Sunday, July 31, 2016

Skate Board Guitars - Bowery Guitars - Stromberg Guitars - All Made of Re-purposed Wood

Tuesday is trash collection day in my neighborhood. Whenever I drive past homes before the collection and recycling trucks arrive, I marvel at the furniture that is left out as rubbish. It leaves me wondering if this wood can be re-purposed? I’ve seen old wooden chairs and tables that are destined for the trash heap that could be turned into guitars.

If I had the wood working talent and tools necessary to create guitars, I would be up early hauling that wood back to my house.

Alas, I am only a guitar player; not a builder, however there are a few luthiers that have taken up this challenge and ran with it.

Nick Pourfard - Prisma Guitars

In my opinion one of the most unique builders that I have heard about is 24 year old Nick Pourfard. Nick is an industrial design student and a self-taught woodworker who lives in San Francisco.

His garage and basement have been turned into a woodworking shop where he builds his unique brand that he calls Prisma Guitars.

Old Skateboards await to become guitars
Each of these instrument are built out of broken and used skateboards. Nick was a skater and knew that skateboards are not made of plywood, but rather are made of hard-rock maple, usually with seven layers of dyed solid wood.

Skate board deck
In fact the good boards or decks are generally made of maple that has been peeled into veneers and then cured in a climate controlled environment to adjust the moisture content of the wood.

Each veneer is then glued by hand with a water based wood glue. The maple veneer are then stacked according to their grain with some grains running from front to back and other running in the opposite direction. Grip tape is applied over the top of the deck. This "tape" is a sheet of paper or fabric with an adhesive on the backside and a surface similar to sandpaper on the other side. This aids the user in staying on the board, especially while doing tricks.

Nick removing Grip Tape from a board.
When Nick find old skateboards the initial step is to remove the grip tape, either by hand or with a knife. He then shapes the boards and glues them together in a press.

Prisma Guitar body template

Once the wood is sanded flat  he shapes the finished product by use of a template to outline the guitars body shape. This is then cut out using a band saw.

Routing out a Prisma Guitar
Another template is applied to outline the area needed to be routed out for the neck pocket, pickups, hardware, and electronics. Necks are done in a similar fashion. The wood is glued, pressed and shaped into a basic square neck shape.

Shaping a neck

Various files are used to hand shape the neck and the headstock. The results are stunning.

Prisma Guitar Bodies
The various colours of the diverse skateboards show through, creating a beautiful design that would be hard to capture in any other way. No painting is necessary; just a spray of clear coat. Although Nick does paint some of his guitars.

Prisma Guitar logo
One on the more unique features of Prisma guitars is the triangular, multi-colour, striped logo which is reminiscent of a pyramid point guitar pick.

This is inlaid in the guitars headstock and at the guitar bodies base, where the end-pin fits. Nick has also applied his guitars features to a line of guitar pickups.

Rick Kelly

There is only one other existing builder that I am aware of who uses re-purposed wood in his builds. This is Rick Kelly of New York City. All of his guitars are made from reclaimed lumber from wood procured in the 1970’s at farm auctions.

Kelly Bowery Guitars
He also has a line of what he refers to as Bowery Guitars that are made from wood that was barged down the Hudson River more than 200 years ago; wood that was harvested from the forests of the Adirondacks.

This was lumber used to frame buildings that were erected in the 1800’s. As these buildings were demolished, Rick Kelly was able to obtain some of what he refers to as “Kings Wood” to build a unique line of instruments. Most of this wood is pine.

Kelly gluing boards together
Instead of using one large billet for the body, Kelly must glue two sides of book-matched lumber together to form the body. The  grain in the pine wood is quite prevalent and the result is beautiful. He even leaves the knot is the wood in the instruments body, which gives it character.

Bill Kircher with Kelly Bowery Pine
Rick Kelly has some lovely creations that are favored by such players as Bill Kircher, Bill Frizzell and G.E. Smith. Kelly stresses that most solid guitars are made from green wood that is kiln dried, which cuts down on vibration.

Rick Kelly guitars

His instruments are made from air dried timber that has aged through the years. The natural resin in the wood has crystallized which leaves the pores open to vibration. Kelly makes some fantastic instruments. Most are based on Fender body shapes, however Kelly has modified them in his own unique way.

Charles Stromberg

The last builders that I am aware of that utilized re-purposed lumber were Charles Stromberg and his son Elmer. Both died in 1955. During their lifetime, the Strombergs came out with a series of guitars that were built to rival Gibson’s popular Super 400 model.

Stromberg Master 400

The Stromberg series Master 300 and Master 400 models built from the 1930 through the 1950’s are sought after and now command prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Elmer Stromberg
Charles and Elmer had a shop in Boston Massachusetts and it is written that they frequently went to buildings that were either being demolished or being reconstructed. The men purchased lumber from these sites for use in their builds. Perhaps it is because of this old wood that their guitars are known for being louder than Gibsons or D'Angelicos of that same era.

