Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Fender VI (six string bass)

Although referred to as The Fender Six String Bass, Fender actually named this guitar, The Fender VI.

In the late 1950’s, the Danelectro Company developed the first six string bass guitar called the model UB2.

Many recordings during the late 1950’s through the 1960’s featured this Danelectro six string bass, played with a pick with the high end accentuated. The sound was refered to as Tic-Tac, and the tic-tac bass was a new arsenal to add a special sound to recorded popular music.

Some players strung these basses with extra heavy guitar strings and tuned down a fifth to get a baritone guitar sound. Duane Eddy specialized in this sound and he used a Danelectro instrument.

In 1961, Leo Fender believed he could build a better instrument. Fender designers used a body pattern similar to a Fender Jazzmaster, however the upper horn had more of a curve.

The first model employed three single pole passive pickups with metal pickup rings and three single throw switches to turn each on or off. The neck had a 30” scale and a 7.25” radius. By bass standards, the neck was extremely thin. The guitar was equipped with a Fender Floating Tremolo that had a long arm.

The adjustable bridge came with a removable Chromed cover. The body included a large pickguard and an input, master volume and tone control that were mounted on a chrome plate. Leo Fender intended this to be a bass guitar tuned an octave below regular guitar pitch. The wound first string in the set had a .025” diameter. Because the strings were wound, the tone was quite different from that of a guitar. The tuning was much different from modern five or six string basses, which extend beyond low E.

The close proximity of the strings and the narrow neck did not win any praise from most bass players, although a few did use it in performances. Notably Jack Bruce, John Entwhistle, Robert Stiles of the Hollies and Rick Huxley of the Dave Clark Five. Robert Smith of The Cure and other such as Glen Campbell utilized it as a lead instrument.

The Fender VI was an excellent crossover instrument for guitarists. Harrison and Lennon both utilized it on their recordings. It is easy to play chords on this instrument and the short scale helps guitarists that are used to guitar necks as opposed to bass necks.

The tremolo bar on this instrument did not win many fans and did not receive much use. Though well designed, the Fender VI was not at all popular. From its inception to its demise, less than 800 units were manufactured.

1963 brought about a change in the instruments design when a “strangle” switch was added to the lower horn. This condenser boosted or cut the bass frequency to help provide that Tic-Tac sound or a deeper bass sound.

A foam rubber muffler became part of the guitars equipment and was located right above the bridge. A flick of a spring-loaded switch pressed the rubber mute against the strings. A modification to the pickups also came about. The metal rings were gone and the pickups resembled those found on a Fender Jaguar, although the VI still came with three pickups. The capacitor/condenser switch carried over from the Jaguar design.

Although Mr. Fender meant for this instrument to be an actual bass, many guitarists set it up as a baritone guitar and tuned it from A to A or B to B, using extra heavy guitar strings.

In 1964, a plastic pickguard replaced the celluloid one. A bound neck became standard equipment in 1965. In late1966, block inlays were added. In 1968 the headstock logo with printed with black ink instead of gold ink. Additionally a polyester spray-on finish, replaced the nitrocellulose finish.1975 brought about the discontinuation of the Fender VI.

During Fender’s transition years, all manufacturing moved to Japan. In 1996, a ’62 reissue of the Fender VI was offered.

One of the main downfalls of the Fender VI was price. A Stratocaster sold for $239 and a Precision bass sold for around the same amount. However, the Fender VI was priced at $400.

Though the Fender instrument was far superior to the Danelectro six-string bass, the Danelectro model, priced at less than $150 in 1961, was more popular. Guitarists saw this as a side instrument and were not willing to spend the extra cash.

In 2004, they released a similar instrument known as the the Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom or the Jaguar Bass VI Custom,

There were several differences in this guitar. The body had a Jaguar shape. It came with only two pickups with Jaguar switching options and the neck scale was 28.5”. The bridge was fixed instead of having a tremolo.

In 2006, the Fender Custom Shop offered a reproduction of the original 1961 Bass VI featuring three single-coil pickups and identical electronics.

