Saturday, October 27, 2018

Tempo, Univox, Giannini, and Westbury Guitars

World War II factory effort
As far back as the mid 1940’s companies have been importing guitars to the United States. This possibly began after World War II, when U.S. manufacturers were busy restructuring their businesses, that had been forced to cease normal production to support the war effort.

By the ‘50’s relations with Europe, and some Asian countries had normalized so products were being imported once again. Guitars were no exception. Most of the 1950 imported models were not up to Gibson, Fender, or Martin standards, but they filed a niche.

The Almanac Singers

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, sales of acoustic guitar increased with the popularity of Folk Music.

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show

Then when the Beatles arrived in the United States in 1963, an incredible boon in guitar sales erupted, and it seemed that every kid in America just had to have a guitar.

'64 Kent by Guyatone

Most of these instruments sold in the United States at the time were mamufactured in Japan, or South Korea, and then badged by the importer under the name of their choice. The distributors that imported these guitars played an important part in the history of the guitar, and related products.

One of the importers was Jack Westheimer’s W.M.I. company that imported Teisco guitars, and branded them under several different badges or brands.

'64 Kent Polaris
Bugleisen and Jacobson of New York, also imported Teisco guitars and labeled them under the Kent brand.

One other company that distributed guitars, as well as other musical instruments was Tempo-Merson. This New York City based distributor was originally found by Mr. Bernie Mersky, and eventually a man named Ernie Briefel took control. Hence the name "Merson".

'50's Tempo
by Kay

Merson-Tempo had imported an acoustic electric guitar as early as the late 1940’s under the brand name; Merson. In 1948, Music Trades Magazine ran an advertisement for the Tempo Electric Spanish Guitar, that sold for $59.50 plus $11.50 for the “Dura-bilt” (probably cardboard) case.

'50's Tempo Amplifier

Along with the guitar, a small amplifier was offered. It resembled a Premier amp, and was probably manufactured by the Multivox company of Manhattan. This amplifier had an 8” Alnico 5 speaker and came with volume and tone controls, and a pilot light. The grill cloth featured a classical guitar design with “Tempo” written on the guitar’s bridge.

'50's Favilla Guitar

From around 1948 until the early 1960’s Merson, and Merson Tempo brand instruments were distributed mainly in the local New York area. The company also distributed instruments made by United States manufacturers such as Harmony, Favilla, Supro. and Kay, and sold them at wholesale cost to the retail outlets. But many of their instruments were of Asian origin.

From a 1960's Hagstrom Catalog
In the mid 1960’s to the mid 1970’s Merson imported Hagstrom guitars from Sweden. These were previously sold in the United States and the U.K. under the Kent brand. Most of the earlier models were loosely based on the Stratocaster shape and were very nice guitars, but certainly not up to the standards of a Fender instrument.

The electronics on Hagstrom guitars in the 1960’s were all embedded in the pickguard and the guitar featured a very thin neck.


In the 1970’s, the Hagstrom company underwent some design changes by introducing The Swede, and another electric guitar designed by Jimmy D’Aquisto. Hagstrom was also the first company to introduce a guitar that could be used as a synth controller known as the Swede Patch 2000. This resulted from a joint venture with the Ampeg Corporation.

1960's Giannini
Classical Guitar

Giannini guitars were also imported by Merson, and later Westbury/Unicord from Brazil. The Giannini Company is Brazil's largest guitar manufacturer and located in Sao Paulo. The initial Giannini imports were mostly student grade classical guitars, along with some Bazilian ethnic instrument, such as cavauinhos, vihuelas, vioalas, and flat back mandolins.

The popularity of the 12 string guitar was at an all time high in 1970, and that year Giannini introduced an unusual instrument called the Craviola. This unusual instrument was a guitar created by Brazilian guitarist, Paulinho Nogeuira. The Craviola has a unique kidney bean shaped body, and was meant to produce a sound similar to that of a harpsichord.

Giannini 12 string Craviola,
 the original version

The 12 string version of the Craviola combined the feel of a guitar along with an ethnic instrument called a viola caipira. Giannini also offered this style in a six string version with steel strings and another with nylon strings. Led Zepplin guitarist, Jimmy Page, used the 12 string model on the recording Tangerine. He was given a six string, and a 12 string version by the company on a visit to Brazil.

