Friday, December 28, 2012

On buying old, broken guitars before you can hear them

Most of the guitars that I buy are finds- as in they have been in a closet or under the bed for 30 years.  That means that they usually need a fair amount of repair like loose braces, neck sets, lifting bridges, etc.  When they need these kind of structural repairs I can't play them before buying.  I can't always hear how they will sound after being fixed up before I buy them.  It can be a bit of a gamble.  Here are a couple of those gambles.

This was probably the biggest gamble of all.  This is a 1943 Gibson J-45.  This has the fabled "banner" gracing the headstock that was only present during the war years.  I bought it from the grandson of the original owner.  The back braces, tone bars and finger braces were all loose.  The owner could not be convinced of this fact for some reason.  He had strings on it at full tension which caused the action to be very high.  I bought it anyway because I wanted a banner.

This was a GREAT bet.  I figured it would need a neck set but after the braces were glued tight the neck set was perfect.  It has almost factory saddle height.  The tone is warm, dry and very responsive.  You can feel the pluck of each string deep in your chest.  Suffice it to say they were right about the banners.

This 1955 Gibson J-50 was a recent gamble.  It was listed as a '54  and was about an hour and a half from Birmingham.  I could tell from the pictures that while the tuners were there the buttons were not.  I just happened to have bought an old Kay with period Klusons for next to nothing the week before!  When I got the guitar in my hands I could tell that the bridge had been shaved meaning that it probably needed a neck set.  I bought it anyway.

This is a very special guitar and probably the best gamble of all.  I took it straight to my local shop where my friend Keith works.  We put the extra set of Klusons on and strung it up.  As he was winding the strings I could hear that familiar hollow thump typical of the round shoulder Gibsons.  At full tension we immediately knew that this was not just an average 50s Gibson.  It was loud, nuanced, responsive and most of all LOUD.  I'm talking bluegrass loud.  We couldn't hear each other talking over the rumbling E chord.  Then we took it into the acoustic room to compare it to some new guitars.  We soon realized that this was guitar of myth and that it could never leave our circle of pickers.

This is a 60s Silvertone (Harmony Sovereign), I can't remember the Silvertone number designation.  I bought it from a different local shop needing a neck set.  When they got it in the called me because they knew I love the American made solid wood guitars.  They just said it was a Silvertone.  When I walked in I immediately recognized the distinctive bean shape and pinless bridge as a rebranded Sovereign.  I was ecstatic.  They thought I was crazy for buying a hard case for it.

The neck set was easy because the dovetail had already shifted in the joint.  I strung it up and started strummed some cowboy chords and fell head first in love with Sovereigns.  The J-45s sat in their cases for a few days while I became acquainted with it.  It had the rumble of a J-45 but sounded more bluesy- no, boxy.  This was probably a result of the ladder bracing.  Sometimes I just want to strum my favorite chord progression and belt out the lyrics.  This guitar was just about perfect for that.  It had the magic and can be had for less than $500.  Don't be fooled by the price, this is a professional instrument.  I sold it to a big time session player in Nashville.  It is a safe bet to say that you have heard him play.

It is a special feeling to strum an old guitar for the first time.  It is even more exhilarating when you have a bunch of time and money invested in it!  Maybe I have just gotten lucky but I have never had a bust- yet.   If you find one of these for a good deal then don't be afraid.  Take the plunge.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Semi-Rarity: The 1966 Epiphone Wilshire (USA!)

Vintage guitars often come with a trade off: the "good ones" got played- hard.  As a result they have lots of character.  I don't mind character- in fact I love it.  I like seeing some scratches in the top of a guitar or the wear marks on the side of the neck from 60 years of first position chords.  Every once in a while however I will come across one that is clean.  This Wilshire, my friends, is CLEAN.


In 1957, Gibson bought a financially failing company that had been their long time competitor.  The Epiphone brand was known for very fine instruments like banjos, archtop electrics and acoustic guitars.  The competition was especially fierce in the large body electric archtop market.  Gibson would come out with a big jazz box and a month later Epiphone would come out with a slightly bigger or more fancy one.  Epiphone manufactured out of New York until about 1953 manufacturing moved to Philadelphia (although the labels still said New York!).  The failing company was at odds with its employees and the name was eventually bought along with a bunch of parts by Gibson.

Gibson began manufacturing Epiphone guitars first with leftover parts and continued by introducing their own Epiphone models.  This was a move by Gibson to get more guitars in stores.  Retailers didn't want 10 Gibson SGs but didn't really have a problem buying 5 SGs and 5 Epiphone Wilshires.  The USA Epiphones were made right along sides of the Gibsons in the factory at 225 Parsons Street, Kalamazoo, MI.  These are very high quality instruments!  The quality of the instruments bearing the Epiphone brand didn't drop to the current level until that unfortunate time in the 70s when the new owners of the Gibson brand (Norlin) shipped all production over seas to Japan.

