Saturday, August 27, 2016

Guitars Designed by Automobile Builders

Leo Fender
I find it quite interesting that many of the iconic guitars that we have come to love were not designed by guitar players or even musicians. Leo Fender was a radio repairman who just happened to be living in a time when a lot of folks that liked Country and Western music had migrated from the northern and southern United States to California in search of employment. They brought their love of music with them and Mr. Fender was happy to oblige the musically inclined by creating amplifiers and steel guitars and eventually the Fender Telecaster.

Ted McCarty

Ted McCarty, the man who guided Gibson Guitars through its “Golden Era” and increased their sales from 5,000 units a year to over 100,000, studied engineering at the University of Cincinnati and worked for the Wurlitzer Piano and Organ Company before joining Gibson Guitars.

Flying Vee, Explorer, Moderne patents dated January 7, 1958 
McCarty is responsible for the Gibson Flying Vee, the Explorer and the elusive Moderne as well as the Gibson thinline series, in which he put a block of wood inside of the Gibson ES-335 and subsequent models to increase sustain and eliminate feedback.

Ray Dietrich - Auto Designer
In fact it was Ted McCarty who saw a connection between classic automobiles of the day and guitars. He hired Ray Dietrich, an American coach builder, that had designed the bodies of American luxury cars.

Ray Dietrich 1975

Dietrich has a very interesting story you can read here. Suffice to say he designed the bodies of Packard, Studebaker, Ford and Lincoln automobiles. He was even responsible for the design of Checker Cabs, which were based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This is the town where Dietrich lived after his retirement.

1963 Gibson Reverse Firebird V
Dietrich was challenged by Ted McCarty to design a solidbody electric guitar that would not be limited to the traditional ways of designing and engineering a guitar. The result was the Gibson ‘reverse’ Firebird that was released in 1963. They were so called "reverse" as the features were the opposite of the norm of that day compared to the Fender Jazzmaster.

Dietrich took the tail fin design that was popular with mid-1950’s cars and modified the design of the 1958 Gibson Explorer to create the body shape.

Because the lower horn extended father out than the upper one, this was a very unorthodox look for that era, when compared to Fender’s Jazzmaster guitar. Therefore it has come to be known as the “reverse” Firebird.

From 1965 Gibson Catalog

The other unique feature was the Gibson Firebird was the first solidbody guitar produced with neck-through body construction. Perhaps Dietrich took a hint from Les Paul’s “Log”.

Unfinished Firebird
The body of the Firebird is essentially a neck with an extended plank of wood at its distal end, with attachments at both ends for the strings. Pickups and a bridge/saddle were attached to this plank.

Mini humbuckers with chrome covers
The original Firebird neck was made of five sections of mahogany and interspersed with strips of walnut for strength. The other sections to the body, commonly known as wings, where attached to the center section and the lower “wing” housed the pickups controls.

Reverse Firebird headstock
A couple of other unique features that Dietrich added were the ‘reverse six-on-a-side headstock’, which was the opposite of a Fender headstock. So the player would not have to reach around to tune the guitar, Dietrich utilized six banjo-style planetary geared tuning keys.

The pickups on this instrument were also unusual for 1963. These were Gibson mini-humbucking pickups that were enclosed in a solid chromed case.

The Firebird came with different pickup configurations and styles which were noted by Roman numerals.

1964 Firebird I
The Firebird I indicated a plain design with a single pickup (in the bridge position) and no binding on the neck and dot markers. It may or may not have a Maestro tremolo.

1964 Firebird III

Model III was indicative of a twin pickup guitar, with or without a Maestro tremolo, a bound neck with dot markers.

1964 Firebird V
The Firebird V came with twin, chrome-covered mini-humbuckers, a bound neck with trapezoidal markers, a Maestro vibrato with an elongated plated. Some of these were made with P-90 pickups. The headstock on the Firebird V was fancier than the I or III models. The upper and lower sides of the headstock on this guitar had a slight bevel and were stained to match the body, while the center portion of the headstock was painted with a glossy black finish and topped with the Gibson decal.

