Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Homemade Steel Slide Guitar

Most of us know that Leo Fender was not a guitar player. After his job as an accountant did not work out, he borrowed some money and started his own business as a TV and radio repair man.  Shortly after this and before building his first six string standard solid body "Spanish" guitar, Leo was supplementing his income by building slide steel guitars and amplifiers. His original designs were fairly simple, but professional and I am certain he was aided  in this endeavor by his friend Freddie Travares, who was a rather good steel player. 

It has recently been pointed out to me that a lot of people carrying on Leo’s tradition by building their own lap steel guitars. Some of them rival professionally made instruments and some are very primitive. But they are functional and seem to bring a lot of joy to the builders and players.

Recently a friend sent me some pictures of a simple homemade slide steel guitar he had made by using some scrap wood, an old guitar neck, a pickup, some wooden shims, a rubber band and what appears to possibly be a religious tract. The design is much simpler than Leo's first shot at building a steel guitar, but it is functional.

My friend said he was tired of lugging around his double neck pedal steel every night and setting it up, then taking it down, so he built this instrument. (Check it out in the video below)

In looking around, I find there are plenty of other slide players that have homemade instruments that use everything but duct tape to build their guitar. (Although I bet someone is using duct tape.)  So I thought I would share a few of these unique instruments.  

I don’t think Sho-Bud/Jackson or MSA have anything to worry about and Red Green would be proud.

This model, made by Darren Landrum, uses door pulls for bridges and saddles and a cupola style drawer pull for the tailpiece. The body is made from a piece of scrap wood. The tuners are inexpensive Schaler-style guitar tuners. The pickup was given to the maker from a friend and is wired directly to the output.  The maker states he wants to add 'fret' lines on the neck.

This one is made by a fellow in a duo that goes by the name Stumblecol. They hail from Cambridge in the UK and seem to be into making cigar box guitars and other homemade stringed instruments.

This one is referred to as The Plank, which is a fair description of the guitars body. 

The ‘Star’ markers cover screws that hold a steel back plate for strength. As a plus the back plate resonates and enhances the sound.

The pickup is made from a ‘stoners tin’ and the bridge is from a hash pipe. In the tin box are two homemade piezo pickups wired to the volume and tone controls. The nut is made from a small branch off of a cherry tree. The tailpiece is off of an old archtop guitar.

Look closely and you can see the strings are three courses tuned in octaves.

The next three guitars, including the one above, were built by Ken Rodgers who went into sticker shock when seeing what old lap steels were going for on eBay. He thought, I can do better than what they are selling. And I'd say he certainly did.

The instruments are beautiful. This odd looking lap steel pictured below and made by Rogers features a body that was turned on a wood lathe.

Interesting concepts. I think Ken should go into business.

Above are a couple of instruments built by guitarist and woodworker Allan Brisley. The upper one is a nice handmade six-string model lap steel guitar and the lower is a one string diddly bow with a homemade pickup. The six string model has bridge saddles similar to those on an old Telecaster.

Featured above is a homemade lap steel from a fellow named Frank James Pracher. The wood plank he used for this guitar is 90 years old and was taken from an old Catholic boarding school that was being demolished.  The tuners are off a broken guitar. The fret board is made of a piece of walnut scrap wood. The fret lines were made using a wood burning tool. The nut and bridge are angle aluminum. And the pickup is off of an old Kramer guitar, with a walnut surround.

There is a volume knob and output on the guitars side.  In my opinion this is an excellent project.

Dave Begalka decided to put away his Emmons for gigs. He now plays Country music on this souped up 4 by 4 lap steel guitar and gets plenty of attention and comments.

The fretboard is made of plywood with frets drawn on with a fine tip blue Sharpie. For position markers, Dave used nails.

What caught my eye was something that looked like a Bigsby palm pedal. In fact it is a homemade device he designed utilizing two aluminum door hinges. The levers are also made of aluminum. The screws that hold the levers onto the hinges act as adjustments so the player can achieve a whole note interval. Dave can depress the B and D levers to pull the strings up to C and D.


©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

This one was made by steel guitarist Dave Certano. It sounds amazing!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Grammer Guitar

When I lived in Middletown, Ohio the best music store around was Moeller Music.

At one time the store was located in the center of town. Inside there was a glass display case that held two of the most unusual looking guitars that I had ever seen. Both bore the same name; The Grammer Guitar which was featured prominently on the head stock. One guitar had more checkered binding on it than the other. Both had a natural finished solid spruce top. The hang tag price was between $500 and $600 USD. Compared to today’s prices it would have been a bargain.

Recalling those guitars reminded me of an episode of The Porter Wagoner Show that I saw on television years earlier. Porter was talking about the Grammer guitars that he and Dolly Parton were both playing. He played a dreadnought version and Dolly had a small (baby) version and Porter probably got some compensation for this plug.

I have never seen another Grammer or played one since those days 30 years ago. As I recall, they are not only nice players, but extremely well made as well.

Billy Grammer was a serious and well known Country artist of the 1960’s. He played guitar and sang and was also was a good businessman. One of his life’s goals was to build the perfect flattop guitar.

Billy’s most recognized gig occurred in 1955 when he was hired to play guitar in the Jimmy Dean band for Jimmy’s CBS TV show. Billy was hired to replace Roy Clarke, who was sacked for being perpetually late to work.

