Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kawai Guitars And The Company's Subsequent Brands

Kawai was founded in 1927 in the town of Hamamatsu Japan with the goal of building quality pianos. The founder was Koichi Kawai.

The 1950’s signaled a new era. Parents wanted their children to have things they never had, including a music education. I recall door-to-door accordion salesmen promising parents, their offspring could really go far if they would just sign up for lessons on the squeezebox and buy a starter accordion. Country music was evolving more into the pop market, so the guitar was a natural for the youngster.

Mr. Kawai made a decision in 1954 that his company would enter the guitar market. At first, Kawai turned out mostly inexpensive acoustic guitars at first and then branched into electric models. Around 1964, the British Invasion hit and subsequently flooded the market with inexpensive Asian made instruments, most of which were wild designs based on some American models. By the late 1960’s, there was a glut of bizarre cheap guitars that looked like they were designed by Franz Kafka. Many had as many as four pickups and a few came with five pickups.

By 1967, Kawai purchased the Teisco company and began exporting guitars under the Teisco, Telestar, Kimberly and Domino brand names. They also built guitars for the large St. Louis Music company under the Apollo brand. During this year, I definitely recall seeing Teisco and Dominoe guitars offered in music stores and pawn shops.

The designs grew weirder. By 1968, the Teisco May Queen appeared. The company offered an axe-shaped guitar long before Gene Simmons hit the scene. Under the Domino brand, Kawai produced a guitar modeled after the 5 sided Vox Phantom.

They also offered a banjo shaped six string guitar the called the Splendor. Most of their product line were solid body instrument that used soft wood for the bodies. However, Kawai and its subsequent brands also built hollow bodied and acoustic instruments.

The bodies produced by Kawai were thinner than anything Fender or Gibson ever produced. The necks were made of harder wood, but because this was before the invention of CNC equipment (for that matter computers), the necks were not that accurate and playing could be difficult.

The pickups were generally single coil and utilized foil material for the pickup covers. The tuners were either six-in-a-row style or 3-in-a-row with plastic buttons.

As the years went on Kawai began producing guitars under the Kay brand name, when Kay of Chicago ceased manufacturing and imported all of its product. What puzzles me is how much these instruments are fetching. I have seen people asking $800 to $900 US dollars for Kawai brands that originally sold anywhere from $25 to $50 in the late 1960’s.

Yes, the shapes are interesting. Yes, from a collectors point of view the prices are less than what is asked for a 1957 Stratocaster. In my opinion, they were not great players back then and are not getting any better. However, from the point of being unusual and unique, Kawai guitars and all of its brands, live up to that standard.

Kawai continued to build guitars throughout the 1970’s. These instruments were a big improvement over those of the 1960’s and were based on popular American guitars, although much of the electric line featured a slotted headstock.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fender Precision Slab Bass

Post World War II saw a marked increase in the popularity of the guitar throughout the world. My take on this is due to United State soldiers, especially those from the southern USA who brought their guitars with them to play and sing songs that reminded them of home. Britain was especially accepting of this cultural exchange. 

This was a time that Brits were not only listening to country music, but rhythm and blues, that was introduced by Black soldiers. 

Big Band music would shortly fade away, due to economics and “combos” of four or five players made dance music. 

Skiffle Music became popular, as did R&B and American Rock &  Roll.

The Marshall Plan aka the European Recovery Plan designed to rebuild Europe by lending money to nations resulted in debt to the US. This debt resulted in tariffs placed on US products imported to Britain. Subsequently American guitars and amplifiers were available in the UK, but they were very expensive.

There were a few ways around this problem.  

The most common method was to import guitars from European countries. This was a boon to manufacturers such as Hagstrom, Hofner, Framus, EKO, Italia, Crucianelli, Selmer and others. The other way was for British manufacturers to build guitars and amps. 

Marshall, and Vox amplifiers found their beginnings and built amplifiers based on their own unique variations of the Fender Bassman. Later Watkins, Harry Joyce, and Hi-Watt entered the scene. 

Steve Curries Slab P-Bass
One last method was when an major American company wants to test market a product to see if it will sell. This was the case with a special British-only version of the Fender Precision Bass. This guitar was known as the Fender Slab Precision bass and it entered the UK in 1966. 

(Fender would test market some gear in later years in Japan and Europe.)

The original “slab” bass was the 1950's Precision Bass, which had a Telecaster-style headstock and one single coil pickup that was not split. The 1966 Precision Slab bass looked exactly like the 1966 US version of the P-Bass, but it did not have the body contours. This instrument was only available to the British market.

There were only a handful of these instruments. The estimate is 25 or 35 bass guitars. Most all of them went to well known British players.