1964 Firebird VII

The top-of-the-line Firebird VII was similar in accouterments as the V model, but it had three chrome-covered mini-humbucking pickups. I might note that Ray Dietrich was 66 years old when he designed the Reverse Firebird. Perhaps one of the first notable users of this guitar was a 22 year-old Brian Jones on the Rolling Stones first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 25th of 1964.

George Barris

Another automotive designer, did not work for a major automotive company. Rather he became very famous for customizing cars; at first for himself and other and later in his career for vehicles used by celebrities and in movies and on TV shows.

George Barris and his brother was sent from Greece to live in Chicago with relatives. At age 7 he was building model cars out of balsa wood.

George and Sam Barris

George and his brother Sam worked in the family’s Greek restaurant. At a young age the brothers were given a 1925 Buick in lieu of a paycheck. They restored it and this turned into their life’s work.

The Barris Kustom Shop

They sold that car and even before the boys had graduated from high school they started Barris Brothers Kustom Shop in Los Angeles.

Their work came to the attention of the motion picture industry and they were asked to create customized cars for studio executives, movie stars and vehicles to be used as movie props. This lead to a meeting with the owner/founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines.

In 1950 Sam left the business and George Barris ran the company with the help of his wife. Model car building was popular in those days and Barris’ designs were licensed by the major model kit companies. By the 1960’s Barris, along with other automobile customizers did their magic on production cars for Ford and Lincoln/Mercury’s traveling exhibits, designed to attract young buyers. This caught the eye of author Tom Wolfe and inspired his first best selling book; The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

George Barris movie cars
Some of the Hollywood projects that employed Barris involved building soft aluminum fenders for a Ford police car that crashes into a Mercedes Benz convertible driven by Cary Grant in North by Northwest. He built futuristic cars for a 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and modified a Dodge Charger for Thunder Alley.

The TV Batmobile
Barris reworked a Plymouth Barracuda for Fireball 500 as well as a minivan in that same movie. Perhaps Barris’ most well-known vehicle was a rebuilt Lincoln Futura that he turned into the original Batmobile for the 1960’s Batman television series.

He leased the car to that show and sold it in 2013 for over four million dollars.

KiTT from Knightrider TV Show
Barris built The Munster’s car, and he also worked on an Oldsmobile Toronado that he rebuilt as a roadster for the TV show Mannix and an updated version of “KiTT” used in the Knight Rider series.

Family Vacation Wagon

Barris was also responsible for the "Wagon Queen Family Truckster", based on a 1979 Ford Country Squire station wagon, for the 1983 movie "National Lampoon's Vacation".

The Vox Mobile
For lovers of vintage guitar, many may remember the Vox Mobile, a dragster-like vehicle that was complete with Vox amps, guitars, basses and a Vox Continental Organ.

Back to the Future - Barris modded Delorean

It was Barris who designed this for the Jennings Company. Barris also rebuilt the Back to the Future DeLorean for the movie of the same name.

Hallmark Barris Guitars.

Bob Shade of Hallmark Guitars called upon Barris’ design firm to create limited runs of several Hallmark instruments.

Barris Krest Guitar
Most notable is the Barris Krest Guitar. The body of this Mosrite inspired instrument appears to be a family crest with Grypons and other medieval artwork and the guitar bares a crown at the top of its rectangular body. It comes with a single pickup, and a Mosrite style vibrato and both are gold-plated.

Barris Dragula
The Barris Drag-u-la Guitar was inspired by the Munster’s car of the same name. The rectangular golden body of this instrument is trimmed with decorative trim and looks like a coffin. It comes with three single coil pickups. The neck pickup has metallic bat wings. This guitar includes a Mosrite style vibrato.

The Wing-Bat guitar took its inspiration from Barris’ Batmobile, but was actually built by present Hallmark owner Bob Shade. This single pickup guitar has the appearance of the winged tail fins on the car used in the 1966 TV version of Batman. It comes in custom black glossy paint with fluorescent red trim. This guitar even comes with a working tail light at the end of the instrument for playing at night and a turbine “boost” switch for...I guess playing really loud and fast.