Click on the links in the pictures for the sources and the links in the  the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publishing (text only)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Black Diamond Strings

Ed Sullivan and the Beatles 1964

In 1964 the Beatles made their first United States appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show. At that time I was 13 years old and like kids of that era I had to have a guitar.

Harmony Patrician

My Dad relented and bought me a late 1940’s era Harmony Patrician archtop acoustic guitar from a local pawn shop for $20.00. The salesman that sold it to Dad said, “Well you need a couple of things to go along with that guitar. You need a pitch pipe to tune it and you need an extra set of string, ‘cause that kid is going to break ‘em.” For an extra two bucks I got a pitch pipe and a new set of Black Diamond guitar strings.

Larry Cordel "Black Diamond Strings"

I had not thought much about those strings until last week when I turned on a local radio station that plays a variety of diverse music. That day they were playing Country music by some unfamiliar artists.

Black Diamond Strings Set
One song caught my ear since it was called Black Diamond Strings. It was all about how much joy they brought to guitar players back in the day.

Which is odd, because I recall how difficult it was to play guitar with those thick heavy guage old Black Diamond strings.

The strings on the neck on that old Harmony were probably a good half and inch above the neck at the 12th fret.

And when I put them on my first electric guitar, a late 1950’s Fender Stratocaster, the bridge saddle and block raised off the neck, which was great because the vibrato pulled up and down. But bending notes was another thing with those heavy strings. And talk about sore fingers and calluses!

Black Diamond Set
However Black Diamond Strings were available everywhere. You could get them at a drug store or a five and dime store. If you broke a number one E string you could get another for 20 cents. A pack of six new Black Diamond strings cost around three bucks.

1960's Gibson Guitar Strings

I was not aware that both Gibson and Fender sold their own brand of strings until a few years later. And it would be another ten years or so before Ernie Ball started putting string sets together with light and ultra light guage strings.

As we were kids, we had no idea that professional players were discarding the sixth string and replacing the first string with a .009 banjo string  and then using the remaining five strings.

Bell Brand Strings
After hearing that song I was very curious about Black Diamond Strings and there origin. I learned that the company that made them got started in 1897 when a merger occurred between three different companies; the Rice Musical String Company of New York, which was owned by Thomas Nelson Jr which made Bell Brand strings and the Standard Musical String Company of Connecticut.

The Standard Musical String company was owned by a Mr. Alexander Paul, who had already been making his own brand called Black Diamond strings. The last partner was a Mr. George Dow Emerson, who owned yet another a string factory in New Jersey. These men got together to form the National Musical String Company

National Musical String Co. 1898
The first step was the purchase of a factory building in Brunswick, New Jersey on Georges Road and the cities boundary. This structure was designed by a Mr. Ben C. DeKamp in 1897 specifically for this company. In fact it still stands in that same place to this day. The following year, 1898, the business started up.

NMSCO office

Interestingly enough advertisements for employment went out looking for mostly women employees. By 1899 the partners purchased another manufacturer called the American String Company.

Black Diamond stamping plates
It was in 1917 the last remaining partner, George Dow Emerson sold his shares to a Mr. William R. McClelland. Fifteen years later McClelland died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

This was in 1932 and the National Musical String Company was then bought by C. Bruno and Son Incorporated and James and Frank Gibson, who owned the Gibson String Company (which was not associated with Gibson Guitars).

From C. Bruno catalog - U of I library
Let me pause here because the history of C. Bruno or Charles Bruno is very interesting. Way back in 1837 Bruno was a bookseller. The following year he entered into a partnership with Christian Martin (yes THAT Christian Martin). Martin would manufacture guitars and Bruno would sell them.

Christian Martin

The partnership only lasted a year and both men went their separate ways, with Martin building guitars and Bruno selling musical instrument as a wholesaler.

C.Bruno and Son catalog
In 1851 Charles Bruno established another partnership with a man named Cargill that lasted for two years after which Burno brought his son, Charles Junior into the business. The company sold not just guitars and banjos, but all sorts of band and orchestral instruments, accordions, drums, harmonicas, music boxes and children's toy musical instruments. They became one of the largest music wholesalers and importers in the United States.

Bruno and Son was eventually purchased in 1970 by the Kaman Music Corporation (Ovation Guitars) and renamed the Kaman Musical String Company. The business was moved from New Jersey to Kaman’s headquarters and factory in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

National Musical String Co - today
However in 1982 the original National Musical String Company building in Brunswick, New Jersey was declared a historic landmark, as it was one of the oldest standing buildings in the state and it was placed on the list of national landmarks. Since then it was renovated for commercial space on the first floor. The upper floors house 38 residential apartments.

