Monday, March 31, 2014

Strat Ugly!

When I was in high school, the cutest, most popular girls were the Cheerleaders.  I remember this one cheer those girls used to perform.

C-U-T-E, We got personality. We’re cute!  Hey-hey we’re cute!
U-G-L-Y, You ain’t got no alibi. You’re ugly. Hey-hey you’re ugly.
M-O-M-A, We know how you got that way. Your Moma. Hey-hey your Moma!

So you are by now thinking what the heck does this have to do with guitars? When I was starting in high school and playing a Fender Stratocaster I imagined what it would look like if you took a band saw to it and made it into another shape; say a Flying Vee or a Telecaster.

Fortunately I did not do well in Shop class and never did any Stratocaster surgery. But I did find some examples of those that took a perfectly good Stratocaster, ruined it forever and in the process believed they created a great new instrument. And these guitars are UGLY!

So for this April Fools Day, I present Strat Ugly.

God bless John Mayall. He gave us the Bluesbreakers and is probably the best blues man to come out of the U.K., but John, what did you do to your Stratocaster!  You turned it into a ukulele.

What was this guy thinking? He cut off the top horn, painted it pink and made it look like the guitar has boxer shorts on the bottom.

So this guy cuts off the bottom horn making a stair-step shape and paints the guitar Kelly-Green with green pickups and knobs. Oh, what art!

OK, I know what you are thinking; this is not a Strat. But anyone who would do this to a perfectly nice Telecaster should be locked up. It looks like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.

What in the world was this guy thinking? I could just cry!

I love knobs and switches just as much as the next guy, but J'eessh!

Seymour Duncan Pickups must of have had a sale on single coils when this guy went to modify his Stratocaster. It has two blade switches and a badge!

I don’t know if the owner of this Strat was painting a gold Stratocaster pink or a pink Stratocaster gold, or maybe just distressing the guitar. I must say it distresses me.

I guess this in one way to make a double-neck guitar if you don’t mind it looking STUPID!  The maker has gone so far as to turn a Stratocaster headstock into a Teisco Del Reyheadstock.  Yikes!

The Fender Musical Instrument Company sold a boat load of Squier “Hello Kitty” pink Stratocasters, but I kind of like this “Bill the Cat”Stratocaster.

I am guessing some guy named Levi™ made this Stratocaster.

I’m putting my foot down on this Stratocaster. And though there is some fine carving…it is just wrong!

And finally…Gibson Guitars are well known for naming a guitar after anyone famous, from Dale Earnhardt to Spiderman. But this one has gone too far!

 Everyone have a wonderful April Fools Day!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Rickenbacker 12 String Guitars of Roger McGuinn

Roger McGuinn was born in 1942 and grew up in the Chicago area. His parents were journalists. They loved to read and were devoted to literary charities, even going so far as to have a book published.

James Joseph McGuinn, his given name went to The Latin School of Chicago. He became bitten with the music bug after hearing Elvis Presley sing Heartbreak Hotel.  He begged his parents for a guitar.

Other childhood influences include Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers. 

In 1957 McGuinn enrolled in Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. It was there that he learned to play the five string banjo and got serious about playing guitar. By his graduation he was playing solo at various Chicago coffeehouses.  

His influences included several trio vocal groups including the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio, a group which he would later become a member.
Bobby Darin

McGuinn got a job playing guitar and singing background in Bobby Darin’s band. This job lead to him relocating to California and the Los Angeles music scene. It was in Los Angeles that he met future members of the Byrds.

The Brill Building

In 1962 Darin hired McGuinn with the thought in mind that Darin wanted to add some folk music to his career. These were the years that Folk Music had significantly gained in popularity. By mid 1963, Darin’s health began to fail and he retired from singing. He opened a songwriting and publishing office in New York City’s Brill Building and hired Jim McGuinn. 

McGuinn also found work as a studio guitarist and that same year was backing up Judy Collins and Simon & Garfunkel on their recordings.

The rumblings of Beatlemania and the British Invasion were about to take place. Within less than a year the Beatles American tour would commence.  

McGuinn traveled back to Los Angeles and took a job at Doug Weston’s The Troubadour. Jim McGuinns act included folks songs that were played in a rock style. 

This caught the attention of Gene Clark. Clark befriended McGuinn and thus was formed the beginnings of the Byrds.

Eventually the duo found other like-mined folk/rock influenced member, Chris Hillman, David Crosby and Michael Clarke. The quintet began to perform at Los Angeles clubs. In January of 1965 they recorded the monster hit, Mr. Tambourine Man. 