Wayne Burgess
Wayne Burgess designs Jaguars; the car brand, not the guitar. He also is a guitar collector and owns one of the Fender XK-50 Jaguar stratocasters.

This Fender model was a 1999 limited run of 25 Fender Custom Shop designers made exclusively for the automotive company. Twenty of these guitars were given to fortunate Jaguar dealers as an incentive to customers purchasing the luxury car and it was a beautiful guitar.

Fender XK-50 Strat
These guitars were built in 2000, to coincide with  an ad campaign using the theme, Everyone dreams of becoming a rock star. What do rock stars dream of?

And though, Burgess, the Jaguar designer never built a guitar, the XK-50 Jaguar Stratocaster is a thing of beauty. The finish is custom colour Jaguar green. The pickguard is made of burled walnut, as is the headstock. The pickups are enclosed in gold-plated covers.

In fact all of the hardware, the knobs, the switch cap, the bridge/saddle unit, the tremolo bar, the input and the tuning machines are all gold-plated. It even came with a gold-plated bridge cover. Inlaid in the headstock is the face of a jaguar, and image of the Jaguar hood ornament and the Fender logo in gold trim.

Recently, Ford’s global designers were given the task of putting the 2017 Ford GT design into everyday objects. Design teams created a racing sailboat, a foosball table and a guitar.

Ford GT Guitar

The guitar design team was lead by senior designer Tyler Blake. The guitar they came up with utilized a conventional fretboard, but everything else was meant to reflect the GT modern design.

Ford GT Guitar
The prototype’s body had an aluminum core and frame work, but the finished instrument was to have a solid wood body with a neck-through design. It features twin cutaways with access to all 24 frets. The body is thin and tapers toward an edge. One can view the three pickups; a neck humbucker, a middle single coil and a bridge humbucker and all three are situated on the distal end of the necks extension. This extension also houses the bridge/saddle/tailpiece, which bears and engraving that says Ford Design.

Ford GT Guitar
The headstock is a very unique design as it tapers on the edges and sides so that the tops of the posts are revealed in the five divots where the string attach. The most distal divot has two posts sticking through it.

The guitar’s tuning machines are mounted to the bottom of the headstock, reducing visual clutter and creating a clean, precise order to the strings.

Ford GT Guitar
The lower bottom end of the body reveals and input jack that is molded into the design. Above it are two potentiometers. On the upper bout is a switch to control the pickups. It is an incredibly unique instrument. It is not schedule for production, but if so, it would be a success.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gold Medal Guitars

We are still watching the world competition in the 2016 Summer Olympics. All contestants are vying for a Gold Medal. Personally, I would rather have a Gold Guitar. I thought we would take a look at some unique golden models.

1952 Les Paul Goldtop

Taking 1st place is the Gibson Les Paul Goldtop.

Popular guitarist Les Paul had a lot of input with the design of his signature instrument.

He had been experimenting at the Epiphone factory, when it was in New York, by taking apart and putting together guitars and adding pickups to them.

Fender had introduced the first mass produced electric guitar in 1950, the Telecaster. In 1951, Ted McCarty consulted with Mr. Paul to design a classier version of a solid body electric guitar.

Les’ first choice for colour was gold. It looked uptown and showed up nicely on his television show and according to Les, reflected his showmanship. His next choice was black, since it went well with the uniform for jazz players, a tuxedo. The original Goldtop was in production from 1952 to 1958. The original models were scaled down versions of Gibson’s archtop line.

The Les Paul was sleek and slim. It had a maple cap over its mahogany body, purportedly to increase sustain. Les Paul’s signature was inscribed on the headstock. The original version came with a set in neck, a one-piece trapeze bridge/tailpiece and twin P-90 pickups. The earliest models were unbound. Later in 1952 binding was added, as were serial numbers. Some of the early models were fitted with black pickup covers, rather than the usual cream coloured covers.

In 2nd place is the Gibson ES-295. This instrument also first appeared in 1952. As with most all Gibson guitars of that era, the model number indicated the retail price. We can see where Les Paul got some idea of what he wanted his signature model to look like.