Black Diamond Strings - circa 1965

As I recall Black Diamond strings were sold in a black cardboard container with six individual reddish packs, each containing a string. The gauge of the string was not listed on the box or the pack, but instead it said B or 2nd Steel or E or 1st Steel. All I can say is they were heavy strings.

Individual strings
The container and each pack bore a quadrangular logo in the upper left corner with the company’s trademark stating NMSCO (National Musical String Company).  Some of the guitar strings would say silver plated steel while others would say silver plated copper wire. By far the most popular Black Diamond Strings were the silver plated stainless steel versions.

The National Musical String company made strings for guitars, Hawaiian guitars, banjos, mandolins and other instruments. I have also come across Black Diamond electric guitar strings that were made in later years.

Display Case for individual strings.

Back in the mid 1960’s most players that I knew did not purchase a new complete set of strings. More often than not if a string broke or sounded dead, we went to the music store and bought an individual string and those stores all stocked individual Black Diamond strings.

I was not certain if Black Diamond strings were still available and being curious I learned that in 1930 Ed Wackerle of Chicago, started a company to manufacture strings for bowed instruments. He was upset with the quality of strings being offered at the time. To achieve quality he put together an endorser panel; a group of players that would test the strings and suggest improvements. He came up with stainless steel strings and marketed them under the Red Label brand.

Then in 1967 John and Vincent Cavanaugh purchased the company and continued to manufacture Red Label strings. They moved the business to Sarasota, Florida

By 1972 a research and development department was set up to further enhance the strings quality. Out of this came the Old Fiddler Line of strings for Country, Western and Bluegrass players.

Improvements were made on cello and bass strings with the Supreme Line. The business was renamed the Super-Sensitive Musical String Company. In 1997 the grandson of the company’s founder took over the reigns and introduced computerized manufacturing.

John and Jim Cavanaugh

And in 2001 the Cavanaugh family purchased the name and trademark of the National Musical String Company/Black Diamond Strings. Once again, Black Diamond Strings are available, although under a new manufacturer with a high quality than ever before.

Current version Black Diamond strings
Black Diamond currently offers three different sets of electric guitar strings, including flat-wound strings and four sets of acoustic guitar strings, which include the original silver plated steel strings (.013 to .056) as well as 12 string guitar sets. These are available directly from the manufacturer

A special thanks to Chris of the Mudcat Cafe for some very interesting information on the history of the National Musical String Company.
©UniqueGuitar Publishing (text only)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Princes Last Guitar - GUS Guitars

Prince in one of his last concerts with Gus Guitars Purple Special

Simon Farmer - Gus Guitars creator
Simon Farmer stumbled into guitar building by way of being a student and studying design in art school. He eventually received a masters degree in product design at Walter Hampton University.

He had already built his first electric guitars and basses during in his early teen years and went to art school with the intent of designing guitars.

Furniture maker bending metal frame
Farmer states he took his inspiration from a variety of artisans; jewelry makers, furniture makers and other artists. In fact the tubular design of his guitars was influenced from furniture makers that saw using bent chromed steel and aluminum to construct chairs.

While in University he made a series of instruments that he called Git-tubes which were tubes shaped into frames for the guitar/bass bodies. The artist Seal, a bass player and singer, used one of his basses in a video.

Steve Klein Gutiar

While in school Farmer took a break and for a holiday he traveled to California to visit such luthiers as Steve Klein, John Page of Fender and others to get their insights on the guitar building process.

These interactions lead him away from the Git-tube design as he realized these instruments were more sculptural pieces than stringed electric instruments. He faced the reality that the git-tubes did not have the sound he was looking for in a guitar or bass.

He then that he turned his attention to carbon fiber as a basis of a body. To do this Simon Farmer made use of a spectrum analyzer which allowed him to view the frequencies of differing materials.

Farmer building the frame
Farmer realized that carbon fiber was a great choice. After experimenting with this material he concluded that a combination of wood with a carbon fiber veneer produced a superior sound. To this he added his original tubular steel frame to come up with a most unique and abstract series of guitars.

Gus Guitar mold
The core of Simon’s guitars is made of Western red cedar wood or Brazilian cedula wood. The wood is shaped and placed in a mold and acts as a core for the carbon fiber veneer to be poured over.

Gus Guitars G1
His most popular mode, the G1, uses tubular shaped pickups that he creates in his shop using alnico magnets and piezo transducers in the bridge/saddle..

In fact all the parts on his Gus guitars are hand made on his lathe, including the knobs, bridge and vibrato. He does not like “switches” so he utilizes a rotary selector instead of the usual Switchcraft style toggle or lever.

Simon Farmer at Sussex workshop

Simon Farmer also hand polishes all of his instruments. His small workshop is located in East Sussex, U.K.