At present, Fender no longer offers the Fender VI. One offshoot of the Fender VI was the Fender Jaguar guitar which was introduced in 1962.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Roy Orbison's Gretsch/Gibson/Sho-bud Guitar

There was an article in this month’s Vintage Guitar Magazine about Roy Orbison. Roy was THE VOICE for he had one of the best voices in rock music and Roy's songs were amazing. Each one was a story. In fact Roy was so good that Elvis would not perform on the same venue.

The VG article is about a new boxed set of Orbison's recordings, however it devotes a couple of sentences to one of Roy’s most unique guitars. I have seen pictures of this guitar many times and never paid much attention to it. At first glance, it appeared to be a typical 1960’s Gretsch guitar. But this guitar is by no means typical.

The body is from a Gretsch guitar. (I never bothered to look beyond the body.) However, the neck is by Gibson. I have searched extensively for information on this instrument and there is not much available. It also seem that no one knows what has become of it.

Roy used this guitar extensively in the 1960’s and then went on to play a variety of Gretsch instruments. Later in his career, he embraced Gibson guitars. He usually played an ES-335.

There are also pictures of him playing a Fender Telecaster.

I attempt to avoid mentioning guitars currently featured in current popular publications, but I have been obsessing over this guitar. This instrument is on the cover of an album titled Roy Orbison’s 50 Greatest Hits.

Mid-50's Country Club
The body appears to be from mid-1950's Chet Atkins model or a Country Club. In researching the guitar, most folks have commented it looks like a Gretsch Country Club body. The Country Club came with a master tone potentiometer, making three knobs on the lower bout until 1965, when a tone switch replaced the tone potentiometer, leaving the lower bout with two volume controls.

Roy was playing this guitar prior to 1965. However, at the time, Gretsch guitars could be ordered with differing combinations of controls.

Gretsch designer Jimmie Webb
In 1958, Gretsch White Falcon guitars came with a master volume pot on the top lower bout, a neck and bridge potentiometer on the bottom lower bout, a pickup selector and a three-way tone switch on the upper bout. However, the White Falcon came with fancy sparkle-gold binding around the body and neck.
Roys black guitar has white binding.

Both the Country Club and the single cutaway 6120 Chet Atkins model had thick bodies. The Country Club was thicker at 3 and 3/8” deep through 1959, while the 6120 was 2 78th" in depth.

The older Chet Atkins 6120 models came with a "G" etched into the guitars body. However, this was no longer on the instrument by 1957.

By 1958, the model came with two separate pickup potentiometers and the tone control was replaced by a three-way tone switch.

'59 Chet Atkins 6120
It is very difficult to pin down which instrument supplied the body on this guitar. The guitars body was refinished in black and had a Bigsby vibrato. Both models came with a Bigsby.  Both the 6120 and Country Club guitars were hollow body instruments with actual "F" holes. Both instruments came with white binding.

The neck on Roy’s guitar looks like a Gibson Super 400 neck of the era. It is a fancy bound neck with split block inlay position markers and a split diamond design on the headstock. The bottom of the neck ends in a fancy volute, just like those on a Gibson Super 400. There is no logo on the top of the headstock. I imagine if someone at Gretsch modified the guitar for Roy, it would make sense they did not want a Gibson logo on the guitar.

To further complicate things, the single coil pickups are from a Sho-bud steel guitar and have eight pole pieces. They are surrounded by metallic pickup rings. The vibrato is a Bigsby B-6 model.

The remaining feature that set this guitar apart was the four switches on the upper bout. Gretsch introduced stereo wiring in 1959 and called this feature, “Projectosonic.”

Note the pole pieces

The Gretsch stereo guitar evolved from an idea by Jimmie Webster. Mr. Webster is well worth mentioning.

He was a Gretsch designer and endorser and considered by many to be the father of tap guitar playing. Jimmie Webster was the main force that designed the Gretsch 6120 for Chet Atkins. He also designed the White Falcon.