The Byrds' version was much different than what the songs writer, Bob Dylan, had put down on vinyl.

Their version began with an amazing four bar guitar intro and outro that was played on a Rickenbacker 12 string guitar. This was a fairly recent instrument at the time and provided a very unusual sound. Part of that sound was dependent on the engineers use of compression technology.

Members of the Byrds were dismayed by the fact that the only group member playing an instrument on the recording was McGuinn. This was typical of most major recording sessions. 

Studio time was expensive and record companies wanted ‘product’ out as soon as possible. And this track was being done at Columbia Studios.  Members of the Wrecking Crew were hired to play on the hit instead of The Byrds members. The Byrds did their own vocals with McGuinn singing lead.

In McGuinn’s words, “The Rickenbacker 12 string by itself is kind of thuddy. It doesn’t ring. But if you add compression you get that longer sustain. I found this out by accident. 

The engineer, Ray Gerhardt would use compression on everything to protect his equipment from loud rock and roll. Two Teletronix LA-2A tube based compressors and the guitar signal was sent directly to the board. 

"That is how I got my ‘jingle-jangle’ tone. I was able to sustain a note for three or four seconds.”

This came in handy with the Byrds next hit, Eight Miles High. It was in this song that Jim McGuinn attempted to emulate John Coltrane’s disconnected jazz riffs. He didn’t think this could be accomplished without such sustain.
McGuinn goes on to say, “I practiced eight hours a day on that ‘Ric,’ which worked out well. Acoustic 12 strings have wide necks and thicker strings that were spaced farther apart and were hard to play. But the Ric’s slim neck and low action let me explore jazz and blues scaled….I incorporated more hammer-ons and pull-off into my solos. I also translated some of my banjo picking techniques to the 12 string. 

By combining a flat pick and metal finger picks…I discovered I could instantly switch from fast single-note runs to banjo rolls and get the best of both world.”

As a group the Byrds lasted two years, but played and recorded with other members and other differing names. The actual band officially called it quits in 1973. McGuinn went on to maintain an electric guitar band until 1981 when he decided to be a solo artist.

When James Joseph McGuinn started with the Byrds, he used his given nickname ‘Jim.’ Sometime in the mid 1960’s he started exploring spirituality and became involved with the Subud Spiritual Association. In 1967 the groups leader suggested if he was going to vibrate with the universe, he should consider a new name. 

Jim sent in a list of ten names that had to do with airplanes and science fiction

As Roger was the one actual name and the 18th letter of the alphabet that air pilots use when talking on the radio, that was the name McGuinn chose.

Since this time, ‘Roger’ McGuinn and his wife have become Christians, but he decided to keep the new name.
McGuinn’s first Rickenbacker was a twopickup model 360-12 that had a beautiful blond finish. He was fascinated by the guitar George Harrison played in Hard Days Night. Harrison’s guitar was bound on the front and the back of the body. It was done in a yellow-to red sunburst finish that Rickenbacker calls Fireglo. 

McGuinn could not find a Rickenbacker 12 string that had the pointier cutaways and top trim. He purchased the only available model and used it through his Byrds career.

This guitar was stolen and when he replaced it with a similar instrument. He states that in later years it showed up at an auction and sold for $100,000.

As he states, much of his sound is based on compression, for years Roger McGuinn was unable to replicate that sound on a live stage. 

Paul Kanter of the Jefferson Airplane suggest using a Vox Treble Booster. This was one of the first generation sound enhancers. The unit was small and plugged into a guitars input. McGuinn took the booster apart and installed in internally in his Rickenbacker. He states he tried other compression units, but could not get his sound until the Jangle-Box was invented.

McGuinn states that he has since he currently has a built-in compression unit onboard his triple pickup Rickenbacker 370-12RM that was designed by engineer, Bob Desiderio. As an aside he states that John Hall, the owner of Rickenbacker, allowed 1000 370-12RM models to be built and will not produce anymore to preserve their value.

McGuinn currently uses the Jangle Box and a Roland JC120 amplifier to achieve his sound.

McGuinn does his own string changes and set up on his guitars. Changing strings on a Rickenbacker 12 can be an all day task. McGuinn has produced a video to show how he changes strings and also how he makes neck adjustments.