The Epiphone Wilshire was a bit of a rare model until the its reissue this past year (made in China- sadface).  It has always had a small Mahogany body and neck but had two different editions.  The first was introduced in 1959 with a 3+3 headstock and P-90 pickups.  The second version appeared in mid-1962 that had a funky "batwing"style headstock and two mini humbuckers.  Mine is the second version with the silky smooth mini hums.

I absolutely love these guitars.  They have the coolest 60s styling with quality ingredients to boot.  The mini humbuckers are very versatile and can take you from Guns and Roses to Neo-classical jazz in a real hurry.  The neck joins at the very last fret so the player has full advantage of the fretboard.  Unfortunately the "Vibrola" was a source of frustration for most players so the trem arm is usually taken off and lost.

This is my second mid 60s Epiphone Wilshire.  My first one had seen some playing time and the finish showed it.  It was still original (but was missing the trem arm of course).  I eventually sold it but still had my love of Wilshires.  When I saw the ad for this one I couldn't believe it.  The seller was the original owner and the finish looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line.  I asked him when and by whom it was refinished.  He said that it hadn't been refinished.  Well, I have heard that before.  I always take that kind of thing with a grain of salt.

When I showed up to look at the guitar I still couldn't believe it hadn't been refinished.  We met outside of a Waffle House so I couldn't really take the pickguard off to check.  It looked "right" so I went ahead and bought it.  I took the pickguard off but the wires kind of stuck.  I looked closely to see what was going on.  Yes, the wires were stuck in the lacquer.  I carefully peeled them away to find that I was the first one to ever take the PG off.  This was clearly the original finish.  There was even a little bit of router dust in the electronics cavity.  That was a cool moment but I totally regretted it after!  I knew I had to take the pg off to verify the originality of the finish and electronics but I wish that it had still "never been taken off."  Oh well.

There is no checking on this guitar.  NONE.  It looks like it was made recently.  This thing is as real as it gets.  There are a couple of nicks around the guitar (about 3).  That is all. The original owner was not keen on the original set of tuners so he had them changed to mini Schallers.  He also lost the tremolo arm.  Other than that, this is the way it came from Kalamazoo.  One thing that is weird is that the gold Epiphone silk screen logo was done once, painted over, and done again slightly more centered.  Must have been a new guy at the silk screen booth that day.

The seller said he went into the shop in '67 to buy a Gibson SG.  He saw this one up on the wall and bought it instead.  Good call.  I don't think he played it very much because it has hardly any fret wear or wear on the back of the neck.  It is an absolute joy to play I hope you get a chance to play one of these oddities sometime too.

I took this guitar to the Nashville guitar show and another dealer was interested in it.  He took it over to an amplifier and played it for a while.  When he came back he told me that the pickups were wire out of phase!  That was news to me but I wouldn't have noticed it because I stick mainly to the neck pickup.  I took it out this morning and messed around with it and found that he was probably right.  One other thing I found interesting is that the bridge pup is rotated 180 degrees from where it "should" be.  I asked the original owner why he swapped it and he said that he didn't.  That is the way that it came from the factory.

Peter Green's 1959 Gibson Les Paul was made this same way in that his pickups are wired out of phase as well.  Apparently it is more common than originally thought but most people probably didn't notice it.  Maybe they just played on the neck pickup too...


Thursday, December 13, 2012

True Vintage Guitar Dot Com!

..... is coming soon.  At least I bought the domain.  I don't know hardly anything about this whole thing.  I want to make it a hub for people that like vintage instruments. The biggest thing will be a forum just for vintage gear.

Will you join the community when I get the website up?  I know you guys have cool gear that we could discuss.  Of course, pictures are a must.  I'll let you know as soon as I get it going.  I would really love for you to be a part of it.  Yes, you.  Whether or not you have gear or want gear.  You have something to say.  Otherwise you would be sitting on the couch watching a re-run of Wedding Crashers or Christmas Vacation.  No, you are out here looking for information on the stuff that you like.  You are looking to learn.  Forums are a great way to do that.

Here is a quick update on the guitars I have bought/sold lately.


Wow, I didn't realize how much was gone until I posted this.  Two guitars come to mind that will really keep me up at night.  That '53 J-45 was "the one I would never sell."  It is the prop that my wife and I used in our engagement pictures.  So sad.  

The second one is the big Kay Jumbo.  I spent a lot of time on the neck set, custom bone nut and saddle.  It came out perfect.  I sold it for way less than I should have and the buyer wasn't even happy with it.  I told him that I was a bit relieved and that I would buy it back immediately, pay for shipping both ways AND give him $20 for his troubles.  He said no.  So then I was out a guitar and the buyer wasn't even happy with it.  I begged him to change his mind and he refused.  So he was both happy any unhappy about it, I guess.  I don't know.