Unicord portable tape recorder
In the early 1960’s there was another New York based company called Unicord, which manufactured electric transformers. They had purchased the Amplifier Corporation of America, which was located in nearby Westbury Long Island, New York.

1952 ad for Amplifier
Corporation of America
This not-so-well known company manufactured tube, and solid state amplifiers, that were mainly used in portable tape recorders.

In 1967, in an attempt to cash in on the guitar boon, Gulf+Western Corporation purchased Unicord. By then Unicord had acquired Merson. Interestingly, this was the same year that CBS purchased the Fender company.

1968 Univox U-458 guitar amp
In 1968, Unicord began marketing a line of amplifiers under the Univox brand. The original amplifiers were a hybrid of tubes and transistors. The guitar division was called Merson Musical Products; a division of Unicord Incorporated, but later the guitars was also branded under the Univox name.

1968 Lafayette amplifier

A hobby company called Lafayette sold amplifier kits. These were actually manufactured by Univox, but came with a Lafayette badge.

Univox Hi Flyer

Also in 1968 the Univox company produced a guitar they called The Hi-Flyer. This was an attempt to replicate a Mosrite Venture's Model. This instrument was made in Japan. There were several different versions, and it gained quite a following among those that could not afford a Mosrite instrument.

1971 Univox Hi Flyer headstock
These guitars featured a headstock with the Fender style headstock bevel, that had string trees, and a truss rod cover. This guitar also had a Fender Jaguar style tremolo.

Genuine Mosrites' have an angled headstock, with no truss rod cover, the Mosrite vibrato, and much better electronics.

1973 Univox Lucite guitar

Univox  made replicas of Gibson Les Pauls and a replica of a Dan Armstrong lucite guitars. called Lucy.

1971 Univox Badazz

Another guitar called The Badazz, which was a copy of a Guild S100. Most of these instruments were actually manufactured by Aria.

Univox "Univibe" pedal

In 1971 Univox began offering a series of effects pedals, and based on their relationship with Korg, they produced synthesizers. Probably the best know pedal was the Univibe, which was a chorus, flanger, phaser effects pedal.

Unicord "Stage" 400 two 10"
Around this same time period, Univox took their brand off of the amplifiers, and changed the look of the amps, and also renamed them "Stage" amplifiers. The company's reputation as Univox seemed to be sullied, since they copied designs from other companies instead of doing their own research.

By 1975 Univox and Merson went their separate ways. Merson or Tempo guitars were not manufactured after this year.

This same year Univox/Unicord switched all of its production from Westbury Long Island to Japan where they were manufactured by Matsumoku. Unfortunately, over night most of the employees lost their jobs. Only a small group remained to test imported amplifiers before they were sent to retailers.

Univox Westbury

The last guitar made under the Univox brand was called the Univox Westbury Performer. This came instrument came out in late 1976.

1980's Westbury Deluxe guitar
The following year, guitars made by Unicord were branded as "Westbury" guitars. This lasted until 1982. The guitars were made by the Matsumoku factory in Japan.

The original Merson owner, Ernie Briefel was hired as a consultant by Unicord. He went on to found “Music Tecnnologies Incorporated, which later became Music Industries Corporation. MTI imported guitars from Matsumoku under the Westone brand at the same time Unicord was offering it's Westbury guitars.

St. Louis Music eventually acquired Marshall Amplifiers, and the Korg Company, along with Merson/Unicord.

Marshall Super Lead MK II 100 watt
An interesting fact is that even in the days when Jim Marshall was making and distributing his own amplifiers, he used Unicord transformers in his imported Marshall amplifiers.

He did not believe that the UK manufactured transformers could handle the full 100 watts from 6550 tubes with American 110 volt power. Marshall went on to manufacture its own transformers based on Unicords' design.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Fender Bass VI

Although referred to as The Fender Six String Bass, Fender actually named this guitar, The Fender VI.

In the late 1950’s, the Danelectro Company developed the first six string bass guitar called the model UB2.

Many recordings during the late 1950’s through the 1960’s featured this Danelectro six string bass, played with a pick with the high end accentuated. The sound was refered to as Tic-Tac, and the tic-tac bass was a new arsenal to add a special sound to recorded popular music.

