Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hamilton Steel Guitars

Chris Hamilton - Builder of Hamilton Steel Guitars
About a month ago I received a great email from Chris Hamilton regarding The Unique Guitar Blog. It turns out that Chris is a professional metal worker and a highly skilled luthier. He has combined his talents to create Hamilton Steel Guitars.

You may have seen some of his instruments featured in Guitar Player Magazine or other guitar related literature.

His guitars are not guitars that are played with a steel bar, but guitars with mainly steel bodies.

In my reply to him, after a cursory view of his webpage, I commented that the guitars reminded me of Veleno instruments. But after further study, these guitars are nothing like Velenos. Hamilton Steel Guitars are among the most unique instruments that I have ever seen.

The instruments that Hamilton creates are works of art, sculptures in metal if you will.

A Steel Bass Body after sanding
Hamilton Steel Guitars, which he abbreviates as HSG, is located in Van Nuys, California. Chris’ business is a one man operation, turning out one instrument at a time, so each is 100% handmade. All guitars are made of steel with an aluminum neck pocket and bridge block. Chris accomplishes this through his skillful use of T.I.G. welding (tungsten inert gas) to bind the instruments shapes together.

Chris began building and customizing motorcycles and prerunner, off road, racing trucks. But his passion is the guitars that he builds.

I'll note that he machines the bodies and necks on pre-WWII era milling equipment. Parts are made on an old LeBlond lathe. Unlike other manufacturers, there is nothing digital about Hamilton Steel Guitars. They are made in the same manner as luthery artisans of the past.

Chris' guitars are amazing. In a market that is flooded with replicas of American made guitars, Hamilton Steel Guitars stand out. Hamilton's instruments are hollow metal replicas of well-known electric instruments, such as Les Pauls, Gibson Explorers, Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters, however each instrument is made of rolled steel. Chris also builds his own unique designs and is able to customize an intrument to each customers specifications.

These guitars feature unusual twists, such as a radiator style grills, custom contours or decorative paneling on the body. Chris offers custom necks made of aluminum, graphite or exotic woods.

HSG offers custom finishes, such as Brushed Steel, Chrome, Nickel or one he calls Heavy, Medium or Light Rusting. This one gives the metal instrument an unusual aged look reminiscent of modern art sculptures. The visual impact of his creations is awesome.

As I have intimated, your order can be customized to fit any specifications you desire.

Pickguards and pickup rings can be fashioned from aluminum, copper, stainless steel or brass.

Your HSG does not have to come with a natural aluminum finish. The guitars are offered with Candy, Pearl, Metalflake, Powder Coat and any popular automotive or motorcycle finish. Chris even does Wallpaper finishes.

Pickups brands and types are left up to the purchaser. You can include however many pickups you desire, even piezo pickups.

HSG can be order with any style headstock. The bodies come with or without F-holes. Despite being made from metal, the hollow build allows the instruments to weigh anywhere from 6.5 to 11 pounds, which is no more than most solidbody wooden guitars.

There is one last thing you need to know about Hamilton Steel Guitars...They are not just entirely handmade, they are also bulletproof!

Check out the website at:

Chris was kind enough to send me some pictures of his remarkable creations. Enjoy!

Check out this video of Chris building a body. It is fascinating.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tommy Smothers - Comedian Guitars Part Four

The final installment of Comedian Guitars is about Tommy Smothers, the guitar playing brother of The Smothers Brothers. He was the one his mother did not like best.

Tom was born in New York City. Tom’s father was Major Thomas Smother, a West Point graduate and military officer during WWII. The Major died when he was being transported from a POW camp in Japan. Tom’s mother moved the family to the Los Angles area and raised her children in Califonia’s Redondo Beach area.

Tom and Dick Smothers both attended San José State University. The brothers joined a folk group called the Casual Quintet. By 1959 they were playing at the popular Purple Onion, a San Francisco folk club. A few years later they developed the Smothers Brothers act and recorded a successful comedy album at the same club. In 1961 they made their first national appearance on The Jack Paar Show, and later on The Steve Allen Show, which was the forerunner of the Tonight Show.