Gus Guitars G1
The G1 is far from being a basic guitar, but it is the basis for all his guitars. The G1 is fitted with a GUS hard-tail bridge that Mr. Farmer makes in his shop. Possibly the only thing that is not made onsite are the Gotoh 510 tuners and the Schaller strap locks.. The knobs are even milled in-house.

The twin GUS humbucking alnico pickups are wound at the shop and fitted with tubular pickup covers which are built there as well.

Gus Guitars G1 Gold Special
One unique feature on this guitar is the switching system that can turn these twin humbuckers into three single coil pickups. We've discussed the body already. The neck is topped with a Cocobolo fretboard which has 22 frets. The position markers are of Farmer's own unique design and made of white resin. The fretboard includes LED's embedded in the position markers..

The guitar has a unique switching system that uses a rotary switch instead of the usual toggle. And this guitar sounds excellent. The connection input is found on the guitars backside and is molded into the body.

Gus Guitars G1V
The G1 V (vibrato) has the same unique body design, but comes with three GUS single coil pickups encased in metal tubes. The vibrato unit is made by Farmer in his shop and is his own design.

Gus Guitars G1 7

The G7 is similar to the G1, but it is a 7 string guitar.

Gus Guitars G1 Baritone

The G1 Baritone guitar combines the features found on the G1 with a 28.5" scale neck.

Gus Guitars G1 MIDI

The G1 MIDI ( musical instrument digital interface) guitar combines all the features of the G1 along with RMC piezo pickups that connect to the 13-pin MIDI connector on the guitar's backside next to the input jack.

This enables the player to run through a Roland GR-33 or other guitar synthesizer module.

Gus Guitars G1 Piezo
The G1 piezo combines the features found on the G1-V with piezo elements in the guitars bridge that run on a built-in preamp. This guitar enables the player to use a Y-cable to send the piezo feed to one amplifier and the magnetic feed to another.

Gus Guitars Purple Special with matching hardshell case
Perhaps the pinnacle Simon Farmers work is The Purple Special guitar. This is a one-off guitar that Simon Farmer designed especially for Prince. All of the hardware is gold-plated.

Close-up of Purple Special

The guitars body is purple and the fretboard is constructed of purple composite fiber.

Purple Special holographic fret inlays
The inlaid position markers are made of holographic gold carbon fiber. This guitar has one single coil pickup in the neck position and one humbucking pickup in the bridge position. There is a piezo pickup in the bridge, but no preamp.

The controls feature a single volume and tone control and a three-way toggle switch. The tuners are gold-plated Gotoh non-locking machines. Prince only got to use this guitar once in concert. He had planned on having a second guitar built. It is a gorgeous instrument.

The Purple Special guitar comes with a GUS guitar designed custom made molded purple case with a gold-plated aluminum handle and a plush interior.

Simon Farmer with a Gus G3 Five Bass
The GUS bass guitar series is made in a similar fashion, but with a different body shape. The aluminum tubular structures the make up the horns do not encircle the body, but jut out from the upper portion of the instrument.

Gus G3 Four Bass

The G3 Four is the GUS 4 string bass guitar. This instrument includes two passive single coil pickups that are linked to a four way rotary switch.

This system allows the pickups to function has humbuckers (in tandem) or in as single coil pickups. The guitar has an in-shop designed hard tail bridge/saddle that has piezo elements to give an even fuller sound.. It comes with single volume and tone controls. The fretboard is made of cocobola with white resin position markers that contain LED's. The machine heads are Gotoh model 510's.

Gus G3 Five Bass
The G3 Five not only adds another string, but comes with twin GUS humbucking pickups. This model can be purchased with the standard 34" scale neck or special ordered with a 35" scale.

Five aircraft grade aluminum bridge pieces clamp to a 1/4" bridge plate to anchor the strings and increase this basses sustain. The bridge saddles also contain piezo elements for a bigger sound.

Both the G3 Four and Five can be ordered with an active three-band EQ system to achieve even more bass sounds. Instead of just a tone control these bass guitars come with stacked switches to enable the user can get active treble, mid-range and bass sounds along with the volume and four-way rotary control.

Gus G3 Baritone

Simon Farmer also offers a baritone version of the GUS G3 bass. This is a six string instrument that is tuned A to A.

It comes with all the accouterments of the standard G3, including two single coil alnico tube pickups. piezo bridge pickups and the four-way rotary control.

The G3 MIDI bass combines all the aspects of the G3 bass with the added feature of piezo pickups that are connected to a 13-pin MIDI output. This enables the bass to  be hooked up to a MIDI synth unit to achieve a myriad of bass sounds, or any other sort of sound that the synth unit can produce .

Gus Guitars
GUS guitars are extraordinary functioning works of art. I've looked for prices and believe they start in the £3500 to £5000 range.

Click on the links under the pictures for their sources and links in the text for further information.
©UniqueGuitar Publishing (text only)