Some players strung these basses with extra heavy guitar strings and tuned down a fifth to get a baritone guitar sound. Duane Eddy specialized in this sound and he used a Danelectro instrument.

In 1961, Leo Fender believed he could build a better instrument. Fender designers used a body pattern similar to a Fender Jazzmaster, however the upper horn had more of a curve.

The first model employed three single pole passive pickups with metal pickup rings and three single throw switches to turn each on or off. The neck had a 30” scale and a 7.25” radius. By bass standards, the neck was extremely thin. The guitar was equipped with a Fender Floating Tremolo that had a long arm.

The adjustable bridge came with a removable Chromed cover. The body included a large pickguard and an input, master volume and tone control that were mounted on a chrome plate. Leo Fender intended this to be a bass guitar tuned an octave below regular guitar pitch. The wound first string in the set had a .025” diameter. Because the strings were wound, the tone was quite different from that of a guitar. The tuning was much different from modern five or six string basses, which extend beyond low E.

The close proximity of the strings and the narrow neck did not win any praise from most bass players, although a few did use it in performances. Notably Jack Bruce, John Entwhistle, Robert Stiles of the Hollies and Rick Huxley of the Dave Clark Five. Robert Smith of The Cure and other such as Glen Campbell utilized it as a lead instrument.

The Fender VI was an excellent crossover instrument for guitarists. Harrison and Lennon both utilized it on their recordings. It is easy to play chords on this instrument and the short scale helps guitarists that are used to guitar necks as opposed to bass necks.

The tremolo bar on this instrument did not win many fans and did not receive much use. Though well designed, the Fender VI was not at all popular. From its inception to its demise, less than 800 units were manufactured.

1963 brought about a change in the instruments design when a “strangle” switch was added to the lower horn. This condenser boosted or cut the bass frequency to help provide that Tic-Tac sound or a deeper bass sound.

A foam rubber muffler became part of the guitars equipment and was located right above the bridge. A flick of a spring-loaded switch pressed the rubber mute against the strings. A modification to the pickups also came about. The metal rings were gone and the pickups resembled those found on a Fender Jaguar, although the VI still came with three pickups. The capacitor/condenser switch carried over from the Jaguar design.

Although Mr. Fender meant for this instrument to be an actual bass, many guitarists set it up as a baritone guitar and tuned it from A to A or B to B, using extra heavy guitar strings.

In 1964, a plastic pickguard replaced the celluloid one. A bound neck became standard equipment in 1965. In late1966, block inlays were added. In 1968 the headstock logo with printed with black ink instead of gold ink. Additionally a polyester spray-on finish, replaced the nitrocellulose finish.1975 brought about the discontinuation of the Fender VI.

During Fender’s transition years, all manufacturing moved to Japan. In 1996, a ’62 reissue of the Fender VI was offered.

One of the main downfalls of the Fender VI was price. A Stratocaster sold for $239 and a Precision bass sold for around the same amount. However, the Fender VI was priced at $400.

Though the Fender instrument was far superior to the Danelectro six-string bass, the Danelectro model, priced at less than $150 in 1961, was more popular. Guitarists saw this as a side instrument and were not willing to spend the extra cash.

In 2004, they released a similar instrument known as the the Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom or the Jaguar Bass VI Custom,

There were several differences in this guitar. The body had a Jaguar shape. It came with only two pickups with Jaguar switching options and the neck scale was 28.5”. The bridge was fixed instead of having a tremolo.

In 2006, the Fender Custom Shop offered a reproduction of the original 1961 Bass VI featuring three single-coil pickups and identical electronics.

At present, Fender no longer offers the Fender VI. One offshoot of the Fender VI was the Fender Jaguar guitar which was introduced in 1962.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Bizarro World Guitars

Bizzaro World Comics

When I was a little guy I loved comic books. Superman/DC comics came up with Bizarro World, which was a cube shaped planet where everything was backwards. The planet was named "Htrae", which is Earth spelled backwards. The characters did everything the opposite of characters on earth, as did it’s super heroes. This was delightful when I was 9 or 10 years old.

Roto Neck Guitar

When it comes to the present day, I have come across some guitars that may have been made on the Bizarro World planet, such as The Roberts Roto-neck electric guitar. Curt Robert was an inventor; his wife Elizabeth was an artist. At the 1979 NAMM Roberts displayed the first two neck design with a guitar he called the Double Eagle.