He meant the White Falcon guitar to only be a presentation piece for the 1955 NAMM convention, and not an instrument in the Gretsch lineup. The guitar became so desirable that Gretsch began offering the guitar for sale.

Webster then went about modifying it, by splitting the humbucking pickups to run in stereo, then routing each signal to a different amplifier.

Webster used this single cutaway White Falcon with the four switches as his personal instrument. Jimmie Webster was also a presenter for Gretsch and traveled around the country giving demonstrations at music stores and in concerts.

In 1959, this feature was added to the Gretsch Country Club, but with only two switches.

The stereo design on the Country Club was achieved through "half" pickups.

Although each pickup housing looked like a normal Gretsch humbucking pickups, the neck pickup only had the magnets and polepieces under the lower three strings and the bridge pickup was designed in a similar fashion with the magnets and polepieces under the first three strings.  The "bridge" pickup was centered in the middle of the Country Club.

The 1958 Gretsch White Falcon was the first to use the four switch option.
The four switches on Roy’s instrument are evidence of the Gretsch Projectosonic stereo wiring. A close inspection reveals this may have been an afterthought or special order. The washers on the two lower switches are a different shape than the top switches. Perhaps Roy had seen a stereo Gretsch and decided that would be a good option.


I wish I had more information on this unique instrument. There was an Asian knock-off on ebay for sale. The seller mentioned the four switches on the upper bout did not work. I note also, the body of this instrument appears to be only around 2” deep. Orbison’s instrument was deeper.

Picture by Al Willis

It would be interesting to learn more about how this guitar came about and what happened to the instrument. If I learn anything more, I will share it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Gretsch Bass Guitars

The Gretsch Musical Instrument Company, never well known as a maker of bass guitars, got a relatively late start in the bass manufacturing business.

Friedrich Gretsch
Gretsch Musical Instruments had its beginning in 1883 when a German immigrant named Friedrich Gretsch opened a small music store in Brooklyn, New York. It was there he manufactured drums, tambourines, and banjos and built a solid reputation. Friedrich Gretsch died at age 39, in 1895, at the age of 39.

His fifteen-year-old son Fred took over the business and maintained the drum manufacturing business. It was not until 1927 that Gretsch not only produced their first line of American made drum, they also started in the guitar manufacturing business. As early as 1939, Gretsch produced their first electric guitar.

A few years later, in 1942, Fred Senior retired and handed over the company to his sons, Fred Junior and Bill Gretsch. Bill passed away in 1948.

Fred Junior retired in 1967 and sold the company to the Baldwin piano company. Fred Gretsch III was able to buy what was left of the company and the Gretsch trade name back in 1985 and once again, Gretsch was in business.

Fred Gretsch III
In 2002, Fred III entered an agreement with the Fender Musical Instrument Company to distribute manufacture and distribute Gretsch guitars. Mr. Gretsch and his wife are still very actively involved in running the company.

The first Gretsch bass, produced in 1961, had a dismal reception. The Bikini Bass had a modular design and one model in the Gretsch Bikini line.

These instruments came with interchangeable necks that bolted onto a wooden slab that contained the instruments pickup(s), bridge, and tailpiece. The body of this bass came with a hinged back, made to be folded in half, for storage and transportation when the neck and slab were removed.

The Bikini line also offered a double neck option that could be set up as a bass/guitar or guitar/guitar combination. Not well liked, those that have played it state that it did not sound as good as other basses of the day. By 1963, the Bikini Bass was out of production.

In that same year, Gretsch produced a bass guitar with a similar appearance to the double cutaway Country Gentleman and dubbed the model 6070. The guitar had a 34” scale, which is comparable to most long-neck bass guitars, a single pickup placed near the bridge, a built in muffler, adjustable near the bridge, a padded back and 24 carat gold plated hardware.

Five years later, in 1968, Gretsch introduced an updated version with the same accoutrements, but twin pickups. This was the model 6072.

