Sunday, December 1, 2019

Vinnie Bell - One of the Most Heard Guitarists and Innovators You Have Never Heard Of

Vinnie Bell in the studio
Vinnie Bell, one of the most heard guitarists that you probably never heard of, passed away on October 3rd of this year at age 87. His death was the result of Alzheimer's disease.  He had suffered with that insidious condition for the past five years,

Vinnie at age 15
Vincent Gambella was born in July of 1932. In his early teen years he took up playing guitar. He was fortunate to have teachers were that were two of the best players on the New York City music scene; Carmen Mastren and Tony Mottola. By the early 1950’s Gambella began playing in the city’s clubs.

Vinnie was said to be a member of a group called The Ramrods, who had a hit recording of Ghost Riders In The Sky. In 1961 this recording charted at number 10 on the UK charts and number 40 on the US Billboard chart.

He was also a member of a band called The Gallahads, and another group called The Three Suns, when he replaced the original guitarist.

Vinnie Bell with durmmer Hal Blaine
By 1962, Gambella, who had adopted the pseudonym Vinnie Bell, decided that session work was a better choice, and began a career as a studio musician. And he chose wisely. Bell became one of the first call musicians, and his guitar work can be heard on thousands of hit songs. And it was not just the guitar that he used on those recording, but other instruments, some of which Bell had invented.

Ampeg Gemini II amp with key
  Manhattan Guitar Club

Vinnie Bell was a member of The Manhattan Guitar Club. This was an organization of over 50 studio top studio musicians that paid a fee to use an amplifier that could only be turned on with a key which was kept at the studios exclusively for the members.

The Ampeg Amplifier Company contracted with New York City studios to place their amplifiers in each studio for the benefit of the membership. The NYC Musician’s Union required it’s members to pay a cartage company to haul their equipment to studios and gigs. Maintaining an amp at the studio was a way for the guitar and electric bass players to get around paying someone to haul some of their equipment.

Vinnie Bells' effects unit

Throughout his career Vinnie invented many of his own effects, such as a device to get the “watery” guitar sound that is heard on the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” on Ferrante and Teicher's version. He created this by linking multiple Danelectro reverb units together.

Vinnie Bells LP featuring his effects
Though the wah-wah pedal invention is attributed to a Thomas Organ engineer named Bradley Plunkett in 1966, Vinnie Bell had already created a wah-wah device in the 1950’s and had already used it on recordings of “Jersey Bounce” by The Spacemen, and “Smoke Rings” by The Overtones. Bell’s watery guitar effect can be heard on the 1959 recording "Barracuda" by The Gallahads.

Vinnie Bell
Bell’s guitar work can be heard on Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By”, and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”. Bell is also heard playing an instrument that he invented called The Bellzouki on many albums, including songs from the score of the Jane Fonda movie Barbarella.

Bell played a bass guitar solo that was fed through his pedal board tremolo for the music to the television series, “Twin Peaks”. That is his electric guitar you hear on Simon and Garfunkle's "Sounds of Silence".

Vinnie Bell with friends
He played guitar on recordings for artists as diverse such as The Four Seasons, Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, Herman’s Hermits, Bing Crosby, The Cowsills, Perry Como, The Drifters, Bob Dylan, The Shangri-Las, Rupert Holmes, Jean-Jacques Perrey, and Quincy Jones. He also did film work, playing guitar on "The Godfather", "The Devil In Miss Jones", and "The Muppet's Christmas Carol".

Vinnie backing up Perry Como

Any fans of The Family Guy, will know the theme song. Vinnie Bell played guitar for that session.

Bob Crewe recording session
with The Four Seasons

In his own words, Vinnie was recording the song, "Big Girls Don't Cry" for The Four Seasons when Bob Crewe, the producer, said they needed more of a beat. He asked the session musicians to drop their pants, slap their thighs, and stomp their feet in time to the music. He did it and it is one of the best selling songs ever.

When recording with Frank Zappa, he was the only musician in the room wearing a shirt. Zappa asked him to take off his shirt, which he did.

8 Year old Edward Bell showing up
 at a recording  session
 to sub for his father 
Vinnie Bell must have been a character. He was running late to a session, and had his family in his car. When he arrived 15 minutes late, he sent his eight year old son, holding his guitar, into the room, and the boy said, "I'm sorry, Dad couldn't make it. He sent me to take his place". The room burst into laughter.That session was for "The Name Game" by Shirley Ellis.  It also was a hit song. By the way, Charlie Calello's arrangement is awesome.

Vinnie Bell in Frank Sinatra's band
 Carnegie Hal

Here is a link to some of the hit recordings that Bell's guitar is heard. Here is another one for the hundreds of jingles that featured his guitar work. If you lived in the 1960's and '70's, then you could not turn the radio on without hearing Vinnie Bell's guitar.