Besides the Rickenbacker 370-12RM, McGuinn has other guitars he carries with him on tour.  The Martin Guitar Company has produced and provided two Roger McGuinn models. The first is a D12-42/RM 12 string guitar. This is an exquisite 42 model Martin with all the bells and whistles. Alas, it is no longer in production.

Martin also came out with a very unique model for McGuinn called the HD-7. This is a historic dreadnought style 45 Martin that has 7 strings. The unusual thing about this instrument is that an octave ‘G’ string is added to give the sound of a 12 string guitar, but the ease and convenience of a 6 string guitar.  

Roger frequently utilized single string runs to get his sound and this guitar does the trick.  It too is no longer in production, but is still available through some major music stores.

He was using a Fender Mastertone banjo that was given to him by Fender guitars when they were about to be acquired by CBS. He traded it to a friend for an old banjo that was made using Vega and Ode banjo parts.

During his days with Sweethearts of the Rodeo, he used a Gretsch Country Gentleman. He did not think the Rickenbacker 12 would fit into Country Music.

He states that he owns two Rickenbacker ‘Light Show’ guitars, but no longer takes them on the road. He owns a number of Rickenbacker guitars. He also owns a Martin 00-21.

Now in his 70’s, McGuinn only tours to theaters and performing arts centers stating they are well equipped facilities. He travels with his wife and enjoys getting in touch with fans all over the country.

The Rock Bottom Remainders
Roger is also part of a novelty band called the Rock Bottom Remainders. This is a group of writers, who would like to be musician and musicians and all are having a great time. 

The band was established by writer, producer and literary agent Kathi Kamen Goldmark.  

Over the years the Remainder has included among its members Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Cynthia Heimel, Sam Barry, Matt Groening, Greg Iles, Maya Angelou and Al Kooper.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Pete Seeger - America's Tuning Fork

The man that poet Carl Sandberg called America's Tuning Fork, Pete Seeger was born in 1919 to a family of devoted Christian Calvinists. His father was a musician and in 1912 he established the music department at UCLA Berkley

A year later he established the schools first musicology department. Unfortunately Charles Seeger was fired from his teaching position in 1918 for being an outspoken pacifist. The World was at war during this era. 
The next year Pete was born and his family had moved back to a town just east of New York City. When Pete was 18 months old, his family built a trailer and journeyed throughout the southern United States. Their mission was to bring music to the hardworking people of the South.
I mention all these facts because Pete Seeger followed this same pathway throughout his life. 
Seeger was a traveling musician, songwriter, activist and environmentalist. He traveled the world with his banjo and guitar. He advocated peace and human rights. He was concerned about pollution and was active in cleaning up the Hudson Bay near his home.  

Wherever he went a concert may erupt. It may have taken place in a classroom, a park or on the banks of the Hudson

Seeger was well known to put on impromptu concerts when he was in the midst of a crowd. He was not worried about risers and sound systems. 

His job was to bring the joy ofmusic and his message to the world.
Pete Seeger was one of the songwriters of Where Have All the Flowers Gone and If I Had a Hammer and the sole writer of Turn, Turn, Turn.
Pete also turned to songs of other writers and he made hits of their songs. 

Good Night Irene was written by Lead Belly and Pete made it a classic. Pete recorded Solomon Linda’s The Lion Sleepstonight/ Wimoweh long before the Tokens made it into a number one record. 

Seeger made some time changes to the Gospel song, We Shall Overcome and the song became and still stands as the anthem of The Civil Rights Movement. Seeger was the first to record the hit songs, Tzena, Tzena, Tenza, a Hebrew folk song and Kisses Sweeterthan Wine.
In 1948 Seeger wrote the instruction book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo. The book became a long time best seller and an inspiration for many, many banjo players. Who knows, perhaps his book was a impetus in the development of the five string banjo as a Bluegrass mainstay.
Pete played in a called Frailing or Clawhammer. This was an old version of playing in use by many 5 string banjo players prior to Earl Scruggs finger picking style.
Seeger also invented the long neck banjo. He tuned his banjo to “C”, but found it to be too high of a key for his baritone vocal range.  His idea was to add two frets to the neck, which enabled him to tune to “B minor” which better suited his vocal range. 

The original scale length on his banjo was nearly 28”, Pete stretched it to 32”.
The way Pete Seeger accomplished creating the longer neck was to take his Vega Whyte Laydie to luthier John D’Angelico’s shop in near by New York Cities east end. (By the way, the Vega Whyte Laydie originally cost $10.)  There the luthier D’Angelico sawed off the neck near the second fret and inserted a new piece of wood to accommodate the lower two frets. To secure it, D’Angelico glued it together and added a couple pegs to strengthen the bond.