Nineteen-sixty-eight was a happening year for Gretsch. They released the models 6071 and 6073. These were both single cutaway, hollow body bass guitars, with short scale necks of only 29 inches.  The 6071 came with one pickup and the 6073 had two pickups. The bodies of both models were hollow, however the F holes were simulated.

The headstock had four-on-a-side chrome plated tuners. All the hardware was chrome plated and the back was padded. I will confess to seeing the Monkees in concert at the Cincinnati Gardens. (Hey, I was 13 years old!) Monkees bass player, Peter Tork, used a model 6073. Production on both models ended in 1972.

In nineteen-seventy-two saw the introduction of model 7615. This was a double-cutaway, solid body bass guitar, with a long-scale 34” neck.

This guitar, produced until 1975, when the Gretsch Broadkaster Bass became its replacement. The Broadkaster name was a Gretsch trademark, originally used on a drum kit.

Most recall that Fender had to cease use of the name Broadcaster, since Gretsch objected.

Ironically, the Broadkaster Bass looked somewhat like a Fender Bass, but for its two-on-a-side headstock. The solid-body Broadkaster came with a 30.5” scale.

The solid-body Gretsch Committee Bass, model 7629, was produced from 1976 to 1981 and came with a single Supertron pickup, two on side-chromed tuners, chromed hardware and a beautiful walnut finish.

The bass was made with a large black scratch plate that covered much of the body or with a laminated walnut and maple body.

The scratch plate was clear and the bass came with a matching maple neck with a walnut stripe in the center that runs into the body.

The Committe bass was a nice instrument with a 34" scale.

The 1979 Gretsch model TK300 was a very odd-looking instrument. Its appearance is reminiscent of a Teisco or old Ibanez model. The bodies’ cutaways are straight. The bottom of the body has a slight indentation and the headstock is almost rectangular. The guitars pickguard is also quite unusual.

This was a product of the Baldwin years. There are complaints about the quality of parts on this model.

Gretsch entered a deal with luthier/pickup designer T.V. Jones in 2005. They would market and sell his guitars and basses known as the Spectra Sonic series. By this time, all Gretsch manufactured all instruments in Asia.

Many famous players had switched out their Gretsch Filtertrons and Supertrons to TV Jones pickups. The Spectra Sonic Bass, model G6145, came with twin TV Jones pickups. The body came in black with a large white pickguard. The $2000 price point effected sales.

Gretsch has dropped the line; however, Jones is manufacturing Spectra Sonic guitars and bass guitars and selling them on his own.

Gretsch has introduced several new models at varying price points. The most expensive current model is the double-cutaway White Falcon Bass, model G6136L. This comes with gold plated hardware, ebony roller bridge, and twin TV Jones pickups. Scale is 34”. Suggested retail price is $4700.

The new Broadkaster Bass, G6119B, is a single cutaway design in the Tennessee Rose style. The hardware is entirely chrome plated. The F holes are simulated. The bridge is adjustable and the twin pickups are both Filtertron humbuckers. Scale is 30.3”. Suggested price is $2500.

The Gretsch Electrotone model G6073, is somewhat similar to the Broadkaster. Although it is a hollowbody instrument, the F-holes are sealed. Scale on this bass is 30.3”.

This bass comes with TV Jones pickups and retails at $2900.

The Gretsch Thunder Jet model G6128B bass is a chambered body, single cutaway instrument in the style of Gretsch Jet guitars.

Like the previous two models, this has chrome-plated hardware. It comes with twin TV Jones pickups. It has a 30.3” scale and retails at $2800.

The Gretsch 6199B Billy-Bo Jupiter Thunder Bass is the style of Bo Diddley’s guitar, with touches by the “Reverend” Billy Gibbons. The solid mahogany body is topped with twin TV Jones pickups and a rosewood “space controlled” bridge. This unique instrument retails for $3600.

For the more economically minded, Gretsch also produces the Electromatic series. There is only one current model.

The Junior Jet model G2202 comes with a bolt-on neck and a TV Jones mini-humbucking pickup. Like most other Gretsch basses, this also has a short scale 30.3” neck. It is only $250.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)