is not illegal in itself, apparently the forest the wood came from was off limits.

Vintage guitar expert George Gruhn stated to the press, “They've had a change of government over there, and the new government appears to be rather corrupt and is working with anyone who will rape the environment for a quick profit and give them kickbacks, is the way it looks. 

I'm really rather befuddled by this whole situation, Gibson has an extremely good track record on environmental and conservation issues."

The head of the Gibson Guitar Corporation, Henry Juszkiewicz has temporarily stepped down from his position on the board of The Rainforest Alliance. Gibson issued a press release stating they are fully cooperating with agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

During the 2009, raid government agents carried off boxes of wood, guitars, computers, and files.

In a lawsuit filed this December, the U.S. Attorney’s office for Middle Tennessee is seeking official forfeiture of six guitars partially made of ebony, as well as other pieces of the rare wood.

Henry Juszkiewicz
I own an older Gibson guitar. Which I cherish.  The company has always had a rock solid reputation.

Perhaps Gibson was innocent of knowledge of the woods origin, if they purchased it from a non-associated wood seller. Gibson's reputation has been spotless.  I'm certain they would not do anything to diminish their status. Whether or not any wrongdoing occurred will only come out in a trial.

Ironically, in 1998, Gibson came out with a Smartwood Series of guitar. This was a series of six different Les Paul models with mahogany bodies and necks as usual.

But the top of each guitar was made of a different type of sustainable, “smartly harvested” wood.

In other ironic Gibson news, the company has sued a toy manufacture named WOWWEE USA INC. and major retailers that carry their products including Wal-Mart,, Big Lots, K Mart, Target, Toys “R” Us, Walgreen Co, Best Buy, eBay and others.

WOWWEE USA INC manufactures a product called PaperJamz guitars and amplifiers. 

This toy is a representation of a popular guitar, that is embossed on a flat guitar-shaped board.

The toy includes sensors that make “heavy-metal” guitar-like sounds from a built-in processor. The company also manufactures a “amplifier” that is also embossed on a flat board. It won the distinction of Toy of the Year.

The guitar sells for around $20 U.S. dollars. Gibson was awarded an injunction recently for a trademark dispute stating images of the Les Paul, Flying V and Explorer guitars were used without permission of Gibson Guitars.

Can you spot the fake Gibsons?