Unfortunately, a dozen years later this banjo was stolen from the backseat of Seeger’s car. Not being deterred, Pete built a new banjo.
It is said the banjo that Pete used through his lifetime is quite heavy. It is beat and worn from use. It’s calf-skin head is inscribed with the words, “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender.” He added this as a motto and a tribute to his mentor Woody Guthrie.

It is also said that his banjo sounds wonderful. From my perspective, the sound an instrument makes when played is due to the player.

Throughout his long career, Seeger played different banjos in a couple of notable groups. The first was called the Almanac Singers, however his best known group was a quartet known as the Weavers. In the Weavers, Pete generally played a standard Orpheum banjo

Pete Seeger briefly hosted a television show in the middle of the 1960’s. It was called Rainbow Quest. Black and White videos from the show are still viewable on YouTube. Seeger interviewed and played with some wonderful folk artists of that era. 

He also wrote articles for Sing Out magazine.

In his earlier life, when he was traveling around the country by hopping railroad freight cars with Guthrie, Pete would occasionally drop and break his banjo. 

He would go to pawn dealers and music stores and get the cheapest banjo he could afford. I am told that Pete’s very first banjo was a used Stewart brand that he purchased at a Manhattan pawn store.

Pete's most well known banjo is the one that he and a friend cobbled together. It is probably the most pictured instrument. This has a 25 fret neck, a 32" scale and is two inches wide at the 15th fret.

The neck is made out of a very solid wood that can be found in North Africa and in the Caribbean, called lignum vitae. This wood is stronger that ebony and is so dense that it sinks in water. It is sometimes called Ironwood. This instrument was built around 1955.

The body or pot was made by Vega, from a model called the Tubaphone. This model has 28 brackets and a metal dowel stick.  But the neck was done by Seeger. 

He states that he purchased a 40” 3 x 4 piece of lignum vitae from the J.H. Monteath Company of New York. Though Seeger was an amateur carpenter; he built his own house, he took the wood to a friend to rough cut it, since he did not have the proper tools to accomplish the job.

He describes the process in his popular instruction book.  Once the neck was completed and joined to the pot, Seeger took it back to D’Angelico’s store, to be fretted. 

By this time, John D’Angelico had hired an assistant name James D’Ambrosio and it was D’Ambrosio that went to work on Seeger’s banjo.

Seeger was not at all happy with the job, stating the frets were put in the wrong place and it caused the banjo to have a brilliant tone, but not the plunky tone that Pete desired. 

So he returned it and had the frets adjusted and the bridge placed closer to the instrument’s center. 

When Pete got the banjo back he once again was not happy, since the luthier had used a piece of ebony over Seeger’s Ironwood to cover the misplaced frets. This also caused the neck heel to be lower than the pot. D’Ambrosio explained he was doing a favor, but Pete liked his lignum vitae. The scale length was once again 32”.

A very young Pete Seeger once expressed interest in being a sign painter. 

For those of you that are unaware, in the middle of the 20th Century, groups of men would earn a living by hand painting advertisements on barns and buildings and they would do a wonderful job.

Pete had studied this art enough that did the lettering that encircles his banjos calf-skin head. He does not recall when it was done. It was based on the saying Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar; “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

I was very curious about the strings that Seeger used and based on what I have learned Seeger was not particular about the gauge and carried loose envelopes with him containing replacement strings. Seeger his played banjo mainly with metal fingerpicks. He did not use a thumb pick. 

This would make sense as frailing is mostly accomplish by use of the front fingernails of ones first and second finger hitting the strings on the down stroke and the fleshy part of the thumb plucking the lower strings.

Interestingly Seeger makes use of a Shubb 12 string guitar capo on his banjo. For his fifth string capo, Seeger drilled a screw into the banjo necks thirteenth fret to move the string.  

Additionally Seeger favored a variant of Dropped-D tuning on his banjo. (DADGBE)  From pictures you can see the banjo’s strap is attached to an eye-hook that has been screwed into the neck. I assume this offsets the instruments top heavy nature.

One of Pete’s friends, Stu Jamieson created an extremely unique bridge saddle for this banjo. The saddle has four feet instead of the usual two and it is constructed of fiberglass.  This allows Pete to whack the banjo as hard as he can. To compensate for the thicker gauged strings, the bridge is slanted at a severe angle.