Vinnie Bell was a first call session player in both New York City Studios and Los Angeles studios.

Nathan Daniel with early Danelectro Guitar
During his early career he had struck up a friendship with Nate Daniel, who not only owned The Danelectro Company, but was the creator of their very unique electric guitars, and affordable amplifiers, which were mostly sold through department store catalogs. Bell met Nathan Daniel at the Chicago NAMM show in 1958.

After that Vinnie was a regular visitor to the Danelectro factory in Neptune, New Jersey. Conversely Daniels, and his family were frequent guests to the Gambella home where they feasted on homemade Italian dinners.

Their very first collaboration was in 1953 on an electric organ that reproduced true tones of many instruments in analog fashion. This foreshadowed the development of synthesizers by many years. It was never put into production.

Bell had some ideas and Daniel was the go to guy to build them. In 1961 the men collaborated on a 12 string electric guitar called The Bellzouki. The body was a tear drop shaped flat piece of wood, similar to the shape of a Greek Bouzouki. Unlike the Bouzouki which has either six string paired in three courses, or eight strings paired into four courses. It has a long neck with 27 frets, and is tuned to low D high D-AA-DD or low C high C-FF-AA-DD.

Vinnie Bell with his Bellzouki
Bell's instrument, was one of the first electric 12 string guitars, and based on the access to to the higher strings, a guitar player could produce a reasonable imitation of a a Bouzouki without having to learn to play a new instrument.

The body was topped with one of Nat Daniel’s unique “lipstick tube” single coil pickups, and had controls for volume and tone. It also had a typical Danelectro style bridge-tailpiece. The neck was topped with a metal nut and a V-shaped headstock.

Bell used this instrument on many recordings, including his self title LP called "The Best of Vinnie Bell". Danelectro further developed three versions of The Bellzouki.

Three versions of The Bellzouki

Throughout the years, there were three versions of the Bellzouki.

When George Harrison first featured a sitar on “Norwegian Wood”, Vinnie Bell loved the sound, and turned to Daniels and Danelectro to produce the electric sitar. This instrument came out in several versions. The original model was produced under Danelectro’s “Coral” brand, and it included a six string electric guitar neck, and instead of a guitar bridge, there was a large block of plastic material that had a metal track at its distal end for the six guitar strings.

Coral Electric Sitar
The upturned plastic block caused those strings to buzz. One the upper bout the instrument had 13 drone strings, which were tuned with a piano wrench. All the strings were attached to the guitars base. There was one lipstick pickup under the drone strings, and two similar pickups under the guitar strings.

Vinnie Bell used this instrument on the Lemon Pipers song “Green Tambourine”. Coral/Danelectro produced a version called The Baby Sitar, that was in a different shape, had only one pickup, and did not have the drone strings. The Coral electric sitar can be heard on many other songs, including the B.J. Thomas hit, "Hooked On A Feeling", Freda Payne's "Band of Gold", Redbone's "Come And Get Your Love", and The Stylistics hit song, "You Make Me Feel Brand New".  Vinnie also was featured on his own album simply called "Electric Sitar".

Vinnie Bell created several other instruments for Danelectro/Coral. One of these was an affordable electric guitar called The Coral Hornet. I think the reason for the Coral name is that the instrument bodies for Coral products were manufactured in Japan.

Coral Hornet
The Coral Hornet had a similar body shape to Fender’s Jazzmaster/Jaguar, although it was thinner. The metal control panel consisted of a volume control for each pickup and a master volume control. There are four switches that control equalization for hi’s, low’s, and mid-range tones. The guitar came in several variations, with either two or three pickups, which were mounted on a stylized  Plexiglas plate. The Hornet came with a Danelectro style stop tailpiece with a wooded bridge, or a tremolo unit. I am told this guitar was offered as a twelve string version called The Scorpion.

1967 Coral Firefly
Vinnie Bell also created the Danelectro/Coral Firefly guitar. This was a hollow body instrument, with a shape somewhat like Gibson’s ES-335. but slightly different. Once again the body was made in Japan, and assembled at the Danelectro facility in Neptune, New Jersey where the neck, twin lipstick pickups, and electronics were manufactured. Unlike the 335, this guitar had a six on a side headstock. The strings were attached to a trapeze tailpiece which had a Coral logo. The non-adjustable bridge was a piece of metal.

Vinnie Bell on Wedding Day

I am told that Vinnie was a great guy, and fun to be with if you were his friend. And he was a terrific guitar player. He loved to entertain at his New Jersey home.  He will be missed.


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