John Entwhistle of The Who was among the first to receive a slab bass. Steve Currie of T. Rex purchased a slab bass, as did John Sprigate of The Glitter Band. Chip Hawkes of the Tremeloes can be seen in early videos with his Fender Precision Slab bass.

Based on their rarity, the Precision Slab bass is very collectible, but seldom seen. The Fender Custom Shop at one time offered  a reissue of the Precision Slab Bass

It came only in Olympic White, a black pickguard, a maple cap neck, and the original-style split P-bass pickups.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)


Friday, April 22, 2011

Fender's Forgotten Amps

Leo Fender sold his company to CBS in 1965.  Fender had created a great product line while he was at the helm.  CBS stuck to these products for years and had a great run through the remainder of the 1960’s on through most of the 1970’s.  By the latter part of 1970 other guitar and amplifier manufacturing companies were gaining popularity.  As we have seen with most all guitar and amplifier manufacturers, when the try to emulate the competition and deviate from the basics they have established, they create problems.

We all know about Fender’s great amplifiers, but what about the ones that did not make the cut?  That is what I am looking into today.

Bantam Bass
The 1969 Fender Bantam Bass was one of those great ideas, but with a not so great twist.  This amplifier was approximately the size of a Silver face Fender Super Reverb only it had the same controls one would find on a black face or silver face Fender Bassman.  For those unfamiliar, there were two channels, one bass channel with a deep switch, and one “normal” channel with a bright switch.  Both channels had two inputs.  

The tube configuration consisted of two 6L6 power tubes, two 7025-preamp tubes and one 12AT7 phase inverter. The rectifier was solid state.   It put out 30 to 40 watts, which was normal for club amps of that period.  

The odd thing was the Bantam Bass speaker.  Fender opted to use a 15” Yamaha made trapezoidal shaped speaker with a Styrofoam cone. Yes, I said Styrofoam.  The speakers did not hold up well and a conventional speaker replaced most.  Surprisingly this beast was manufactured from 1969 to 1971.

Bassman 10

A similar Fender amp called The Bassman 10 replaced it in 1972.  The specs were the same, but four 10-inch speakers replaced the 15” Styrofoam speaker.  This raised the power to 50 watts.  In later years, Fender introduced a new transformer, which increased power to 70 watts.

Ten years later, in 1982, Fender came out with the Bassman 20  This produced about 18 to 20 watts of power through two 6V6 tubes and utilized two 7025-preamp tubes.  It came with a 15-inch Eminence speaker.  It may have been a nice amp for recording or practice.  20 watts is not practical for stage work. This amp was only in production for one year.

300 PS

On the other extreme, in 1975 Fender produced two large stage amplifiers called the Fender 300 PS and the Fender 400 PS Bass amplifier.  

The 300 PS came as an amplifier unit with a separate 4 X 12” speaker cabinet.  Distortion was the only effect. 

The other controls were a series of frequency cut boost knobs.  The amplifiers power was rated at 300 ear-splitting watts of power.

The 400 PS Bass amp could be used for guitar or bass.  It came with a bass channel.  The normal channel had the usual controls with reverb and tremolo.  

The cabinet specifically was designed for bass as it consisted of an 18” speaker with a folded horn.  The cab weighed in at over 125 pounds and the chassis was 84 pounds.  The 400PS knocked out over 400 watts of power.

Fender Concert 1983 era
Fender attempted an update on the Fender Concert amplifier.  Amplifier designer Paul Rivera worked with Fender during 1983 and he designed this model, which was an update on Leo’s 1959 Concert amp.  The original was similar to a Black face Super Reverb, but without reverb.  (One would imagine the Concert should have been called a Super, but the 1960 Fender Super without reverb came out a year later and had only two-10” speakers.)

Rivera’s Fender Concert was part of what Fender deemed The Pro Series.  For years, Fender amps came with two separate channels, but no way to switch between them.  The Concert was one of Fender’s first channel switching amplifiers.  In addition to a volume control, there were two gain controls, a concept borrowed from Mesa Boogie amplifiers.  

The Concert came with twin twelve-inch speakers made by Eminence and produced 60 watts from two 6L6 power tubes.  The rectifier was solid state and the preamp section was a quartet of 12AX7’s, plus two 12AT7’s. 

Champ II
Another Rivera design was the Fender Champ II.  This amp beefed up the power to 18 watts through two 6V6 tubes.  The preamp consisted of two 7025 tubes.  Unlike the Champ, this amp used an 8 ohm speaker. This also came with a master volume control and a mid boost control.  The speaker was a 10” Fender Special Design model.