For decades Seeger made use of a 12 string guitar for accompaniment.  He first acquired this instrument in 1959.  Seeger had a fond appreciation of blues legend, Huey Ledbetter aka Lead Belly and other blues players made that great use of Stella 12 string guitars. 

These players tuned their guitars to a key lower than normal, due to the intense strain on the instruments neck.

Once he was on tour in the U.K. with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. During his off days Seeger tracked down an English gentleman named Stanley Francis. It was Francis that had built guitars for Skiffle artist, Lonnie Donegan and BBC Folk artists, Robin Hall and Jimmie MacGregor.

Pete desired to have a special 12 string guitar with a longer than usual neck. So he had one made that had a long 27.75” scale. This guitar was tuned two whole steps down.  Pete made heavy use of the capo. He played the guitar with thumb and finger picks.

Francis 12 string
Seeger states that he was fascinated by Stanley Francis’ ideas about guitar construction, especially bracing the body.

Pete’s guitar has a triangular sound hole. 

To the casual observer may be mistaken the guitar as an acoustic Gretsch of that era.

The longer scale, the special bracing and heavy strings made this guitar sound like a cannon.  Alas this guitar did not last and a second guitar was commissioned. This time it was made by Connecticut luthier Bruce A. Taylor in 1973. 

Seeger met Bruce Taylor at a festival that year and the two struck up a conversation about the Francis 12 string. Taylor offered to build Pete a similar one. Without hesitation Seeger handed the 12 string with Taylor, a total stranger, then went about to play the concert using only his banjo.

By the way, Bruce A. Taylor is not related to Bob Taylor, who makes the well known brand. 

Bruce Taylor has also built 12 strings for folk artists Tom Chapin and John McCutcheon.

Bruce Taylor made some changes to the original Francis bracing to strengthen the instrument. He also installed rosewood bridge plates instead of the original laminated ones. Taylor also changed the 12 strings bridge holes and built a more streamlined and ergonomic headstock.

note the aux saddle
Because of the huge strings that Seeger uses; .070 for the lowest, Taylor put in an auxiliary saddle. The guitar also has a zero fret. Interestingly the Taylor 12 string does not have an adjustable truss rod. Mr. Taylor states the guitar is already under too much pressure and a hole bored through the neck would just make it more unstable. When it was built Taylor put a composite graphite rod in a grove under the finger board to stabilize the neck.

As a tribute to Pete Seeger, the Martin Guitar Company issued a six (JSO model) and twelve string Pete Seeger 60th anniversary  (J-120SO model.) Vega banjos are now being built by the wonderful folks at the Deering Banjo company. They offer three models of long neck banjos. However you will have to make your own four post saddle.

Pete states that he had a lot of “left leaning” stickers on his guitar case. This unfortunately caused damage to his 12 string when someone of the opposite mindset in an airport luggage department, opened up the guitars case and put his foot through Pete’s guitar. Another incident happened when Pete left the guitar in case leaning against his car. The guitar fell over when he pulled forward and was crushed when he backed up. Each time he would have Taylor build him another guitar.

I recall a newspaper article that came out four or five years ago that stated Pete had lost his banjo. At the time he was approaching his 90th year.

It was found by a neighbor a couple of days later.

It seems Pete had placed it on top of his car and drove off.

Pete Seeger tuned his 12 string down 4 half steps below concert pitch to a “C”. (Noel Stookey also tuneshis Apolonnio 12 string Cittern in this manner) Seeger plays with thumb and finger picks. This gave Taylor the idea to install an upper and lower scratch plate. However since Pete liked Dropped D tuning, he often tuned the lower course of strings to “Bb.”  For any key changes, Seeger makes good use of a Shubb capo.

He always carried his guitar and banjo in Blue Heron bag.

After 94 years of providing the world with music, admonishment, environmental action and hope, Pete left the world, a much better place than he found it on January 27th of 2014

*Footnote - As I add the pictures I must admit Pete Seeger's banjo cannot be pinned down. In some pictures the neck appears to be ebony and in some newer pictures it does not. 

I have also noted the peg heads on Seegers banjos are different. Apparently Pete had a couple of banjos that he commonly put to use.

I've written that he was fond of Shubb capos, but there are plenty of photographs showing a Hamilton capo or an elastic capo on the banjos neck. Additionally there are plenty of photos of Pete's banjo with a two foot bridge saddle and with the four foot Jamieson saddle. Note also that the script font is slightly different.