The brothers set out ot be serious folk singers. Tom would introduce a song by making things up. Dick would chime in by disagreeing with Tom. Then a brotherly argument would ensue with a comic ending.

By 1965, CBS television offered them an hour long variety show. The brothers agreed to the show and it was a huge success. By 1967 their contract came up for renewal. In the contract language, they insisted on total creative control.

Now this was at a time when the United States was in the midst of the very unpopular Viet Nam War, social unrest was rampant due to the war and civil injustice to Black citizens. The drug culture was emerging, as was free love and an interest arose in alternative forms of religion. The Smothers Brothers, led by Tom, felt a calling to speak up on these topics by use of their humor. This did not sit well with the CBS censors. Each show became a battle. This led to the show’s demise.

Tom became very politically active. At one point he joined his friend John Lennon on the recording of Give Peace A Chance.

Tom Smothers found other work in the entertainment industry and won acolades for his talent and determination to take a stand. He owns a vineyard in Sonoma County and creates wines under the Remick Ridge Vineyards label.

Tom Smothers has used only two brands of guitar during his career. He played a Martin or a Guild.

The guitar that he is primarly seen with is the Guild D-55TV. This is Guild’s top-of-the-line dreadnaught. Although it is not as fancy as a Martin D-45, the Guild is a fine instrument.

It has been used by Folk, Country and Bluegrass artists and hearlded for its big voice. The D-55 is a true workhorse of a guitar. Unlike the Les Paul TV model, which had a yellow hue to show up better on black and white television, the Guild designation of TV is due to the use of the best woods and craftsmanship, that Guild Guitars would be proud to display on television.

I have heard it said that in Guild’s nomiclature, the designation T, noted an instrument with a natural top. I cannot find evidence to support this claim. The D-55TV is an updated  and fancy version of their model D-50.

Tom Smothers is generally seen playing a sunburst D-55TV.

For those unfamiliar with Guild’s history, the company was founded by Alfred Dronge and George Mann in 1952. The Epiphone guitar company had been sold to Gibson by the Stathopoly family. This left employees of the Manhattan firm out of work. Dronge and Mann put together a Guild of the finest luthiers in New York to start up their company. Their venture was a big success and the headquarters moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, since the company outgrew its original plant.

The advent of folk and blues music was a big assist to Guild and they concentrated less on archtop jazz guitars and more on flattop guitars in the Martin style.

Alfred Dronge was killed in an airplane accident. In 1966 the company was acquired by the Avnet Corporation and moved to Westerly, Rhode Island. Guitars from Westerly are considered to be the best that Guild made. Guild expanded into the electric guitar market in the mid 1960’s, due to the increased interest in the electric guitar.

The Fender Musical Instrument Corporation never seemed capable of producing a really great acoustic guitar.

The company was in an acquisition mode in the late 1990’s. They had purchased the small, Washington State based Tacoma guitar company and next set their sites on Guild.

The Rhode Island plant was old and the machinery was not modern. In Fender’s eyes, it was inefficient. Fender had just built a brand new factory in Corona, California. The employees in Westerly were offered jobs, if they wanted to relocate to California. I don’t believe anyone took up the offer.

Production of Guilds in Corona did not last very long, before Fender moved Guild to the Tacoma facility in Tacoma, Washington. It was during this time that Fender started importing Asian made Guilds, using the Guild name.

Kaman Incorporateds main business was building precision industrial parts and building heliocopters. They had devoted almost 40 years to their founders dream of building a guitar by using synthetic materials. This was the company that made and sold Ovation Guitars.

The company decided in 2004 to unload the guitar division. Fender was right there and bought the company and their facility in New Hartford, Connecticut. Fender not only went on the manufacture Ovation guitars in the Connecticut facility, but moved production of Guild there as well.

American made Guilds are a bargain when compared with similar Martin and Gibson instruments. Their D-55 model sells new for around $2800 USD, with a hardshell case included.