The Super Champ replaced the Champ II.  This amplifier was somewhat similar, but added reverb and a mid-range control.  It too produced around 18 watts of power into a Fender Special Design 10” speaker.

Champ 12
By 1987, Fender made a change with the Champ 12 amplifier.  The power was dropped to 10 watts RMS, and the speaker was now a Fender 12” Blue Label model.  The power tubes had changed to twin-6L6GC’s.  The preamp tubes were still two 7025’s and as usual, the rectifier was solid state.  Other interesting additions were two inputs for tape in and tape out, plus a line out jack and a headphone jack.  

Fender was offering unique tolex coverings that included imitation snake skin.

2001 Pro Reverb
The following amp caught my attention recently when I read an advertisement in a 2003 edition of Vintage Guitar Magazine.  This was the Fender Pro Reverb amplifier, which started in production in 2001 and lasted only three years.  This amp came with all the bells and whistles and was probably the first power-switching amp that Fender produced.  

It even included an effects loop.  This amp could be run in a normal 50-watt mode or the power could be dropped to 12.5 watts for home and small venues.  Two 6L6 tubes powered this amp.  The preamp section consisted of 7-12AX7 and one 12AT7 tubes.  The amp housed a 12” Jensen speaker.

Like the Concert, the Fender Pro Reverb was named after Leo’s Pro Reverb amp, which was a much different amplifier, in the style of mid 1960’s  Fender products.  Of course, the Fender Pro was also one of Leo’s first amplifiers.

In an effort to comply with the 1970’s, bigger-is-better philosophy, in 1972 Fender updated their Twin Reverb amplifier by added two more 12 inch speakers and some extra power.  They called this monstrosity, The Fender Quad Reverb.  It weighed in at nearly 90 pounds and produced over 100 watts of power.  Thankfully, it came with rollers.

Fender Super Six

Not content to leave well enough alone with their Super Reverb, Fender made it bigger by adding two extra 10 inch speakers and two extra 6L6 tubes (a total of four) a calling it The Super Six.  This amplifier also produced well in excess of 100 watts and weighed in at nearly 100 pounds.  It also came with rollers.

Another 1982 Rivera design was the updated Deluxe Reverb II.  This was another channel-switching amplifier. The tremolo was gone and replaced by a presence control.  

The volume potentiometer had a push/pull feature that functioned as a bright control. 

Unlike the original Deluxe Reverb, this amp came with a midrange control.  

The power section consisted of two-6V6 tubes and the preamp tubes were 7025’s, with a 12AT7 as a phase inverter and a solid-state rectifier.

By 1990, Fender was stretching for ideas and came up with two similar amps.  The Super 112  was a 60-watt amplifier that got its power from two 6L6 tubes and used two-712AX7 preamp tubes.  This was a channel-switching amplifier manufactured during the era that Fender switched to red knobs.  

This came with reverb and an 8-ohm, 12-inch Fender Special Design speaker.

The Fender Super 210 was identical in all of its features, but it was loaded with two-10 inch Fender speakers.

Fender produced an unusual practice amp it called the Fender J.A.M.   Information is lacking on this little guy, but I remember seeing it at several different music stores.  I recall it came with a great chorus feature and reverb.  

The odd feature was its four push buttons on the front.  These were labeled Clean, Bright, Crunch, and Distortion.  The amp produced about 25 watts of solid-state power into a twelve inch speaker.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Boutique Amplifiers - Part Two

It is amazing to count the number of boutique amplifiers builders. There were plenty of companies offering amplifiers for sale in the 1960’s, but Fender cornered the market. That is before Marshall and Vox came along, which were patterned on an original Fender Bassman amp.

The only boutique builders of that era I recall would be Ray Butts, who made Ecco-fonic amplifiers and Bob Crooks who made the original Standel amplifiers .  So let’s explore a few more amp builders. 

None of the following builders offer kits and most are high end (expensive) amplifiers.

Steve Carr of Pittsboro North Carolina studied aerospace engineering at Purdue University and physics at the University of North Carolina. Carr played guitar and caught the bug to build his own equipment. So when he wasn’t studying engineering and physics, he spent time in the university libraries reading though old textbooks from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, learning about tube amplification.

He founded Carr Amplification and currently offers five models of guitar amplifiers. His amps feature point-to-point hand-wiring, polypropylene capacitors, which Carr says do not dry up like electrolytic caps, custom transformers made to his specifications, solid gauge aluminum for his chassis, wire from George L. 

His speakers are Weber custom designed models. and he makes his own solid pine cabinets. He also make use old style carbon resistors, high quality hospital grade power cords and paper bobbin transformers.

His current line up is six different amplifiers ranging from 3 watts up to 40 watts RMS. About half operate in Class A mode. Many of them have power switching capability.  The company has an impressive list of users.