Prior to this job, Grammer backed up such country artists as Hawkshaw Hawkins, T. Texas Tyler, Clyde Moody and Grandpa Jones.

Eventually The Jimmy Dean Show moved to New York and Grammer was left without a job.

A friend in the music business was starting a new label, Monument Records, and he hired Billy Grammer as their first artist. It was there he recorded a hit record. It was a remake of an old folk song called “I Gotta’ Travel On.” Grammer recorded the song in Nashville and it was released around the time of the resurgence of folk music aka The Great Folk Scare. I Gotta' Travel On has gone on to be one of the most recognized and popular tunes ever recorded.

The lead guitarist on the recording was Chet Atkins, Floyd Kramer, bass player Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Hardin, the Anita Kerr singers and the Jordanaires provided backing vocals.  The song went on to become not just a Country hit, but a Pop hit as well.

Grammer had a dream about building the perfect guitars. In 1964 he decided to get serious about his dream of creating the perfect guitar. This was the beginning of the guitar boom. Guitars were a hot item. Every kid in the world wanted to be the next Pop or Country idol.

Billy ponied up $18,000 to purchase controlling interest in a venture with Nashville music store owner Clyde Reid and Nashville luthier J.W. Gower. Together they formed the R, G, and G Guitar Company.

Grammar began his quest to create a great guitar by sawing his personal guitars, a Martin D-18 and a Gibson J-45 in half to inspect them. Indeed, they were inspected at length. With help from a friend named Fred Hedges, Billy put together dimensions for his perfect instrument.

It was trial and error for a while, but he and his team came up with a guitar design and bracing pattern that he felt encompassed the best features of both the Martin and Gibson. Guitar #1, the first prototype was finished in March of 1965.

Members of the Gower family, Fred Hedges, and Clyde Reid were enlisted and hired for the venture. Power tools, lathes, drum sanders and other wood working equipment was purchased on the company went on to replicate the prototype.

By 1965 Grammer guitars were showing up in music stores. They came in 3 sizes. The factory cost for each guitar was $127 and the retail price was $395. R, G and G never gave away their guitars, but some big name artists were able to purchase them at cost.

The factory was building one complete guitar every day.

The first serial number on the first production Grammer was 1001. There were approximately 1000 guitars produced by Grammer during the production years 1965 to 1968. The first 70 production guitars came with a mustache bridge and a head piece that was wider at the corners than the later guitars, which featured a crown bridge and
dark triangular shaped insert at the base of the body.

There was no binding on the neck for the Grammers built by RG and G. The binding and inlay were added by a California company called Vitali. One of the signature feature of a Grammer is two vertical lines of abalone going down the neck.

Strap knobs on the base of the neck were standard. Grammer used Sitka spruce for the sound board material.

The back and sides were Brazilian rosewood, flamed maple or striped mahogany. Fret board materials were rosewood or ebony.

Some guitars were finished with unusual patterns of red, blue, purple, yellow and green bursts. Many Grammers came with a natural finish. Grammers sported Grover tuners and later models came with Schaller tuners.

The first Grammer guitar offered for sale bore serial number 1001. There were approximately 1000 Grammer guitars built between 1965 and 1968. These are essentially handcrafted flat top guitars of the best quality ever made. The Grammer guitar was gaudy on the outside, but seriously well built with an excellent sound.

The Grammer guitar number 1001 is in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

Most Grammers are approximately 15 and a half inches wide, 5 inches deep and have a 24 and a half inch scale. They all had oversized pegheads, large pickguards and bridges.

The finishes were quite unusual, especially for those conservative days. The guitars were finished in blue, yellow or green sunburst and of course natural spruce.

Throughout his partnership in the guitar company, Billy Grammer continued to tour and record. Running a business and being a Country artist eventually caught up with him.

It was in 1968 when R, G, and G guitars sold out to the Ampeg Company. Terms of the contract included a royalty payment on every guitar sold and a reversion clause should ever decide to stop building Grammer guitars.

You can easily distinguish an Ampeg built Grammer guitar from just looking at the logo on the headstock. Original Grammer Guitar have a large letter “G”, while Ampeg made Grammers have a lower case letter “g” on the peghead spelling The grammer guitar.

Grammer was happy about the deal since he could retain the name and he was to make a 5% royalty on every guitar sold.

In an effort to boost sales, Ampeg gave away Grammer guitars to well known artists. This is something Billy Grammer would never have done.

Though the Ampeg Company was in great financial shape, they did not provide the necessary resources to the Grammer factory in Nashville. It was obvious this was a very bad deal.

It was not long before Ampeg sold the Grammer business to a man named Ralph Fielding in 1971.

And it wasn’t very long before Mr. Fielding lost his assets due to defaulting on a construction loan.

Steel guitarist Roy Wiggins acquired the company but could not revive it.

In 1972 the remaining assets of the Grammer Guitar Company were auctioned off to pay business taxes.

Nashville resonator guitar builder Tut Taylor and his son bought everything but the name. This included the equipment, remaining materials and the lease on the building.

Tut Taylor’s son, Mark, continues to build exquisite guitars under the name Crafters of Tennessee.

Billy Grammer continued playing music. He died in August of 2011 at age 85.