This last video features The Who on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. They are singing My Generation. Stay tuned for the end of the clip. Keith Moon put explosives in his bass drum, however without Moon's knowledge a stage hand put in extra explosives. Moon is stunned at the end of the clip. Townsend blames this for hearing loss.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ranger Doug (Green) Comedian Guitars - Part Three

In the early 1990’s, a local public radio station from Cincinnati, Ohio, WVXU, played host to the Rider’s Radio Theater, featuring The Riders In The Sky. Two shows would be taped for broadcast on each visit. To be there was like going back in time to the early days of radio, complete with a sound effects man and each of the Riders doing different character voices.

The group consists of Woody Paul (Dr. Paul Chrisman) on fiddle, Too-Slim (Fred Labour) on upright bass, Joey the Cow Polka King (Joey Miskulin) on accordion and Ranger Doug (Douglas B. Green) on guitar.

As we are dedicated to guitars, I’ll be talking about Douglas B. Green. Doug is not just the guitarist, but sings lead vocals and yodels. He is also arranges for the Rider’s songs. He has won awards for songwriting. He sings lead vocal and yodels with the Riders In The Sky. Ranger Doug also lays claim to be The Idol Of American Youth.

Green didn’t start out to be a musician. He got a degree from the University of Michigan and did his post-graduate work at Vanderbilt, with a degree in Literature. It was during this era that he became interested in folk music, particularly Western Cowboy songs.

Prior to Riders In The Sky, Green played in a number of Bluegrass Bands. He even was in Bill Monroe’s group for awhile. He also joined the Buck White Family group, which performed Gospel songs. Green supplemented his income by doing guitar repair work at Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.

In my opinion, Ranger Doug is this generations foremost rhythm guitarist. He plays in the chunky style of Freddie Green and all of the big band era players. In 2006, he evened published an instruction book called, “Rhythm Guitar the Ranger Doug Way.”

Doug’s beloved Gibson L-5 was stolen years ago. He currently prefers vintage Stromberg guitars. Luthiers Charles and Elmer Stromberg designed these based on the Gibson L-5. However, the lower bouts on their Master 400 measured 19” across.

These guitars were cannons of sound. They had to be, to be heard above big band brass, reeds and drums. Strombergs are scarce, hence extremely valuable and collectible.

When he is not touring and recording with The Riders, Doug Green plays rhythm guitar in the well known Nashville, Western Swing band known as The Time Jumpers.

The Time Jumpers are omprised of nine of Nashville's finest studio and musicians and vocalists. The group started in 1998 with an idea from bandleader Hoot Hester to get together and play Western swing for their own enjoyment.

If you are ever in Nashville, check them out to see if they are playing.

Green has authored a couple of books. One is called Playing Guitar the Ranger Doug Way. (One of the oft quoted Riders in the Sky taglines says, “It’s not always the easy way, but it’s the Cowboy way.”) Green also authored a book on cowboy singers and guitarists, called Singing in the Saddle. The History of the Singing Cowboy. He is also an avid collector of vintage instruments. So it is not going to be easy to discuss all of his guitars. We will stick to the ones he is most seen playing.

In the Cincinnati shows, I recall that he was playing a sunburst Gibson L-5C.In an interview, Doug goes on to say, the Gibson L-5 was an offshoot of a guitar that Gibson produced in the mid 1930’s called the Super 800. This was a fancy mandola version of the Super 400 and it was Gibsons top of the line instrument of that era.

Allow me a minute to digress. Wes Tuttle is probably not a household name. Wes was in a handful of movies with singing cowboy, Stuart Hamblin. Hamblin had a hit song in 1955 called This Old House. Tuttle owned and played a left handed 1939 Gibson L-5 throughout his career.

Aside from working with Hamblin, Tuttle’s biggest claim to fame was dubbing in Dopey’s part in “The Dwarf’s Yodeling Song” in the 1937 Disney version of Snow White. Tuttle was also in the Sons of the Pioneers.

During the golden age of radio, he performed in Cincinnati on the Boone County Jamboree on 50,000-watt radio station,WLW.

Tuttle had a couple of notable hit songs. One was called Detour and the other called With Tears in my Eyes. In the 1950s he was a writer and performer on the “Town Hall Party” TV show in Los Angeles. Wes Tuttle was inducted into The Western Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

A year after Wes Tuttle passed away, his widow, Marilyn, was thoughtful and generous enough to present Tuttle’s L-5 to Doug Green. Green states, “In the course of my getting to know these people I got to know Wesley Tuttle, and he helped me with the book greatly.”