Michael Swart is a musician and a recording engineer, also from North Carolina. Throughout his career he used a variety of amplifiers, but was searching for his signature tone.  He designed and built and amplifier that he called The Space Tone rated at 5 watts, which was a small studio amplifier. 

This was followed up by the Atomic Space Tone amplifier, rated at 20 watts, which has become his most requested amplifier.

This amp utilizes a JJ 5AR4 tube rectifier and 2 EH 6V6 power tubes, 3 12AX7’s serve as a phase inverter, preamp and reverb/tremolo tubes.

Swart also builds a 30 watt amplifier called, The Space Tone 30 that comes as a head and cabinet.

Swart amps feature a 12AX7 that functions as a driver for the bias regulated tremolo. This provides a more distinct sound than the typical light dependent resistor or LDR version. Reverb is all tube as well.

Koch Amplifiers, designed and manufactured in Holland by Dolf Koch. He uses only the highest quality parts and tubes. The tubes are protected behind grills to prevent damage. His cabinets are solid, being made of 11 ply birch.

Kock Super Nova
Koch (pronounced cock) builds nine different types of amplifiers from 6 watts through 120 watts.  From comments, Koch amplifiers are noted for their clean sound.  

Most of their amplifiers are combos, they also offer 5 different types of stand alone speaker cabinets and audio equipment for guitarists.

(Andy) Fuchs Amplifiers of New Jersey, builds 7 different tube based guitar amplifiers and one hybrid bass amplifier, that uses tubes in the preamp section and solid state design for the power amp. Depending upon the ohm rating of the speaker cabinet, the Bruiser Bass Amp can provide 250 to 600 watts of power.

Fuchs (pronounced fox) guitar amps range in power from 7 watts to 150 watts.  Many are power switchable. Fuchs also builds stand alone cabinets loaded with a variety of speaker sizes, from one twelve inch up through two twelve inch speakers with open or closed backs.

Louis Rosano, also of New Jersey, starting building clones of Tweed Twins, nineteen years ago. His company, Louis Electric, now builds six different models of amplifiers. His list of well known clients is impressive, including such names as Keith Richards, John Fogarty and Duke Robillard

Based on tweed Fenders, Louis Electric amplifiers have a unique look and feel all their own. Louis Electric makes his own circuits using phenolic board with hand-punched eyelets and Switchcraft or Carling input jacks and switches.

Louis Electric amplifiers range from 25 to 80 watts.  Most come with one-twelve inch Celestion speaker although the 58 Twinmaster model includes dual twelve inch Celestions.

Fred Taccone, from Fullerton California, is the force behind Divided By 13 amplifiers. Taccone sites his father for helping him develop his electronic skills. He started out in the electronic business at a company that made power amps.  Taconne learned to build guitar amplifiers while working at Fender and Music Man under the tutelage of Leo Fender, Doc Kaufmann, and Randall Forest.

He also worked in concert promotions and as a recording engineer, making contacts with some well-known artists. With his background in amplifier building, many of these artists would ask for repairs and modifications. He soon had a job doing this full time. 

In talking with customers and friends, he would often hear, “I like my amp, but I wish it would...” or “I need an amp that could...”  It was not long before he got suggestions to build his own amps and Divided By 13 was born.

They currently offer 10 models of amplifier only units (heads), with or without cabinets.  The cabinets range from one twelve inch speaker to four twelve inch speakers. Divided By 13 has recently added combo amps to the line up. Taccones amplifiers range from 9 watts with the switchable 9/15 up through the 50/100 watt switchable model. He also produces a 200-watt bass amp. 

His list of users is impressive and includes Sir Paul McCartney and his band.

Dr. Rick Jones is the founder of Acoustic Image amplifiers. Dr. Jones takes a much different approach to amplification. His company build high quality solid-state amplifiers that deliver the transparent sound of your instrument, in a highly portable unit.

At one time his Clarus I may have been considered boutique. But the company has become mainstream due to word of mouth recommendations. 

Jazz guitarists and bassists prefer these high quality powerful amplifiers as due to their clean sound and their lightweight. Even his most powerful combo , weighs only 28 pounds. Some of his amps come with a shoulder carrying bag.

The Acoustic Image Clarus is an amp head that is small enough to fit in a guitar gig bag, but produces an amazing 400 watts of Class D power.  

Except for the Claris and Claris II, the other models come with their own small speaker cabinets.  Despite the cabinets’ size, they can handle up to 1000 watts of power.  

Dr. Jones has designed a unique downward firing speaker on the bottom of the amp that uses the floor to bounce sound in a room.