Roto Neck Guitar with body
In 1980, his creation went on to become a four neck guitar. The player would rotate the neck to the desired string pattern, and continue playing. I am informed that the instrument is capable of 1,100 different combinations. Much like the LaBaye 2 x 4, this instrument appeared to have a body comparable to a 2 x 4. However it could be fitted an optional body. There is no record of how many of these guitars were sold.

La Baye 2 x 4 Guitar

The La Baye 2 x 4 was first manufactured in 1967. This minimalist design was the brainchild of a Green Bay, Wisconsin guitarist by the name of Dan Helland.

The La Baye 2 x 4 was a plank of wood with a slim neck bolted on, four thumb-wheel tone and volume adjusters on the top, and a Bigsby-style vibrato unit that is highly expressive. There were only 45 or so ever made. It was also offered in a bass version.

Because Devo used one in their stage act, this guitar developed a following, and Eastwood guitars did a reissue.

In 2018, Fender issued their Parallel Universe Guitars. These were guitars based on a combination of alternate guitars.

Strat Tele Hybrid

Such as the Strat-Tele Hybrid, which has the body shaped of a Fender Telecaster, however it was contoured like the one on a Strat. It has a two-tone sunburst finish, and a one piece pickguard similar to a 1956 Stratocaster. It also has a maple neck with the original 1956 style headstock.

Jazz Tele

The Jazz Tele combined a Telecaster body, but all the other features were straight off a Fender Jazzmaster. There are two Jazzmaster single coil pickups, a volume and tone control, and a three position toggle switch. The Tremolo unit was straight off a Jazzmaster. This guitar had a maple neck with a rosewood fretboard, and a Jazzmaster style headstock.

Tele Thinline Super Deluxe

The Tele Thinline Super Deluxe combined the 1967 Telecaster that had a single F hole, with a large pickguard. The neck is maple with a rosewood fretboard, and large block, perloid fret markers. The bridge is right off a hard tail Stratocaster. What makes this guitar stand out are the twin TV Jones pickups.

Whiteguard Strat

The Whiteguard Strat is reminiscent of the Squier ‘51. This unique instrument combines a Stratocaster body with all the features of a Telecaster. I like it.

Jag Strat

The Jaguar Strat combines a Stratocaster body, three parallel Stratocaster pickups, and all the features of a Fender Jaguar, including the Tremolo, the Rhythm/Lead switching capability with a separate bridge tone wheel control, and single volume and tone knobs. It included a 5-way blade pickup switching system.

Melobar Guitar
In the late 1960’s Walt Smith invented and marketed the Melobar Guitar. This was his attempt to bring the slide guitar, which was tuned to open chords, to young player.

The guitar was shaped like a convention double cutaway style guitar, but the body was at a 45 degree angle to the player. The fretboard was numbered to be correspondent to the chords.

Melobar Guitar

He called his company Smith Family Music. I did an article on Melobar guitars a few years ago, and some of Walt’s children wrote me. They are wonderful people. Ted set me straight on a few points. These were unique and bizarre guitars, and were played by quite a few famous people.

H.S. Anderson Mad Cat

For those fans of Prince, which should include many readers, you should be aware that Princes’ H.S. Anderson Mad Cat. 

This was an instrument based on Hohner’s version of a Fender Telecaster, called The Prinz, but a much nicer version.

H.S. Anderson
Apple Guitar

H.S. Anderson is a Japanese guitar manufacturer, that usually produces replicas of well known guitars from U.S. manufacturers. But they once offered this wild, and bizarro “Apple” guitar that sort of looks like the body from a Danelectro Bellzouki.  This minimalist instrument has one single coil pickup, a unique scratch plate design, and an unusual body that appears to be an upside-down apple.

Danelectro Bellzouki original

The Danelectro Bellzouki was invented by session player/guitar designer, Vinny Bell invented by session player/guitar designer, Vinny Bell.

Model 7010 and 7020
This twelve string instrument was introduced in 1961, and was the first Danelectro to date to feature a solid wood body. It featured one or two lipstick pickups. Over the years the body design changed. It is an interesting instrument, and at the time was very reasonably priced. Now they sell in the $1300 to $1500 range.