In fact, Les Paul’s wife and vocalist, Mary Ford, played an ES-295.

Scotty Moore with ES-295

Scotty Moore favored the ES-295.

The drawback on the original models was the combination trapeze bridge/tailpiece. It did not allow for individual string intonation.

Later models came with a Bigsby tailpiece and a tune-o-matic adjustable bridge that was mounted on a rosewood saddle. The knobs for volume and tone had a gold hue. The neck finished matched the body. The pickguard was embossed with a floral design. The rosewood fretboard had parallelogram inlays for fret markers. The headstock veneer was topped with Gibsons Crown inlay. Like the Les Paul Goldtop, his guitar survived until 1958. In 1957 the pickups were changed to gold-plated humbuckers. Gibson resurrected the model from 1993 to 2000. Some consider it a fancy version of the Gibson ES-175.

Finishing 3rd is Fender Guitars with their Mary Kaye Stratocaster. For the unfamiliar, Mary Kaye aka Mary Ka’aihue, was a popular Las Vegas Lounge player.

She was actually descended from Hawaiian royalty.

In a 1956 Fender promotional advertisement, The Mary Kaye Trio was shown with Miss Kaye holding her new custom Fender Stratocaster. The body was ash blonde and featured a maple neck. The pick guard was made of gold plated anodized aluminum. All of the metallic parts, bridge and bridge cover, tremolo bar and tuners were also gold plated.

This was the first custom guitar that Fender ever produced. Fender has reintroduced it on several occasions. An original Mary Kaye is a highly sought after collectors item.

4th place goes to Prince’s Custom Shop Gold Stratocaster. The man formerly known as Prince and now currently known as Prince had this guitar created to kick off his Welcome2 America Live Tour. It was later auctioned off by Prince.

The winning bidder was U.K. Formula 1 race car driver, Lewis Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton plunked down a cool $100K to purchase the instrument. All proceeds went to children’s charities.

The 5th place winner is Fender Shoreline Gold. This is not actually a guitar, but a custom paint that was offered by the Fender Company as early as 1959. I have seen this finish on Stratocasters, Jazzmasters, and even on Fender’s electric mandolin.

One of the prettiest guitars is a Shoreline gold Jazzmaster with a gold anodized pickguard, and gold hardware.

Coming in as the 6th place Gold guitar goes to Gibson. Around 1970, during the Norlin era, an unusual Les Paul guitar was introduced. It had a similar colour scheme as the Les Paul Goldtop, but that is where the comparison ends.

This was the Les Paul Signature guitar and it looked somewhat like an ES-335 with a gold top. The upper bout was rounded like on a 335, however the lower bout was…similar to a Les Paul's cutaway.
Anyone who has studied Les Paul knows he preferred LowZ pickups for recording so he could plug directly into the console. The Les Paul Signature came with two  LowZ pickups.

It also had a built-in transformer that permitted plugging straight into the console, like Les did or played straight into an amp. It was an interesting, but not popular instrument. Jack Casady plays the bass version of this guitar.

This brings us to 7th place with the Epiphone Jack Casady signature bass guitar. Casady was bass player for a number of popular bands, such as Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

In 1985 he found a short scale bass at music store and began using this Gibson bass version of the Les Paul Signature model, then known as the Les Paul Bass. In the earlier part of this decade Casady worked with Epiphone to produce his signature model, The JC Bass.

Epiphone JC Bass
This is a hollow body instrument with a maple body and a single active bridge pickup, a single volume and tone control and a Vari-Tone control.

The Vari-Tone control lets you dial in the impedance of its active humbucking pickup from around 50 ohms to around 500 ohms, seriously affecting your sound.

As you turn the Jack Casady Signature Bass's Vari-Tone control, you shift its tone from even dynamics and full tone to a punchier response.

I would like to give a shout out to New Zealand for the nation's Gold Guitar Awards. This takes place at the end of May and has been going on for the past 42 years.

It showcases the country's up and coming talent.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Helen Vanderlin 2009 Winner
New Zealand Gold Guitar