Something that was interesting about these sales is the fact that a couple of the guitars went to some big time players.  Suffice it to say that you have heard them play before.  Or you have lived under a rock for the past 50 years.

Recent purchases:

I wish I had more time to write about these.  Right now, unfortunately I don't.  Sorry that these pictures are less than professional.  Have you gotten anything cool lately?  Share it with me.  Shoot me an email or comment.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

Harmony Bobkat Video Blog

I picked up this Harmony Bobkat a couple of days ago.  I didn't feel like writing tonight but I wanted to get the word out about these so I made a quick video about it.  Check it out, comment, disagree, like it, share it.... participate.

I just wanted to show that while I could be playing much more expensive and technically "better" guitars, instead I am playing this one.  You don't have to pay 3 grand to get a solid vintage guitar.  Price does not translate into quality, playability or tone.  The price of a vintage guitar is only the result of supply and demand.  Most of the time the demand for a guitar and its overall tone/quality go hand in hand but there are always exceptions.  I believe this is one of them.

This girl is tearin' up this Bobkat!  Good stuff!

Friday, November 23, 2012

The $200k Les Paul's little brother: 1960 Gibson Melody Maker

According to Gibson's website, the Melody Maker was the best selling guitar at the time.  It was cheap and looked cool too.  They produced them on the same line that made Les Pauls, ES-335s and J-200s.

The Melody Maker was a full scale guitar with trimmed down features. The body is solid Mahogany but is much thinner than a standard guitar at 1 3/8ths" thick.  It has only one single coil pickup made specifically for this model.  The neck is a full size standard neck except the headstock doesn't have the "wings" glued on the side like a standard Gibson.  

This guitar was owned by a blues player and you can tell!  He played and played it.  It has a nice aged patina but still fully playable and has all the original parts.  I bought this guitar and two others from the brother-in-law of the blues player.  The other guitars I bought from him were a 1964 Fender Duo-Sonic and a 1946 Gibson J-45.  They all have a distinctive wear mark where he put his arm and shoulder over the guitar.  This wear doesn't photograph well but this picture shows it the best.  

The guitar is all original but the case is clearly not.  It is from the late 60s/early 70s.  It fit the guitar well and protected it much better than the chipboard case that it probably came in.  That case is long gone.

 This guy must have been a hell of a player!  He played these things all the way through the finish on the neck.  It feels good- very good.  I guess he figured they needed to be broken in before they played well.  He may have been right!  Many people would pay big money to have their guitar "relic"ed like this.  Now I know why.

The neck retains the 50s style big full neck.  It has the standard width with just enough depth to feel full.  The is the same neck shape that would be on a Les Paul from the same year.  The fretboard is Rosewood but is flat-sawn instead of quarter (like would be on a Les Paul).  I've seen this one some J-45s from the late 50s as well (email guitar).

This simple layout includes a jack, tone, volume and pickup.  You could take all of the electronics out by removing the pickguard if the ground didn't go to the bridge post.  

Some have described the Melody Maker single coil as a cross between a P-90 and a Tele neck pickup.  I would say that it is closer to the Tele pickup but a bit darker.  

 Do you have one of these?  Send me a picture!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pre-war Epiphone Flat-top: 1940 Epiphone FT-50

I say 1940 but I don't really know.  A friend on the Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum concluded that this was built by Epiphone in 1940 or '41.  There were very few of these ever made.

This one popped up on the local Craigslist.  I don't think that many people on there knew what it was.  Of course, this is no asian made Epiphone.  This was made before Gibson purchased the Epiphone brand in 1957.  They moved the production of Epiphone branded instruments overseas in the 70s tarnishing the name.  The American made Epiphones were very fine instruments.

This Epiphone lived a sordid life.  It came to me covered in soot with two stickers and a name carved right in the top.  The seller was the nephew of the schizophrenic aunt that owned it (last).  The soot and stickers came up fairly easily with some Naptha and elbow grease.  The name, "Kelsi" is there to stay.  It features an Adirondack Spruce top, Walnut back and sides, and what looks like a very dark Rosewood fingerboard.  It has feaux tortoise shell binding and a very nice pearl inlay on the headstock. The tuners have been changed.  It still has 4 of the original Bakelite bridge pins.

 The FT-50 started showing up in the 1941 but it says that they had Mahogany backs and sides.  It also shows a model FT-45 that had Walnut but also white binding.  This may have been pre-catalogue before they really nailed down what was what.  The label with the model number and serial number is badly torn so we may never know if this was a 45 or 50.