After receiving the Gibson L-5, Green had it refretted, added a bone nut, cut for right handed playing and had a new right-handed pickguard built for the guitar.

Green admits to owning quite a collection of Gibson archtops, including a blonde L-5C, a 1941 L-5 Cutaway, and a pre-World War II J-200 (a fancy flat top model that was also a favorite of the singing cowboys). There are pictures of him playing a vintage Epiphone Regent model.

Doug Green had an affinity for guitars like Tuttle’s Gibson L-5 ever since he formed Riders in the Sky in 1977. The L-5 is an “archtop” style, a style invented and perfected by the Gibson company, featuring a top that is carved into an arched shape, like a violin.

Prior to the availability of electric guitars, guitarists in big bands found that archtop models were the only guitars that could produce enough volume to be heard above drums and horn sections.

Gibson’s L-5 was the original f-hole archtop, and it was the favorite of many performers throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. As Green says, “A lot of people think 1939 was the best year for Gibson archtops. No question, they made the most attractive guitar. They came up with the design and nobody could top it. To me, the 1939 Gibson…. you’re just not going to top that.”

Green’s style of playing is much like the “comping” of Freddie Green’s swing playing with Count Basie. Ranger Doug plays a lot of 3 note chords, many times using five or six strings, but muting all strings but three.

The chord changes occur each half measure. This makes the guitar the rhythm instrument for the Riders.

Aside from being an authority on Singing Cowboys, Green is also an authority on Stromberg guitars.

Charles and Elmer Stromberg built instruments using the Gibson L-5 as a template, however they scavenged for old wood, used their own system of bracing, and on their Master series made the lower bout 19 inches wide. This was almost a full two inches larger than Gibson or D’Angelico.

Stromberg’s top models were their colossal, nineteen-inch-wide bodies that provided the tremendous volume and projection needed for a rhythm guitarist to be heard in the large jazz orchestras of the 1940s. Charles and Elmer, father and son, worked together in Boston, beginning in the early 1930s. Both men died in 1955. I have never been fortunate enough to play a Stromberg, however I am told these are the greatest guitars for playing rhythm.

This cutaway version of the Stromberg G-3 model was made circa 1950 and has been owned and used by "Ranger Doug" Green and was offered for sale by Gruhn Guitars of Nashville.

In a handwritten letter accompanying this guitar, Ranger Doug writes, "It is with considerable regret that I part with Stromberg G-3 #602, a guitar that has traveled all over the country and been on the Grand Ole Opry many times."

As I have stated, Green is an authority on Stromberg instruments. He states there are only five G-3 cutaways known to exist. So this is indeed a rare guitar. The guitar was professionally refinished in cherry sunburst..

During one of the Cincinnati Rider’s Radio Shows that I attended, Ranger Doug took a break from his usual large-bodied F-hole guitars to play a Gibson J-200 on a couple of songs.

I suppose many of us associate that guitar with Miss Emmylou Harris, but it was the singing cowboys and other country artists that were attracted to this guitars “bling” factor and the fact that it was big and loud. Though we associate Gene Autry with Martin Guitars, he also held court with a Gibson J-200.

As a tribute to Ranger Doug’s preference for Gibson guitars, The Gibson Musical Instrument Company has presented Green with two great instruments.

In 2009, Gibson Master Luthier, Ren Ferguson, sent Ranger Doug a handmade contemporary version of the Gibson J-200, made especially for the Idol of American Youth.

In 2010, Gibson once again honored this generation’s most famous singing cowboy with a beautiful new blond, Gibson L-5C, that was also made by Ren Ferguson. This is a prototype of the Gibson Ranger Doug model.

During his long career, Doug Green counts himself fortunate to have met many of his guitar inspirations such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, as well as Wes Tuttle, Jimmy Wakely, Eddie Dean, Bob Nolan, Lloyd Perryman, and Ray Whitle.

I’ve always been a fan of acoustic music and close vocal harmony arrangements. The Riders in the Sky are at the top of my list.