The Epiphone researcher that I spoke with on the forum said that since this was X braced and lacked the metal cover for Epiphone's "thrust rod"then this was probably pre-war.  His research indicates that the model line was reduced during the war and this was one that was cut.  They start reappearing a couple years later with serial numbers indicating 1945.  After that, the FT-50 was cut for good.  

He is currently compiling serial numbers, pictures and catalogues into a database so he can offer a better understanding of Epiphone's past.  Do you have a guitar like this?  Please email me and I will pass the information along to him.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pre-war Gibson Flat-top: 1933 Gibson L-00

When I was back in school I was lucky enough to find a guy with an early 50s J-45 and a mid to late 30s L-00.  I knew the J-45 was for me so I quickly sold off the L-00.  Mistake.  The thing had been played and played and needed a neck reset but it felt so good.  Sounded even better.  When I got word of this one for sale I was ecstatic.

The L-00's first catalogue appearance was in 1932 but supposedly they had been making them since 1929.  They were Gibson's budget model flat-top guitar.  They were lightly built cheapies that were made out of whatever they had around at the time.  Consequently, the features tend to be a bit sporadic.  They all feature Adirondack Spruce tops and Mahogany back and sides.  The L-00 began as a 12 fret guitar but changed to 14 in '33.

This advertisement is kind of interesting.  The 00 is on the lower left and just beside the body of the guitar is a short paragraph about how they are using 14 fret necks for more comfort and fret board access.  You may have noticed that none of the guitars picture have 14 fret necks.  This is typical of Gibson I guess, sigh.

This particular L-00 has a bit of a story attached to it.  Before I had seen it in person I saw a few pictures from the owner.  One showed the back of the headstock.  I could see a little impression in the lacquer that I recognized as a "Made In USA" stamp.  This was the marker that Gibson used on all export instruments that went outside of the US.  But I found this guitar in Tennessee??  I was a bit perplexed because almost all of the instruments that come my way are "finds" as in not from a dealer so how did this guy get this thing anyway?

After talking with the owner for a bit I got the story on how he came to own the guitar.  His uncle was housing a drifter for a while but the drifter had no way to pay him.  All he had was this guitar so he used it as payment.  The uncle had no use for the instrument so when his nephew showed an interest in music he gave it away.  That was a long time ago.  The owner had made his way to the states by way of Canada- the missing link in the story.

This guitar was easy to date as far as vintage Gibsons go.  I saw from the pictures that it had a small burst so I knew it was early to mid 30s.  The Factory Order Number was easy to read: 876 which appeared in the ledgers in 1933.

The neck on this old guitar has a wide 1 3/4" nut width with a fairly defined "V" shape that I find very comfortable.  I'm not sure why this shape has fallen out of vogue.  Fingerstyle blues just feels "right."  The neck is straight, frets properly dressed and the action is very comfortable.  I was looking for signs of a neck reset but I couldn't find them.  I believe that this is the original neck angle.  The saddle is kind of low but not as low as I would expect.  There is still a bit of room to come down if needed.

Some of the guitars from this era have some kind of ugly wood.  They have been seen with three piece tops and backs and off center seams.  Supposedly this was the reason for the small burst: most of the wood was not very aesthetically pleasing so the burst served to cover it up.  For some reason this guitar was spared of ugly wood.  The top is a nice 2 piece book matched Spruce and the back is a solid piece of close-to-quarter sawn Mahogany.  The sides are both quarter sawn.  I say close to quarter because it looks like this piece was very close to the center of the tree.  Here is what I mean by quarter sawn vs. flat sawn:

Quarter sawn wood has a higher strength to weight ratio but wastes more wood.  It is considered higher quality because of its features and scarcity.

The Tone Report:  Open, woody, Americana.  If you closed your eyes and just listened to it you might mistake it for a much larger guitar.  However, it is much different than a dreadnought.  It is more nuanced and sweet.  They are fantastic for fingerpicking.  The notes are clearly defined as well as balanced.  If you plan on strumming away your Nickleback chords then you may want to stay away from a 00.  The boom and sparkle probably won't be enough for you (as well as other obvious problems with that situation).

Dating this Gibson L-00 was relatively easy with the features and Factory Order Number.  The number is 867 which according to Spann's Guide to Gibson means 1933.  The other features were the small burst which was done in the early 30s and the solid kerfing on the interior of the guitar.  This is the lining that provides a solid glueing surface for the rims to the top and back.  This was mostly used in the late 20s and very early 30s.  There are some exceptions such as my friend's '32 L-00 that has standard cut pieces of Mahogany.  Here is a shot of the solid kerfing:

And the FON:

I'm really excited to have another L-00.  I really love fingerstyle blues and this is the guitar to have for that (except for maybe an L-1?).  I thought I liked the larger burst of my last one better but I've changed my mind.  The small burst is unique and the reasons behind it are representative of the times in which it was built.